The occasion of this Debate is the disagreement that has arisen between the farmers on the one hand and the Government on the other over two matters—prices and the interpretation of the pledge. Prices involve moneys voted by Parliament; the pledge was given by me in this House; and, therefore, it seemed right to the Government that this House, as the Grand Inquest of the nation, was the proper place in which to debate the matter. Let me say at once that I do not propose to indulge in any recriminations and do not propose to answer the personal attacks on myself. For, whatever may be the merits of the past we have to remember that we have not yet won the war. And, although I hope to be able to show that present prices are adequate and that we have fulfilled the pledge, we have to remember that after the war with Germany has been won we shall have to continue to feed ourselves as far as possible in order to diminish our call upon the surplus food in the world, because that surplus is urgently, and, indeed, tragically, needed to save the liberated countries of Europe from starvation.
Hon. Members who have been at pains to test the feeling in their constituencies have been good enough to tell me, and I agree with them, that what is worrying farmers is not so much prices as the future. I propose to say a word about that later. I beg hon. Members in any remarks they may address to the House to-day to think more of the future than of the past, because of the tremendous tasks that do await agriculture still. I would only add one more word as a prologue. We have heard a great deal about confidence. I suggest to hon. Members on all sides of the House that confidence, to be any good, has to be mutual. It is not enough that farmers should have confidence in the Government, that is only one side of the picture. The Government, Parliament and, above all, the public, must have confidence in the farmers, confidence that they are efficient, and confidence that they will adopt a reasonable attitude; for only so can we hope to see a prosperous and healthy agriculture established as a permanent part of our national economic life. While I am on the subject of confidence I should like to recount a conversation which I had the other day with a farmer. He said to me "Mr. Hudson, I think I am probably the only farmer an England and Wales who has not lost confidence in you." He made it clear that I was expected to bite, and so I said "That is very interesting, tell me why." "Oh," he said "I never had any."
I ask hon. Members to turn their minds back to 1940. When I was first appointed Minister of Agriculture information in the possession of my Department convinced me very quickly that agriculture pre-war had been a definitely underpaid industry. It was clear, too, that Dunkirk and all that it involved meant that we should have to make a much greater demand on farmers than had been contemplated hitherto. I reached the conclusion that if agriculture was to make the necessary response, was going to expand production, above all was going to undertake the revolution in methods which was necessary, it would not be sufficient to improve prices here or there but that we had to make efforts to improve the general level of remuneration in the industry as a whole. I set myself, with the consent of my colleagues, to the accomplishment of that task. I tried to convince hon. Members, I tried to convince the public through speeches in the country, that this process was necessary and right. And whatever farmers' representatives or farmers as a whole may think of the present dispute, I do not think anyone will venture to deny that we have achieved that task and achieved it thoroughly.
Before the war a very large number of small farmers received, as farmers, little more, and often less, than their labourers, whose minimum wages were protected by Statute. Big farmers did a little better, but even in their case profits were often low, and sometimes non-existent. But that was not the whole story. Large areas of the country were depressed areas, areas where profits had been consistently very low, areas where farmers, big or small, bad or good, were continually struggling against insolvency. Many farmers were heavily in debt, both to merchants and to bankers. It was quite clear that this was a financial burden that would militate seriously against the expanding food production campaign which the Government, or I in the name of the Government, would demand from all farmers In all parts of the country, on all types of farms and of soil and of climate, good and bad alike, we were asking for an unprecedented effort to increase production, and asking farmers to revolutionise their methods.
That is why the Government attached so much importance to improving the general financial position. In order to do that we had to fix new prices. And there we at once came up against one of the fundamental problems, that is, the infinite varieties which exist as regards the soil, climate, size and type of farms, and also the aptitude and the abilities of individual farmers. With these, and the uncertainties arising from factors like the weather and disease, I think it is certain that no single system of national prices can possibly secure the same proportionate advantage to all types of farmers and all types of farms. I would beg the House to bear that in mind throughout this Debate, because it really is fundamental.
The next major difficulty we were up against was that the ordinary farmer kept no accounts at all in peace time, and that has been a very great cause of difficulty in assessing fair prices. However, statistics did exist even in pre-war times. For the last 8 years, advisory economists in each of the 11 provinces in England and Wales have kept the accounts of a number of farms. These farms were selected as being reasonably representative, both in size and type, and they actually covered no less than 63 farming types of farming areas, such as the Durham dales, South-East Cheshire, the Solway Plain and so on. They also covered the various ranges of farm size, for example 20 to 50 acres, 50 to 100 acres, 100 to 150 acres and so on. Their great advantage lies in the fact that the actual farms have been fairly constant. Some, naturally, dropped out; others took their place. But in this sample of farming throughout the country, the farms were mostly the same over the whole 8 years. We are able, therefore, definitely to trace broad trends in the results of the different types of farming and the different sizes of farms, even if, as I am quite willing to agree, the individual figures cannot be universally applied.
These are figures collected by the independent advisory economists in the 11 advisory provinces and mainly attached to universities—paid by the Government, but independent. They show the broad trend, even if the actual figures cannot be universally applicable. It is also possible—it was possible in peace time and it is becoming increasingly possible as the sizes and types increase—for the Government to make, with a fair measure of accuracy, estimates of the total gross receipts of farmers. Then, of course, we have got reports of our Land Commissioners steadily coming in over 10 years and reports from our crop reporters, from merchants, auctioneers and so on—all valuable corroborative evidence. This is the evidence on which the Government have acted.
What is there to be said on the other side against that? I have no desire to attack the National Farmers' Union, and therefore I am going to quote as an impartial witness my predecessor, who was, himself, once President of that Union. Sir Reginald Dorman-Smith, speaking in the House on April 3rd, 1940, said this:
We have economists working in many parts of the country, and we do our best, with the information at our disposal, but I welcome the fact that the Farmers' Union themselves have now set up a committee"—
and I invite attention specially to the following words—
to deal with these costs of production. I look forward to having real help in our deliberations on prices, because it is not much good for farmers to come to the Minister of Agriculture and say: 'We think such-and-such a price is a nice-looking price,' without saying why they think it is justified. I understand that they are going to be able to do that now and that we shall get a lot of help from them." [OFFICIAL REPORT, 3rd April, 1940, col. 287, Vol. 359.]
To-day we are in 1944 and the National Farmers' Union have still no evidence about costs of production, and that has been one of the great difficulties under which they have been labouring. I shall
have a word to say later on the necessity for improving our price-fixing machinery. A further difficulty arises from the fact that the only way to estimate the effect of any increase in prices or costs is the estimate of the total sum involved—the global figure—and then try to fix or alter prices for individual commodities on that basis. The National Farmers' Union are now protesting against the use of global figures, but the fact is that we have used global figures and made our estimate on this basis ever since 1940. And the National Farmers' Union actually recognise this when they point out that the total wages increase amounts to £15,000,000 and argue that prices should be increased to a like amount.
Well, a further difficulty arises in the considerable number of farms which are not economic units or which are so marginal that, if prices had to be fixed so as to ensure good returns on these farms, they would provide profits which no-one would regard as reasonable, not only on good farms but on average farms. And I should add that, contrary to the widely-held belief, taxation, even at its present level, does not provide a remedy for that state of affairs, and if any hon. Member feels that it will, I may say that my hon. Friend who is going to reply will deal with that point. The only practicable way of dealing with this matter is to estimate the total global sum involved and then try to apportion it amongst the different commodities.
I now come back to 1940. We decided to bring about a general improvement in farmers' returns, and raised the prices of certain agricultural commodities. I am comparing the pre-war average 1936–1938 with the new prices fixed for the harvest year of 1940. In order that hon. Members shall have them fully, I am inserting the full statement in the OFFICIAL REPORT in answer to a question, and, therefore, will read only one or two. The figures are:
These increases in prices led to a substantial increase in farmers' gross receipts as indeed they were designed to do. Before the war, the total value of the output of British farms, including the farmer's own consumption and subsidies, amounted to roughly £290,000,000 per year. In 1940–41, that rose to £400,000,000, and it rose in 1942–43 to £530,000,000. This rise in the total receipts in 1940–41 was not due entirely to prices. It was due also to a substantial increase in the proportion sold off farms and also to expansion of output—an expansion for which the Government and the country have every reason to be grateful. But the rise in prices was much the most important factor. During the same period, there had been an increase in costs amounting to £46,000,000, of which £26,000,000 represented wages costs—that is £110,000,000 increase in gross receipts against an increase in costs of £46,000,000—and therefore the House will see that the rise in receipts in 1940–41 considerably exceeds the rise in costs, as we intended it to do.
I have been dealing in millions of pounds sterling, but when the millions are divided amongst all the farmers and smallholders the result comes down to a matter of pounds per week. The national sample I referred to just now shows that the average small farmer, farming 50 to 100 acres, pre-war, was earning on the average, as a farmer, about £3 per week. Clearly, that was too low. The sample shows that by 1940–41 his earnings had increased to between £6 and £7 a week. The farmer farming between 200 and 250 acres pre-war was making £250 a year—again too low in relation to the size of his farm. By 1940–41 his income had more than doubled. Out of these earnings the fanner had to pay his living expenses, his taxation, his interest for any borrowed money and put aside something for interest from his own capital. [An HON. MEMBER: "And make up for past losses"?]
My hon. Friend can put that point in the Debate, to which my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer is to reply. But let me issue a warning to hon. Members straight away. They must be content with the figures I am about to give and not ask for a lot more. These are average figures and are not, of course, universally true. Some farmers did well and others did better, but the general trend is quite unmistakable and it is supported by ample corroborative evidence which showed that the position of farmers had noticeably improved. Farmers started to pay off considerable sums of their indebtedness, both to banks and merchants. I hope the House will agree that the change and improvement in the financial position of the industry was fully justified and was essential to the development of the food production campaign.
In chronological sequence the pledge comes next but perhaps the House will allow me to finish prices first. By December, 1941, the minimum wage had risen from 48s. to 60s. a week and, in addition, other costs had risen since the previous settlement in August, 1940. The total of these increased costs were estimated at £30,500,000, for commodities with controlled prices of which £19,500,000 represented an increase of wages for hired labour and £11,000,000 represented other costs. That is a total of £30,500,000 and towards that the National Farmers' Union demanded price increases amounting to £55,000,000. Meantime the margin between farmers' gross incomes and gross expenditure was still increasing. And the Government decided in the light of this that we would raise prices by a sum estimated to bring in £23,000,000, leaving the remaining £7,500,000 to be defrayed out of the farmers' existing returns. To bring the picture up to date the margin between gross income and gross expenditure has increased still further. Then came last year's increases in wages, the cost of which in a full year is £15,000,000 and in this present harvest year is only £9,500,000. These figures have been widely misquoted. As I say, in a full year the cost will be £15,000,000 and to meet that the N.F.U. put forward demands for £24,000,000. In the light of the rise in the margin the Government decided on the changes in prices which are the subject of the present dispute.
The National Farmers' Union say that they do not accept the statistical basis of the figures I have just quoted. What they really dispute is the inferences to be drawn. The figures themselves are unchallengable; they have been drawn up by the Statistical Office of the War Cabinet and they are correct within a reasonable margin of error either way. They have been checked and crosschecked.
Having said that, it is only fair to say that there is room for quite a reasonable difference of opinion about their interpretation. This is the case the farmers have made. The Union say that the gross return and expenditure figures give a false impression of the profit made by the average farmer, that the bulk of the profit made is by a comparatively small number of farmers and that the bulk of that is returned to the Treasury in the form of E.P.T. The answer to that is that that is not so. So far as the profits of the average farmer are concerned we have the national sample to which I have just referred, a sample covering 63 types of farming in all parts of the country. It shows a steady, varying but marked increase in farmers' returns throughout the years of the war and that after making full allowance for the fact that the prewar years showed profits which were far too low.
Now let me leave prices and turn to the pledge. After I announced the figures in August, 1940, representations were made to me that they would do for the moment but could not the Government reassure the farmers and give them confidence in the future? Accordingly, my colleagues authorised me to give the pledge which is recorded in Hansard of 26th November—a very long statement from which I will quote only this one passage:
The Government has, by ensuring a guaranteed market at guaranteed prices for the principal agricultural products for a year ahead, helped to create more stable conditions up to the 1941 harvest. The Government has now decided to go further and to guarantee that the present system of fixed prices and an assured market will be maintained for the duration of hostilities and for at least one year thereafter.
In the later part of my speech hon. Members will see the relevance of that. The remaining part I want to quote is:
Prices will be subject to adjustment to the extent of any substantial changes in the
cost of production."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 26th November, 1940; col. 92, Vol. 367.]
What was the object of that statement? It was to reassure farmers that if they entered into long-term commitments and produced the food the country required they could be certain that for the stuff they had for sale they would have a guaranteed market and remunerative prices.
I suggest to the House that the test of whether or not we have carried out that pledge is surely the test of experience. What has happened? In addition to the increased £110,000,000 per year as a result of the 1940 price settlement we estimate that the gross income of farmers has risen, in addition, by a figure of no less than £130,000,000 per annum since the date when the pledge was given. Once more, I want to say that that was not entirely due to prices. It was partly due to expansion of output but the prices were the much more important factor. As before, there had been a rise of costs but the increase in income had been faster than the rise in costs. It follows, therefore, that during the same period the net returns to farmers must have increased. Experience shows that the outcome of increases in prices and costs has resulted in not only maintaining the level of farmers' profits but in substantially increasing them. Let me repeat, profits of farmers as a whole are not less but substantially more than in September, 1940. Without any shadow of doubt, farmers collectively are receiving the returns which we promised. Does anybody deny this? As far as I know, nobody has denied this, and, as far as I am aware, even the N.F.U. have not denied that statement.
What, then, is the substance of the complaint which I have to meet to-day? The argument, as I understand it, is as follows. "The recent wage adjustments will cost £15,000,000 in a full year. The Government are therefore under an obligation, as a result of the pledge, to increase prices by a like amount." The Government maintain that prices have already been raised to an extent which more than covers that increase of £15,000,000, but the farmers' leaders say "No, that does not matter. You cannot take any account of that. We do not recognise additions to prices before the event; we only recognise additions to prices after the event. If previous price adjustments have already compensated us for the new wages, that does not free the Government from the pledge under which it stands. We do not admit that any past increase of price, whatever its effect has been upon our total profits, has any bearing upon this demand for a specific addition to prices now. We, therefore, still demand a further increase of £15,000,000." Is this really reasonable? Is that the construction to put on the pledge which I gave in 1940?
One of the troubles to-day is that the pledge has been widely misunderstood by the rank and file of farmers. They have taken it to mean that prices would be increased if costs, especially wages, rose, and that is widely held to be its only meaning. Quite clearly that is not so. It spoke not of substantial "rises" in costs but of "substantial changes in cost." In the light of our experience since 1940 it cannot be doubted that there have been both upward and downward changes in cost; on the one hand there have been rises in cost, especially wages, and on the other hand there have been decreases in cost due partly to greater efficiency and partly to the heavy reduction in expenditure on imported feeding stuffs, which has dropped from £75,000,000 a year to £25,000,000 a year. No one would dispute that the upward changes have been greater than the downward changes, but still we cannot ignore the downward changes.
It has recently been suggested that if we take into account the downward changes we are penalising farmers for their increased efficiency; that we are saying "Because you have increased your standard of efficiency we will reduce your prices." But I should like to remind the House that it is not the farmer alone who can take all the credit for the increased efficiency. Indeed, I would say that the Government deserve a vary large measure of the credit. Let me remind the House of some of the things that have been done to help the farmer. I would put easily first the work of the War Agricultural Executive Committees and their District Committees, between 4,000 and 5,000 of the best farmers in the country who have given their services on a voluntary basis and have devoted three or four days a week of their time to helping their neighbours. Without their hard work and loyal co-operation we could not have got the increased food production we have. Believe me, the nation owes them a deep and lasting debt of gratitude.
Then, as far as the Government itself is concerned, let me enumerate shortly some of the things we have done. We have taken steps to increase by leaps and bounds the production of modern tractors and up-to-date machinery in this country. Despite the difficulties of shipping we have got large quantities of machinery from overseas, even as far away as Australia. And very good the Australian machines have been too. Again, in spite of the difficulty of shipping, we have considerably increased the supply of fertilisers, especially phosphates. Lime, which is very difficult to get because of its heavy demand for labour and machinery, has been increased fourfold, and we have given a subsidy of a minimum of 50 per cent. on the cost of purchase and transport. We have arranged through our Committees to carry out by contract work for the farmer if he had not the machinery and labour to do cultivation for himself. We have encouraged him to lay on water supplies, and have paid a grant of 50 per cent. towards that cost. We have provided goods and services for farmers without credit. We have arranged schemes, such as the marginal land scheme, the various acreage payment schemes for wheat, rye and potatoes, the ploughing-up grant of £2 per acre, the hill sheep and hill cattle subsidies to assist the small marginal man and the special classes of farmers to carry out increased production. We have greatly increased production—indeed we have often made any production at all possible—in respect of millions of acres, through drainage. Again, we have paid 50 per cent. of the cost. Through our technical officers, both on the Ministry's own staff and on the staff of Committees, through our leaflets, with the help of the Press, both the big London dailies and the provincial papers, whose invaluable help I take this opportunity of acknowledging, as well as through the kind offices of the B.B.C., we have provided a continuous and ever-growing stream of advice and guidance to help the farmers.
May I put one question? What is the actual truth? Are the applications from farmers for financial help through the War Agricultural Committees, increasing or decreasing?
I will find out and let my hon. and gallant Friend know. Broadly speaking, whenever a farmer is in difficulty or trouble there is someone ready to come along and help him to do the job. This has cost large sums of money voted by this House, and undoubtedly what the Government has done has been a material factor in the increased efficiency which has been such a notable result of wartime farming. I do claim, therefore, that we are entitled as a Government to take a great share of the credit for that increased efficiency.
Whatever the rank and file of farmers may have thought about the pledge—and I frankly admit that there has obviously been a great deal of genuine and sincere misunderstanding—I must say in fairness to the Government that the farmers' leaders have for long been under no illusions at all about what the pledge meant. I say this because as long ago as 18th February, 1942, in answer to a request on their part, they were seen by the late Chancellor of the Exchequer and the present Chancellor, who was then Lord President of the Council. I had better read out the relevant passages:
Finally, I may perhaps be permitted to remind the House of what happened on 8th July last. My hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir J. Lamb) asked me:
Whether, in view of the recent increase of wages fixed by the Agricultural Wages Board, and the claim now before the Board for an increase in the national minimum wage for adult male workers, he can give an assurance that the prices fixed for farm products will be increased so as to meet the whole cost of increase in wages.
My reply was:
No, Sir."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 8th July, 1942; col. 2252, Vol. 390.]
I do not think anything could have been more definite than that. I went on to give the text of the warning to the same effect that we had issued the previous year. I do not think really that anyone who listened to that, or read it, or was aware of it, can have any doubt about the view that the Government took, or the decision they were likely to reach. It is useless to argue, in the face of the words used by my hon. Friend, that there can be any doubt in any reasonable person's mind.
I am afraid I have given the House an awful lot of detail and far too many figures. But I have tried to give as objective an account as I can of what was a long and very involved matter. The War Cabinet, not the Minister of Agriculture, takes the final decision. Having said that, I wish to make it quite clear that I fully agree with that decision. The Government believes, as I do, on a review of the evidence available, that we have substantially improved the general financial position of the farming industry, that the average as well as the total level of profit has been considerably raised, though I admit that that rise has been unevenly distributed, that the increased returns to farmers have materially exceeded their increased costs, and that therefore we have fulfilled, nay more than fulfilled, the promise made in November, 1940. But, as I said at the beginning of my speech, all that is past. What we have to think of now is the future.
Before I pass to that may I say a word about milk? One of the difficulties in connection with the production of milk is that some districts and farms are inherently favourable to milk production while others are unfavourable. Therefore, there is a very wide range of costs. It may well be imagined that, where conditions are favourable, the costs of the efficient, and even the inefficient, producer are reasonably low. But where you get unfavourable conditions the efficient farmer's costs are not too bad but the inefficient farmer's costs are very high indeed. The extremes that last year's costings threw up were 7d. and 29d. a gallon. On the other hand, owing to the very large quantity of milk that we have to provide to meet the demands of a large population in this very small island, we cannot in fact avoid the production of milk on land and in areas and under conditions which are inherently unfavourable.
One of the best things that ever happened to the milk industry was the establishment of the milk marketing scheme. The Milk Marketing Board has been able to bring forward facts, supported by figures, which have sufficed to convince not only Government Departments in war time but also the authorities set up in peace time to settle price disputes.
The extent of this statistical information about costings, which is collected under a scheme arranged by my Department, with the help of the Milk Marketing Board, has been of the greatest advantage to producers and to the Government. In a broadcast that I made on 16th December, which has been the subject of a good deal of unfavourable comment, I said that, whatever nation-wide price levels were fixed, the results were bound to be uneven as between different types of farmers, and that the Government was always ready to consider means of dealing with special cases of difficulties which could not be dealt with by a general rise in prices. Very shortly afterwards the leaders of the milk industry asked me for an interview, and they put up to me the case of the small producer. They reminded me that 15 per cent. of the milk producers have fewer than five cows. A further 28 per cent. have between five and nine cows, and another 20 per cent. have between 10 and 14. Therefore, two-thirds of the producers have herds of fewer than 15 cows. They also pointed out that the production of milk on this scale was wholly uneconomic. They reminded me that before the war milk producers on this scale usually had other sources of income. Many were smallholders and some were market gardeners; large numbers had kept pigs and poultry and great numbers of them did not produce liquid milk for sale, but produced farmhouse butter and reared calves.
They said that, apart from the market gardeners, the war had changed this. They are not able to enjoy the returns available from crops grown for direct human consumption, such as bread-corn and potatoes, as their arable has to be devoted to the production of food for their stock. Their pre-war income from pigs and poultry has been severely reduced, and the general return to the small man from that type of thing was well below that of the average farmer. The Milk Marketing Board did not say that these men were farming at a loss, but I was convinced that they were getting a poor return for a very laborious job. My colleagues agree, therefore, that I should be authorised to announce a scheme of temporary war-time assistance drawn up by the Milk Marketing Board at my request. Full details will be published shortly. A special temporary payment or bonus of 1½d. per gallon on the first 400 gallons sold in the winter, and ½d. per gallon on the first 500 gallons per month in the summer, will be paid to all producers in England and Wales. This will run from 1st January, 1944, until 31st March, 1945, and its cost will be roughly £2,500,000 a year.
The principal advantage of the scheme is that it will greatly benefit the small producers, to whom the Board called my special attention. Indeed, in the majority of cases it will cover the whole of their annual production. The scheme is frankly open to the charge that it is subsidising uneconomic units of production, many of which have a low standard of efficiency. Some 97,000 milk producers have herds which produce in winter less than 400 gallons a month. Three-fifths of the total producers own between them a third of the total cows but produce only a quarter of the total milk. The remaining 60,000 producers, who form two-fifths of the whole, own two-thirds of the cows and produce three-quarters of the milk. That is the difference between the small and the large man. However uneconomic these 97,000 may be, we want the milk, and we cannot change the basis of the dairy farming industry in war time. That is why we have limited the scheme to end in March, 1945. We may hope by then that the war with Germany will be won and we shall be in a better position to estimate the future situation. We hope that the livestock improvement schemes will also be of help. There is no doubt that a great number of these small producers ought to go back to their proper job of calf rearing and not producing liquid milk for sale, for which the conditions are unsuitable.
I am well aware that farmers are more worried about the future than about the present. Whatever disagreement there may be about the present prices, I am sure workers and farmers will not relax their efforts. We are in the middle of the most critical year of the war and we have to provide all the food we can. Even when Germany is beaten we shall have to maintain for some time food production from our soil at the maximum. The Minister of Food has said on more than one occasion that there will be a world shortage of food after Germany is defeated, and, in particular, a shortage of meats and fats which is likely to continue for many years. There will be no sudden change, but there will be a period of transition when we shall gradually be able to switch production from a war time basis to the kind of production which will be most suitable and economic when peace returns, having regard to our soil and our climate. This will mean a change of emphasis from the production of crops for direct human consumption to an increase in livestock and livestock products. Gradually we shall be able to relax our cropping orders and our directions, and prepare the way for a healthy and well-balanced agriculture which the Government and the House desire.
But, if we are to profit by experience, we shall have to find a better machinery for price fixing, one in which the basic data, at all events, are open to and agreed by both parties. We are already in that satisfactory position as regards milk costings. I may not always agree with the Milk Marketing Board on the items which are to be included when the revision of prices is under consideration, but the essential facts are agreed. They are collected under a scheme organised by my Department, by trained independent economists, and analysed by them and made public, though the particulars of individual farms are not given.
That is fundamental. Of course, the co-operation of farmers on a much bigger scale than hitherto is essential and, for the figures to be of any value, they have to be representative of all types of farms and farming and, if they are to be fully accepted by both sides, they must be collected and analysed by impartial expert economists. I shall be only too glad to work out with the Universities and the National Farmers' Union an arrangement on these lines similar to that at present in force for milk. I suggest that that is a task to which we all ought, to devote ourselves at once—a practical task. Secondly, we must have a clear understanding on the method of using the data so obtained with a view to achieving the purpose the Government had in mind when they authorised me to give the pledge of 1940. That, also, I am willing to discuss with the National Farmers' Union.
Thirdly, I would remind the House of the other part of our policy—the guarantee that the system of fixed prices and an assured market will be continued for the duration of hostilities and for at least one year after. That is a valuable assurance of stable conditions; the period which it covers is, of course, difficult to forecast. In seeking a clear and definite understanding of the future application of our policy, I am willing to consider with the National Farmers' Union whether this assurance of the continuance of the system cannot be related more closely to the four-year production plan, including the harvest of 1947, which I have already set before the industry. The object will be to cover the transition period from war to peace and to allow sufficient time for the formulation, after the termination of war in Europe, of a long-term agricultural policy, on the basis of the discussions which are at present proceeding with the industry, as part of the general national economic policy.
That is the task to which I address myself. I have my job to do, and I can assure the House that nothing that has happened will deter me from my unswerving determination of trying to frame and, if I can, of getting the consent of my colleagues and the general assent of this House to a satisfactory long-term agricultural policy. I do not think that anyone will dispute that our war-time policy of guaranteed markets, based on fixed prices announced well in advance, has brought a stability to the industry which has wrought a transformation in the countryside. It is an example of what can be done upon a basis of that mutual goodwill and confidence to which I referred earlier.
There is one great danger that I see in the way of securing a satisfactory post-war policy for agriculture. As the responsible Minister, I should not be doing my job unless I stated it publicly, even at this time of disagreement about prices. If prices and wages are to go on chasing each other upwards it is bound to result in disaster for agriculture, for both the farmers and the workers, in view of the difficult adjustments which will have to be made when we come to switch over from war to peace. The gap between our prices and prices received by overseas farmers is wider to-day than it was pre-war. Our prices are necessarily high. We could not avoid that, because we have had to call into existence marginal production to meet the demand; but it would be folly on our part to ignore that disparity. If after the war there were to be too wide a gap between our prices and the prices of imported food, any Government that is in power, any Parliament that is elected, and the public as a whole, however much they wanted, and however genuine they were in their desire to see, a permanent, prosperous and healthy agriculture established in this country, would, in the circumstances in which we are likely to be faced after the war, be unable to afford to bridge the gap. It is, therefore, in my opinion, the duty of all leaders of agricultural opinion to discourage, even at the cost of unpopularity, inflated views, which in this Case mean inflationary views, about prices and wages.
We must also take all steps in our power to increase and to go on increasing our efficiency. We have made great strides during the war, but there is still a great deal more to be done. That is the only way in which we can produce the food which the nation requires at reasonable prices, while at the same time providing a fair return to farmers and workers alike. It is, I believe, the only sure foundation for the permanent well being of agriculture.
I should like to begin by congratulating my right hon. Friend upon his extremely able speech. I do not imply from that that I accept everything he said or all the inferences he drew from some of the figures he gave. I hope in the next few minutes to criticise a few of them. I should like to say at once that I very much welcome, as I think everyone concerned with the agricultural prosperity of the country will welcome, the concessions my right hon. Friend has made to the small milk producer. We were very much disturbed about him, but I and many of us are also disturbed about the small producer of other products which are being produced on unsuitable and uneconomic land. I am going to appeal to the Chancellor of the Exchequer to consider, before he makes his speech in reply to the Debate, whether a number of the products which are being grown on marginal or uneconomic land or on farms which are inadequately—inefficiently, if you like—equipped, products which have been grown to suit the national purpose, could be investigated with a view to the position of these little men being considered.
I hope that the conference which the Minister of Agriculture has indicated as possible to consider the method of fixing basic prices will give opportunities for this consideration, because, so long as it is necessary in the national interest to compel the production in uneconomic places of crops which the nation wants, so long is it necessary to make that production reasonably possible from the financial point of view. You cannot do that without rendering the profits on the best farms with the best equipment and in the best districts abnormally and excessively high. We have found that by experience. Everybody realises that with many crops and in many places very large profits are being made, probably greater than those that are brought back into the Treasury by the 100 per cent. Excess Profits Tax. It will be a deplorable thing if a lot of the little men farming uneconomic, marginal farms are allowed to go under or to succumb to the difficulties of their work while the nation requires their products. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor knows much better than I do the measure of the need for the continued production of corn, for instance, on land which should not grow corn and of other products on the marginal farms. All I ask is that that matter should not be forgotten, and that, because there is a general growth of global profits, it should not be considered that these little people are necessarily able to carry on. My own experience is that many of them are in grave difficulties.
Let me hark back for a moment to the speech which we have just heard and enjoyed from my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture. Many of us who have regarded him as not only our friend but a worthy and energetic champion of the agricultural industry, have deplored the fact that this quarrel has arisen with reference to a pledge and that his stock, which was soaring, has dropped down into the depths. I believe not only that it is essential for the national interest that confidence should be restored but that it is of great importance that to some extent, so far as possible, the right hon. Gentleman's stock should recover some of its old worthy position. I hope that what he has said to-day and the prospects he has held out of meeting the representatives of the farmers in friendly discussion will do a good deal in that direction.
Let me now consider some of the figures which my right hon. Friend has given. I am not in a position to deny the figures, but it is important that the possibility that they are of a misleading nature should be recognised not only by those who are farming and perhaps deal year by year with the figures, but by a much wider public who do not know much about them. I have already touched upon the question of the marginal uneconomic farms, but I believe that there are other points which have tended to swell unduly the apparent increase of profits of agriculture generally. During the war years a very large number of farmers have come under the assessment to Schedule D Income Tax for the first time. When the war broke out it was optional whether they would be under Schedule B or Schedule D. Then by successive changes, every farmer with a Schedule B assessment of over £300 a year was brought compulsorily under Schedule D. Then it was extended to the smaller farmers, those with a Schedule B assessment of £100. That has greatly increased the number who are assessed on their profits. Let us consider what the profits which are the subject of assessment amount to and how they are collected by the Inland Revenue. At the beginning and end of every year a valuation is taken of live and dead stock. Any new purchases of implements and things of that sort, which have been very extensive to enable the additional ploughing to be done, and any increase of valuation during the year, are treated as profits of the year. It is a capital augmentation. A great many farmers have found that since the outbreak of war these valuations have more than doubled; and that increase in every case has been assessed for Income Tax and, for those who are paying it, for Excess Profits Tax. I am dealing for the moment only with Income Tax. The aggregate of those increases form, I cannot say what figure, but a very large figure indeed.
My own experience, which is only that of a small farmer, is that I started 1939 with a valuation of live and dead stock of £7,300. At the end of the last valuation, taken in the same way, and audited by the same auditor, it was £15,319. The increase was treated as profit for the purposes of Income Tax assessment, and quite properly, according to Income Tax law. There are many hundreds of thousands of farmers who have had corresponding increases, some greater and some less, and the aggregate forms an addition to the comparative profits of agriculture amounting to a very large sum, sufficient to make the general results most striking.
I apologise for butting in, but this matter is rather important. The figures I quoted do not contain any element of that character at all. The figures I quoted are cash returns, and ignore all elements of valuation.
I assure my hon. Friend that augmentation does come in. If you buy a lot of implements, depreciation does not come into the matter until after they have done a year's work. A generous depreciation is allowed after the first year. A great many of us used to rear our own calves but have found it impossible to do so during the war, because so much of our former pasture is ploughed and we have had to take to buying in-calf heifers, which are very expensive nowadays. They come into the valuation. It is quite true that it is possible to make an arrangement by which the whole of your dairy herd is valued at a constant figure which does not vary, but that arrangement has its drawbacks. You might value a dairy cow at £15 or £20, as an arbitrary figure, but you would have to pay £40 or £50 for an in-calf heifer in order to maintain the strength of your dairy herd. I am very glad that the Minister has not included those things in his figures.
There is one other point, which is that, apart from the number of farmers who have come into Schedule D during the war for the first time, which has tended to swell the profits, there are very few farmers, and very few landowners for that matter, who have been able to maintain the normal expenditure on repairs and maintenance. Buildings are very largely an owner's matter, but both tenant farmers and owner-occupiers have had to neglect the use of the paint-pot, which is their liability. Gates, fences, hedging and ditching to a very large extent get into arrears year by year, because labour is not available. Any reduction, of that kind may be very large. A reduction of £40 or £50 a year on the normal maintenance expenses of a farm swells the tale of profit, and to that extent makes the figures misleading. All that work will have to be done, and at an increased cost, in the future.
To avoid misunderstanding, perhaps my right hon. and gallant Friend will not mind my interrupting him to make this point clear. Allowances have been made for that particular point in the figures which I have quoted. Hon. Members may really take it that we have gone out of our way to try to make the figure as fair as we possibly can. These are the figures on which I have had to work, in order to get price increases, and hon. Members may be sure that if they could have been broken, I should have broken them. These things are as fair as is humanly possible. The matters which my right hon. Friend has mentioned have been taken into account.
I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend for pointing that out, but I do not apologise for the point I made, because I had no means of knowing that the allowance had been made. My right hon. Friend has cleared away the point and has negatived the effect of the argument I used. I admit that I was perhaps mistaken. But although I criticised my right hon. Friend's figures under a misapprehension, I must say that I am rather an expert on noticing the growth of trees, and I do detect a satisfactory growth of an olive branch, which I hope he is holding out on behalf of the Government, and that it will continue to grow and lead to an increase of good will after this Debate.
I have not yet mentioned the subject of the pledge. At the time the pledge was given I believe that most of us had our minds concentrated upon the impending rise of wages from 48s. to 60s. per week. If inquiries had been made, explanations would have been given by the Government of the pledge which they had given, and the matter would have been made quite clear, and that would have prevented any feeling of a pledge being broken. I did not myself think that a pledge had been broken, but I think that the wording of the pledge, if you read it carefully, will bear the interpretation placed upon it by the National Farmers' Union and justifies the case which they have made. I have always thought that when people in authority give a pledge it is not enough that they should carry out what they intended to convey but that they should try to carry out the sincere interpretation which reasonable people place upon their words. That, I think, my right hon. Friend has failed to do; but I hope that the conferences to settle basic prices which he has adumbrated may clear up this question of the broken pledge. I am sure that neither he nor anybody else would wish to be suspected of it. I do not suspect him, although I have supported the National Farmers' Union and the public in the interpretation that they put upon the matter.
In conclusion, I want to stress the point that I believe it to be absolutely essential for the future welfare of agriculture, and consequently of the nation, that confidence should be restored, and restored quickly. I do not think that satisfactory discussion of the future can begin until there is a feeling of returned confidence. Whatever our views, whether we are Conservatives or not, or farmers, producers or consumers, we all feel the importance of maintaining production not only during the war but afterwards, during the recovery period. I beg all concerned—the Government, the House of Commons, leaders of the farmers—to do their utmost to avoid anything which will make it difficult to restore confidence and to come together. I hope that no long delay will take place before the conferences which the Minister has suggested are commenced, and I hope that they will have the best possible results.
After hearing the right hon. Baronet speak and the response by the Minister to the proposals and suggestions made, I feel that I shall be quite in order if I modestly now pronounce a benediction upon to-day's Debate and all those who have taken part in it; but I think there is something we might say further. While I welcomed the very well-tempered speech made by the Minister, I feel quite sure that he has not exhausted the subject. I do not propose to adjudicate upon the dispute which arose about prices and upon the interpretation of his pledge. It is better not to endeavour to do that, from where I stand, in view of the offer made by the Minister himself to continue the discussions in full and free conference with the National Farmers' Union and those who represent that very great industry. He brought before the House in the later part of his speech, and in its true position and perspective, the great fundamental industry of agriculture, which has always played a large part in the history of Britain and is destined in the next few years to play an even more important part than ever it has played in the past. So I am very glad that the Minister has explained his own position in regard to that dispute, and happy to see that the right hon. Baronet has accepted the explanation, speaking as he does with intimate knowledge of agriculture and agricultural organisations of all types, and that he has accepted the olive branch. I shall not attempt to wield the tomahawk to cut down that olive branch now that it has been brought before us.
The recent history of the industry has brought us to this present position, which arises from the difficulties of war-time. I concur with the Minister in saying that the industry had been in very depressed waters for many years before the war began. The mining industry and agriculture were both brought into a state of dangerous approach to exhaustion, owing to bad economic conditions created by low earnings and the heavy draft made upon their production without any adequate return. I well remember that in the House for ten years before the war began we were considering measures for the improvement of agriculture. A very large number of political devices were brought forward, to stimulate, to inject strength and vigour into the industry but with very little effect. We had not then been able to build up a system of price fixation which was adequate for the needs of the industry. While we had subsidised the horticultural industry, had fixed meat prices and had begun with the marketing of milk and wheat, we had not, by the time the war began, been able to build up and fortify this industry for the tremendous task which has devolved upon it in this war period.
Nothing has been said to-day—I think the Minister will correct it when he gets a chance—to acknowledge the important part played by the farm worker, who is one of the largest elements in this problem. I was in this House 20 years ago when we failed to win approval for a proposal to give a 30s. a week minimum wage to him. Why was that? For the very reason given by the Minister, that the industry was not able to pay those wages under the conditions of those days. So we had to attempt to build up the industry with inadequate resources. An impoverished set of farmers, impoverished labourers, were lacking pride, lacking self-respect, lacking perspective, lacking the appreciation needed to perform their full tasks. I remember that wages were improved by stages, by conciliation, from 30s. to 36s. a week. Then after this war began there was another advance, and I pay tribute here to the Minister of Labour, who proposed and helped to carry forward this great constructive plan for raising up the economic level of the industry by raising the economic standards of the workers in that industry. Wages advanced from 36s. to 48s., the largest single advance in the history of the industry. There was great joy in the country as a whole but the step precipitated more difficulty for the industry. The industry had to readjust itself and so prices had to be raised and new methods of price fixing had to be devised. When the industry had almost got over its first shock of the sudden rise in the demands of wages and the demands of costs there was another increase in wages from 48s. to 60s., a very substantial increase in wages which we all welcomed.
On this side of the House I have always stood for paying the highest possible rate of wages to the agricultural labourer, but I have known all along that in so doing a situation would be brought about in the industry demanding a corresponding plan for reorganisation. I think that the Minister put his finger upon this when he spoke about the variation in conditions in the agricultural industry. There is the good farm, there is what we might call the bad farm and there is this marginal land with a margin of production which determines whether land shall be cultivated at all or set aside to grass or whether it is possible for any person to obtain a decent level of existence in any one of the numerous forms of agriculture in this country. We have seen land going out of all cultivation. Loss of cultivated land led to the loss of working population on the land and in the long period of depression in the inter-war period we had lost nearly 1,000,000 land workers as compared with the time I read about when I began to take an interest in agriculture, and we had come to a record low level compared with the preceding 50 years. So this question of price fixation was an imperative step in order that the industry might retain its strength and prepare for the large task which the Minister imposed upon it.
I was glad that the Minister made his demands at the beginning of the war. I have always held the view, without being an expert on agriculture, that we could grow 50 per cent. at least more food than we were growing between 1920 and 1940. Figures given to us to-day with the explanation given by the Minister show that not only have the prices of agricultural products gone up very substantially, sufficient, I feel sure, to meet the additional wages cost—when the Minister can be clear in the House it is a matter of encouragement and promise to us—but this industry has been able to produce and receive in rewards of production a sum which has increased from £250,000,000 14 to 15 years ago, and £290,000,000 five years ago, to over £500,000,000, a very substantial increase. When I see the increase I know at once that the increase does not express only an increase in prices; there is a substantial increase in production. It was good news that the Minister was able to give us fairly accurate figures that production had gone up in volume to an extent of about 70 per cent.
We are producing 70 per cent more measured in terms of human food value, which is where my hon. Friend got the figure of 70. My own figure from the point of view of the war effort was in terms of shipping space saved and in those terms it has increased by 120 per cent. since pre-war.
By weight we have produced 70 per cent. more food and we have cut down what we would ordinarily require from abroad to half. Is that the explanation? I do not believe we have finished increasing food production. I know that this variation of conditions, variations of climate, variations of soil, and variations of altitude, all these things mean a great deal. In the Minister's splendid organisation the farmers are fully joined. These Agricultural Committees are the pick of the British farming industry and have played a very loyal and useful part in the organisation. The Minister takes credit for his Department and I give him credit in full, but his Department would be impotent to meet the demands but for the co-operation of the farmers and the co-operation of the farm workers who have been loyal in the extreme. They have been called upon to adapt themselves. The highly trained farm labourer of 20 years ago is not the highly trained farm labourer of to-day. He has to acquire adaptability and proficiency in many aspects of his industry which formerly were not practised in that industry. Now he is not only a vet., he has become a mechanic. As well as being a farm worker he can repair machines as well as cure the animals by which he is assisted in his work.
I would like to say a word or two about the small farmer. If the Minister can extend his assistance to other crops in addition to his proposals with regard to milk I am sure he will be doing a great service for the small farmer in this country. Topographically, this country is suited in many areas only to the small farm. In the narrow valleys of South Wales and in the nooks and crannies of the Glens of the Scottish Highlands you cannot have these large farms. The small farmer constitutes a special case and he ought to be receiving the primary assistance. Whether he grows wool on the mountain tops with small sheep, of which he may have two or three hundred, or whether he has light crops of oats or barley growing 700 or 800 or 900 feet up, which is approaching the maximum altitude for those crops, or whether he is trying to grow wheat up to 600 feet, he should be given special assistance compared with the help required by a farmer who has large areas of good cultivable land. The small farmer must always have small fields. It is land not so adaptable to mechanisation as large fields. If he has to maintain them by methods many decades older and is required to produce crops on them he should be given the utmost possible measure of assistance.
The Minister has given a very good example to-day. He has said that he will give a subsidy in winter time of 1½d. a gallon to the small farmer on 400 gallons a month and of ½d. in summer time. That is a very substantial measure of assistance. I am sure that is a really great advantage because it is quite impossible for these small farmers, who may have a few cows, a few poultry, a field of oats, etc., to go in for this large scale production and use machines which are so great an advantage in large scale cultivation. The small farmer, with his small fields and distant haulage, far from the market place and the towns, is an object worthy of special support.
I can quite see that the main difficulty with agriculture is the variation in conditions. How can you fix prices? There are farmers cultivating good land to whom we have been giving the same fixed prices as we give to a farmer whose land is far inferior in quality. If you give what might be a fair average price to the person who enjoys superior agricultural conditions you may give to him far more than he needs and simply make him a medium of conveyance to the Treasury of money which the Treasury can do without. If you give to the man with poor land the same rates of assistance or the same price as the farmer who has good land he will still be living almost below the poverty line, and there are still in these days of assumed prosperity for the agricultural industry tens of thousands of small farmers who get less wages than the meanest labourer in the land. That is a condition we ought to end. I feel sure that this House to-day would give a pledge to the Minister if he proceeds on the lines he has done in regard to the milk producer and help the small farmer who works every day of the week, every hour of the day, who employs all the members of his family to work with him. If you count the wages of each of these workers they are worse than the wages of the lowest paid labourer in the country. These farmers are much entitled to assistance. I feel sure that no uniform price will suit this industry. There are a good farm and a bad farm, and a good farm is good because there is a bad farm by its side, and a bad farm is bad because there is a better farm by its side. You cannot, by fixing uniform prices, do uniform justice to all those people who have played their part in this magnificent effort, which has enabled us to feed ourselves to a greater extent with home grown food than ever before and to build up a volume and quality of agricultural production better than this country has ever known.
I want also to look at the future. Speaking from this side, I would feel quite safe in telling the Minister that he must not think of cutting down the standard of life of the agricultural worker at any time, if it is possible to avoid it. We have built up, by long and painful steps, this organisation for conciliation. Minister after Minister has had to face this problem. We have built up a higher standard of wages. We hope to build up a far higher standard of housing. We want to provide these people with opportunities for education far better than they had in the bad old days, when the agricultural labourer was at the very bottom of the scale. We hope that the agricultural worker will not be there again, but will have the same standards as exist in the towns, with all the appurtenances and all the appliances essential to modern agriculture at his disposal.
When we have done that, and when we have paid the farmer and paid the agricultural worker at a reasonable level, do not let any partial, localised prosperity of the industry be taken advantage of by the landlords. I should like the House to take heed of the risks we run. When you fix these prices, and enable farmers on good land to have the kind of returns to which the right hon. Baronet has referred, when farmers on some of the best land have more than they need, there is a temptation for farmers to bid against each other for the good farms. The only persons to benefit from that are the landlords. It does not benefit the country, and it does not benefit the production of food. I would like to see something in the way of rent courts. I myself would welcome a plan to nationalise the agricultural industry. I am perfectly sure that no system of price fixation under variable conditions will work. You must nationalise the land. I would like the House, from to-day, to encourage the Minister to go as far as he can to meet the people engaged in this industry. If there is a misunderstanding, I am sure that nothing that we have said in this House will aggravate that misunderstanding. Nothing that has been said will prevent the two parties coming together to discuss further ways and means whereby this great industry can be made to fill its worthy place in the life of the nation.
I should like to believe that we shall be prepared for the large tasks which will fall upon us after the war. There will be a very great shortage of food throughout the world. It may be that, under certain conditions, Britain may be called upon, for the first time, to export food to other communities. I hope that we shall make ourselves as independent of the foreign producer as we can. To do that we must perfect our system of reward and remuneration to those who produce our food at home. We must build up our appurtenances for agriculture, and improve our appliances and our stock. We cannot meet the needs of that time unless we have 1,000,000 more cows and 1,000,000 more followers-on to take the place of those cows. We must do all we can to build up the food production of this country. We can do it only if there is sufficient money in the industry. I hope that the money which is provided will not be used for the benefit of a few favoured persons of the landlord class who are not playing their part in food production. I hope that the earnings of the industry will be spent wisely in the industry, to build up the industry, its workers and its plant for the tasks which will come upon us in the five years after the war, when I believe that we shall need to do more than we have done during the war itself.
I am very glad that the hon. Member for Gower (Mr. Grenfell) has spoken with such great knowledge and sympathy, as he always does, on behalf of the small farmer. I hope to suggest later on that differences of political opinion need not prevent agreement on agricultural policy between all the chief parties in the State. The enormous increase in the production of home-grown food which has been achieved since the war began, is one of the most successful features of our war effort, and it has brought high credit to everyone who is engaged in working upon the land. This unhappy dispute which has now broken out between the Government and the farmers is a deep disappointment to those most concerned with the welfare of the farming industry, and I think it must be a matter of some bewilderment to the general public, who had imagined that an atmosphere of confidence and friendliness had always existed between the growers of food and the Minister of Agriculture. I wish, first, to consider the charge that the Government have broken their pledge. If we say that the Government have followed a mistaken policy, that is merely a reflection on their wisdom, a subject on which we can never be perfectly unanimous; but if we say that they have broken their word, that is a reflection on their honour; and the honour of the British Government is of far greater moment to the conduct of our public affairs than the errors of any particular administration. Indeed, the British Government is one of the very few remaining institutions in Europe whose failure to keep their word is likely to cause any serious degree of disillusionment.
Let us see in what way the action of the Government may properly be affected by the decisions of the Agricultural Wages Board. The normal duty of the Wages Board is to ascertain what is the best possible wage which the industry can afford in the actual circumstances which exist at the time when the ascertainment is made. It is not the duty of the Board to anticipate hypothetical circumstances which may arise in the future, and it would be plainly intolerable if the Board were in a position to compel the Government, against their better judgment, to augment the price of agricultural commodities. In 1940, when farm prices were fixed on the basis of a 48s. minimum wage, it was generally recognised that this wage was substantially less than the amount which might easily be earned by workers of equal skill in other trades. The Government gave a pledge that if farm costs should be substantially increased, farm prices would then be raised to the extent necessary to enable the farmer to meet his additional expenses. In 1941 the Farmworkers' Union submitted to the Wages Board a claim for a higher wage. Before the Wages Board had made any decision on this claim, in the autumn of 1941, the Minister of Agriculture and the Secretary of State for Scotland obtained permission from their colleagues to announce publicly that if the Board did decide to increase wages, prices would then be reviewed, commodity by commodity. Towards the end of the year, the Wages Board did decide to raise the minimum wage. Farm costs, including other costs besides wages, were then reviewed by the Government, and in February, 1942, after many consultations with the farmers' representatives, a new price structure was agreed on, which was acknowledged by the farmers to be a fulfilment of the Government's pledge, both in the letter and in the spirit.
It was my duty at that time, as Under-Secretary for Scotland, to take some part in the discussions which preceded this new arrangement. I do not intend in this Debate to speak on the Scottish aspect of the question, but I ought to tell the House that I took some pains to impress on the Scottish farmers that any further awards which might in future be made by the Wages Board must be made on the basis of the 1942 price structure, and that so far as wages were concerned the 1942 price structure was a final implementation of the pledges that had been given by the Government in 1940 and 1941. That did not mean, of course, that the Board were prohibited from increasing wages if the Board considered that the profits being earned from the 1942 prices justified the payment of a higher wage, but it did mean that the Board should not be able to decree that an additional rise in wages should be paid for by a subvention from public funds. It never accurred to me at that time to entertain any doubt that anyone, either in Scotland or in England, who had taken part in these discussions could possibly have formed a contrary impression.
On 8th July last year, as the Minister has reminded us, the English Minister, in reply to a Question by the hon. Member for Stone (Sir J. Lamb), made public in the House the terms of a statement which he had already made the previous November to the farmers' representatives, to the Workers' Union and to the Wages Board. The first part of that statement dealt with possible discrepancies between one county rate and another county rate. The second part of the statement, which appears to have been overlooked by some people, stated positively that the Government did not contemplate an automatic general increase in prices to cover the cost of any increase in the national minimum wage. I cannot see what could have been clearer than that. This statement was first made to the farmers, the Wages Board, and the Workers' Union in November, 1942. It was made publicly in the House in July, 1943, it was published in the Press, and the farmers must have been aware of it. The farmers' representatives on the Wages Board did not raise any objection to the recent increase in the English national minimum. We are all entitled, if we wish, to say that the attitude of the Government has been unsympathetic or that the Government have imperfectly understood the problem with which we are dealing, but we are not entitled to say that the Government have broken their word. The more anxious we are to do justice to the farmers' case, the more necessary it is that we should abstain from these unfounded accusations of bad faith, which add to the bitterness of our discussions as much as they subtract from the cogency of our arguments.
But if it is right that we should acquit the Government of this charge of bad faith, it is equally right that we should acquit the farmers of any suggestion that they are being unpatriotic or that they are seeking to exploit the needs of the country for their own advantage. The Minister gave some global figures which, when they are published in the Press tomorrow, may perhaps, at first sight, give the impression that the British farmers are in a high state of financial prosperity, and he indicated, I thought, that he had further figures which, if he were to publish them, might confirm such an impression. But this impression would be false. The course of this war has done a great deal towards rehabilitating the derelict land of our country but it has not brought any great degree of opulence to the average farmer or indeed, to any farmer. Our financial policy, which has on the whole been fairly successful, is aimed at preventing any business from earning very much higher profits than it earned in time of peace. This policy, which we all accept, is bound to impose certain unfair disadvantages on those industries which were depressed before the war in comparison with those which were prosperous, and agriculture is by no means the only example. There are manufacturing industries in the same position, and particularly those industries which we all took so much trouble to establish in the depressed areas before the war, but agriculture is certainly one.
If the House wants an example of a farmer who is doing fairly well, it will probably take the big man who has a great deal of capital behind him, farming, perhaps, 1,000 acres of good arable land in some north-eastern county which is suitable for the growing of potatoes and wheat. In time of peace he may have perhaps been accustomed to grow 100 acres of potatoes. He is now compelled to grow 200 acres, which is really rather more than should be taken out of the soil, diminishing fertility, and the Ministry of Food insists on paying a far higher price for these potatoes than he needs. His farm accounts show an enormous profit, nearly all of which goes in Excess Profits Tax. He is permitted to earn a maximum gross profit of £1,500, £750 of which goes in Income Tax at 10s. in the £. He has certainly nothing to complain of. He has still got the other £750 left, which is a good enough income in these times, although of course he may not be able to make very much progress in reducing the overdraft which was accumulating before the war during the years when he was losing money. He may be paying £4,000 or £5,000 in Excess Profits Tax, which all goes to swell the global figure given by the Minister and credited by the Government to the receipts of the farmers; although it is not evenly distributed among all farmers, or even among any farmers, since most of it goes in taxation. To this man, whose circumstances I have described, an increase in agricultural wages would make no difference, for it would only reduce the amount which he pays in Excess Profits Tax.
If we wish an example of a man who is not doing so well, let us leave out the more extreme cases like marginal land or hill sheep. Let us take the ordinary farmer in the West of England, with 100 or 150 acres of land which was in fairly poor condition before the war, and who has now been compelled very greatly to increase his turnover and to grow some crops to which he is not accustomed, with insufficient labour and with inadequate buildings. When the harvest is fairly good, he may find himself with a balance of several hundred pounds. He may be compelled to spend this sum on the purchase of a new Fordson tractor, which may perhaps not be very much use to him after the war is over, but which is used in the meantime to plough up more land to grow crops for which his land is not really suitable and which may easily be destroyed by the weather. If the harvest is not good, he may be very lucky if, after all the arduous and prolonged labour of himself and his family, he can earn as much as the minimum he is compelled to pay to one of his own farm servants.
This man may possibly feel that the Government ought to deal with him as liberally as they deal with quite a lot of other people engaged in the production of essential war material, who may not be working nearly as hard as he is. He comes to the Government and presents his case. He is confronted by my right hon. Friend with this global figure prepared by the statistical office of the War Cabinet, whose dexterity in mathematical calculations may perhaps be superior to their knowledge of practical farming. He is told by my right hon. Friend, "The whole lot of you are earning an extra £30,000,000, and, therefore, you can easily afford to pay another £15,000,000 in wages without any further aid from me." Whether this man feels that he is being fairly treated or not will probably depend a good deal partly on his own temper and partly on the temper of my right hon. Friend. Frankly, I do not think that it is humanly possible in war conditions to devise a price structure which will do complete justice to every individual farmer. I do not think it can be done. There are some things you can do in the way of helping those who have been obliged to adopt unaccustomed methods they would not normally follow in peace time, by providing them with free machinery or free seeds, and I should like to see that done on a much larger scale. It is a much more satisfactory method of helping the farmer than the method of raising prices to an astronomical figure and then taking most of it back again in taxation.
What the Government can do, and what they have not yet succeeded in doing, is to convince these men that the profession to which they have devoted their lives will not once more be abandoned and ruined as it was in 1921. This dispute which has been the occasion for this Debate is a dispute about 5s. a week. That means £13 a year for one man, say £20, including overtime, or £40 for two men. To a farmer whose holding is large enough to employ two permanent labourers, £40 may be a good deal of money but it is hardly sufficient to account for this sudden universal rebellion of the jacquerie against my right hon. Friend or for the nervousness of those who are responsible for the management of by-elections in the Government interest. The origin of the trouble, which has been brought to a head by this really trifling dispute, is the growing belief among ordinary farmers that the favour and solicitude of the Government towards themselves will endure precisely as long as the threat of the German U-boats. That is what they have been saying to each other now for a very long time. In 1940, when we were in serious danger of starvation, they were then given every kind of promise, including a general statement on post-war policy about a healthy and well-balanced agriculture, which was not less well-intentioned and not more ambiguous than the Atlantic Charter, but about whose practical application to real persons and things we are not allowed to ask any questions, or, if we do, they are not always very kindly received.
Now they are saying to each other, "The Navy is getting the upper hand of the U-boats and the Government have now no further use for us. I told you it would be so." I am sure that they are wrong, but it has often been very hard to explain the reluctance and delay on the part of the Government in declaring their future intentions. Throughout all the early part of last Session some of my hon. Friends who have put down their names to a Motion on the Paper together with mine, and other hon. Members in all parts of the House, continually begged the Government to give a day for an agricultural Debate so that we might hear from the Government some rather more precise assurance about their future policy than they had hitherto given. We pressed them to do that continually. It was rather like pressing a camel to walk over a footbridge. The proposal was always rejected with an air of injured disdain. At last, just before the Summer Recess, we were given a day for an agricultural Debate. In the middle of that Debate, the Minister announced that he was under instructions from the Cabinet not to say anything at all about post-war policy. That was about the only thing he said that was of any real interest to the farmers, and it got a far greater publicity than the whole of his speech. This one topic, which has been the sole cause for creating the demand for the Debate, was also the sole topic which the Cabinet decided must not be discussed by the Minister, and the ineptitude of this decision was heightened by the fact that the Government had just welcomed with the greatest warmth the final act of the Hot Springs Conference which lays it down as one of its objects that every signatory country shall immediately prepare for its own agriculture a permanent long-term policy designed to raise wages and to maintain soil fertility, by the practice of mixed rotational farming and the avoidance of single crop production and monoculture. My right hon. Friend was asked whether the Government could not, at least, undertake that this resolution which they had signed would be applied to Great Britain. He replied that he was forbidden by the Cabinet to say anything of that kind. The impression received by the public was that the acceptance of the Hot Springs Resolutions was only one of those international gestures which Governments so often make without any intelligible purpose.
I do not think we have ever had such a good opportunity as we have now for attaining, by agreement among the different parties, a common agricultural policy. It has been suggested that the Cabinet may not be able to agree among themselves about land nationalisation. If land is nationalised the farmer will then be the tenant of the State, to whom he will pay rent, and who will be responsible for keeping his farm in good order. If land is not nationalised, the farmer will be either an owner-occupier, or else the tenant of a landowner, who will be responsible for keeping the farm in good order. I cannot see why our policy with regard to the stability of prices, to the maintenance of fertility and in regard to the importation of foreign food should not be the same in either case. I, myself, believe that nationalisation would entail a great waste of public money and a serious loss of efficiency, but I do not see why any trifling disagreements we may have about this should frustrate the attainment of a common agricultural policy. I must say to my right hon. Friend that it is no use his talking about one year after the war. The farmer has to plan many years ahead and has got to put fertility into the ground in the belief that it will be required by the next generation, and he cannot do these things if our agricultural policy is changed after every general election.
I think there is some reason to hope that a sound agricultural policy may not, in the long run, impose a very heavy burden on the British taxpayer, but if the farmer is to cut down his costs the most essential condition is that he should be informed of what is required from him for long periods in advance. He must know how much food he is expected to grow and what price he is to get for it. The Minister said something in his speech on this subject. He said there was a bigger gap now between British and foreign costs than there had ever been. I agree that owing to the war British costs are higher than they should be, but will not my right hon. Friend acknowledge that the reverse is also true, that foreign prices may be too low, and that the standard of life of the foreign producer is not as high as it should be, if we are to have a balanced world economy. That was one of the points which was firmly emphasised by the Hot Springs Conference.
That is an important point which was also recognised by the Hot Springs Conference. If the resolutions of the Conference are genuinely applied by the principal signatories, I think we may expect that the world price of food may be higher in the future than it has been in the past. We want a decision from the Government, first of all, about what is the right policy to maintain soil fertility. I do not think there should be much difficulty about that because the Government have signed the Hot Springs Act. The next thing is, how much control do we need? I do not think that question need be affected by any controversy about Socialism. If there is public ownership, there would still be the widest freedom of initiative by the individual farmer, and if land is privately owned we shall still require machinery to secure a high standard both of cultivation and of estate management. The next point which calls for a decision is a guarantee of stable prices, not for one year after the war but as a permanent feature of our national policy. The price of all our principal products should be determined from time to time on the basis of efficient costs of production. I should have thought that the consensus of opinion on this is now so strong that the Government could safely accept this view without antagonising any considerable section of their supporters.
A final point on which decision has got to be reached is the control of foreign imports, but I would not say that that is quite so urgent. I think that for a long time after the defeat of Germany and a considerable time after the defeat of Japan, the economic condition in which we find ourselves will compel the continuance of the Ministry of Food which will have to determine the quantity and the price of all our imports from abroad. It would be unreasonable to expect an announcement on these points in this Debate, but such an announcement ought to be made very soon. This rift between the farmers and the Government must not be allowed to develop. The great interest which is now taken in the prosperity of British farmers by the whole of our urban population, an interest which is of fairly recent growth, must not be allowed to relax. The whole people should be persuaded that in our future national economy the roots of our country life, to which we owe so much of our vigour and our freedom, shall be strengthened and preserved.
May I ask the indulgence of this House on rising to address it for the first time, and I hope that I shall not be thought to be presuming in rising to speak so soon after having taken my seat, but the matter under Debate to-day is one which concerns my own constituency most intimately. It is a constituency which has particular problems of its own, and it may be of interest to Members to know that I think I probably represent a larger area of agricultural land than most of the other people in this House to-day. I may remind hon. Members that the Craven district is one in which, before the war, dairy farming and stock-rearing were the general pattern of agriculture. There was very little arable farming at all, and foodstuffs were mostly imported, and, on that basis, there was a reasonably healthy and prosperous agriculture, based on a large number of small farms, with cattle and stock-rearing in the lower parts and, of course, sheep in the hills.
The war has probably made as great a difference to the agriculture of this area as it has to that in any other part of the country. I refer, particularly, to the policy of ploughing up of grassland in the Craven district, which has caused a very great deal of controversy, both in that area and elsewhere. What has happened is that since the beginning of the war more and more land has been brought under the plough, which is, of course, following out the policy of the Government. This policy is one which had to be applied, but in the Craven district you will find that farmers are unanimous that this policy of ploughing up the grassland has been one which has reacted against the best interests of the production of food. It has produced less food than if the farmers had concentrated on the sort of farming which is most suitable to the area. This is due, mainly, to the climatic conditions.
Farmers in the Craven area tell me that one can only expect a good cereal harvest one year out of ten, and, in fact, during the last two years, the yield has been very low indeed. It takes a very large amount of labour to reap these harvests, and when they are reaped they produce very small yields. That seems to me a very serious thing. The policy which has been pursued, instead of increasing our food production, has reduced it. That is one of the grievances of my constituents, and one which I think it is my duty to put before the House. But, more than the loss of food and the incidental financial loss to the farmers of the Craven area, there is the point of the way in which this policy has been administered. The ploughing up of grassland, as you know, was determined by the war agricultural executive committees, and I know that this policy has worked very well indeed in many parts of the country, and I am not complaining about what has been done in this connection in general, but I do want to say that in the Craven district this particular thing has given, rise to a very great deal of bad feeling between the majority of the farmers and the war agricultural executive committee. The farmers feel that the war agricultural executive committee is not representative and does not have on it representatives of their particular type of farming. It is mostly composed of the large landowners and the large farmers who farm arable land in the county, and the hill farmers are not represented there at all. The hill farmers feel that their views have not been considered and that they have been treated very brusquely indeed. They feel that the methods which have been used are rather dictatorial and, therefore, they have very little confidence in the agricultural committee which is having to interpret the Minister's policy, and that seems to me to be a very unfortunate and very serious thing. It is something which is really affecting good husbandry and interfering with the sort of feeling you must have amongst any body of men if they are really going to do their best and pull their weight.
I maintain that this is an example of what happens when you depart from the old democratic procedure. Very often the opponents of democracy will state that it is a sort of luxury which has to be bought at the price of inefficiency, but I have never accepted that view, and I maintain now that the way in which these undemocratic and autocratically-appointed bodies have worked in this area has shown that democracy is really the best way to organise not only our public life but our industrial life, too. I do say that if the farmers of the Craven area had had the democratic right of removing men on the agricultural committees, and had been able to put there men in whom they have real confidence then, when unpleasant decisions were taken and they had to do unpleasant things, they would have known it was in the best interests of the nation, whereas to-day they do not have that feeling.
Again, when a dispute arises between the war agricultural committee and the farmers, an appellant finds that his appeal is thrown back, more or less, to the same man who gave the original decision, and it is felt that this is a very, serious point of complaint, and that there should be some form of independent tribunal to which appeals can be made. I do feel that this is a matter to which the Minister could give his serious attention. It is vital during war-time, and should always be borne in mind. In common with the rest of the farming community, the farmers of the Craven district are very dissatisfied with this matter of prices, but I do want to assure the Minister that, in the election campaign which resulted in my presence here, very little indeed was said about farm prices. The election was not conducted with the idea of suggesting that a person would be able to do anything in this House to get increased prices for the farmers, and I think it is only fair that, that should be stated now. It was not a living issue at all, and the ploughing out of grassland was not a first issue in the election either. I would like to say that the vast majority of the farmers in the Craven area do agree with the point of view about prices put by other hon. Members, who have stated the case better than I can, though I feel, in that regard, that it is my duty to state the point of view of the persons I represent here.
I believe a learned judge once said that it was not sufficient that justice should be done but that it should be manifestly seen to be done, and I think we must apply that view in this particular case. The Minister may be quite sure that he is doing justice, and we in this House may, after what he has said, but I assure him the farmers are not convinced of it at all. They have got it into their heads that justice is not being done, and something must be done to get rid of that idea, so that the farmers are convinced that they are getting a square deal over prices. I would like to point out something which has already been mentioned in this Debate—that a price which is fair for the average must be unfair to the area which is below the average. The agriculture of the Craven area depended upon imported foodstuffs. Now foodstuffs have to be grown locally and grown under conditions very unfavourable indeed for growing cereals, and a price which was fair for growing oats in the average case would, for the whole of the oats grown in the Craven district, whether for sale or for consumption on the farm, have to be at least double the average price in order to be fair. In my submission the farmers do not mind growing oats, but they think that, if this is being done in the interests of the nation, they should have a fair return for their labour.
I suggest that this issue must receive very strong consideration, and, as a practical suggestion for removing this feeling of injustice on the part of the farmers, I would like to urge this. The Minister has agreed that there is a difference of opinion as to the interpretation of the prices. Will he agree to the setting up of an independent and impartial tribunal, not to challenge the figures, but to try to investigate the interpretation of the figures, so that the farmers' representatives and those of the Minister, under some impartial chairman, could agree on that interpretation? I am sure that if this is done it will get us out of the present controversy and will mean that the industry as a whole will be able to go on with the feeling that it has confidence in the Government. I was very glad that at the beginning of the Debate the Minister asked us not to look primarily to the past but to the future, and I can assure him that the farmers now are much more concerned about the future than about the past. They are asking themselves why a pledge should have been given just for one year after the war. They feel that it shows a lack of intention to allow British agriculture to develop along reasonable and satisfactory lines. They feel that the folly of the years before the war is to be repeated.
The main appeal I made to the farmers in the Skipton by-election was not on past or immediate issues but on the future, and it may be of interest to you, Sir, to know that I appealed to them on grounds which in the past have not been considered very good ones in dealing with the agricultural community—a community which is notoriously conservative in ideas and individualistic as a whole. I asked the farmers to support a policy of nationalisation or of common ownership of land, and I am very glad that it has been mentioned in this Debate by hon. Members, because it seems to me that the land, which is, after all, not something which occurs naturally but is the result of men's labour when it has been rescued as arable land from bog or forest, is such an essential part of our national wealth that it should belong to us all. I am glad to see that I am in agreement with hon. Members on this side of the House. I put this for the consideration of the farmers in the Craven area and I did receive a certain amount of support from them. The agricultural community are looking to the future with open eyes and are waking up and are not going to be swayed by traditional conceptions.
The hon. Member who spoke last seemed to think it would make very little difference whether the farmer was a tenant of the State or not. That seems to me to make a very great difference. While the farmer is the tenant of an individual landlord, that landlord is having to get his revenue from the ownership of land and will put back as little as possible, and that has been going on over a number of years. There is a tremendous lot of leeway to make up in putting money back into buildings and drainage schemes. The State itself must invest a large amount of capital in making up this leeway of the past, and the State can only do that well if the State owns the land. It is completely wrong for the State to spend public money on improving land for the benefit of some individuals, and I do press this point of national ownership so that we can do all the land drainage and build those new buildings which are so necessary if we are going to have full food production in the future.
Turning back to war agricultural executive committees, I offer the idea that farmers should have a committee which would act in the capacity of trustees for the district, to carry out the sort of thing which is being done to-day—not an autocratic committee, but a democratically-elected body representative not only of the farmers but of the farm workers too. I think, too, the distribution of food, which, after all, is the main link between us as consumers and the small farmers as producers, does, to a large extent, control the industry, and it seems to me that the Minister should discuss the conversion of the distribution of food into a public service on a non-profit making basis so that we should not find in future, as we have in the past, that only one-third of the profits of producing food fall into the pockets of the producers. That is one thing we must do in the future. The agricultural worker has received during this war some increase in his standard of living, but I protest very strongly against the suggestion that £3 5s. is an inflationary wage in the agricultural industry. The very least we should tolerate in a civilised State is that the agricultural worker should have the highest possible standard of living, according to his skill and according to the hours he works, and that cannot be called inflationary. We must not only keep the increased standard of living we have in war, but we must increase it to the standard of the towns before the war, which, in all conscience, was low enough.
One thing necessary for prosperity and increasing food production is that we should have real equality of opportunity between man and man. It must be one of the bases of a fair and reasonable society. It must be possible for agricultural workers, whether they have capital or not, to have the chance to farm on their own account. That is one of the things which has not been possible in the past if he has had to get borrowed capital from somewhere. We must have a very great extension of the facilities for competent and resourceful men, whether farmers' sons or farm workers' sons, to get farms of their own at an early age. Farmers are agreed about certain things for the future, and they themselves want a long-term policy for agriculture. We must have a long-term policy.
It is not just sufficient to say, "One year after the war." We must not say, "Not one year or even 20 years." We must have a healthy agriculture with a maximum production. All sides of the House agree that the old motives of private profit and competition have failed in this particular case. Some are of opinion that they have failed in the general case as well. They think that this is a very good example of how the private profit motive has failed, and I think those who call themselves Socialists are indebted to the Minister for the very fine case he made out for a Socialist economy. Whatever may have been our conception in the past, now is the time for us to sit down and think. We are getting to the end of an age that has produced two wars in 20 years. Maybe, 1944 is the year that will mark the beginning of a new era. Let us re-examine the case from first principles. If we do that in regard to agriculture, we shall be able to work on the basis of a planned production which will be to the benefit of the whole community in the future.
May I, as one of the oldest Members of the House, congratulate one of the newest Members on an admirably lucid speech? I do not agree with it but one can understand why the hon. Member for Skipton (Mr. H. Lawson) won a sensational by-election. In this Debate I appear as a peace-maker. I do not want to incite or aggravate differences. If I may give advice to the Government, it would be to wipe out the last three months, during which there have been mismanagement and bungling. No doubt, at the end of the Debate we shall find out from the Chancellor of the Exchequer what are the intentions of the Government. In my long experience I have never known a Minister of Agriculture who attacked, for over an hour, the representatives of the farmers. It was something quite new, and I am sorry to say, an innovation which I do not think will bear good agricultural fruit. The other day one of my constituents said to me, "Does not the Minister of Agriculture's name begin with H?" He rather inferred that my right hon. Friend's actions had been a little dictatorial. That is the impression among the agricultural community and I fancy that, with a little oil and a little soap, perhaps things might have gone better.
With all the preparation which a Government Department was able to give him, my right hon. Friend stood at that Box and gave his version of the pledge. Whatever he thinks about it, there is a dispute about it and I say to the Chancellor of the Exchequer that the Government must not be a party to a pledge that is not clear and unequivocal. Every pledge should be clear and, moreover, should be honoured. The Government cannot break their word but, in this case, they have deliberately adjusted this pledge to their own advantage. That is a charge I am sorry to have to make and that is why I say, "Wipe out the last three months." Last week my right hon. Friend, in a written answer to a Parliamentary Question about future policy, said:
Exploratory and confidential discussions have been opened with representatives of the agricultural industry on the subject of agricultural policy in the transitional and post-war periods."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 20th January, 1944; col. 394, Vol. 396.]
I ask the Government: why open such negotiations when you have this dispute about the pledge? The confidence of the farming community has been shattered. They do not believe what they have been told and I must say that they have some reason for suspicion. I was here in 1921–22 when the Corn Production Act was passed, and I recollect what happened. Farmers want confidence if they are to carry on; they have not got it yet.
I am thinking of the future. My right hon. Friend said, "I cannot impose further burdens on the taxpayer." But if the farmers had been allowed to sell their produce as they liked, there would have been no burden on the taxpayer. Turkeys would have made £10 each. Yesterday, the head of the refreshment department here said to me, "I want to get something for Members to eat but I am asked 30s. for a guinea fowl and 6s. for a pigeon." Prices are controlled, and rightly, otherwise the general public would not be able to get any of these things to eat. Butter would have fetched 10s. a pound, and eggs probably 2s. 6d. each. People are paying anything these days. The value of money seems to have lost all consideration. This pledge has had a considerable amount of Government inspiration. I happen to be the president of an agricultural college. We met last Saturday and afterwards our local paper came out with an appreciation of what the war agricultural committee had done. When I heard my right hon. Friend speak to-day I knew where that had come from.
I understand from officials of the Farmers' Union that my right hon. Friend, instead of discussing this matter—to use a phrase of the Prime Minister's—"banged, barred and bolted the door". Yesterday, at a meeting upstairs I asked the secretary of the Farmers' Union, "Are you willing to re-open discussions?" He replied, "Yes, that has been our point all along." They have asked to meet Members of the War Cabinet. They met the late Chancellor of the Exchequer. If this request is granted—and I think it would be wise for the Government to accede to it—I suggest that in addition to the Chancellor of the Exchequer being present Lord Woolton should also be there. Lord Woolton has paid a magnificent tribute to the farmers of the country. After all, he is charged with reconstruction and I do not think you will do much for the country unless you have a prosperous agriculture. We have been told that the war agricultural committees have done great work. They have but they have had plenty of money. There has been no question about accounts. The sole question has been the production of food. We have had assistance from these committees but we have also had the reverse.
The Minister talked about farmers making money. Let him come to Devonshire and see the derelict land which has been ploughed up at the instance of the war agricultural committee. Will he present to the House a balance sheet in connection with that land? Will he let us know what the figures are? As I have said, the committee in my area have done good work but what of the amount of work they have given to farmers? If forms were fertility the land would be in good heart. The committee have ordered us to cultivate certain crops and the farmers have done it. Let me take my own case. I have been ordered to grow potatoes but I cannot grow more than four tons per acre. The land is not suitable. There is another point which has not been mentioned by the Minister. We have had two or three very favourable seasons. In 1942 we grew 22 cwt. of wheat per acre. This year, so far as threshing has gone, it is only 10 cwt. per acre. That means a difference of £9 per acre. You cannot control the seasons. It is no good talking about one or two seasons. You must take at least five. In January of last year we were supposed to have a rainfall of seven inches but we had a rainfall of nine and a half inches. The fertility of the land has been destroyed. That is the real point. Under the ley system we had land full of fertility but after three or four straw crops that fertility has gone.
I understand that a statistical committee has been set up to inquire into farmers' costs. I have not much faith in statisticians. A statistician will see a turnip and then another turnip and he will say, "Well, one turnip and one turnip will make two turnips." But he has not the remotest notion of how the turnips are grown. In this case are you giving credit to the farmer in your calculations for the decreased fertility of the soil? I would like to ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer if he has done that. I presume some figures will be drawn up later. Will they include the decreased fertility of the land? Then, the fences and gates on my farm for instance are in a shocking state, not because I cannot pay but because I cannot get the labour. We have had land girls; excellent, but they are not economical. Directly the girls start milking the cows, down goes the production, because the cow has feeling, and though you may humbug the farmer, you cannot humbug the cow. If you do not milk a cow 14 times a week she will run dry, and if you do not feed her seven days a week she will go dry. That is what so many thousands of small farmers have to do—they have to work seven days a week.
I am not grumbling at all about the wage being put up to £3 5s. a week. The agricultural worker is a skilled man. Do not make any mistake about that. When I see that the surface workers in the mines get £4 10s., I think the agricultural labourer is quite as skilled and deserves as much. But do not forget that wages cannot be paid unless the price of the product will meet the cost of production. You have increased the wages, but do not expect the farmers to pay all that increase. If you do, you will not get enterprise, and you certainly will not get a larger production of food.
Now I ask the Government what am I to do? I have got a small farm and I must decide now what is going to happen in the next five years. Am I to put this land down to grass? Am I to keep cattle? It has to be decided now. In April I shall have to decide the grass seed I shall put into the land or whether they will have to stay down for two, three or seven years. I am sorry to say that the handling of the situation by the Government during the last three months has not been such as to give me great confidence that I shall go on in the old way, not employing labour, producing food, but rather trying to avoid loss. I do not speak so much for the present as I do for the future. Are we to go on as we went on for the 20 years, from 1920, when 200,000 workers drifted from the land into the towns? There were 2,000,000 of the 3,000,000 unemployed living on imported foodstuffs. I do not speak from the point of view of to-day so much as for the future, and I can assure the House that we shall never build a prosperous United Kingdom upon the foundations of a decaying agriculture. One of the great problems which will face us after this war will be the re-employment of our people. When I think of the millions of men and women now in the Services who will have to be brought back to work, I say to the Government, "Give them a chance to work profitably on the land."
We have had a very characteristic speech from the right hon. Member for South Molton (Mr. Lambert) which really does remind me of a few lines written by a Member of this House. My right hon. Friend does not seem at all happy about the promises given us to-day nor yet about the general position of agriculture, and the following few lines typify his attitude:
The farmer will never be happy again,
For he carries his heart in his boots.
For either the rain is destroying his grain,
Or the drought is destroying his roots.
So far as to-day's Debate is concerned, I came here convinced that the Minister had a very poor case. I am still convinced that he has not a 100 per cent. good case, but I am quite certain that if the speeches he delivered in the country had been of the character of his speech to-day there need not have been the trouble there is in this country at the present time. I think myself it may have been a lesson to him, as it has been to other Ministers of Agriculture and it will have been a good thing for him, for this House, and for the country in general, if we take the lessons to be derived from this crisis to-day. I myself feel that the present uneasiness is caused only by a lack of confidence in the Minister, owing to the speeches which he has delivered, and I think he ought to be told so. In fact, he does not mind being told. I think this House should, by to-day's Debate, try to create confidence once more in the pledges given in the name of the Government and so far as the agricultural representatives are concerned, it should enable them to make another approach to the Minister of Agriculture for reconsideration of the whole matter.
I could cite cases, and I know that hon. Members of this House can also cite cases, that are by no means as rosy as the Minister had represented in his speech to-day. A friend of mine who is a farmer—though I cannot name him, I think if I could hon. Members would agree that he is an intelligent farmer—has made a net profit of £1 per acre on his farming for the past two years. Do you think that is very extravagant? Dozens of quotations could be given of farms of 100 to 250 acres which have by no means done well, and some of them to my own knowledge have not yet cleared the accounts of the merchants from whom they bought the seed and foodstuffs. It is all very well for farmers with 4,000 or 5,000 acres, but they are by no means representative. I know one fanner with something like 10,000 acres who is making close on £50,000, which represents about £5 per acre, but he has by far the best ground, and the most modern machinery. He says, "I know myself that farming pays." But there is also the case of a man with unlimited means, who does not depend for his living on the farm, who buys the best land that can be bought, machinery, cattle and so on, who buys the best brains, because he has no agricultural brains himself and runs a farm on those lines. But it is not a fair comparison and it will not convince anyone.
So far as farming itself is concerned, I have always believed, and said so from the time I delivered a maiden speech in this House, and I shall reiterate it to-day, that until there is a proper price level put into individual agricultural commodities, we shall never have that prosperity in agriculture that we ought to have in this country. Last year I complained about the prices of two commodities, carrots as compared with potatoes. Anyone who knows anything about agriculture realises that carrots at £6 10s. a ton cannot be compared with potatoes at £5 10s. because you can produce 20 tons of carrots to the acre and only half that quantity of potatoes. There is no sense in it, and the Minister knew there was no sense in it. It is quoted against the farmer as in the case of barley. Only last week, an old friend of mine, a farmer who has now retired—I think he is very sorry he has retired—cited to me the case of a man on the Lincolnshire wolds who had made £1,000 out of a stack of barley and thought he had done remarkably well. But surely there should be a readjustment of price.
I have had a letter from my Lincolnshire farmers who ask me to pledge myself to a certain action. I do not propose to do that. I have stated my attitude towards agriculture publicly in the House and in my constituency and the pledge that I give them is evidently as waterproof as the pledge that the Government gave them. In this case, they say the prices will be subject to adjustment to the extent of any substantial changes in cost of production. There have been increases in wages and in the price of feeding stuffs and fertilising stuffs. Surely that is what it means. They further say that agricultural wages will continue to receive the protection afforded by the minima prescribed under the Agricultural Wages Act. I hope we all agree that the agricultural worker is as highly-skilled as any other in the country. A man who can thatch and stack and plough and look after cattle is a very highly-skilled man. We agree that the price level should be applied to agricultural commodities, and that his skill should be properly compensated in the same way as the rest of the skilled men in the country. Unless the wage level is to be commensurate with that of the industrial worker, the danger is that the agricultural worker will leave agriculture and we shall lose most highly-skilled men, who are so much needed. For that, if for no other reason, farmers, landowners and the Ministry should see that the price level is put into the commodities and that the labourers' wages are in keeping with those of other industrial workers.
I should like to quote one more statement from the Minister's broadcast in February, 1942, when the price structure was agreed. He asked what would be the effect of these prices on farming, and said it was bound to be uneven. So it is. Some are doing badly and some are doing well. He said the new prices simply meant that they would pay a bit more in taxes to the Chancellor of the Exchequer. They are doing so, and I am very pleased, because I think it is about time the farmer did pay his own Income Tax. The right hon. Gentleman said that to the majority of them the new prices would just cover their increased costs. He either knew what he was saying or he did not. He said that, despite the good prices they had enjoyed since August, 1940, they were still struggling to make both ends meet. His words were true, and they are as true to-day, as affecting many small farmers, as they were on the day he uttered them. That is really the case of many Members of the House who come in contact with small farmers, and I hope that to-day the door has been opened, and that the representatives of the National Farmers' Union will take advantage of this better feeling, and that there will be a rapprochement between them so that we shall get unanimity and good will in this essential industry, in the interest of the farmers, the labourers and the country in general.
I listened very carefully to the right hon. Gentleman's statement, not only because this is a very important occasion but because, when I and other Members representing Hampshire divisions met a number of our farmer constituents we all refused to criticise my right hon. Friend until we had heard his case. New figures have been produced to-day—at any rate they are new to me—which will need very careful consideration by all concerned. It is not possible for me to deal with them now. There were five points in the speech which I welcome very sincerely. First, there is to be a better basis for price fixing in consultation with the Universities and the National Farmers' Union. It is most important that the N.F.U. should be in on these consultations. Then, if I understood him aright, he said he would try to relate the pledge as to guaranteed markets to the four years' policy, which carries us into 1947. I particularly welcomed the statement that he would endeavour to work out a long term policy for the post-war years and get the Government to consent to it. Then there was the important concession on milk, which goes a long way to meet the difficulties of the small farmers. Again if I understood it aright, there is to be 1½d. a gallon on the first 400 gallons produced in the month during winter and ½d. on the first 500 gallons produced in the summer. That, I take it, is in addition to the original penny announced when the scale was fixed.
I also welcomed the closing words of his speech in which the Minister said he regarded it as essential that there should be a fair return for both farmers and farm labourers, because I am sure he said that not as a pious aspiration but with a fixed determination that he would do everything to ensure it. Having said that, I must say that I sympathise with the fears that the farmers have expressed. I interpreted the 1940 pledge exactly as they did and I should have thought there could really have been no doubt that it was meant to cover movements of costs in either direction, whether up or down. Now it is suggested that that was not and could not have been the meaning and figures have been produced to show that any increase of price to the farmers was unnecessary because of the profits they have made and the money that has been paid to the industry since 1940.
I do not want to haggle over prices now that we have that concession on milk, but I do say that by far the most serious feature in this episode is the loss of confidence felt by the farmers in the bona fides of the Government and as to their intentions with regard to the post-war period. I do not really expect that the right hon. Gentleman's figures will be swallowed en bloc by the farmers. Indeed, it appeared to me that figures, like expert witnesses, can always be made to prove anything, and when my right hon. Friend mentioned the statistical department of the Treasury as having produced some figures, I strongly suspected that those figures of alleged profits had been got by the statisticians by taking the number of acres under various crops and guessing at the yield per acre and the prices paid.
I note the Minister's denial and I note that he said he had given the figures very careful consideration himself, but, even assuming that they are more solidly based than I assumed, of course the profits shown in the first years of the ploughing up policy will not and cannot remain constant, because the farmer is cashing in on the fertility of his land in those years. Of course, it will show profits, but they cannot remain constant year after year. Moreover, there is such a thing as bad weather. Bad weather always means an expensive harvest, and it may mean a completely lost harvest. For 40 years I have kept daily records of rainfall at my home and I should like to give the figures for August, which is the harvest month, for the last four years. In 1940 there was one day on which rain was registered, and then there was.03 of an inch. In 1941, on the other hand, there was no less than 3.83 inches in 19 days. In 1942 it was very much the same—3.59 inches in 18 days, and in 1943 1.58 inches in 13 days. I remember 1941 and 1942 because they were the first years in which I ploughed up my park and I spent a month getting the oats in, owing to the wet and rough weather. Last year there was less than half that amount of rain, and it took me only a fortnight. Even these few figures show how dependent the farmer is on weather in the harvest month, not to mention the weather in the sowing and growing months. It is obvious, therefore, that a farmer's profits cannot be calculated from the results of two or three years. It must take five or six years to get a true average.
As regards the farmer's early profits from ploughing up, they largely went in paying off bank debts and mortgages. In my view it is not past profits that matter. I want my right hon. Friend to look to the present and to the future, as he asks the House to do. Confidence within the industry is essential. Money has to be laid out years ahead of hoped for profits, and no one would be such a fool as to lay out his money unless he had confidence that he was not going to be let down by the politicians. The farmer has quite enough adversaries to contend with without taking on the Government and the House of Commons. Confidence needs very firm foundations and I suggest strongly to the Government that the only really firm foundation on which they can build is an acknowledged balance between costs and prices, and as regards costs, wages are by far the largest factor. I hope that that will come into my right hon. Friend's account when he is looking for that better basis which he is trying to find. One thing more, such a balance when it is fixed should hold good for a definite minimum period each time it is fixed, say four or five years. Then the farmer can plan ahead with confidence and the agricultural labourer also will know where he stands. Prices mean less than nothing unless there, is such a fixed balance as I have mentioned. Obviously, a formula for fixing the balance will be needed, but I am sure that it can be devised, given good will on both sides.
I had intended to urge concessions on milk because the small farmer is in a large majority and he has been particularly hardly hit by the two recent increases in wages, which farmers estimate as equivalent to 2½d. per gallon, although possibly my right hon. Friend would not agree with that figure. I say too that family labour is entitled to just as good a reward as, or at any rate a comparable reward with, that which is paid to hired labour. I believe that over 80 per cent. of the farms in this country are under 150 acres.
I am much obliged to my hon. Friend for his interruption. Over 80 per cent. of the dairy herds are under 20 cows. As my right hon. Friend said that 69 per cent. were under 15 cows, my figure is not far wrong. The small farmer, therefore, is in a large majority and he is in most need of help and consideration. While I thank the Minister for the concession which he announced on milk, I want to tell the House and the country that it is not unduly generous because very little of the first penny given remains to the industry. That original penny will largely be taken up by adjusting admitted inequalities in the special freight deductions throughout the country. I think, however, that the new concession will make a real difference not only to the cash position of the small farmer, but to the confidence of the industry as a whole. I think also that it can be given without raising the price of milk to the public. The small farmer will feel now that his difficulties have been taken into account. He would at all times have realised that "changes of emphasis" within the circle of farm production are quite fair and, in fact, inevitable according as my right hon. Friend or the Ministry of Food want one article of food produced or another article eased down a bit.
While appreciating very much what the Government have announced to-day, I urge them to adopt the principle of having a stable balance between costs and prices as the foundation of their policy towards the farming industry. Then I am sure that confidence will be definitely restored. I would ask my right hon. Friend to believe that, unlike the farmer he mentioned in his opening words, I had and have confidence in him. I think that he has been a good Minister of Agriculture, that he has the farmers' interests at heart, that he is not one to do them down in any way, that he wants to be perfectly fair to them and that he will do all in his power to rectify the situation which has so unhappily arisen as soon as possible and to work out, and to get the Government to announce, that long-term policy which we all want so that, in the words of the Old Testament, "the land may have rest for forty years."
The Minister struck a conciliatory note in opening this Debate. Everybody who has spoken has regretted that the discussions should at times have become rather acid, but I cannot help feeling that more tact at some stages in the discussions might have prevented feelings going so high. We hope that negotiations will now proceed on post-war and other problems and that the spirit of understanding will prevail again. The great number of figures which the Minister gave could not be very easily digested at once. I am not sure, however, that they indicate more than we all knew, and that is that farming is more prosperous than it was before the war—and a good thing too. The figures prove that some farmers, but very few, are making large profits. We all know cases of that sort. I was not, however, happy about the figures of small farmers, and I would like to ask the Chancellor whether they are based on the income of the whole family or whether allowance is made for wages for the wife and other members of the family who work on small farms. The problem of the small farmer is really the major problem, not in acreage but in personnel, of British farming. As the hon. and gallant Member for New Forest and Christchurch (Major Mills) pointed out, something like 80 per cent. of the farmers in this country farm under 150 acres. There are only 4 per cent. of farmers or occupiers of land who farm over 300 acres. If any large profits are being made, it is by that small minority of large farmers.
I hope that this Debate, therefore, and the figures of the Minister will not give the impression that farmers are profiteering, because I am sure that is not the case. The global figure—and the Minister spoke mostly of the global income of the industry—is really most misleading. Over the whole of the West of England, including Wales, this year the majority of the small farmers are not making large profits, whatever the total profit is. They cannot make the profits out of cereal farming which the Eastern Counties can make. For one thing, the acreage of each farm is not big enough and the weather of the last few years, especially last year, makes it impossible to make cereal agriculture profitable. Again, the labour involved in harvesting during bad weather enormously increases the cost; a lot of grain is lost in getting it in and when it is got in it is not of very good quality. We talk generally about marginal farms, but every sort of farm may be a marginal farm. It may be marginal because it is small. It may be a large farm, but still be a marginal farm. It may, for instance, have high lying land which is not high enough for the sheep and cattle subsidy, or it may have bad wet land on which cereal production is not easy, and in war-time milk production is not easy either.
We have heard some talk about Income Tax. I would like to know more from the Chancellor of the Exchequer about the Income Tax figures. What is the position of the small man who still pays Schedule B? Some figures have been published and there were figures in "The Times." I have some figures from Wales. If we allow for family labour and for the deplorable state farms were in before the war owing to their indebtedness to the banks and merchants, I do not think we can make out a case that the smaller farmers are making unreasonable profits. I listened with interest to the speech of the hon. Member for Gower (Mr. Grenfell). He made some interesting comments, and drew our attention to the fact that the position of the agricultural worker might be lost sight of in this discussion, I agree with him that £3 5s. is none too much for an agricultural worker. I do not want to cast covetous eyes on any other industry, but I noticed in the last few days that the miners are to have a much higher minimum wage than the agricultural workers, and up goes the price of coal. Is there any abstract justice in that? Both are providing essential services in war time and both are doing their best to increase production. We cannot have too much of either food or coal during war time. I cannot help feeling that the coal industry has managed its negotiations with the Government rather better than the agricultural industry has done. It is that sort of factor which leaves a little sense of injustice and bitterness in the minds of the agricultural worker and the farmer.
The Minister did not tell us very much about the relative profitability of different products. He mentioned milk, and one welcomes the new scheme for paying an extra price for the first 400 gallons in winter and more in summer. I would like to ask the Chancellor whether the figures arrived at through the impartial investigation of which the Minister spoke do not show conclusively that the increased cost of wages would warrant a much larger increase in the price of milk than the Minister originally agreed to.
Perhaps my hon. Friend would not mind my interrupting him. I know that this is a subject on which there has been a good deal of misunderstanding. I speak from memory, but I think I am correct in saying that the various increases in the sums were estimated to mean an increase of.45 of a penny, if you took into account all the increased costs, other than the increase for the farmer's own work. If you took the farmer's own work into account, the figure was.56 of a penny. The basic figures were agreed. The interpretation, as I said in my speech, was a question on which there might be a difference of opinion between the Ministry and the Marketing Board, that is as to the figures that were to be included in the calculation.
We said that we were willing to round off the.45d. up to a halfpenny. The Milk Marketing Board said they thought that the figure was.68d. which ought to be rounded up to.75 of a penny. We then said that if there was to be any rounding off, we had better take the figure at.5 of a penny, rather than round up to.75d., which we thought had no justification. That was on the summer increase of wages, but when wages went up in the autumn, no specific figures were put forward. We estimated, and it was agreed, that the increases were of the same order as before, either.45d. or.68d. Again we said that we would take the figure of.5d. Twice our figure of ½d. came to a penny, whereas twice the rounded off figure of ¾d. came to 1½d. That is the reason for the two figures. It has been widely supposed that the figure of 2½d. was to cover recoupment of costs, but that is not so. A penny of that figure was for increased incentive. They said that we ought to have given, not a penny for costs but 1½d. I am speaking from memory, but I think hon. Members will find it is correct.
I am much obliged to the Minister for clearing up that point, which was not at all clear. It is most unfortunate that originally the whole penny was announced as if it were in relation to the wage increase, but it became understood that the larger part of the penny was due to transit costs. That was how the farmers got to know. The ordinary farmers received the information as if it were a penny in respect of wages. Only at a later date did they find that the larger part of it was in respect of other things.
It was not in respect of other things. We said that the farmers' costs had been increased by a penny and that we would put an extra penny into the total pool of the Milk Marketing Board. We directed the Milk Marketing Board to use.7 of that penny to correct the anomaly of freight charges, of which they had been complaining for months. Some hon. Members, among them, I think, my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for New Forest and Christchurch (Major Mills) seemed to assume that this.7d. had disappeared into the blue, and that farmers were not receiving it. Farmers have received it. They are receiving the whole of the penny. Some are receiving.3 of a penny and others are receiving up to 1½d. I am not sure that there may not be individual cases in which farmers are receiving 2d. The farmers have got it.
It was in respect of the increase in wages, but some of it was used to equalise differences due to differences in transport charges. Before I leave that point I would say that I am sure that war executive committees know how difficult it is to get farmers to go in for milk and remain there, as well as to increase their milk production. In the farmer's opinion, partly on account of shortage of labour, it is not a very good business proposition to be increasing milk production at the present time, and I am not sure whether the Minister will not, upon objective grounds, have to get an increase in prices if he wants more milk. Maybe the increase which he has announced in this Debate and which amounts to about 10s. a week, 5s. in summer, will be enough, but it does not seem to be a very great deal, considering the reluctance that exists among the farming community at the present time.
I do not like to comment upon that observation.
I come to the question of the pledge. There was a very general feeling in the House and elsewhere, among ordinary men, the ordinary Members of Parliament and the farmers that the pledge meant something different from the way in which it is now interpreted. I do not want to press the point. The Minister has said that he regrets that the different interpretation that was expressed by the present Chancellor of the Exchequer was not made public at the time. It had an unfortunate effect that that explanation was not made more public. It is the business of the Minister and not of the leaders of the Farmers' Union to make that matter clear. An atmosphere of secrecy surrounded the negotiations and the vital secret of what our acreage of potatoes or of any other crop was, because we must never let Hitler know how much food we are producing. The farmers' union leaders were quite right to leave it to the Minister to decide what to say on a matter of that sort, considering the atmosphere of secrecy in which all these matters are, and have been, conducted.
I agree with other speakers that the background of the whole of this difficulty is the fear that another betrayal, such as the farmers believe occurred after the last war, may happen again this time, and that this is the first instalment of such a disaster. That fear is deep in farmers' minds since the last war. I think that the hon. Member for West Renfrewshire (Mr. Wedderburn) put the matter clearly in his admirable speech. He pointed out that the delay in starting discussion on post-war policy had increased that anxiety among farmers. In going among my people I find that the chief concern at the present time is not a matter of pounds, shillings and pence but this matter of principle. All I can say about that is that, like most other hon. Members, I hope the farmers will have confidence that their industry will be given a fair opportunity after the war. This is no time to go in any detail into the question of post-war policy, but if the Chancellor of the Exchequer can give any further encouragement to farmers to-day that their case will be as sympathetically treated as that of other industries, that will do something, I hope, to restore the unfortunate lack of confidence which this incident has created.
People inside and outside this House who are interested in agriculture cannot but deeply deplore the situation which has arisen and which need not have taken place. Many of us will remember the Debates which took place in this House between the two wars, when hon. Members pleaded for help for agriculture. In those days, wages were miserably low, prices completely inadequate, cultivation of the land was going downhill, and farmers were fighting yearly against insolvency. The fertility of the land was declining and the land was falling down to grass and going out of cultivation. At that time this House felt itself unable to give to the industry the wherewithal to put itself on its feet. I do not believe there was any party in the State at that time which gave much solid help to the industry.
The position is very different to-day. I know that it is impossible to generalise about agriculture, as region differs from region and county from county—and indeed one farm differs from another in the same county. However, it would be fair to say that in Cambridgeshire, and perhaps in other counties to-day, wages have improved enormously, prices are good, profits are being made, the land is, I believe, increasing in fertility, in spite of what hon. Members have said in this Debate, and farming has improved. No Government in our history has done anything like what the present. Government have done for agriculture and, as far as that goes, probably no Minister of Agriculture has been so highly praised by the industry itself as the present Minister, who has been lauded to the skies by farmers who are now attacking him and complaining about him.
What is all this pother about? There is no doubt that the farming industry did interpret the Government's assurance in a different way from that which the Government placed upon their pledge. The Minister of Agriculture himself knew that the industry were putting a different interpretation upon it because, as he has told us, he felt bound to go in 1941 and explain that the Government's interpretation was not what the farmers thought it meant. The Government have a perfect right to put their own interpretation upon their own assurances, but it was a thousand pities that at that time the Minister did not explain the Government's interpretation publicly, not only to farmers but to the country, to the workers and, what is more, to the merchants and to the bankers. Those people, as well as the farmers, have to-day had their confidence shaken.
They are very important people so far as the farming industry or any industry is concerned. That is now settled, because the Minister has himself admitted that he thought he did make a mistake, and he implied that he wished he had made it public at that time. That is a perfectly straightforward thing to have said and I think it will be appreciated. That he is prepared to admit a mistake he made will help to restore confidence to the farming community.
Three things have happened to the farmers, all at the same time. Their confidence has been shaken, their costs have been increased, and in many instances the prices they get for their produce have been reduced. There has been a big drop in the prices to the farmers—of barley, for example. All these three things have happened at the same time and it has been a bit of a shock to the farmer. Even so a great number of farmers would admit that they can afford all these things. But why? Because for the last two years they have had extraordinarily good seasons. I trust that the Minister will bear in mind that one of the great reasons why prices are adequate to-day and that profits have been made is these exceptional seasons in which yields have been higher than for years in the Eastern Counties. What the farmer is anxious about is this: he says it is all right at the moment, but what about bad harvests? Will the Government be prepared to review prices if we get two or three thumping bad harvests in succession?
Of course, I agree. I carefully said that it was impossible to generalise. I hesitate to go outside my constituency. I fully agree with what the hon. and gallant Member says.
Continuing my remarks, I say that is why the farmer is prospering to-day and does not want to kick up too much of a "song and dance" on this particular occasion. The position I have indicated is what he is anxious about. If the Government can give some sort of assurance on those lines it will do a great deal to give the farmer back his confidence, which has been shaken. I think that the farming community can be encouraged by the fact that Members of all parties to-day have shown their earnest intention to maintain agriculture in prosperity in the future. But for goodness sake let us get rid of this squabbling. There is a great deal of planning to be done in the future. The Minister has to get into friendly and helpful consultation with the industry about plans for after the war. These cannot proceed in the spirit of wrangling there is to-day. For myself, I have confidence. I have great confidence in this House. In my part of the world, as I say, things are pretty good. However that may be, let us get that confidence, because agriculture is not only a great industry; it is more than that. Agriculture is a way of life which gives strength and vigour, health and stability to the whole of our country. I am quite sure it will always command the earnest and sympathetic attention of this House.
I rise to take part in this Debate feeling that it is the result of a sorry and unnecessary dispute brought about by the lack of tact of the Government in the interpretations placed upon this 1940 pledge by the N.F.U. on the one hand, and by the Government on the other. I feel sure that if the Government had approached the problem of this difference of interpretation a few weeks
ago on the same basis as the Minister has brought forward his case to-day this dispute would not have taken place, and we would not be debating this question today. In making my observations I shall have to repeat some of the arguments phrased by other hon. Members. There is a difference of opinion on the interpretation of the pledge, and I will read the pledge once more to the House. It reads:
Prices will be subject to adjustment to the extent of any substantial changes in cost of production."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 26th November, 1940; col. 92, Vol. 367.]
The farmers I have consulted, including many of the leaders of the N.F.U., have always understood that the changes could be downwards as well as upwards. Speaking now on behalf of the majority of small farmers of this country, there has not yet been any substantial change in the lowering of costs of production which would warrant prices being changed downwards.
The Minister to-day suggested that there might be personal attacks against himself which he did not propose to answer. I think it only right to let him know the impression I have gathered in going round my constituency, which is a very large agricultural one of some 640 square miles. Generally speaking the farmers give him a good name. They have thought he was fair minded and they thought he was handling his job quite well. But since November there is a great doubt in their minds as to the possibility in future of either the Minister or the Government following the 1940 pledge according to the interpretation which the farmers are placing on it. I think it might be worth while at this point to mention another fact which the Minister brought out to-day. That was the deputations which saw him in the spring of 1942. He said to-day that the Government had made eminently clear to the N.F.U. in the spring of 1942 their interpretation of the pledge.
This is quite true, but at that conference the N.F.U. did not accept the Government's interpretation, and after a conference with the then Lord President of the Council, now Chancellor of the Exchequer, and the late Chancellor of the Exchequer, another meeting was called between the Minister of Agriculture and the Secretary of State for Scotland and the N.F.U. The whole situation was discussed and a settlement was reached and accepted by the N.F.U. as meaning that the pledge had again been honoured both in the letter and in the spirit. But after November, 1943, after the various speeches and broadcasts that were made, the farmers feel that the Government is no longer going to honour the 1940 pledge in the same manner as it did in 1942, and, in fact, in 1941 and in 1940, when these various disputes have come along. Subsequent to November, 1943, requests have again been made by the N.F.U. to the Minister of Agriculture for a similar procedure to take place as took place in the spring of 1942, in other words, for a full and frank discussion on the price-wages question at which the matter troubling the farmers would be thoroughly aired and thoroughly discussed. This, for some reason best known to the Government, has been persistently refused. The N.F.U., as the House knows, then appealed by telegram to the Prime Minister to intervene hoping he would instruct the Minister of Agriculture to reopen discussions with the N.F.U. Unfortunately the Prime Minister was not then able to issue these happy instructions and I think that this is greatly to be regretted.
On the question of wages, it is only right to point out that I have had many discussions with farmers, not only in my own constituency but in other constituencies, and they are all without exception more than anxious that the farm worker should have a fair and adequate wage. On this point I even go further. They, the farmers, are asking that the skilled farm worker shall be given a wage comparable with that of the skilled factory worker. There is nothing wrong with this. They are both fully skilled men, and it is worth while to point out that until the Essential Work Order came in we would in the case of my own factories, for instance, be getting very highly skilled farm workers coming to our factories applying for jobs as ordinary labourers at 1s. 5d. an hour. We would make them unskilled labour the moment they entered our gates, which they chose to be rather than remain on the land as skilled farm workers at lower wages.
The farmer, in asking that the farm wages should remain on a comparable basis, also asks what the industrialist asks, that the farmer shall be given a price for his foodstuffs based on the cost of labour, the cost of material and the cost of overheads, plus a fair and reasonable percentage of profit for his capital investment. There is nothing wrong or sinful about this request. It is a perfectly reasonable and proper request to make.
I have promised to be brief, but before sitting down I should like to make one or two requests to the Government: (1) Will the Government agree to allow the N.F.U. to meet the Lord President of the Council, the Chancellor and the Minister of Agriculture, as they did two years ago, and thoroughly discuss all these problems and troublesome matters and try to reach agreement on them? That is not very difficult or hard and I am sure it would satisfy to a great extent the farmers who are in dispute with the Government at the present time. (2) Will the Government promise that at a very early date they will bring forward a post-war agricultural policy that can be discussed in this House? (3) In relation to (2), will the Government exercise their very great powers of persuasion, and do their utmost to get a joint committee, with equal representation of the landowners, the National Farmers' Union and the National Union of Agricultural Workers, to discuss all matters connected with the agricultural community, so that the policy of this country can be discussed with them, to the benefit of all those who earn their living by or from the soil? I am sure that if the Government will agree, certainly, to (1) and (2), the present shaken confidence of the farmers will be speedily restored, and the prestige of the Minister of Agriculture restored also, and that we shall have no more of these unhappy issues. Further, if the Minister could give these assurances forthwith, I am sure there would be not much reason for prolonging this Debate, because it would satisfy Members of this House, and certainly it would satisfy the farmers.
I feel very unhappy about this Debate, like, I think, every other Member of this House, not only those who represent agricultural constituencies. For some time all those engaged in agriculture have admired the dash, drive and courage of my right hon. Friend the Minister. How deep that admiration has gone is shown by the fact that most of us have found over the last few days that, in spite of this extraordinarily unhappy dispute, the farmers of the country as a whole have not been out for the Minister's head on a charger. They do not want to chase him out of office at all. But I must say, quite bluntly, that I do not feel that the Minister's approach to this problem to-day has been along lines which are going to make it easier to get on with curing these problems. I hope I am wrong, but that is the feeling I have got. I do not see any use in our continuing to thresh out the question of what was in a pledge and what was not, of what somebody understood by the pledge and what somebody did not understand by it at the time. What I want, and what the farmers want, is to find out what is in the Government's mind about farming in the future. It is useless for us to wrangle backwards and forwards over the detailed interpretation of a pledge. That pledge has been thrown completely into disrepute by certain things which have happened. I am not going to make things more difficult by blaming one side or the other. There is no purpose in that. Once this thing has had mud thrown upon it, are we going to waste our time in serving it up to the general public and the farmers again? Something has been soiled. Finish with it, and produce something strong and clean to take its place.
What the farmer is concerned about is not this detailed matter of bickering about prices; he wants to know that it is no longer going to be considered something abnormal and improper and unfair that the agricultural labourer should get a decent wage and have a decent house and have a decent life: he wants to know that it is not going to be considered improper, mulcting the people, if a farmer is allowed to make a decent profit on a darned hard life. He wants to know that when his son is outside, fighting the battles of the country, he can feel that the whole of this House and the Government will see that the agricultural industry of this country is not going to be allowed in future to go down. Those are the sort of general assurances that agriculture wants. How we or the Government can interpret that feeling it is very difficult to say. I believe that if we could devise some means today to test the feeling of this House as to what the future of agriculture should be, a Division would not only not be challenged but we should have the proposition carried with acclamation from all sides of the House. In that alone, the farming industry and all those associated with it can find very considerable comfort. This is the first time since I came into this House—I have been here only a short time, nine years—that an issue affecting agriculture has had that general support. That is a very important step. Out of evil, apparently good can come. But do let us stop bickering in this House about the details of prices. This honourable House is quite the worst place in the world to get down to that sort of thing: it just cannot be done.
Representing, as I do, a part of Somerset which is made up in the great majority by small farms, I cannot help feeling that in a gathering of this sort we cannot take into consideration all the effects of forced, artificial, synthetic, war-time agriculture when we are talking about prices. It is perfectly true that it is impossible to generalise as between the small farmer of under 100 acres in Somerset, the small pre-war specialised milk-producing farm, which has never seen a plough, and a farm of similar acreage in another part of the country. The effects of enforced war-time production on those farms are entirely different. It is an amazing thing that in a county like Somerset, where we specialise in milk production, the production of milk has been increased in spite of the fact that that county used to import within its borders 150,000 tons of feeding stuffs from outside and does not get anything like that now. It shows something of the heavy nature of the work that the farmer has been engaged on in maintaining and increasing milk production. It also shows something of the enormous problem of defining the economic position of the producer to-day as compared with before the war. Those are the sort of problems that we cannot possibly thrash out in this House.
Nor do I believe that we shall ever be able to avoid quarrels and misunderstandings as between the industry and the Ministry if we continue to deal with these price problems through the present forms of extraordinary machinery. We have had different sorts of bodies set up to deal with far more complicated problems, and I do not think we have learned quite enough from the structure of those bodies. We could have made use of something like these previous advisory committees and commissions and so on. Why is it impossible for us to devise a price-fixing or price-finding or cost-finding advisory committee, which would be charged with the responsibility of collecting all the evidence, weighted as it is by all the different defects of soil, average climate, changes from normal forms of production, increased labour costs, and so on? That body, call it what you will, should collect all the necessary evidence, the so-called official figures, the Union's figures, the industry's figures, the figures of all the responsible people who have collected them, and should then advise the Government, advise the Ministry if you like, as to what, in their view, fair prices should be. I do not think there is anything improper in that suggestion. We have had rather a similar body working on a rather similar job in our old friend the Import Duties Advisory Committee. I hope that the Government will turn over something of that sort in their mind, because without some intermediate body—I am sorry I have to use that expression—of that sort I am afraid we shall be faced, not merely during the war but during the whole period after the war, when we shall have to continue very largely with systems of control, with a series of quarrels, disputes, misunderstandings which are quite unnecessary and which may do a vast amount of harm to the whole prestige of one of the finest industries in this country.
The farmer appreciates more to-day than ever before how important it is that through these difficulties he should carry the general body of electors in this country in support of him and of his industry. He realises that the reason he was let down after the last war was that the people of this country did not understand his position, and because—let us be frank about it—he had made himself rather unpopular with the general public during the last war. He realises that if he gets unpopular now he is going to be in for a thin time. But he knows, and we know, that he is not unpopular with the general public to-day, that he is better understood than ever before, as I believe, and more highly appreciated. We have some grand ambassadors from the agricultural industry at present working in that industry. Some of the hardest work that has ever been done on the land has been done in the last few years by the land girls. They have done work of inestimable value on the farms. Some people say that they are uneconomic—I do not believe it—but they are wonderful ambassadors to go back to the cities and tell them what work on the land means. I would like some Member of the Front Bench to get up in the near future and announce that an opportunity will be given to this House to record not only its appreciation of what the agricultural industry has done to help this country to bring Germany to defeat, but also its appreciation of the absolute necessity of the sound post-war development of the agricultural industry and the maintenance at a higher level of the great agricultural industry of this land. The whole House feels that to-day: let us-make it quite clear to the farmer that that is our intention.
I am afraid I cannot claim to be a farmer. I have at present under cultivation rather less than one-eighth of an acre. I, therefore, do not venture to put forward definite opinions on the various matters that are in dispute to-day. I cannot tell from my own experience whether the Government have sufficiently taken into account the expenditure undertaken by farmers in order to produce crops that would be uneconomic when we get back to peace conditions, or whether they have sufficiently taken into account the tremendous work that should be done on farm buildings and all sorts of works of that kind which cannot be undertaken now because of shortage of labour. I do not know whether they have taken sufficiently into account the wealth that has been taken out of the soil in the form of fertility or the amount of unremunerated labour done by members of the farmer's family. Various matters of that kind spring to the attention of anybody who is interested in agriculture. I have not the personal experience which would justify me in giving an opinion, but I know, especially among the smaller farmers of this country, that there is a very deep and genuine feeling that they have been let down. I know also that if the Minister has been rude to them, he has on various occasions been rude on their behalf to other people. It would be a very great pity—and I am only repeating the opinion of everybody in this House—if these differences of opinion were not now to be relegated into the background and to be forgotten. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Orr-Ewing) that one of the most encouraging features of the Debate has been that speakers in every part of the House have expressed then deep regret that these differences should have ever arisen and their determination that the long-term interest of agriculture should not suffer in consequence.
The point I want to make—and I do not think it has been brought out in the Debate as much as it should be—is that it still remains the fact that the farm worker is one of the most highly skilled workers in this country and one of the most poorly paid. I have no doubt that the Chancellor of the Exchequer, when winding up the Debate, will rightly remind us of the dangers of inflation. One of the things upon which the Government can most congratulate themselves is the way they have, on the whole, kept prices stable in this country. It is a very remarkable achievement. Clearly, when the Government consider whether a rise in prices in this or in that industry is justified, it must always be haunted by the possibility of the spiral of inflation, but I would point out that almost as important is the fact—brought out by the right hon. Gentleman himself in his opening speech—that not only immediately after the war, but for a considerable number of years, as far ahead as one can see in politics, the need will remain for a much higher production of food after the war than we had before it. In view of the fact—and it is a fact—that the farm labourer is still so poorly paid, it is a matter of first rate importance for this House and this Government to make sure that conditions in agriculture are such that men and women in the Forces will be prepared to face up to a farming life. Everybody knows that rural housing conditions are appalling, but only this morning I had a letter from a remote village in Somerset, pointing out that a couple of rural cottages there had been advertised for three consecutive weeks for tenants and there had been only two applications, not because people do not want better housing but because they do not want to live in some of these very remote villages in the uncertain conditions of agriculture.
We shall have to maintain a very high level of food production after the war for many years. Therefore, a great deal of the very genuine anxiety on the part of the agricultural industry is not really necessary. When agriculturalists come to reflect about it, they will realise that their prospects are much better than they were after the last war. But I still do not think—especially for the small farmer—that the present level of prices will convince the men now in the Forces that they can make a decent career on the land.
The Minister has not been sufficiently commended for one or two concessions that he made in his speech. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Rye (Sir G. Courthope) pointed out, he did see the sprouting of the olive branch. I think the new price of milk will help, and still more important is the fact that the Minister has now extended the period of guaranteed prices to cover the harvest of 1947. But I would make a last appeal to the Government to remember that somehow after the war we have very largely to increase the number of men who will go to work on the farms, we have to get them away from the factories and put them back on to the farms. Therefore, I very much hope that the Chancellor of the Exchequer, when he winds up the Debate, will be able to give a little more encouragement about the long-term policy which will largely give confidence to agriculture. I realise that you cannot give any details of a long-term policy when you do not know anything about what the international conditions will be after the war, but we are entitled to something a little more specific. If he can give us some more definite recognition of the vital importance to us in all parts of the country of a really prosperous agriculture, we shall forget shortly about this very unfortunate quarrel.
When the Minister was making his speech and telling us about the profits of the farmer he gave me the impression—and quite a shock—that a farmer, who before the war made a profit of £250, was making now £500. That is not such a very serious amount of money after he has paid his Income Tax. I do not suppose it meant that he had made more than £300, and, compared with the position before the war, when there was a much lower rate of Income Tax, there was probably not a very great increase in the amount of money which he received. I cannot understand exactly the point of laying so much stress on the increased receipts of the farmer. It must surely have been foreseen when the prices were fixed. We were told that prices were fixed so that the man on marginal land could just make a living, and, therefore, these prices gave more than enough to a man on such land and considerably more than enough to a man on fertile alluvial soil. We were also told that, with Income Tax and Excess Profits Duty, half the surplus would be returned to the Treasury. Is it really suggested that the Income Tax people have not been doing their duty in collecting the taxes? The experience of all of us is that they have followed us with even greater enthusiasm than before the war. Surely, Income Tax at 10s. in the £ and Excess Profits Duty must take back practically all the surplus money made by the farming industry to-day.
It is made increasingly difficult in my part of the world by the reduction in the price of the quarter of barley. In my county barley is the premier cereal, and to cut down the price of it by 10s. a quarter is very serious indeed. It may have been said that, under the old price fixation and the old wage of £3, it is possible for a marginal land farmer to exist, but I am certain, with the increasing wage and the reduction in the price of barley, it will put many of them out of business altogether. The Minister had obviously considered this sort of question when he was dealing with the increase in the price of milk. It is obviously just as necessary for marginal farmers to get a profit in other products besides milk. Possibly it might be tackled on very much the same lines. It might be got over by giving a higher price for the first three or four quarters of cereal and then a lower price for anything above that quantity. That would enable the man on the marginal land with very small fields still to make a profit, which under the existing system he will be unable to do.
We have had some comparison between the farmers and coal miners. It was said by an hon. Member that the miners had arranged matters very much better than the farmers because the miners were to receive a considerable increase in wages, and the price of coal and coke had been raised by 3s. a ton. If one carries the comparison between the two a little further, one can see that the farming side has a far better record than the mining side. We have both lost a good many men called-up and both of us have had to work under conditions in which we have had to make use of old people, but in the farming industry there has not been a single wages dispute, and the increase in output is so tremendous that it has caused admiration all over the world. I do not think that the same thing can be said in the case of the mines. It is, therefore, all the more necessary that the Government should make their peace with the agricultural industry as soon as possible and get away from this unpleasant atmosphere of want of confidence and suspicion.
I can say, like so many other hon. Members, that although in Norfolk we are more badly hit than any other county by the reduction in the price of barley, that fact has not influenced our farmers half as much as their feeling that they have been betrayed. They cannot get over that. They have the highest respect and confidence in the Minister. They thought he had done a really good job and they were really shocked and horrified at the idea of his letting them down. Though they are prepared to forget about the price reduction in barley, I hope that the Minister will see to it that in the course of conferences he will be able to restore to them and to the industry generally that feeling of confidence which is so absolutely essential. If any arrangement is come to, I hope that the terms of it will be in such simple language—Basic English or something or other—that it cannot possibly be misunderstood by anybody.
Like other speakers in the Debate I hope that this unfortunate misunderstanding will be cleared up at the first opportunity. I am bound to say I feel that it is a symptom of something which lies deep in the minds of the farming community. I have been badly impressed by many of the things said by organised farming in the last few weeks. I think they have done their case harm. Nevertheless, I think it comes from a deep seated unrest which exists not only in the fanning community but in the whole country. We saw an example of it before Christmas in connection with the Mosley affair. It is a symptom, I think, of weariness as the result of four years' overstrain and more particularly of anxiety for the future. It exists among the organised working classes in the mines and factories and also amongst the working farming community. It is they on whom we have to rely. They are helping us to win the war and they expect to be fairly treated when the war is over. I rather think that it was because the Minister did not quite realise that that this dispute arose. Possibly he did not adopt the tone he might have adopted in dealing with the situation.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg (Mr. Quibell) truly said, if the speech the Minister made here to-day or something like it had been made in the country some weeks ago the present position would not have arisen. Certainly his speech has cleared the air in regard to this unfortunate dispute over the 1940 pledge. No doubt the misunderstanding was possible because of the wording of the pledge as it was given in that year. If we had known that this was going to happen I think probably some qualifying sentence might have been inserted which, if it had not avoided misunderstanding, might have caused the misunderstanding to break out earlier so that we should have got it over by this time. Quite obviously the right hon. Gentleman's interpretation to-day is the right one, namely that he has to consider all factors which go to build up cost of production and to take into account downward trends as well as upward trends. I think, however, that farmers can also say that without a qualifying clause the pledge could be interpreted as meaning that every wage increase shall automatically pass on to prices.
It is, however, unwise in my opinion for farmers to insist on such a thing now. It opens the door to inflation at once, and I am sure it would not be accepted by public opinion or in this House. Moreover, it would open the way to putting the agricultural industry on the dole and might be a deterrent to improved methods of production. Farmers have built up a fund of goodwill by what they have achieved in the last few years and it would be disastrous if they lost that goodwill by this dispute. Farm prices must be considered in the light of all factors which enter into cost of production. There are several of those factors. The cost of feeding stuffs has gone down. The costs of implement repairs and renewals have not gone down but are up. Overhead costs generally, I think everyone who keeps farming accounts on a costing basis will say, have not gone down, but they have not gone up much. There is this also to be considered, that if general output goes up and overhead costs remain much the same, or do not rise in the same degree as output, the producer is naturally better off. That is what has happened.
The output of all well run farms has gone up. All these factors must be considered if we are to arrive at an accurate view of the position. It is open to farmers to argue that there has been no downward movement in costs, but there is not a wealth of statistical evidence to support that claim. The National Farmers' Union to which I belong have done magnificent work in helping to organise farming opinion, and I hope the Union will devote their energies increasingly towards supplying those costing accounts which the Minister has got from other sources but which I should like to see corroborated direct from the industry. About milk, there is a lot of useful material on which the Ministry's case is partly built. Dairy farmers are working under enormous difficulties because of shortage of labour and troubles in various directions. They are doing arduous work over long hours every day in the week throughout the year. I think dairy farmers have a right to expect the nation to compensate them well for this very tedious work at a time when milk is such an extremely important factor in maintaining the health of the nation.
In regard to other farm produce, corn, sugar beet, potatoes and livestock other than dairy cattle, I do not think there is evidence to show any need for such special consideration as should be given in the case of milk: The increased output of these products has gone some way towards compensating for any increased costs that have to be met by the farmer. The increased use of machinery, the introduction of better machinery and the increased use of artificial manures have increased output. I admit that in certain parts of England, in the extreme West, the North West, in Scotland and in North Wales, where there is excessive rainfall, the position is much more difficult, and I hope it will be possible to see that War Agricultural Executive Committees do not insist in these particular places, where there is a very high rainfall, on the growing of corn. In those areas they should concentrate on the re-seeding programme and the making of silage. You can support a very large head of stock there without growing corn. I hope there will not be such a procrustean bed as there seems to have been in some places, and that we shall try to adopt methods enabling farmers in these rainy areas to be self-supporting in a different way from the farmers in the Home Counties and East Anglia.
As I said at the beginning, I think it is unfortunate that this misunderstanding has arisen, and that it is really a symptom of disquiet rather than a quarrel on a specific point. I think the farmers are barking up the wrong tree when they attack the Minister for not raising prices, but I think the real trouble is that instinctively they fear something else. They fear a repetition of what happened after the last war. I think they are wrong, but that in any case they are not doing themselves any good by attacking the Minister in this way. I am reminded of the negro chapel in one of the Southern States of America where there was put up a notice reading: "Please don't shoot at the organist; he is doing his best." I believe the Minister is doing his best, but he must convince the farmers and the country that we are going to get in as short a time as possible a post-war agricultural policy which will make it possible for an efficient agriculture to be conducted in this country after the war. Otherwise, there are bound to be outbreaks of this nature and attacks made upon him, unjustifiable though they may be. Farmers have a fear that the big international trading and banking interests here and in the United States are working for de-control of all foreign trade. They see in the United States a Secretary of State who is traditionallly of that type of mind, and they fear that there are elements in this country working in that direction, so that we shall get de-control of prices with a renewal of the chaotic conditions which existed between the two wars. That is what thinking farmers are afraid of. But the immediate quarrel, I think, is ill-advised. The farmers are batting on a sticky wicket, and I wish that they would declare their innings closed and put the right hon. Gentleman in to bat and see if he can secure a few runs in the post-war agricultural policy match.
As one who represents an agricultural constituency and has always been interested in the countryside and agriculture I should like briefly to make one or two points. If they have a note of criticism in them I put them forward with regret, because I know full well the magnificent work which the Minister of Agriculture has done in his leadership of the farming community and in improving the food supply of this country. Without his guardianship the position would have been very different. Therefore, it is all the more unfortunate that this difference of opinion should have grown up. It may be, however, that this difference of opinion over the interpretation of a pledge may prove in the long run to have done the farming community a good service. Without that, we might just as well not have had this Debate to-day on such a basic thing as agriculture, which affects the whole nation and everyone in the countryside. As I see it, the interpretation of the pledge, which is the basic argument of to-day, is really a side issue. It is obvious to all who have listened to this Debate that it could be construed in two ways. But the point, as I see it, is that the farmers as a whole, and all those in the country districts who very often do not go to meetings and attend the farmers' union gatherings, have had their confidence really badly shaken, because they interpreted it in the way they did. From the food production point of view of the country at the present time, it is very unfortunate. I hope, therefore, that the Government, and particularly the Minister, will do all that is absolutely possible to restore that confidence. My right hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Rye (Sir G. Courthope) acknowledged the olive branch that was offered in the Minister's speech, and when I look a little further along the front bench, I hope that that olive branch will look bigger still, and will prosper into a really growing tree. I hope the Minister will reconsider any hard cases there may be and that the result will be a really good policy of stable agriculture for the countryside.
Lord Woolton, in another place, has several times referred to the necessity of a prosperous countryside, and listening to all the hon. Members speaking in this House to-day there is no doubt that there is more universal agreement that we must have a prosperous countryside, with proper wages comparable to the wages paid in other industries, and with it a prosperous agriculture, than there has been for many years. There have been, I think, nine Reports on agriculture, and probably smaller ones as well, but in the main they all agree very much in principle. The farming community sees the Government so rightly getting on with various aspects of social construction, the Education Bill and other things, and what it wonders is why they are so exceedingly slow in producing some form of White Paper, or some suggestion in a concrete form, for the future of agriculture. I do hope that all concerned in the Government will realise that this is a very real need, and one which the whole countryside, not only the farmers but those in small towns and country villages, do look upon as essential to the post-war years.
To talk of more material facts, I do not wish to suggest any line of post-war agricultural policy at the present time, but I feel that in some districts, not particularly my own constituency, there may well be a time when we shall have to reconsider the ploughing out policy. As one who was an original believer in it and had great admiration for it and who was associated with the State plan for farming by Professor Sir George Stapledon, I feel I can criticise on these lines. He has had this policy taken up by the Ministry and it has done very remarkable work, but it has always been the case in this country that we either do not do a thing at all or we perhaps overdo it, and I think that in some parts of England and further north in Scotland the time may come when it will be necessary for us to ease a little on the ploughing policy, so that we may produce more stock, of which there is definitely a shortage in this country at the present time.
I hope the Minister will bear in mind that we may well provide more corn in various forms if he does ease up on the ploughing policy, and that he will also have regard to the necessity for a really good national campaign against rats. Nobody has mentioned rats in this Debate, and yet there is no doubt that rats, although there are a number of campaigns against them in different districts, are destroying an enormous amount of food at the present time. I believe that if their numbers were really cut down, we should in time save a great deal of the imported corn required by this country and for the feeding of Europe when the time comes.
I do not want to take up the time of the House much longer, but I would ask the Government to remember that the real need of the countryside at the present time is a stable future and a stable policy for agriculture. It is that, and that more than anything else, which has brought about this unfortunate disagreement in this Debate to-day. I want to say only one other word. Lord Woolton, in another place, said that some of the healthiest and happiest people come from the countryside. They cannot come from the countryside unless there is a healthy countryside with a stable industry in it, and I hope we shall live to see, after this war, a long-term policy and many other Members of this House, as well as the Minister and myself, with healthy complexions.
I have waited so long to get into this Debate that I am practically exhausted before I start. I want to say just a word or two about the pledge which has been the subject of so much discussion to-day, and then I want to deal with what I think are more important issues than the pledge itself I must say that I came down to the House very prejudiced against the Government. Indeed, with me, that is a normal condition, but I must say that, on the published statements—the statements made by the farmers' union and replies by the Minister—the Minister had not answered the case which had been made. I must also say, with equal candour and bluntness, that, whether he failed to answer that case outside or not, he has certainly answered it here to-day. If the only thing at issue in this Debate was the proper interpretation of a given form of words, if the only issue was whether the prices approved by the Minister corresponded with and fulfilled that form of words, then, I am bound to say, the Minister has made out an overwhelming case, and it is time somebody said so in this House.
But I want to say this, too, that, in my opinion, the pledge, and the question of its fulfilment, is the least important element in the Debate here to-day. I was recently in the United States, and I had a talk there with a very great gentleman, Mr. William Davis, the Chairman of the War Labour Relations Board in the United States. And we discussed labour problems there, and the various disputes which his Board had to deal with. He used a phrase which every Member on this side of the House will recognise to be true as soon as he hears it. He said that in 90 per cent. of the disputes that his Labour Board had dealt with, the real cause of the dispute was different from the ostensible cause. In other words, behind the thing that brought matters to a head—the ostensible cause of the trouble—there was a profounder, deeper, more important and predisposing cause which, unless you brought it to the surface and dispersed it, the trouble could not satisfactorily be dealt with at all. It is my submission that what farmers of this country are troubling about is much less a question of the money they are going to get this year or next year. What they are worrying about is the whole future of agriculture.
I must say that though I thought the Minister's speech was statistically over-whelming on the subject of the pledge, I do not—and I say this with equal force—think that he has made any reasonable approach to-day to the problem which is worrying the countryside—the problem of establishing agriculture permanently in its proper place as part of the total economy of the people of these islands. Before he spoke to-day the position was that——
Well, that may be or may not be. The main object is post-war policy. It is true he went further than last time. When he made a speech in 1940 he guaranteed fixed prices for the period of war, and one year after. That was the limit of the pledge. But he has now substantially extended the pledge to the harvest of 1947. Beyond that all is dark. Now I want to say quite emphatically that there can be no peace in the countryside, no assurance of a prosperous agriculture, until all parties in this House face up to creating the conditions necessary for it.
The truth is that agriculture has been the political plaything of British politics all my life. My mind goes back to the General Election of 1906, when the walls were decorated with posters showing two loaves—a very large loaf and a very small one. The large loaf was what we were going to get if the Liberal party got in, and the small loaf was the loaf we were going to get if the Tory party got in. But what never occurred to anybody to ask was "Suppose that as the result of neglecting agriculture as a great basic industry you find yourselves confronted with a situation where you get no loaf at all!" Believe me, in the last war, and in this, we got very near to that point. The trouble about agriculture is that nobody has been big enough in the parties in this House to lift this issue above the party level. Both the great parties have huckstered and bargained for the votes of the people, and because of that no party has pledged itself to an adequate policy for agriculture. Lord Beaverbrook tried year after year to commit the Tory party to a reasonable policy on agriculture, and failed because they were afraid of the industrialised urban areas. And the party on this side of the House has never done justice to agriculture, because it, too, has been mainly concerned with the urbanised proletarian voter. Between the two parties, until I came here, agriculture has been allowed to stew in its own juice. Agriculture will not go on any longer in that way. There is no honesty in anything we say about agriculture.
Included in the pronoun "we" was included, incredible as it may appear, my friend Davie Kirkwood. [HON. MEMBERS: "Order".] I mean my hon. Friend the Member for Dumbarton Burghs (Mr. Kirkwood). What are the conditions necessary for giving to agriculture its proper and permanent place in our economy? They are, first of all, a guaranteed market. Do not make any mistake about it, a guaranteed market is quite incompatible with licence for the export and import trade. Unless we recognise that honestly we are misjudging the whole issue. The condition of a guaranteed market is that some Government must come along and say, "We intend that here at home we will produce 60, 70 or 80, or even 100 per cent. of our needs in food, and as the first condition of that we will limit the import of our food from abroad to the balance between what we can produce and what we must eat." There must be some control of imports as an inescapable corollary to the guaranteed market. Unless we are prepared to face that we are utterly dishonest in talking about it. I do not think that this Cabinet can give us this guaranteed market.
There was a time in Britain when the Conservative party represented the land. That was 100 years ago. To-day they represent the land no longer. The balance has been shifted, and now the Tory party is the centre of influence of big business, high finance, insurance interests, and shipping interests. Agriculture, in the list of Tory loyalties, is today about number five or six on the list. That is why the Minister has not been allowed to talk about a post-war programme for agriculture. That is the truth. There is a division within the Cabinet, which reflects the variety of different interests, and because it is not desired that that should become public the Minister is precluded—"forbidden" is the word he used, I think—from discussing post-war agriculture in this House.
A guaranteed price is also incompatible with propaganda for "cheap food regardless of consequences." That applies to hon. Members on both sides of this House. If the question of cheap food becomes an issue at a General Election again, to the dereliction of agriculture, then both parties deserve to suffer as a result. The next condition is a square deal for the farm labourer. He gets now a guaranteed minimum wage of £3 5s. per week, although I know that in many cases he draws more because it is only the old and infirm that you can get for that price nowadays. But supposing he gets £3 15s. 0d. as an average, does anybody regard that as an adequate wage for what is the most skilled craft in England? There is no comparison between the skill required by an agricultural labourer, and that required by a machine-minder on a conveyor belt. Believe me, we have reduced half the skilled occupations of Britain to-day to terms of machine-minding. Agriculture is the one industry that you can never fully mechanise. Nothing will stop the drift from the countryside to the towns except giving the farm worker conditions which are at least as good as those men can get in the towns.
My next condition is that you must house the farm worker as well as he can be housed in the town. I want to give to the House a case which came to my notice the other day, given to me by a farmer to whom a labourer applied for a job. The farmer was interested to know why he wanted to leave his old job, and the answer was this: it was not that he was dissatisfied with his wage. It was that in his cottage, one room downstairs and two up, there were living eight children, besides himself and his wife. There was no water within 100 yards of the cottage, and no electric light. This was a skilled ploughman, a man with certificates for ploughing, a first-class worker. He wished to leave his job because he could not endure such conditions any longer. I say that he ought not to have been asked to endure them, and that he should not be asked to endure them now. But even more important than the farm worker is the farm worker's wife, who is no longer content to put up with conditions such as I have outlined. She needs water and electricity and drainage. I went to Norfolk the other day to buy a farm. I calculated that, with my life savings, and a loan of £3,900 from the bank, I could buy a farm for £4,000. In fact, I went to look at four farms in that county. There was no electric light and running water in any one of the farmer's houses, to say nothing of the labourers' houses. Farmers were having to use petrol cans and milk churns to carry water from wells 100 yards away from their properties.
That is the experience of many villages in my division, and I am sure the experience of many other Members. What a reflection it is on us that in the twentieth century this House has never insisted upon water and electric light and drainage—the elementary necessities of life—being made into essential public services, and laid on from one end of the land to the other.
Soon after getting married I went to live in Lewisham, and took a house less than 70 yards from the main Lewisham High Road, where there were electric trams and light mains. I wanted electric light in my house, so I approached the local company, who told me that, if I could get 50 neighbours in my street to agree to pay £50 each, they would lay the cable along the street and that it would cost only another £40 to lay the cable to the house. I was invited to become an unpaid commercial traveller for capitalism. Only if I could get these 50 neighbours to come in at £50 each, could I have electric light brought to me, 75 yards from the main road. Last week I came across the case of a farmer, within a few hundred yards of an electric grid, who was told that it would cost him a sum running into four figures to lay electricity on to his house from the grid. That is not just wrong; it is just plumb crazy. As part of the Government's agricultural policy there must be sweeping proposals for making water, electricity and sewerage available from one end of this tiny island to the other. We are miles behind other countries in such things.
Now, as regards prices. Does anybody believe that four years of guaranteed prices, even assuming they are just—and on that, as I have said, I think the Minister has made out his case—have undone the regnant evil of the last half century in agriculture? I was talking to my bank manager the other day, who occasionally approaches me on a delicate subject. Recently I have had to be very severe with him. I told him that if there were any more complaints, he would not be allowed to look after my overdraft in the future. He told me that from 1920 to 1937 there was hardly a small farmer who was not at some time either in the hands of the bank or the auctioneer. While it is true that four years of guaranteed prices have done something to wipe out accumulated debt, it will require much more than four years to put hedges, fencing, ditches and farm buildings into good condition. When we have had 10 or 15 years of prices that allow a reasonable margin it will be time enough to assume that we can start with a clean sheet.
I take the view that for three reasons the Government ought urgently to face up to the problem of post-war agriculture. The first reason is a military one: twice in my lifetime this country, by neglect of its agriculture, has come within an ace of losing the wars in which it has been engaged. Twice is too much. From the point of view of military security against whatever contingencies the future holds we ought to ensure that this country is never again in danger of being starved out. The second reason is the interests of a proper balance between agriculture and industry. When I was in Russia in 1927, I found they were 10 per cent. industrial and 90 per cent. agricultural. That is an example of dis-balance, one which they have corrected. We are subjected to an equally serious inverse dis-balance. Industry has been over-developed and agriculture has remained under-developed, with the result that we have a crazily lop-sided dis-balanced economy in Britain. Therefore, on the grounds of social balance, I think it ought to be our prime purpose to elevate agriculture to a much more prominent position than it occupies now. The third reason is that of essential health. From the point of view of health of the community, the more men who can sit under their own fig-trees—as the old Testament puts it—or, as we now say, under their own apple trees—the better it is for the health of the community. On these three grounds, therefore, the Government must deal with this problem.
I believe that agriculture has suffered throughout my lifetime because it has been made the prey of party interests in this House. It is well known that I do not approve of the party truce—indeed, to say that I do not approve of it would be a triumph of under-statement—but I believe there are certain things that can be done in a House of this kind which it is more difficult to do in conditions of party warfare. We have, as a matter of fact, to take certain issues here out of the range of party politics and, above all, matters which touch the public security. Is it not possible, in such life as is left to this Parliament, to take out of the field of party controversy this great issue of the future of agriculture, and make this a real council of State on how we can rebuild the oldest—and in some ways the most important—industry in our country, lifting it above the sphere of party conflict, and trying to give it a square deal for the first time in my life? What agriculture does not want is to be flattered in times of war, and betrayed in times of peace. I beg that all parties in this House will take the opportunity to insist that there is a long-term, assured policy in respect of agriculture which will enable the farmer to face the future with confidence, and not with the implied and, indeed, the explicit, threat which he is facing at the present time.
I do not think anyone in agriculture will accuse the Minister of having flattered agriculture in time of war. In fact he has always had full credit for having spoken to the farmers clearly and, I believe, frankly. Like the hon. Member for Rugby (Mr. W. J. Brown) I think it only fair that all of us who speak at this stage of the Debate should record what is, I think, the unanimous view of Members who have spoken, that on the Debate to-day it is quite clear that the Government have not been guilty of any betrayal or change of policy towards agriculture. What has also been made clear by many speakers is that there has been in the past a certain obscurity as to the machinery of the price structure. In order that we should be quite clear on it, I would ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer, when he replies, to say if he agrees with the Minister of Agriculture's statement of October, 1941, when he spoke—I think it was over the wireless—and said:
If as a result of increases in wages, such specific changes took place, the question of appropriate price adjustments would certainly arise, and would be examined commodity by commodity.
That always seemed to me to be what the undertaking was, and, indeed, how the undertaking was being carried out. The Minister has told us what were his figures for milk, and he has shown us how he has adjusted those figures, commodity by commodity. I say that because, in my view, there has been a certain unfortunate obscuring of the position by the introduction of the global figures. The Minister dangled some figures before us and gave us a threat that there were other figures somewhere which he could have dangled and which people would not like. Well, the figures he has given us convey very little to me. If I took his words down right, his statement means that in the period of 1940 farmers, as a whole, with their wives, were making £2 a week profit—a rise in profit of £2 per week per farmer plus wife. That does not seem to me to be a very large profit that would have stopped other increases of prices being given in other directions. Surely, these global figures are absolutely meaningless.
I suppose that in these global figures which the Minister has put before the House, market gardening and fruit growing are included as agriculture. Agriculture is not one industry but many industries, and if we are to include all the profits of all these industries we will, no doubt, get a very false impression of how the industries are faring. If we are to have some system of comparison by global figures I hope that other Ministers of the Government will give us their figures for the different industries that are engaged in war production. Let us get away from the system of global figures and follow the Minister commodity by commodity. On those lines, when we examine the prices which the Minister gave us some weeks ago, on the question of barley and the other cereal crops, or milk, I think that the Minister has kept to his pledge and given reasonable prices to the industry.
But the discontent and disquiet in the industry are due to causes other than the mere question of prices. They are due to a fact which the Minister has accepted and which was inherent in the prices we had before—that one man had a cereal farm before the war and is going on with cereal cultivation, whilst another man had a grass farm and has had to change completely the whole of his cultivation and strain the land to get production. A man whom, before the war, said his land was not suited to potatoes has to grow potatoes. A man who, before the war, had a farm that was in the hills and was growing store cattle, is now growing wheat and oats and barley. For these reasons, you have to give greater help to the upland farmer than to the more fortunate man who is in the large cereal-growing area. The Minister has acknowledged that today, by his promise to help the milk producer.
In my view, that does not go really far enough, because the little man in the hills who ought to be producing good store cattle will not be encouraged by the Minister's promise to help the milk producer to change over from milk to calf rearing. Although he was invited to do so only six months ago by the Minister, he will be even more reluctant now than ever before. I hope the Chancellor of the Exchequer when he replies will tell us that he and the Minister, in future, will consider how to encourage the upland farmer to produce good stock that will assist the quality of livestock both now and in the future. We have, in the past, neglected the livestock position too much. I read a few days ago in the Press a declaration by the Minister of Food that we were going to be very short of meat. The Government and Parliament take the responsibility for that. No doubt, the exigencies of war made it necessary, at the time, to change over from meat to cereals to encourage farmers to cut down their flocks of sheep. But the time has come, and I believe it is long overdue, when we ought to change back and increase our flocks and herds, and not merely increase them but improve the quality. When I came back after an absence of three years and went round the markets in my constituency, what struck me most was the change in the quality of the cattle. There is an opportunity in the price structure to improve that quality. I believe that cereal prices at present are fair, but I cannot say the same about the meat prices. It is a very important factor in the confidence of agriculture in the Government. If they find that one part of their operations is uneconomic and that they are actually losing money on it, they will for that reason get rid of their flocks and herds and not try to improve their quality; they will also lose confidence in the direction by the Minister of the Government's policy. I hope there will be a full review of his policy before June, when prices are revised. Those were two of the main factors for the disagreement and discontent when the prices were announced.
The third factor is that during all this period of war the Government have given agriculture no encouragement to believe that they have the outlines of a long term policy ready, or indeed were able to discuss those outlines with the industry. It is true that after a great deal of questioning by Members they agreed in December to renew consultations with the leaders of the industry but, in my view, on this question of agricultural post-war policy, the Government have an obligation to set out to the public the lines on which they are prepared to work out their policy. They must come to a conclusion in the Cabinet whether they want agriculture, in the future, to play that part which the majority of Members believe it should play and, when they have reached that agreement in outline, they should discuss the details with the leaders of the agricultural industry. There is a wide measure of unity on this question in the country, and it is for the Government to take a lead, which up to now they have failed to take.
This Debate has come at a time when we are on the brink of great battles, and it is of vital importance that there should be unity in the nation. I sincerely hope that the Government and the leaders of agriculture after the Debate will regard this incident of discontent or disagreement as closed. The matter has been fought out. Let them now come together and, if possible, sit round a table and hammer out the details of the price structure which the Minister has promised until 1947, and also the details of post-war agricultural policy. I urge the Government to adopt that line in view of the stage of the war at which we are and in view of the great issues for the future to the whole of the country-side. I would also make this appeal to the farmers' leaders. This year we have—I am glad to see it—two young men leading the National Farmers' Union. It is a great opportunity for them to take the whole problem of agriculture out of politics and to sit down and talk to the Minister of Agriculture. [Interruption.] I do not quite know why hon. Members representing the mining industry find that difficult to understand.
Members on all sides who have spoken, even two Members on the Benches opposite, have been unanimous as to what they wanted for agriculture in the future. If that is the case, surely the leaders of the National Farmers' Union can speak with one mind for that industry. At this time in the war we have to drop these divisions and differences on the question of the future of agriculture and I appeal both to the industry and to the Government to regard the incident as closed.
Those of us who know the Minister—I should like to take the opportunity of congratulating him on the well deserved honour that he has recently received—were not surprised that he has been able to make an adequate defence, if I may use the word, of the charges of broken faith made against him. I think defence is the right word because he has been the quarry for "the slings and arrows of outrageous" farmers for a considerable time and it is only human nature that he should want to defend himself in that situation. He not only raised a defence which has convinced many Members on this question of a broken pledge. He gave us certain statistics and figures, which to many of us were new and enlightening and have thrown fresh illumination on the question. My right hon. Friend until comparatively recently was the blue-eyed boy of agriculture. He was, in a long succession of Ministers, the one who had been able to do more for that industry than any of his predecessors. Of course, he was fortunate. It was a time when, owing to the national emergency, the great importance of agriculture and the fact that it was absolutely vital to our national life were emphasised. Therefore he had a good limelight. As the Chancellor of the Exchequer would admit, it was a time when the usually tight purse-strings of the Treasury were somewhat relaxed. The tightness of those purse strings have been the great handicap of previous Ministers of Agriculture. However that may be, I, as many other speakers have said, believe that the crisis that has arisen is full of potential disaster to the country; and this Debate, if it has done nothing else, has served to throw a great deal of light on dark corners and has emphasised the desirability, which has been voiced in every quarter of the House, that we should try and forget about it and make a determined effort to concentrate on matters that are really vital rather than bandy words whether a pledge has or has not been broken.
It is clear from the Debate and the figures which have been quoted that the issue we are considering to-day is in its broadest aspect the issue of the small farmers. They form the vast majority, and they cannot by any stretch of imagination be included in the fortunate few who farm on a large scale and who have, we all admit, been making handsome profits. This industry is curious in many ways. It has a lack of homogeneity. There is a great difference between producing a pedigree bull and growing flax. I believe that the global figures are distorted by the inclusion of the growing of early narcissi and things of that sort which are part of the agricultural industry and show how varied it can be. A point which has not been brought out during this Debate is that on the large farm, where instructions have been issued for an increased area to be turned over by the plough, the farmer merely increases a certain direction of his existing activities; but if a small farmer, who has had nothing to do with arable cultivation, is told to begin to develop it, it alters the whole balance of his farming procedure. He does it at the direction of an outside body which he is compelled to follow, often against what is proved to be his better judgment. In the wider interests of the nation's needs he has had to consent to this dictation, but when on top of that he finds that his best efforts in responding to the directions have resulted in no commensurate increase in benefit to himself, he feels that he has not been very generously treated.
The small farmer has also been called upon to redouble the hard work which has been part of farming always, and I have seen myself the longer than ever hours that have been worked ungrudgingly by him. The farmers are getting tired and the strain is terrific. It may be said that the prospects of added profit through these efforts compensate for them. That is not altogether true. The farmer, like the worker in industry, is not only animated by the prospect of some gain; he has a higher outlook in his response to the national appeal. In all this trouble that has arisen there has never been one suggestion that the farmers would follow the example so quickly set by "Bevin's babies" of going out on strike. Dissatisfied as they are, they are going to continue, as they have told us officially, to use every effort to keep up and indeed to increase production. At the same time, they find themselves feeling—what? That is what we want to voice to-day.
I have never believed that the farmers have been on a good wicket over this question of whether a pledge has been broken or not, but it is true to say that the heart has been taken out of them because they feel convinced that they have been let down and they are wondering what the future has in store for them. You cannot get the same results from disillusioned people that you can from those you are carrying with you in the confidence that they will get fair treatment. That is the real gravamen of the situation which has been developed in this Debate. It would have been far better if the farmers' leaders, instead of concentrating on the question whether a pledge had been broken, had concentrated on the question whether the prices as fixed are or are not an adequate compensation for the efforts made. The Minister has dealt with one thing which goes to the heart of the problem of many of the smaller men. That is the question of milk prices. But if it is possible to deal with a single commodity like milk, it cannot be impossible to apply to the other aspects of those farming activities which affect the small man the same attitude and to find out whether he has benefited proportionately from the legislation that has hitherto been brought in. It is useless to say to a small dairy farmer who has never grown a blade of barley and is never likely to that barley prices have been satisfactory in East Anglia. The application of global figures has no bearing on this question. They seem to have been brought in, not necessarily as an after-thought by the Minister, but they have certainly come in as a sideline or after-thought to the farmer who has been affected thereby. We want to get away from that if we want to seem to be doing justice to the small farmer. The Minister touched on the question of subsidising inefficiency. That is a difficult thing to avoid, but with the need for output the risk has to be run to a certain extent. The farmers are to-day in greater numbers than ever before taking advantage of the facilities which the Government have afforded them for better operation, for the development of mechanisation and for making use of all the opportunities that are afforded him. Therefore, the risk of subsidising inefficiency becomes much less, though I agree that it is a risk about which we want to be careful.
I finish on the point which has been referred to by so many speakers before, namely, that the real importance of the issue we have been debating is that this great section of the community, the value of whose contribution to our national life we all admit, has lost confidence. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who is to wind up the Debate, has had long years of brilliant experience in India. One of the basic problems in the Indian question is that the people have lost confidence in the faith of His Majesty's Government and of this country. Whether rightly or wrongly is neither here nor there, but it has handicapped all the efforts we have been making to find a solution of the Indian problem. If we have got that same state of affairs vis-a-vis the agricultural community, it will in the same way handicap any prospects of a satisfactory solution of that problem. Therefore, I implore the Chancellor to develop that olive branch which has been alluded to and to hold out the hope that we may forget about the unfortunate difference that has arisen and do everything in our power to re-establish a confidence in the determination, not only on the part of the Government but of this House of Commons, that come what may we shall show that we realise the important part that agriculture must play in our national life, and that, however much we may differ on details, we are one in the determination that the industry shall continue to play that part, which is essential to a well-balanced national existence.
May I have your permission, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, to ask the Leader of the House a question in regard to the conclusion of this Debate and to put it to him that, as this is the most important agricultural Debate which we have had in the whole course of this war, and in view of the fact that a large number of Members representing agricultural constituencies, including the Principality of Wales, desire to speak, that we might have an extension of time of one hour for these proceedings?
In the four or five minutes which are left to me I want to put a new point of view in this Debate. I am not going to deal with the pledge or the loss of confidence, as they have been fully discussed, but with one aspect of the future. I would draw the attention of the House to what was said by some hon. Members who implied that the future of agriculture depends upon the urban areas. That is true, because the rural agricultural vote is outnumbered by about 80 per cent. It is to this urban vote that we have to address ourselves, as agriculturists.
The agricultural industry is extremely individualistic. It is also in watertight compartments. It is the only industry of the kind which exists. Take iron and steel, or even the shopkeepers; all have their associations, in touch with the urban and the rural vote; but not so the agricultural industry. I therefore look forward very much to hearing that the National Farmers' Union, and bodies of that sort, not only in the higher branches but in the lower branches of the industry, will join up with all the chambers of commerce and get into touch with local associations, in order to put their point of view to the towns. I do not think this House has realised what the fight is going to be like after the war to maintain British agriculture, in the face of the export trade and in the face of the shipping industry. These industries will be demanding to bring back something from abroad, and I am afraid that in a great many cases they will be choosing agricultural products. Unless the agricultural industry in this country puts its point of view before the towns and gets it through, it may be swamped by the urban vote as it was after the last war.
With proper organisation, and I think we are now beginning it, we can bring to the towns a realisation of what it means to buy foreign food, in the present shortage of money and in the shortage of money which will exist after the war. I do not think that it has been pointed out how difficult it will be to buy foreign agricultural produce, and how much we shall have to increase our agriculture in order to maintain any kind of export or import trade. I have not time, having been allowed only five minutes—and I like to stick to my promise—to develop my argument, but I hope the House will realise that I have put forward a new suggestion, which is not a political one. It is for the associations to deal with the matter rather than for politicians. With these few words I wish the Minister a fair amount of success and that he may do better next time.
On a point of Order. Are we to understand, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, that the Chancellor of the Exchequer is now to wind up for the Government and that the Debate will then conclude? I put it to the right hon. Gentleman that not one Member of Parliament for Suffolk, Essex, Worcestershire and many other rural areas have had an opportunity to take part in this Debate. [An HON. MEMBER: "What about Scotland"?] I ask if we are to be enabled to go on beyond the extended time appointed. Is it not possible for the Government to give us another hour, particularly as the Government has taken the whole of private Members' time.
I understand that the decision that the House should rise at the Time appointed this evening was taken earlier in the Sitting. My first and pleasing duty is to offer my congratulations to the hon. Member for Skipton (Mr. H. Lawson), whom I do not see in his place, on his maiden speech. I can assure the House that I listened to it with close attention.
This Debate has produced a large number of interesting and constructive speeches, and if I do not deal with all the points in the time available to me, even with all the major points, that have been raised, I am sure I shall have the indulgence of the hon. Members concerned. I am glad that the sordid question of the pledge has not dominated this Debate. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries, in a forceful but throughout restrained and dignified speech, succeeded, in my opinion, in disposing effectively of any charge of breach of faith. I believe that the opinion I have just expressed is shared by the vast majority of the Members who have listened to this Debate. Indeed, if the allegation of breach of faith had been sustained, it would lie not only against my right hon. Friend; all his colleagues would be equally involved, because we have all been participants in the decisions that have been called in question in regard to the interpretation of the pledge.
I want to make it clear that I am not taking part in this Debate primarily in my capacity as Chancellor of the Exchequer, as the man who has to watch the money bags. I am speaking as the Minister who for a considerable period of time had to preside as Lord President of the Council over conferences of Ministers at which all the questions involved in the interpretation of the pledge regarding agricultural prices were discussed in great detail. I share the view of many speakers who have made it quite clear in the course of this Debate that they would like to get away from past history and turn to something more constructive. But I agree also with my hon. Friend the Member for West Renfrew (Mr. Wedderburn) when he said that the rift betwen the farmers and the Government must not continue. The charge of a breach of faith or bad faith, unless it is completely dissipated, will poison relations between the Government and this vitally important industry, and none of us can afford to allow such a state of affairs to continue. One or two speakers in the Debate, a small minority, have said some hard things. I was very sorry to hear a Member whom we all hold in the very highest respect, the right hon. Gentleman the Member for South Molton (Mr. Lambert), a Member for an agricultural constituency, say that in his judgment the Government had deliberately adjusted the pledge to their own advantage. Those are very serious words, and if I can, by anything I shall say, remove the last shreds of suspicion that may be in anybody's mind on this question, I feel it is my duty to do so.
I think there are some things I can say which modesty has prevented my right hon. Friend from saying. To those of us who have been concerned in this matter it is quite a strange irony, as my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Yeovil (Sir G. Davies) observed, that my right hon. Friend should have been singled out by members of the farming community for attack in the way with which we are all familiar. My right hon. Friend is, in fact, virtually the father of our present system of war agricultural production. He has nursed it, he has nourished it, he has watched it with more than paternal care and if
Sharper than the serpent's tooth it is to have a thankless child
he might have been pardoned if in the course of his speech he had displayed some feeling of irritation and soreness. Those of us who have had to deal with him in this matter know him as a very doughty champion, as a stalwart supporter at all times, of farming interests, and I may tell the House that he has never been content with any narrow legalistic interpretation of the assurances that the Government have given to the agricultural community.
Of course, there are difficulties in interpreting a pledge of this kind. Various hon. Members have talked about the nonsense of dealing in global figures. I agree, but the pledge was a global pledge. It was concerned with the position of the industry as a whole, and the common-sense interpretation of the pledge which I think everyone will accept is simply this: the Government declared that they recognised it as their duty and obligation to ensure that the level of prosperity of the farming community should be preserved throughout a period of changing circumstances, of doubt and uncertainty. That is the general sense of the pledge given in 1940. But when you come to the interpretation of the pledge you first of all have to treat the industry as a whole, and to insist upon the exact terms of the pledge will not in practice overcome all the difficulties that arise from differences of climate, soil, fertility, changing trends in agriculture, this, that and the other with which Ministers are very familiar, which in practice affect, and affect fundamentally, the position of the individual farmer.
As to the application of the pledge, various questions have in fact arisen from time to time, and, as I have said, my right hon. Friend has always proved himself a powerful advocate of the cause of the farming industry—I do not say of the farmers but of the industry, because we have to consider this industry as a whole, farmers, farm servants, everyone concerned. Time and time again my right hon. Friend succeeded in convincing his colleagues that it would be right, where there was some element of doubt, to adopt the interpretation of the pledge or the application of the pledge which was most favourable to the farming industry.
Let me just give two or three illustrations of what I have just said. In the course of his speech my right hon. Friend told the House that when the first scheme of guaranteed prices was promulgated in 1940 it was the deliberate intention of the Government, in introducing their system of guaranteed prices, to secure to the farmers not merely the profits they had been enjoying in the past, in a period which was recognised as one of general depression in agriculture, but a substantial profit over and above the pre-1940 level. I am not going to give the House very many figures, but I want to say this: when the first results of the application of that scheme of guaranteed prices came to be examined it was found beyond any question that the prices had been fixed at a level sufficient to give the farming community substantially more, more by many millions, than had been intended. The question quite naturally arose, because there are some of us who have a duty to scrutinise these matters with great care, whether what we might call the over-payment was to be taken into account and set against any increase of prices that might be given for the future. We came to the conclusion on the whole that that would not be a fair course to take. We had promulgated the initial scheme of guaranted prices and we felt we had to stand by that.
I will give another illustration. It has been remarked in the course of the Debate that the pledge related only to certain agricultural products and that agriculture covers a great many other items. Originally, in 1940, one very important agricultural product, barley, was left out of account, and it is known to every hon. Member in this House that barley prices, first of all malting barley and then, perhaps in sympathy, other kinds of barley, rose to extraordinary levels. The question naturally arose, on the common-sense general interpretation of the pledge I gave a few moments ago, whether the Government would not be justified, acting in the interests of the taxpayer and of the consumer—and there is a very direct interest both for the taxpayer and for the consumer, because we are paying something like £160,000,000 a year to maintain our policy of stabilised prices—in taking account of such profits as were being secured by the farmer for barley, fruit, vegetables and other profitable forms of husbandry, in determining how the commodities which were within the pledge should be dealt with.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that when the price of barley rose to 300s. a quarter or thereabouts, that did not go into the pockets of the farmer? The fanners only got about 150s.
I am illustrating the point. No one can dispute that there were products outside the range of guaranteed prices which were very profitable. Where prices were not controlled they naturally rose. In such cases my right hon. Friend argued very strongly that the pledge looked only at products for which prices were fixed, and that no account should be taken of products outside the pledge. It would have been quite proper to argue that account should be taken of those products. What we decided to do—no doubt it was right, but the thing had to be looked at from every angle—was to allocate the various items of cost which go to make up the cost of producing this item or that for products to which the pledge applied, taking the appropriate share—and only the appropriate share—of the increase in costs. It is important that hon. Members should understand this, because the Minister has been characterised in terms which would seem to imply that he has treated this great industry unfairly.
Again, when the minimum wage of 60s. was awarded by the Wages Board at the end of 1941 wages had been going up for some time as a result of decisions of county wages committees. Whereas before the award of the Wages Board the minimum wage was 48s., which was put up to 60s., the actual average wage over the whole country was 50s. 10d. The question then arose whether, in deciding what increase in prices should be given as the result of the award of the Wages Board, we should take account only of the actual increase from 50s. 10d. to 60s., which was what the Wages Board decision put on the shoulders of the farmer as an additional cost, or whether we should ignore what had been done up and down the country by the wages committees, and treat the whole difference between 48s., the old minimum, and 60s., the new minimum, as the additional cost which the Wages Board decision involved. We took—here again on the strong representation of my right hon. Friend—the interpretation most favourable to the farming community. The whole increase of 12s. was taken into account, on the ground that the decision of the local committees might fairly be regarded as merely an anticipation of a general increase that was bound to come sooner or later. But the pledge would not have been broken if we had taken the other view. On none of the points I have mentioned has my right hon. Friend seen the pledge in a narrow, legalistic way.
I come to two points of interpretation—there are only two—which lie at the root of this controversy. The first, and by far the most important, is this. It can be stated in very simple terms. What the pledge obliged the Government to do was to adjust prices to take account of changing costs. That pledge was given in 1940, and it was renewed, or repeated, or restated, on more than one occasion after that date. The Government have consistently taken the view that when the pledge was given in 1940, a datum line was established, and that the pledge operated from the datum line of the prices announced in 1940, operated continuously on the basis of a running account, so that if at any time, because of increased costs, we had to consider commodity by commodity, as was promised in a subsequent pronouncement, we should proceed by comparing current costs and receipts with the figures related to the date in 1940 at which the datum line was fixed. That was the view that the Government have consistently taken. But the farmers, rather strangely, I think, took a different view. They said: "No, you must not deal with it like that: you must take it in compartments. If you happen to have a price revision at some date after 1940, that establishes a new datum line, and although you have given too much in that revision you cannot go back on that. Any subsequent revision must be related to the provisions of the last previous revision." I suggest that that is a wholly unreasonable and unbusinesslike method.
The two policies would have produced the same result in practice if it had been possible at each revision to calculate with mathematical accuracy the precise amount by which revision had to be made in the prices. That was not possible. My right hon. Friend and the Government were so anxious to deal fairly with the agricultural community that in handling figures which produced some element of doubt rates were adopted which were, quite clearly, going to provide a complete fulfilment of the pledge. Actually, it turned out that the rates fixed at the successive revisions were a little too high—not much, perhaps—and the Government took the view that any excess at one revision could be taken into account, just as any deficiency would certainly have had to be taken into account—make no mistake about that—at any subsequent revision. That is the whole sum and substance of the difference between the farmers and the Government which has led to this accusation of breach of faith.
The other point which I said was of importance has not aroused any controversy. What we said was that in interpreting the pledge in practice and in applying it in detail we were entitled to allow ourselves a little margin as between the price of one commodity and that of another, so that if it suited the Government's policy to make the production of milk more attractive than that of potatoes a little extra could be put on milk and that could be balanced by a little less on potatoes, always provided that the Government's pledge was fulfilled in general. I think that that was a point of interpretation which could not be derived from a mere literal reading of the pledge but on which I believe there is no substantial or lasting difference between the farmers and the Government.
But the first point is of fundamental importance and I want to make it clear to the House that the Government adhere absolutely to their position in that respect. Let me tell the House how I think misunderstanding has arisen over this matter. When we had to consider what increases of prices should be given when the minimum wage of 60s. was adopted, my right hon. Friend represented to his colleagues that, in his belief, many of the farmers had honestly believed that the pledge was to be interpreted, not in the way I have described, as an arrangement running continuously from 1940, but as relating always to the period since the last previous revision. And because he assured us that that had been the honest opinion of the farmers, and because we were most anxious to give no ground whatever for any suggestion of breach of faith, we did in fact agree in 1942, on the occasion to which I am referring, that the farmers' interpretation of the pledge should in practice be adopted as regards that part of increased costs, which was represented by the wages award. There was also an element of general increase of costs which had to be taken into account. In regard to that we did not apply what I call the farmers' interpretation, because the same considerations were not applicable. It could not there be said, as was said in the case of wages, that, because of their genuine belief, the farmers had entered into certain negotiations before the Wages Board. I felt that on that occasion that particular interpretation of the pledge was the right one to take.
It has been said—I am sure in good faith—that as a result of the decision that was taken in 1942, in the circumstances I have described, the Government went back on their interpretation. They did not at all. As I have explained, the Government have adhered to their interpretation, but rather than have a difference of view and a suggestion of breach of faith, they on that occasion only decided to apply the interpretation of the farmers, and that was the occasion for the meeting of the National Farmers' Union to which reference has been made and in which my predecessor and I, my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland all took part. That was intended to explain clearly to the farming community, through their organisation—the National Farmers' Union—how the Government were interpreting the pledge and the two points I have just referred to were made clear in the course of those discussions. I regret as much as anyone that the intimation that was conveyed then to the National Farmers' Union did not immediately reach all concerned throughout the length and breadth of the land.
I want to ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer why on this particular occasion the Minister did not make it clear to the farming community in general what had actually taken place in 1942? During these negotiations the farmers as a whole never understood that that was the interpretation given at that particular time.
I really cannot give way. I must finish by a given time. I am subject to that limitation. I merely say that I greatly regret as did my right hon. Friend that that intimation did not reach the whole farming community.
It never occurred to me. As far as I am concerned the whole purpose for which I met the farmers' union was to ensure that the whole community should be informed of the view the Government had taken.
I have said that we told the Farmers' Union. I have carried the matter up to the point of the meeting in February, 1942, and now I am bound to ask myself why, if the thing really is clear and, as I and my right hon. Friend say, there is no breach of faith, should there be all this controversy? I have thought about this matter a great deal and I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Turton) that the trouble must really be attributed to quite other causes than any question of prices. First of all, there was the genuine misunderstanding to which I have referred—and I do not seek to cover that up—by the rank and file. Then there is the case of what has been called the marginal man. My right hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Rye (Sir. G. Courthope) asked whether further consideration could not be given to his case. His is a case for which I have very great sympathy. I could understand how galling it must be to a man who feels he is not being treated well to be told, "The farming community is being very handsomely treated"; and if on top of that feeling that he is not being treated well himself, he has any reason to suppose the Government have broken faith with him, then, what is a case of soreness and irritation can easily develop into a feeling of flaming indignation. On top of all that the small men, of whom there are many, the marginal men—and some big men are marginal men—are being, in fact, hustled and bustled by war agricultural committees to grow this and that, and in many cases, having grown crops which have been very profitable, have to grow something less profitable.
What are we to do about this? We have done a great deal already. I would like to say to the House a few words to summarise very briefly what we have done. We have, first of all, introduced a system of acreage payments which do not depend on the productivity of the land. For wheat and rye under the recent prices schedule, the rate is fixed at £4 an acre. It was £3 last year. It has been put up to £4, with a corresponding adjustment in prices. Then there are various subsidies. There is a special goods and services scheme to help the farmer who is unable to get these things by the usual means. There is the hill sheep subsidy and the corresponding hill cattle subsidy given entirely to help the small man and the marginal man. Finally, there is the milk scheme which my right hon. Friend described in the course of his speech, the whole object of which is to help the small producer. I would like to assure my right hon. and gallant Friend that if there is anything more we can do, if in consultation with representatives of the industry we can devise better means of bringing the treatment of the small man or the marginal man up to the level of the treatment of the big man, we shall be very pleased indeed to do it.
There is one other point in this connection. I was trying to describe the reasons for this present controversy. I want to say a word—and here I speak as Chancellor of the Exchequer—about the effect of taxation. In the last war we followed a different policy and it was possible, in theory and in practice, for industry to build up capital resources after all taxation had been paid. The farmers were able to pay off their debts and to put themselves into a very much better capital position.
We have not been in the same position in this war. There are very good reasons for that, but nevertheless the fact remains. They have been able to clear off a great deal of indebtedness and improve their equipment, but still their position in that respect does not compare favourably with the position in the last war. Many of them have been shifted from Schedule B to Schedule D. That is perfectly fair and equal treatment with other industries, but it has hit them. Undoubtedly it has hit the small man. I have recently instructed the Board of Inland Revenue, who are conducting an investigation initiated by my predecessor into the whole problem of the impact of direct taxation upon industry, to give special consideration to the problems of agriculture, and I know that an invitation has been extended to the representatives of the fanning community to come along and give their evidence and their ideas to the proper Committee.
Yes. We shall cover the whole incidence of direct taxation. That is not quite all, because farmers have memories and they have bitter memories of what happened after the last war. Various hon. Members have referred to that matter in their speeches. My hon. Friend the Member for West Renfrew said that some of the farmers were thinking that solicitude for their interests would cease with the cessation of the U-boat campaign. The hon. Member for North Cumberland (Mr. Roberts) said something to this effect, that the farmers feared that what has just happened was going to prove only the first instalment of another betrayal. He did not use the word "betrayal" but that is what it amounted to. My hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Orr-Ewing) said that he thought the farmers had been let down before because the public had lost interest, and he drew the conclusion that it was essential to stimulate and maintain general public interest in agriculture. I do not think that is the explanation at all. The farmers after the last war—the farming industry, because it affected the whole industry—were the victims of an economic blizzard. There had been a dreadful wave of inflation, followed by an equally dreadful deflation, and the obligations that had been accepted vis-à-vis the agricultural industry were swept away in the ensuing storm. I hope we are going to be able to manage our affairs better this time.
I have only a few more minutes, and I would like, if the House will allow me, to say this. The farming community have really a tremendous achievement to their credit during this war, an achievement which has come about under the guidance and inspiration of my right hon. Friend. Not only has the amount of human food directly made available by our home agriculture been greatly increased, but the strain on shipping has had tremendous relief from the fact that animal feeding stuffs have during the war been produced almost entirely at home. We have 6,000,000 additional acres under the plough, three acres of arable for every two before the war Sales of liquid milk have increased enormousrv, despite the ploughing up of grass land and despite the reduction in imported feeding stuffs. We have been able, on the whole, I believe, very largely to maintain the fertility of the soil as the result of ample supplies of lime, phosphates and other fertilisers, and though many skilled workers have been lost, and the number of regular male workers has fallen by many thousands, the output of the agricultural industry has increased and is still increasing. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mr. W. J. Brown) that agriculture is not only a major industry: it is, in fact, our greatest industry, and its importance to this country after the war cannot be measured in words. We have to make ourselves, as far as we can, for some years—a good many years—after the war, less dependent on imports from overseas, which put a burden not only on our shipping but on our exchange, and we have, as more than one hon. Member mentioned, to make sure that as much food as possible is made available for the rehabilitation of the starving countries of Europe.
My right hon. Friend, towards the end of his speech, made several very important promises. He spoke of the desire of the Government to collaborate with the agricultural industry in getting very much better statistics than we have ever had before, and this is a matter of much greater importance than it may sound, because, except on a basis of statistics, you cannot have proper plans—scientific and systematic plans. Then the Minister promised quite clearly that in place of an assurance for the period of the war and one year thereafter—which the hon. Member for West Renfrew (Mr. Wedderburn) said was no good at all—he would be willing to consider an assurance running up to and including the harvest of 1947. That is to cover what we may hope will be a transitional period. And, apart from all that, he said the Government were ready and he had authority to enter into discussions forthwith with the representatives of the industry in regard to long-term agricultural planning. Is there anything more that could be offered by way of assurance on the part of the Government? I do not think so, and I would only say this final word—that, if there is anything that I can do, personally, to assist in any discussions that may be entered upon, I shall be very happy to do all I can.