Agriculture

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 11th March 1955.

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Photo of Sir Ian Fraser Sir Ian Fraser , Morecambe and Lonsdale 12:00 am, 11th March 1955

I beg to move, That, in view of the contribution which a prosperous and thriving agriculture makes to the well-being of the country generally and especially to the balance of trade, this House urges Her Majesty's Government to continue and increase its efforts to develop home production of food. The constituency of Morecambe and Lonsdale is one of the most beautiful in Britain. It includes some 600 square miles of moor and fell and lake, some rich valleys and some beautiful rivers, which, incidentally, contain salmon, trout and many other fish. It is not peopled by those who sit in the seats of the mighty but by ordinary, warm-hearted, hardworking farmers and farm workers and others who love the countryside. I consider it extremely good luck to have won in the Ballot and I hope that it may bring good luck to my constituency also.

I have heard it said that it is somewhat unfortunate that this debate should occur today immediately after the Price Review. Indeed, I have been urged to withdraw my Motion so that other important matters may be discussed. I do not see why I should do that. I venture to think that my good fortune renders a service to agriculture as well as to the country by offering an opportunity of reviewing the affairs of this great industry. If we also have the great advantage of being able to comment upon the Price Review, so much the better.

May I start by offering my congratulations to the farmers and farm workers of Britain for the good showing which the Price Review evidences of their courage, steadfastness and hard work during a most adverse year? [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] I offer my sincere congratulations to my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture and his assistants, to the Government and to the National Farmers' Union for once again having arrived at agreement as to the financial provisions to be made for the industry in the forthcoming year.

If I have read it correctly, the Price Review will make certain that at least a further £28 million will be guaranteed to the farmers, although, of course, if they have good fortune, and if they improve their efficiency, as they have done from year to year, they may well do better than that.

I rejoice that the hill farmers, of whom there are many in my constituency, will gain especially by the additional sheep subsidy and by the calf subsidy, but they need more help. I take the opportunity of thanking my right hon. Friend the Minister for arranging last autumn, when some of us represented to him the special hardship which these persons had suffered from the weather, that the benefits which were then available could be wholly paid out to them to provide feed for the winter instead of, as is normally the case, their having to spend a substantial part of those benefits upon improvements.

I rejoice that milk and eggs have been, if not favoured, at any rate dealt with by an improvement in the Price Review. These commodities are produced in the main by "small men", and I am sure that the whole House would wish to encourage the small farmer throughout the land to render his most valuable service to the community. So far as eggs are concerned, Lancashire is well known to be a county which provides these valuable commodities in great abundance.

What are the dominant considerations which have influenced the Minister and the National Farmers' Union in coming to the arrangements which they have made? They will, I am sure, have had in mind our balance of payments. They will have had regard to the fact that the terms of trade may have turned slightly against us and that this trend may continue for some time. We can see this reflected in certain of the provisions that have been made. For example, those methods of helping farming which tend to reduce imports and to stimulate home production have been especially encouraged—the provisions for fertilisers and lime, ploughing grants, the encouragement of grass farming. I pause there to ask the Government not to forget the very great importance of dried grass, which is a very rich mixer in all kinds of animal foods. All those provisions, it seems to me, should go some way towards enabling agriculture to make a further contribution to our balance of payments.

It is well understood that we live only by exporting. It is equally understood that anything we can grow in Britain is as good as an export so far as the balance of payments is concerned. That is why in my Motion I include a brief reference to the contribution which can be made by agriculture towards improving our import-export position. I am sure this will not be lost on the Government, and I urge them to make use of the industry here in our own land, amongst other reasons, because of the great contribution it can make to the solution of this present difficulty. While touching upon balance of payments, I ask the Government one question, whether they have in mind any new proposals for cheaper credit for agriculture.

Another consideration which must have weighed with farmers, the N.F.U. and the Government alike, must have been the weather. I have sat in this House a very long time, and I have noticed that whenever the weather is made an excuse for anything most Members on both sides of the House laugh, but if ever there was an occasion which was not one for laughter, so far as the farmers and farm workers of Britain are concerned, it was the weather last year. It really was a great blow to them, a great blow to the country and to the Government, that such misfortune should have fallen upon us during the period of transition from the way of life to which we had become accustomed during the war and during the years of shortage that followed the war to the newer conditions which now prevail. That we should have survived it so well, with so little dislocation, so little misgiving and uncertainty, was a very remarkable feat.

Another factor that must have weighed with the Government was, of course, that costs are rising, the costs of labour and machinery and maintenance, and, of course, the costs of importing feeding-stuffs from overseas. All these factors must have weighed with them, I have no doubt, and the result is a Price Review which some may think generous, some may think wanting in some respects, but which, I venture to think, is fair in the interests of agriculture and fair to the taxpayers and the nation as a whole.

There is one group of farmers and animals that has not fared so well. It is the pig farmers and the pigs. There are, of course, too many pigs, too many for the bacon factories, and it does not surprise me that the Minister and his advisers have found it necessary in their judgment and with the agreement of the National Farmers' Union to suggest to those who raise pigs that they must do their very best to produce the best quality and not to increase the numbers above those which we now have in our country.

Farmers are wise enough to know that they cannot have it all their own way, that miscalculations may sometimes be made, and I am sure they will be the first to realise that, taking the good with the bad, this particular aspect of the Price Review must be borne and dealt with, and it is my hope that these farmers, with their skill, may, nevertheless, on the reduced price, be able to make a good living by comparison with others and even a good living by comparison with what they have been accustomed to in the past.

I notice that some hon. Gentlemen have put down an Amendment to my Motion, an Amendment which deplores the provision made for pigs. I am very flattered that so much notice is taken of my Motion as this. I am particularly glad to observe that all or almost all of those who have put their names to this important Amendment are townsfolk. Let us who are interested in agriculture rejoice that at any rate five Members of Parliament who sit for populous industrial districts should feel so much concern for the pigs, and let us hope they will also be found to be powerful supporters of agriculture in general.

I think we must resist the Amendment, should it be moved, for it is really an irresponsible wrecking Amendment. Let me, nevertheless, thank the hon. and gallant Member for Brixton (Lieut.-Colonel Lipton), who put it down, for his courtesy in telling me about it and for the interest he shows in agriculture. May I hope that, having shown his versatility, with which we are so familiar, and having, I hope, made a splendid speech, he may think fit not to press the matter, so that this House may be united in its encouragement to agriculture?

I turn to the direct help which the country gives to agriculture by other means that the Price Review, because I cannot help thinking they are of very great importance. Production grants, for example, do not suffer from some of the disadvantages which guaranteed prices suffer from. Production grants go where it is judged best to encourage production in the national interest. They are grants to the people who need them, and not so much to those who do not. They are the most economical way of directing the nation's help to agriculture, and I am glad that by and large the White Paper encourages and increases them.

There are other ways in which the nation helps and should help the countryside. There is water supply, for example. I am surprised and gratified to note that in my constituency alone there have been 48 water schemes in the last few years, which have cost some £200,000. One of those, it is true, is in a small town and absorbs about one-third of that amount, but the remainder are water schemes which bring water to the countryside and especially to farmers.

Then I have learned that some 2,000 telephones have been put into my constituency, especially on farms, during the last three years. A very large number of farms have had electricity brought to them, and there have been some special schemes, which I have encouraged and fostered, which have greatly increased the number of farms which have this most valuable asset not only to the farmer but to the farmer's wife. I would mention water, electricity, drainage, houses, schools—all these amenities—roads, rail development, even T.V. I notice that no less than 5,000 people have television sets in my constituency, which is one of the largest and most remote constituencies in Britain. All these improvements and amenities, which have been made and are being made from time to time, make their direct contribution to the welfare of the countryside. They make it more agreeable for people to live there and are a direct incentive to better agriculture.

I ask the Government, through all their Departments, to continue the process which has been so long a custom in Britain of giving all these national services to the countryside on the best possible terms. They are more usually special terms which, of course, represent a charge on the rest of the country, because these services are vital to the well-being of the whole countryside.

I turn now to the call-up. It is a subject which should be approached with responsibility by all of us, but none can deny that it is a matter of the deepest concern to the countryside. I offer my thanks and congratulations to the Minister of Labour and National Service for the announcement recently made that deferment will take place until some date in May in order that the ravages of last year's weather should be made up to some extent, but I ask that this good provision should be reconsidered and the deferment continued until the end of October. I ask also that the Services should be asked to do what I have found they are very ready to do at the lower levels, that is to give what are called compassionate postings and goodwill postings to young men who come from the rural districts and work on farms so that they may continue their National Service during the coming season but nevertheless lend a hand on the farms during the long evenings or at the week-ends.

We have just had a week during which we have been discussing defence, and it seems clear that the great changes that have taken place in weapons is leading to a reconsideration and possible recasting of the whole problem of personnel to serve the weapons. I notice in particular that Civil Defence has now become, in the consideration of the Government and their advisers, one of the most important aspects of our national defence. Indeed, special battalions are to be raised to deal with this matter, and no one would say that such battalions would not be in the front line.

It seems to me that here is an opportunity, not hitherto presented, of considering in this entirely new situation an entirely new way of using our agriculturists in their military service. Why should they not specially serve in these battalions or some equivalent home defence service, perhaps doing their term of military service over five years for four or four and a half months a year during the months which are not the farming months? In that way they would be able to render their full service to the nation, which I am sure no agriculturist wishes to avoid, and at the same time be able to help on the land during the important times of planting and reaping our harvests. I sincerely commend that suggestion to the Government. I hope that at least they will acknowledge that they have heard what I have said and will give it some consideration.

The Milk Marketing Board has proved itself. Other boards are doing good work in their particular spheres, and I hope that it will not be long before the egg marketing board passes out of the stage of discussion and becomes a reality. That, coupled with the rise in the minimum price for eggs, should go a long way towards giving satisfaction to this most important part of the farming industry. In passing, I congratulate the National Farmers' Union upon the success it has had with the Fatstock Marketing Corporation. In urging the further development of marketing boards, I prefer that they should be producer boards rather than that the aspects of the industry which they would cover should be nationalised.

Agriculture is our most fundamental industry and our most ancient and, I think, the most respected, but the agricultural vote is a minority vote. We ought to realise that it does not consist solely of farmers and farm workers. It should be in the minds of accountants, solicitors, professional men generally, doctors, nurses, local authority servants and all those who live in the countryside, as well as a great many workers in mechanical industries who make tractors and agricultural instruments, that their livelihood is also in the soil of Britain. Those who have an interest in agriculture may well be a very large part indeed of the whole community.

When all is said and done, however, political power is in the constituencies and there are not many constituencies where the agricultural vote, even including all those ancillary persons whom I have mentioned, would be a majority. It is, therefore, profoundly important for the agricultural industry and its future that any policy pursued at any time should be a reasonable one. It is one thing to ask what is reasonable from the standpoint of a farmer or a farm worker, but it may be another to ask what is reasonable for the man or woman in the town or the housewife in Birmingham or Manchester. The two may look at the matter quite genuinely and sincerely from different points of view. It is important that agricultural policy should be reasonable and should appear to be reasonable, because that way lies the greatest possible degree of stability.

We have passed through times of war, through times of acute shortage after a war, and for 15 years we have had a national policy which was born of adversity and of fear but which, nevertheless, has been one in which farming has flourished and considerable improvements have been made to our land and farming machinery and to the whole heart of the industry. But time passes, and inevitably the ravages of war are healed, devastated lands throughout the world come to be tilled, and once again shortage passes into regular supplies, even in some instances into plenty.

What are we to do then? If one is a Socialist, and especially if one is on the Opposition side, it is easy. All one has to do is to have the best of both worlds. One does not have to face the possibility of a financial crisis. The Opposition think they have nothing to do but to complain and point to the good years that have passed which they claim to have invented. But that is not true. If the prosperous period was invented by anybody, it was invented by the adversity of war, and if any individuals are to get credit for the results, they would be Lord Woolton, Lord Hudson, and the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Don Valley (Mr. T. Williams). The credit for the new way of dealing with our land and its problem is shared by all parties, and it ill befits any party to take particular credit for it.

But the years pass and the economic circumstances pass. I consider it most fortunate for Britain that at the time when this problem fell to be dealt with a Conservative Government was returned to power. Had it been otherwise, I have no doubt that the Labour Party, running true to form, would have stuck to its controls and its rationing because it had not been able to think out any policy that is dissociated from controls until a crisisarose—crises are part of its meat and drink—and then agriculture would have been in a worse position. It will be remembered that in the six years of Labour Government there was a crisis every year.

So Britain was fortunate enough at this particular time to have a Government with a new philosophy which was capable of thinking what to do and capable of adjusting matters in the time of transition. I would offer my sincere congratulations to the country on its good fortune, and the Government on its good administration and policy in bringing this stability to this important industry.

I conclude by saying that nothing is more important to the farmer and the farm worker than stability, but he will not get it by an undue measure of controls and restrictions. He will get it by the goodwill of the people as a whole and by a reasonable policy which commends itself to all, not only to those in my constituency, for example, but to all those who live in the great industrial districts. Because the Government have pursued such a policy, I offer them my thanks and my congratulations.