Deolali Camp (Conditions)

Part of India – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 25th February 1946.

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Photo of Mr Robin Turton Mr Robin Turton , Thirsk and Malton 12:00 am, 25th February 1946

The right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for Scotland, at the close of his speech, said that long-term policy depended upon houses, wages, amenities, and planning. In my view, any long-term policy for agriculture must depend fundamentally upon prices. I thought the two most striking passages in the Debate were the speeches made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Mr. R. S. Hudson) and the Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, when they criticised the present method of consumers' subsidies. We expect to pay out of our own pockets for the clothes we wear, the fuel in our grates, the furniture in our rooms, the tobacco we smoke, and for whatever we drink, but for part of the cost of the food we put in our mouths we rely on the generosity of others. Before the war we relied in this country on the generosity of overseas producers who subsidised all imports of food into this country in order to help the British consumer, and we relied on the generosity of agricultural producers, the farmers and the farm workers of this country, who suffered low profits and low wages as the result. During the war we have relied on the generosity of the taxpayer and we have subsidised food for the benefit of the consumer to a very alarming total. That total now rises to the colossal figure of x00A3;308 million.

I want to remind the House of what the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland said last week: I take it he was saying to us today that we must make the consumer pay for the primary products, pay for the foodstuffs in a direct fashion rather than by this indirect means of subsidy. If that is what he was saying, I have considerable sympathy with him. I do not like subsidies at all. I think consumers ought at the earliest possible moment to pay the full value, the true price, of the foodstuffs produced in this country."— [Official Report, 15th February, 1946; Vol. 419, c. 748.] I hope that the hon. Gentleman who is replying to this Debate will assure us that those words represent the policy of His Majesty's Government. I recall the Chancellor of the Exchequer on 23rd October last year declaring that he intended to hold the cost of living at 131, even if it meant an increase in the cost of Exchequer subsidies. I thought when he made that declaration that that was the first threat to the future of our great agricultural industry. What has been the result of this system of consumer subsidies? If you compare the prices in December, 1945, with those in July, 1914, what would have cost x00A3;1 in July, 1914, would have cost, at the end of last year, if it was clothes, 69s., if it was coal, 55s., but if it was food, only 33s. 9d. That means that the fanner and the farm worker have had to pay at these enhanced prices for their coal, clothing, farming implements, and tobacco, but for their own products they have received prices that have not risen proportionately. That I believe to be the cause of the whole problem of agriculture.

Hon. Members on all Sides of the House have declared that they are anxious to see a higher return for work on the land. Under the present system how is that higher return to be brought about? I take it that the interpretation of the decision of the Central Wages Committee is that on the present prices it is impossible to make a material increase in wages on the land. They are an independent body who have gone into the figures and this House must therefore assume the responsibility. Will the taxpayer, under the present system, pay increased subsidies for agricultural products? That is the difficulty. Whatever agricultural policy the Minister of Agriculture or the Secretary of State for Scotland may wish to put forward under the present system of consumer subsidies, they come up against the hostility of the Chancellor of the Exchequer who cannot afford to allow the subsidy to rise about X00a3;308 million. I believe there is no reason why agriculture should be pauperised in this way. As we are willing to pay for our clothing, our coal, our tobacco, we ought to be willing to pay for the food we place in our mouths.

This brings me to the February price review. Listening to the Minister of Agriculture I got the feeling that he regards this February review as a strait-jacket. I think that is constricting the purpose of it rather too much. Prices and conditions will undoubtedly vary. The value of the February review is that farmers will know what price they can expect to receive 18 months ahead for the crops they grow and the products they produce. But it may well be that in the interval there may come great material changes. If, for example, there was an economic crisis that depressed the£ catastrophically, it would be quite senseless to expect farmers to receive a price for their products that bore a sterling value not in relation to their costs of production. Again, if, in the interval of 18 months, wages—which form 40 per cent. of the costs of production on the farms— were to rise materially, it should be possible, under that February review, for. the prices to be revised, and I believe that to be a very material consideration today.

There is the third possibility that certain payments that are made to stimulate production on unsuitable land for the nation's need may, or should in my view, if that need alters, be revised. That brings us to the wheat position. The right hon. Member for Southport, when he announced the alteration of the wheat acreage payments in March, 1945, said: If the world situation permits, compulsory directions will not be served for the growing of these crops in 1946, and the acreage payment will then be reduced from x00A3;4 to£2 an acre. "If the world situation permits "—in March! By the autumn what had happened? We knew by then that the crops had failed in the Argentine and in Australia. We knew, or the Minister must have known, that the wheat acreage in this country had dropped from the peak figure of 3,200,000 in 1943 to 2,100,000. But one great factor that was known to the Government in the autumn was that, instead of merely having defeated Germany, as we expected in March, we had also defeated Japan, and there was the great problem of feeding the liberated territories not only in Europe but in Asia. All of us have learned since our early youth that famine stalks after war, and I should have thought that the Minister would have realised in the autumn that this world food problem and the problem of the wheat acreage were problems he had to tackle. When we came back in October many of us plied the Minister of Agriculture with questions on this acreage question. I asked him one on 15th October, and he replied that the growing of wheat on unsuitable land would no longer be justifiable.

I do not think we can possibly acquit the Minister of Agriculture of making a very grave miscalculation in the autumn. He discouraged farmers from planting wheat. Today he gave us the resulting figures. Wheat acreage is down to 1,900,000. How are we to raise that figure without any increase in the acreage subsidy? I do not know whether hon. Members realise the problem that faces farmers in connection with wheat 'cropping. I would like to explain the costs of production in the two different cases of growing wheat and barley. I have taken care to select comparable land that was costed by Universities in the North of England last year. Taking land that has a fertility represented by a rental value of£1 per acre, Leeds University give the following figures in regard to growing barley: It costs£13 7s. 9d. to grow an acre of barley. The yield comes to something like£ 21 73. 9d. working on the £4 per quarter applicable this year. That is a profit of £8, which has to be used for other years in the rotation when you do not make that profit. To plant the same acre with wheat costs£13s. 14s. 6d. This is a figure given by Manchester University last year. The yield in money for that acre is£13 4s. 8d., without any acreage subsidy. Therefore a loss of 10s. is suffered; £2 an acre makes that loss into a profit of£1 10s. I would like the House to realise that in that situation a farmer will not plant a chancey crop of spring wheat merely for the encouragement of £2 an acre as subsidy. I could not under stand whether the Minister of Agriculture expected to get a large acreage of spring wheat. If he. does not restore that acre age subsidy, he will not get it.

Let me turn from wheat to poultry. The poultry farmers expected increased rations. They have built up their herds and their stock for that purpose. Only last December the Minister of Food made it clear to them that their rations were to be increased. Speaking on 5th December, he said: The present rationing programme provides for increased quantities of food for poultry to be issued from 1st May, 1946. From that date, commercial poultry producers will be allowed rations of feeding stuffs on the basis of one-third of their 1939 poultry numbers."— [Official Report, 5th December, 1945; Vol. 416, c. 2324.] That was a very cruel statement to make to the poultry producer, because by December the Government knew perfectly well that the food situation was so difficult that it would not be possible for them to increase those rations. Yet in December the Minister reaffirmed the promise that had been made eight months earlier to increase poultry rations. As a result of those statements a great deal of money has been lost by poultry producers. No doubt hon. Members will have had many letters on the subject, and even the Government, I expect, have occasionally heard from poultry farmers about the matter. I would quote one letter from a constituent of mine. It says: We have licensed and insured our car for a year. We have bought one ton of peat moss, wire netting, stakes, and felt. Who is going to pay for these now? We have no income. My husband estimates that we shall be able to keep one hundred birds, but no one can live on that. What does the Government propose doing with us now? I repeat that question to the Government. These men have lost money owing to the miscalculation and misstatements made by the Government. What are the Government going to do with these poultry producers? I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture will give us a reply to that question and that he will say that the Government are going to give them compensation.

Throughout the war, notwithstanding aerial bombing and submarine warfare, every ration pledge made by Lord Wool-ton or by my right hon. Friend the Member for Southport was honoured. This is the first time that the Government have dishonoured a ration pledge. I believe that it is a shameful thing. What steps are the Government going to take to help these poultry producers by getting maize from the Argentine? It is no good the Government saying that there is no maize to be got from the Argentine, because that is not true. That statement has been contradicted in another place by the Government's own spokesmen and we know that there is maize in the Argentine. It could be brought here if the Government had the will to help poultry producers

I will now turn to amenities. Hon. Members have all stressed the importance of amenities. In my view, the close control of the individual and the loose co-ordination between Government Departments, have meant that the countryside has lost all along the line ever since the Government came into office. Take houses; houses have been planned for the towns and a few houses have been projected for some of the villages. No houses have been projected for the small villages. Houses on farms, and the improvement of houses on farms, have been condemned by the Government as something anti-social. Pleasure trips in buses are allowed for town dwellers, but what steps are the Government taking to improve bus services in rural areas? Take water schemes. When we were in office we passed a great Water Act.