Orders of the Day — Agriculture

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 27th July 1949.

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Photo of Mr Thomas Dugdale Mr Thomas Dugdale , Richmond (Yorks) 12:00 am, 27th July 1949

We now leave tropical Africa and come back to the green fields of England. I could not help feeling rather hungry during the concluding passages of the speech of the Minister of Food, especially when I thought of those vast sums of money being spent on places like the Tennessee Valley, and what a lovely place England would be if we had all that money to spend here in developing our agricultural industry.

My hon. and right hon. Friends and I put down this Vote for discussion today because we thought it would be a good opportunity for the Minister of Agriculture to tell the House and the country to what extent the agricultural industry is making a contribution to the economic crisis. Since taking this decision, the whole position has been changed by a broadcast speech made by the Minister last Thursday in the Home Service and entitled "On Your Farm," which dealt with the agricultural expansion programme and the livestock feedingstuffs position. I think it is true to say that the Minister's broadcast came as a profound shock, and the only conclusion to which we could come on that broadcast was that the Government, in their anxiety to escape responsibility for the economic position of our country, are looking round for scapegoats, and that last week it was the agricultural industry which was picked out as the target. The Minister, in fact, used very strong language in his broadcast. Referring specifically to the agricultural expansion programme, he said: It is a crisis in our plans and our hopes for agriculture, and I have to tell you now— and he was speaking to the farmers— —that we are in grave danger of failing in our task. The whole tone of this broadcast implied that the industry was not playing its part, and this attack by the Minister upon those engaged in the industry, who have not relaxed their efforts in ten arduous years, is bitterly resented by the men and women who have worked so hard and who have made such a great contribution both to our war effort and our national economic recovery. In spite of those efforts, they are now told that there is an agricultural crisis, and that the agricultural programme is in jeopardy, while it is further implied that it is their fault.

This evening, I want to examine the charges which the Minister made, and to try to show to the House that it is not the industry so much as the Government which is to blame for the present position. When I say that, I wish also to say that the industry is very much alive to its responsibilities, and that anything I have to say will not be said in any sense of complacency, because it is realised that there is much more to be done in this industry throughout the country.

Today, the industry is being asked to advance on three fronts simultaneously. It is being asked to increase the numbers of livestock—and we all agree with that—to produce more food for human consumption, and also to produce more food for feedingstuffs for the livestock population. These three things together would have been possible if the Government had implemented the specific promise which they made on the introduction of their programme in August, 1947, when the Lord President of the Council, addressing the chairmen of county agricultural executive committees on the expansion programme, used these words, which have been quoted before: Large increases of feedingstuffs must come from imports, and even scarce dollars will be spent on all that is obtainable, since this operation must lead to ultimate dollar savings. I shall refer to the feedingstuffs position in detail in a few moments, but there is one further general observation I would like to make.

It has never been, and I hope it never will be British farming policy to "mine" the fertility of the land, and it must be remembered that, at the beginning of the war, the land of this country was full of stored-up fertility. When we had a common enemy at our gates, we had to draw heavily on this fertility during those war years. That cannot go on for ever. The Minister will agree that one cannot run a five furlong race in the same manner as a two and a half miles race. Today the land is feeling the effect of that period, and it is absolutely vital, taking the long view, that the laws of good husbandry must be applied if we are to obtain the maximum production from our soil over a long period. To expand much further our cereal acreage, while it may help as a purely temporary measure to relieve our economic position, would be folly in the long run, and, as the Minister admitted in his broadcast, we are dealing today with a long-term problem. That is why we on this side of the House resent so profoundly the word "crisis" which was used by the Minister. One would expect "crises" to pass, but the need to grow more food at home is no passing fancy. It will remain for a long time to come.

It is the policy of my right hon. and hon. Friends and myself to secure the steady efficiency and economic expansion of home agriculture in order that it may produce at least half as much again as it produced immediately before the war. The Government have been circulating recently in the United States a publication entitled "Britain Speeds the Plough." I wonder whether the Minister of Agriculture has seen it. It is an admirable document, which describes the efforts of our agricultural industry in terms very different from those of the Minister's broadcast on Thursday of last week. It is published under the auspices of the British Information Services, and it talks about the great contribution made by British farmers today. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] But only the other day the Minister was abusing everything that the industry did. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."]

There is one very important discrepancy here which I hope the Minister will correct. In the concluding chapter of this booklet are the following words: In addition to the Agriculture Act, Britain's farmers have a short-term programme for producing more crops and livestock. Are the Government genuine in believing that their policy is long-term, or is it just a short-term expedient? It is very important that we should get that matter cleared up. In this Government publication, it is stated that they consider it to be a short-term policy.

Now I turn to the specific charges made in the Minister's broadcast. In my view, the most serious was that insufficient attention has been paid to the conservation of grass. It is very difficult to get the correct figures, but there are two commodities concerning which we can see what has happened in recent years. One is silage and the other is dried grass. The House will be interested to know that, as far as silage is concerned, this year's estimate of 1,250,000 tons is nearly twice what the production was last year, when it was 725,000 tons, and four times what it was in 1947, when it was only 328,000 tons.