Orders of the Day — Agriculture

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 12th June 1952.

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Photo of Mr Hugh Fraser Mr Hugh Fraser , Stafford and Stone 12:00 am, 12th June 1952

I hope the revivalist vigour of the hon. Member for Merioneth (Mr. T. W. Jones) has had some effect upon the hon. Member for Wednesbury (Mr. S. N. Evans). I also feel sure that any representatives of the War Office present will realise that Merioneth may shortly become a very good school for guerilla fighting. I will return to that point later.

Everyone who has spoken in this debate has pointed to the unfortunate fact that at the moment the agricultural production of this country is not only temporarily halted, but at some points is in a decline. I believe that the Minister will be able to do something, and has already done something, to revive the spirit of the industry. But what is holding up the main sweep of that advance— highlighted by the statement today from the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the statement yesterday by the Prime Minister—necessary to produce more in this country is something which is more than economic. I believe that in general it is a feeling that the climate of confidence in the industry is diminishing.

It is one of those intangible things upon which it is difficult to lay a finger. But, in my talks to friends in the farming industry and to individual farm workers, I gained the impression that there is spreading throughout the industry today the thought that in the 1930s, in the bad time, the people who pulled through were the people who farmed cheap, the people who went in for low farming instead of high farming. It must be the duty of this Committee to instil into industry the fact that that fear is unnecessary.

The necessity for greater production has been pointed out. If we can build up a strong agricultural industry and produce more food, we shall have the market under our own control. It is obvious from world statistics that the problem of getting food will become more serious daily and that, from the long-term point of view of defence, and so on, further agricultural expansion is necessary.

The speech made by the hon. Member for Wednesbury was not very helpful. When hon. Members ask for Royal Commissions, that almost certainly means that they do not know their own minds on the subject under discussion. I know the versatility of the hon. Gentleman. We traversed the greater part of South America together. I have seen him mounted on a bucking broncho and in debate with people all over the world. His dialectic today could have been interpreted as a speech by a most extreme right wing landlord asking for an immediate increase in rents or the speech of an extreme left winger asking for nationalisation of the land. It is a case of "penny plain, tuppence coloured." Hon. Members can pick which bit they want and build up a whole dialectic on it.

In a way, the hon. Gentleman was attacking the 1947 Act. It is far better that our farmers should be prosperous than that the farmers of the Argentine or other parts of South America should be prosperous. That the industry should be prosperous is no disadvantage whatever. There is some weight in the hon. Gentleman's criticism of the management of certain farms. But my right hon. Friend pointed out today that he is determined to see that the land is properly farmed. By giving more power to the Executive to enable them to dismiss the bad farmer, he will put right some of the defects mentioned by the hon. Gentleman.

In the same way these production aids are good in that they mean that the rich farmers will not benefit to the same extent as the small farmers. The hon. Member for Wednesbury should remember that some 80 per cent. of our farms are under 100 acres. In his business he may have come across some of these rich farmers. Of course they exist, but most farmers are not extraordinarily well off. If there is to be profitability in farming, and if we compare world prices with those in this country, how much better it is that our men should do at least as well as the landlords in the Argentine and other parts of South America.

One of the problems we must face is not merely that of converting the hon. Member for Wednesbury but that of converting certain people on both sides of the House of Commons, and the House of Lords also, on the subject of the importance of agriculture. Unless we can increase our production, unless we can push up our agricultural processes inside this country, unless we can have increased efficiency in farming in this country, we are in very great peril indeed.

We have to disabuse our minds of some of the most old-fashioned economic ideas. We have to face the fact that in this country the era of cheap imported food has gone for ever, and that, if it does return, even if it means a Barmecide's Feast for a short time, it means the eventual bankruptcy of British industry. It is only by a continued process of an increase in world population and productivity that we can maintain our overseas markets.

I fear that when the Minister talked of the fact that the fundamental long-term policy for agriculture was lacking, he was being over modest. Already, he has described certain things that he is going to do, and I believe that these things can be and will be welded as time goes by into a coherent policy. Quite rightly, he is approaching this problem in a pragmatical and empirical way in order to build up the main basis of British agriculture, but, at the same time, I do believe that this fundamental agricultural policy which will emerge must be basic also to the economic policy of this country, and, from this side of the Committee, I want to say that it is necessary that we should develop a different slant on our economic policy.

Obviously, at the moment, we have to deal with the crisis, but I see a danger that, unless we are careful, we shall be following in the footsteps of the late Sir Stafford Cripps and blundering from expedient to expedient. We have to face the fact that this country's economy cannot survive and cannot work if every fluctuation and every vagary in the American market causes here an economic crisis or an economic boom.

Somehow or other, we have to build up the £ which, after the immediate crisis has been overcome, is strong, and, as the Prime Minister said yesterday, we have to have an economy in this country which is not constantly subject to international speculation. The basis of that economy, I believe, must be the agricultural and rural economy of this country; otherwise, the strength of the £ is very dependent on the weakness of the dollar, and they are relative one with the other in that sense.

I fear that there is a danger in all parties that our future policy may be developed by an economic outlook which may be temporary and may be described as dollar wise and pound foolish. I think the hon. Member for Wednesbury, in his rather intemperate criticism of the farming industry this afternoon, has done no good to this general project. There are certain things that can be done and which the Minister is already doing to carry out this immediate project of increasing the agricultural production by 12 or more per cent., but there are certain individual things to which I should like to call the attention of my right hon. and gallant Friend.

The first is to bring home to the people of this country, and especially to the people who dwell in the towns, the importance of agricultural production. I believe that much more could be done than is now being done in pig production in the towns of this country. I know that there is trouble about the repeal of Regulation 62B, but there is a possibility of seeing that pig production is encouraged, and that the Minister might be able to help in that way. Second, I believe that there should be throughout the country and in all parties encouragement of the agricultural community in general, and, further, I should like to turn the Minister's attention to the question of land use.

I believe that the pledges the Minister has given will have to be implemented on this question of land use. The hon. Member for Merioneth talked about the Forestry Commission, and I believe that they should review their use of good agricultural land. I think there is a burning question today in the taking of nearly 3,000 acres away from farming near Swindon for the development of a new town. That is a major issue. At the moment, we are losing land at the rate of 50,000 or more acres a year.

Then there is the question of the Army. When the last Government were in power I went down to Imber to look at the question of rearing sheep on Army ground. I was told it was impossible, but I discovered that 10 gamekeepers were going over the ground every day picking up rabbits. If gamekeepers can move with comparative immunity from danger, so can sheep. The De Havilland Aircraft Company have built large grass-drying plants for their airfields. I do not see why the Army and Air Force should not co-operate in the same way.

There are many other things which could be done, but I am critical at this stage of one thing proposed by the Government, the cut in the amount of money to be spent on drainage. Any cut in catchment board expenditure must inevitably mean that the drainage on high ground becomes more difficult. Any cut in the drainage on high ground makes it more difficult for people to plough up the necessary land and thus free more land for the production of fodder crops.

I think the Minister ought to look at this problem again to see whether some improvement cannot be made. As I said earlier, one can be dollar wise and pound foolish, and here, I believe, is something which should be done. I am glad to hear that the implementation of the hill farming and the uplands schemes is going on. I think much could be done—and the Minister talked of this in his speech this afternoon—to improve the advisory services. In the same way, I think a great deal could be done and is being done regarding the question of the actual management of farms through the executive and through the exhortations and action of the Minister.

I believe there is enormous scope for developing the grassland of this country to its full bent. Faced as we are by this economic crisis and as we have now been faced for too long, I believe that what- ever Government is in power they must deal with the problem of making agriculture not only efficient, but also of expanding its production well beyond the target already set.

I think the Minister has set about his task very well, but the task which lies ahead is a very great one. As I said at the beginning of my speech, it is largely a matter of producing the right climate of feeling in this country that agricultural production is our chief mainstay for the power and safety of the £. I hope that the Minister will look at some of the points that have been raised today and will resolve not to be completely overwhelmed by those Treasury arguments which are always advanced against any Minister of Agriculture.