I am sorry that the Minister of Agriculture is not here at the moment, though, of course, we understand and sympathise with his absence. He has, of course, had to go round to Bedford Square to apologise and explain. Indeed, after the speech of the Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, he has plenty to apologise for and to explain, because that indeed was a speech, if ever one was made, to alarm every farmer in the country.
Ever since the return of this Government. there has been in the countryside a malaise in the farming community. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] That malaise has increased until it has reached the proportions of a crisis of confidence. It is that loss of confidence that we had hoped might have been disposed of by this debate today. Instead of that, what have we heard from the Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland? First, that the scheme for the injection of money to increase production, an injection which, when it occurred in 1947–a period of farmer confidence—produced in the first year an increase of over 8½ per cent., has in fact produced nothing at all now.
The hon. Gentleman said that he hoped we had successfully passed the critical point and were moving towards the objective. Translated into English what that means is that the effort to increase production had not produced anything, but we were now beginning to hope we were not in reverse. That is what it really amounts to, and that is what in reality he is saying—that this injection of money is not producing the result which it did before, and which we all hoped it would.
The answer is quite a simple one. It is the one which I put to the hon. Gentleman. It is lack of confidence in the Government's policy. I have talked to farmers in a great many districts. I have yet to meet one farmer who is not engaged in seeking to reduce his capital commitments. I told the House the other day how, as an executor and trustee, last summer I had to dispose of three farms with vacant possession in Northamptonshire. There was not a single bid at the auction for one of them. Our agents were John D. Wood, and they told me they were having that experience all over the place. I believe the market for vacant farms is a far better test of confidence in agriculture than any accountant's figures as to profits. That is the state of affairs, and it is really that crisis of confidence which we are facing today. We hoped—all of us, because we all wish to see British agriculture prosperous and increasing—that agriculture was one of the things on which we had a joint policy. Now, from the mouth of the Joint Under-Secretary, we have had a categorical repudiation of every principle behind the 1947 Act, while at the same time he says the Government are going to maintain the Act. I know that that is not the point of view of the Minister of Agriculture, but the Minister of Agriculture is not in the Cabinet, although he is a Member of the Government running a policy fundamentally inconsistent with the 1947 Agriculture Act. That is the trouble.
The two questions to which the farmers want answers are these: How do you fix prices which you can no longer control? How do you guarantee markets which you can no longer plan? In other words, how can the 1947 Act, which is eminently a planning instrument, be maintained within a planned economy when the planned economy of which it is a part is destroyed? Those are the fundamental questions to which farmers require answers.
Let us consider what the 1947 Act did. Its basic purpose was to provide that farmers should produce, not for a shifting speculative market, but for a contract. The State made a contract with the farmer to take the produce at a contract price. That is what was done when prices were fixed in February; a contract was fixed between the farmers and the nation. It has sometimes been referred to as "featherbedding." That is nonsense. It is not "featherbedding" when, over an industry, a contract is made for a price prior to production. That was the basis of the 1947 Act.
Because the farmer worked to a contract, he was able to concentrate upon the technical problems of production, and he was not diverted by having to be salesman, higgler and marketeer; he could get on with the job of production instead of having to do the marketing job, the bargaining job and the dealing job. As a result we have seen a vast improvement in technical production on our farms. Farming has improved technically more Than any comparable industry over a similar period, and, it has done so very largely because by the 1947 Act, and by the war-time Orders which preceded it, the farmer has been freed from the diversions of the market and has been left a clear field in which to concentrate upon improved technical production.
We have asked the Secretary of State for Scotland—and everybody has observed the utter failure of his answer—how, for instance, a price can be fixed in February which is of any use to any farmer unless we are able to control the cost factors which build up to the price fixed. For instance, if a price is being fixed for meat this February, how is that done if control is lost of the price of the feedingstuffs which are one of the main factors in the eventual price for the meat the price of which is to be fixed?