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Although there was a preliminary discussion on the conclusion of the Annual Price Review on the day following its issue, we felt that, now that the facts and figures and implications have been assimilated, the House was entitled to a further opportunity of examining those various conclusions. No doubt many other matters will arise affecting the whole issue of the Government's attitude towards agriculture. I may even raise one or two myself.
I shall have little to say on the terms of the agreement, because I understand that they appear to have been accepted as just about right. Indeed, I do not see how they could have been otherwise. A vote of no confidence in the Government had been receiving plenty of support at the National Farmers' Union annual conference, but when an affirmative decision was almost certain the leaders had the discussion adjourned until they had heard what the Chancellor of the Exchequer had to say at the N.F.U. annual dinner the same evening.
The Chancellor was warned of what was happening at Bedford Square and knew all about the threat of the vote of no confidence. He went to the dinner that same evening and he said his piece with interest even higher than the Bank Rate. There was, of course, very loud applause after what he had said and, not unnaturally, the next morning the motion was duly withdrawn. Thus the Government escaped a vote of no confidence from the National Farmers' Union by the skin of their teeth, even though the Minister and hon. Members opposite generally have been trying to assure themselves that there was no lack of confidence throughout the rural areas of the country. The Government had jettisoned one Minister of Agriculture upon a very flimsy excuse in 1954, and it would not have done for them to have lost another early in 1955.
But there was another very good reason why the Chancellor should once again come to the rescue of the Minister of Agriculture and the Government. Quite unknown to the National Farmers' Union delegates, but well understood by the Chancellor, a General Election was just round the corner. We have just been hearing about some pre-Election concessions, and it seems to have become almost a fever with the Government to try to get home in a photo-finish every time.. Here was a grand opportunity for the Chancellor to steady the waverers in Norfolk, Suffolk, Wiltshire, Lancashire, Warwickshire and other rural areas. I am bound to say to his credit—if credit is due to him—that he did himself proud, and the farmers forgot 1954, at least temporarily.
All that is now needed for Election purposes, apparently, is for the Minister of Agriculture to repeat, seven days a week, that it is the policy of the Government to maintain a prosperous and healthy agricultural industry, and to state that they will stand loyally by the principles of the 1947 Act. To the extent that they do—if, by any misfortune, they get the chance—we shall certainly welcome the compliment, despite their persistent efforts to claim parentage of the 1947 Act. What we do not welcome is their constant wobbling all over the place, keeping the industry in a state of confusion about one commodity or another.
Those who supported the vote of no confidence in the Government at the National Farmers' Union annual conference, and many others.
We all know what happened about pigs in 1954—and even in 1955. Now there are the classic examples of tillage and coarse grains. The Government have changed their minds three times in four years and if the hon. and gallant Member for Isle of Ely (Major Legge-Bourke) does not know that, I intend to tell him. I suppose that is what the Minister means when he talks about flexible stability within a free market.
Let us see what has happened over the last four years. Paragraph 12 (c) of Command Paper 8556 of 1952 says:
Through the better use of grasslands, release 1 million acres for addition to the tillage area (apart from the additional acreage expected to be ploughed up by June, 1952, compared with 1951). A substantial part of the one million acres would carry coarse grains.
So, apart from the normal ploughing up that was expected, the Government hoped for at least another 1 million acres for tillage. In paragraph 15 of Command Paper 9104 of 1954, however, they say:
It should, however, be possible to reach the objective of 60 per cent. without such a big increase in tillage as the 1.000,000 acres mentioned in the 1952 White Paper …
Then, in the 1955 White Paper, they say:
Following the return to free market conditions, there has been a fall in tillage area—469,000 acres in the United Kingdom in the last year … The Government consider that the best use will be made of our land in present circumstances if the output and use of home-grown feedingstuffs is increased.
They have changed their minds three times in four years. In 1952, they wanted an extra 1 million acres of tillage; in 1954, they did not, and in 1955 they did—with interest, and so they increased the price of coarse grains for next year's harvest. They are also increasing the ploughing up grant to try to restore some of the tillage acreage lost last year, which would not have been lost were it not for the words of the 1954 White Paper.
That is not what we call stability; it is just plain nonsense. They do and they do not; they do not and they do, and they just do not know where they are. As a result of this chopping and changing last year somebody imported 2 million tons of coarse grains at a cost of £55 million in dollars. I suppose that we needed the 2 million tons, but who imported it?
I should like to ask the Minister whether the Government have any control over dollar imports for imported feeding stuffs or anything else. From an examination of the last three or four White Papers it is clear that the Government have been positively mesmerised, either by world trends or their doctrinaire attachment to free markets—and all the time the industry is left to guess what it ought or ought not to do.
The Minister of Agriculture, speaking at a Conservative agricultural conference a few days ago, said that the farmer knew what his own land could produce to the best economic advantage better than any Government, and that it was not the Government's job to direct farmers what to produce. Of course it is not, but why do the Government keep leading the farmers up the garden by telling them to do something this year,
and not to do it the next year, and to do something else the year after? If that is the best that the Government can do under what they call free market conditions, Heaven help the agricultural industry and, perhaps, also the Treasury. In the same speech, the Minister said that the Government's obligations under the 1947 Act would cost about £250 million. We know that the aggregate increase in costs of production amounted to more than £39 million last year, but what does the other £10 million represent? Paragraph 13 of the 1954 White Paper says:
The present cost to the taxpayer of the support given to British agriculture is very high—of the order of £200 million.
It goes on to say that further steps would be taken to try to reduce this contribution. I should like to ask the right hon. Gentleman to what extent the deficiency payments system has contributed to this increase—or to what extent it was caused by the 1 million pigs for which they asked, but did not want, in 1953.
We know that the net income of farmers went down by £40 million last year. The Government contribution has gone up by £50 million, and the cost of living has gone up. Who is getting the swag? There is certainly a story there which somebody ought to tell us something about. Perhaps the Minister will also tell us something about the livestock auction marts, for I cannot recall that anything has been said since the great transformation to the free market. We should like to know whether or not the auction marts are functioning satisfactorily, and whether Treasury interests are being properly safeguarded.
We should like to know how many slaughterhouses are now in operation, and, also, whether any estimate has been made of the annual loss through the inability to make full use of the byproducts of these thousands of slaughterhouses. After all, any losses which accrue must be met by the Treasury, and the farming community get the odium.
What help has been given or offered to the Farmers' Marketing Corporation to erect the modern abattoirs of which they can make the fullest use? I recall that the Government said that they were willing to give all the help they could to the Farmers' Marketing Corporation if the farmers established it.
While we accept the result of the Price Review we cannot escape the feeling that with their wobbling and waffling the Government have completely disturbed the confidence in the industry. For the first time since 1946—when there were good reasons for it—there is a reduction in output instead of an increase. We admit, of course, that the weather last year was rather bad, but so it was in 1947, and I did not hear any expressions of regret then from hon. Members opposite, who then sat on this side of the House. However, the disastrous weather of 1954 was not the complete answer.
The Minister said, at the Conference to which I have already referred:
I do not think that any Government in living memory have achieved so much in three years.
The right hon. Gentleman was speaking at the Conservative agricultural conference in Cambridge. I can only believe that either the right hon. Gentleman allowed his imagination to run riot, or that he must be singularly ill-informed. Has no one told the right hon. Gentleman that industrial output in this country between 1946 and 1951 increased annually at the rate of 7 per cent., and that industrial output has increased over the past three years by only just over 3 per cent. per annum?
Has the right hon. Gentleman not seen the figures in his own White Paper for 1955, which show that the annual increase in agricultural production between 1946 to 1947 and 1950 to 1951 was 6 per cent. and that the annual increase since the present Government took office is something short of an increase of 2 per cent.? What does the right hon. Gentleman mean by saying that no Government have ever done so much?
I am subject to correction if I am wrong, but I always understood that the real wealth of a nation was its industrial and agricultural production. If that is the true measurement, then this Government are not only hopelessly behind but they have a very bad record. I know, of course, that agriculturists generally have been the best political suicide club for generations, but I do not think that they will swallow that statement of the right hon. Gentleman.
That reminds me of something that the Parliamentary Secretary said on 31st March. I gave him warning that I would refer to this. By a disingenuous juggling with figures he was trying to discount a statement that I had made a few days earlier. Referring to the Government's constant boast that they had abolished rationing I had said from this Box that the Government had done precious little towards making it possible to deration. I said that between 1947 to 1948 and 1951 to 1952 output had increased at the rate of 5 per cent. per annum and that over the last three years the increase was a little over 1 per cent. per annum. Actually, I was wrong, and I apologise to the House for that. The increase was not 5 per cent., it was 6 per cent., from 1946 to 1947 until 1950 to 1951 or 1951 to 1952. One can take whichever latter year one wishes to take.
The Parliamentary Secretary produced some figures from somewhere to disprove my assertion. He certainly did not use the Government White Papers for 1952, 1953, 1954 or 1955. Perhaps he has his own private source of statistics. Could it be that the hon. Gentleman got his figures from the Conservative and Unionist Election Campaign Guide? I do not know. Anyhow, this is what the hon. Gentleman said in reply to what I had said previously:
The facts are that starting from 1945 to 1946 and finishing with 1950 to 1951 there was an increase in the index from 130 points to 143. That is 16 points in six years. That makes an average increase of 2⅔ points per annum.
If one takes 130 from 143 one is not left with 16 in my reckoning. One is left with 13, but that is immaterial. The hon. Gentleman mentioned that between 1945 to 1946 and 1950 to 1951—he was in the House at the time, I think.
I am sorry. I apologise.
At least, the hon. Gentleman ought to know that the war was still on in 1945 and that 1946 was worse from the food point of view than several of the wartime years. I can recall that we were buying coarse grains from the United States and having to divert them to Germany to help to keep the human family alive. I can remember that we purchased large quantities of wheat from Australia and had to divert them to Ceylon and India to help stave off famine there.
The hon. Gentleman must know that our expansion programme was announced in August, 1947. What are the simple facts in answer to the Parliamentary Secretary? Does he agree with the figures contained in the various White Papers of his Department from 1952 to 1955?
I have hesitated to interrupt the right hon. Gentleman's speech because I can deal with it, probably, more fully in my reply to the debate, but the figures I quoted, and a copy of which I subsequently sent to him, were extracted from the White Papers.
It is true that these figures are sometimes revised afterwards in the light of later information, but the relevant point here is that I started from the index figure in 1944 to 1945, at the point at which the Labour Government, of which the right hon. Gentleman was a member, started. The date point was 1st June, 1945. The Labour Government started a month later. I went from that time until the time when the Labour Government finished in 1951, the year being 1950 to 1951, and that was six years. I am sorry about the mistake in arithmetic, but I was certainly not misrepresenting the facts.
It only goes to show that the hon. Gentleman deliberately included a year during which there were many months of war after we took office, and 1946, which was literally a famine year. The hon. Gentleman must not misrepresent what I said. I deliberately took the years from 1947 to 1948 until 1951 to 1952—perhaps I ought to have said 1950 to 1951, but it is the same thing—and I said that the increased output was so and so. The hon. Gentleman, to try to draw a false picture arising out of what I did not say, used the year 1945 to 1946.
In the first year, the year 1945 to 1946, there was increased production, which went to the right hon. Gentleman's credit. It was not until the second year of the Labour Government that there was a fall in output. I simply gave the figures of the period of the Labour Government. I did not add anything to them or subtract anything from them.
The hon. Gentleman, as a poultry keeper himself, knew that in 1946 we were having to kill off our livestock because were were trying to keep the human family alive in Germany, Ceylon and India. The simple truth is that we announced our expansion programme in August, 1947, but from 1946 to 1947, the first year in which it can be said we had a true opportunity of expansion, the increase was not as the hon. Gentleman put it but 117, or 6 per cent.
It is 117 in all the four White Papers that this Government have issued. In 1950–51 the index figure is 141. Whether he takes the figures from 1946–47 to 1950–51 or to 1951–52, it makes no difference; there is an annual average increase of 6 per cent., and nothing that he can say can alter that. I conclude on that point by telling him that the weather was not too good in 1947, but I am willing to accept that year.
We will soon see whether it does or not; but, of course, the Government have changed the figures two or three times, and it is difficult to keep pace with them. I will take the latest figure of all. We had better keep these figures strictly accurate because there is an Election coming and I should like the hon. Gentleman to give accurate figures in the Election and not inaccurate figures.
In the 1954 White Paper, subscribed to, presumably, by the hon. Gentleman as Parliamentary Secretary, the index for 1946–47 is 117. The index for 1950–51 is 141—an increase, therefore, of 6 per cent. each year. If the hon. Gentleman wants to come to the White Paper for 1955 he will find that it tells the same sort of thing. The Government have dropped out the 1950–51 figures for some good reason of their own. The index for 1946–47 in the 1955 White Paper is 119, but the index for 1951–52 is 148—again, an average of 6 per cent. increase over the years. These are figures from the Government's White Papers; they are not my own production or from the Conservative and Unionist Election Campaign Guide. I am not quoting any party figures. If he will tell me what he would like me to quote from, I will quote from it.
They are all the hon. Gentleman's. In the 1954 White Paper, the figure again is 117. In the 1955 White Paper the Government have lifted it to 119, but it leaves the relativity exactly the same with a continuous increase in production of 6 per cent. each year. Now that the hon. Gentleman knows the truth, I hope that we shall hear accurate figures used during the Election.
I want to say a few words on another subject. For years, I have admired the efforts of hon. Members opposite to claim the parentage—or the partial parentage—of the 1947 Act. I have enjoyed that especially, knowing full well that no Conservative Government that I have ever seen would have dared to have introduced any such Measure as the 1947 Bill. It has been suggested that the policy was both thought out and the foundations well and truly laid by the wartime Government. I lived at the Ministry during those five years, but only as a very humble junior, and I am ready to confess at once that the then Minister was receptive to new ideas, especially for use in the famine conditions of wartime. No doubt some of these ideas were new to him although old to us, as I shall show in a moment. It may be that they did help us in 1947, but what would have happened if a Conservative Government had been returned in 1945 is very doubtful indeed.
What we do know is that the Conservative Party never had an agricultural policy in peacetime, at least during the last thirty years, during which I have been in the House. Between the wars they allowed the industry to decline to its lowest level this century. Most farmers' incomes were negligible, farm workers' wages a scandal, and farm buildings and equipment just decayed. It was the Labour Party which produced and applied a policy which brought security, prosperity and confidence. This is a point which I want to emphasise.
The Labour Party did not wait until the Second World War to produce an agricultural policy. It may interest the Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, as well as the research boys who produced the Conservative and Unionist Election Campaign Guide, to know that the main features of the 1947 Act were produced before either the Minister or the Chancellor became Members of this House. I ought to make that transparently clear.
I will give the date in a moment. The policy stated:
The establishment of security of tenure for efficient farmers. The provision of credit on easy terms."—
this is important—
The stabilisation of prices by the collective purchase of imported grain and wheat. The elimination of waste by the development of collective marketing. The establishment of efficient services of electrical power and transport in rural areas. The protection of the agricultural worker by the establishment of an adequate minimum wage, effectively enforced, and of reasonable hours of labour. The improvement of the services of health, housing and education in rural districts. The provision of facilities for the acquisition of land, both for smallholdings and for allotments.
I do not mind what the hon. and gallant Gentleman adds to it, but if, since the date of the production of this policy there has been a change of mind, because some people have thought again, that only goes to show that they are wiser today than they were yesterday, and I have no apologies to make. What I am saying is that the main features of the 1947 policy were embodied in this policy.
Hon. Members opposite would like to know the date of this policy. The date was when the Minister and the Chancellor were two very bright young men, not yet tainted with politics, votes of confidence, agricultural policies, or indeed, General Elections. The date was 11th January, 1929, long before the Minister came to this House. It was produced at a period when a policy for agriculture was urgently necessary, but when none was forthcoming from the Tory Party. It is true that the opportunity to apply the policy was delayed until 1945, but the thinking had been done years before by members of the Labour Party. In the interests of truth, since there is a General Election just round the corner, I thought I had better place these facts on record.
Every speech made by the Minister and other hon. Members opposite about free markets, the law of supply and demand, control, rationing, strait-jackets and that sort of thing, conclusively prove two things. One is that if the Conservative Party had been returned to office in 1945 there would have been no 1947 Act comparable to the one on the Statute Book. Secondly, it would be a positive danger to entrust a Government of that kind with the Agriculture Act for another five years. Does any hon. Member believe for a moment, after what they have done with and to this Act since they have been in office, that the Government would have dared to pass either Part I, or Part II of the 1947 Act, with its guarantees and controls?
The simple truth is that they hate controls and would not have dared face the House with a Bill of that kind. There is only one reason why they are administering the Act today. It is because they are just afraid to repeal it, at least until after the General Election. That is the difference between the Conservative Party and those who sit on these benches. We believe in the policy we produced and that no doctrinaire theories should stand in the way.
The right hon. Member has said a great deal in, as he put it, the interests of simple truth. May I ask him about his reply to the interruptions of my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Horncastle (Commander Maitland)? He said he changed his mind about land nationalisation after the policy he read to us just now had been formulated. If that be so, why was it that in "Let us Face the Future," and in its 1950 policy, his party stated that it believed in land nationalisation?
I should not be surprised. Whatever my right hon. Friend may believe in and what I believe in and what is party policy are different things. Certain hon. Members on the benches opposite found their way to this House, by very small majorities, only because they declared throughout their Parliamentary divisions that a Labour Government would nationalise the land. The Labour Government did not nationalise the land. The last time it was discussed at a party conference the suggestion was turned down. If a part of the policy produced in 1929–30 years before the Conservative Party gave any thought to an agricultural policy—has since been withdrawn it ought to be a matter for congratulation and not condemnation by the hon. and gallant Member for the Isle of Ely.
I was saying that the difference between the Conservative Party and the party on these benches is that we believe in the policy we produced and would not allow any doctrinaire theories to stand in its way. We believe in a highly efficient agriculture, as efficiency is absolutely essential to the economy of this country. But, to obtain that efficiency we are quite convinced that there needs to be a large element of security and continuity. I entirely agree with the Minister that production regardless of cost is no longer necessary, nor desirable. We know that high farming has proved to be a paying proposition and we know that low cost farming is a necessity. We know that quality in the new conditions of employment which the Labour Party established in 1946–49 is essential. We rely upon the county agricultural executive committees and the Agricultural Advisory Service to play their full part in achieving these things. Not for the first time, we protest very strongly against those backwoodsmen who persistently snipe at a body of men who are doing a great voluntary service.
If this House wills the end—that is, an efficient agricultural industry making a great contribution to our national economy—it has to will the means. As a party, we are quite prepared to do that by standing four square by the principles embodied in the 1947 Act.
I very much welcome this debate. I think it is very fitting that just before the House dissolves we should look at the achievements of the farming industry during the past few years—achievements of which every member of that industry can feel justly proud and achievements which reflect the soundness and success of the agricultural policy of the Government.
The period of office of the present Government has coincided with a period of very great importance to agriculture in this country, the period of transition from controls and rationing to plenty, freedom of choice and rising quality. The advantages that that change has brought to housewives and to the nation at large cannot seriously be disputed.
This afternoon I want to show that by our policy we have combined plenty and freedom of choice for the consumer and for the farmer with firm and comprehensive support to the agricultural producer and continued expansion of agricultural production. We have fulfilled the obligations of the Government—I say this with absolute confidence—under the Agriculture Act, 1947, in spirit and in letter.
I want now to refer to the speech which we have just heard from the right hon. Member for Don Valley (Mr. T. Williams). At times it seemed to me to display an astonishing lack of contact with realities. It is a well known paradox that the Socialist Party, which so loudly proclaims itself as the champion of progress, always thinks and plans for a past era. The right hon. Member and his friends, judging by what I have read of their recently announced policy—it was strange that the right hon. Member never once made reference in his speech to his party's policy—seem to be consumed by a wistful longing for the good old days of rationing and controls, when producers and consumers did as they were told, and had to. That sort of thing is four years out of date, because now we are in a more challenging, a more robust and constructive period. The blue print that the right hon. Member and his friends have designed for British agriculture, so far as I can understand it, would lead inevitably to rigidity and rationing. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] I shall have another word to say about that in a moment. The emphasis once again is on orders and directions, on planning from the centre and huge Government-sponsored organisations.
Before the right hon. Gentleman leaves that electioneering cry of his about rationing, which he introduced very usefully from the Conservatives' point of view in the South Norfolk by-election, will he tell us why he thinks that a Commission for the importation of meat or wheat would necessarily involve rationing?
The right hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends remind me of the earnest headmaster who said, "I am resolved to instil a spirit of cheerfulness in this school, even if I have to thrash every boy to within an inch of his life." I really feel that with regard to this policy the Leader of the Opposition has given his colleagues the same advice as a Prime Minister gave in the last century when he said, "Gentlemen, it does not matter much what we say as long as we all say the same."
I want to turn from the right hon. Gentleman's lucubrations to a more cheerful picture, because that description fits, whether we survey the record of achievement of the past few years or take a look forward into the future. Memories are short, and I think it is salutory that we should all remember that not so long ago the ration book dominated our lives. Then the emphasis to the farmers was on quantity, and cost and quality were secondary considerations. In those days the Government were the sole purchaser of by far the greater part of farming output. Demand was in excess of supply, and no effort was needed to sell.
Now, thanks to the efforts of the farming community and thanks to the success of the Government's financial and economic policy, supplies of food are available on a scale which made it possible to restore freedom. This by any standard is a great achievement. I am sure that we must all welcome that change in our fortunes as a sign of a great improvement in the nation's economic health.
In making our new design, we were determined to have a system which gave free choice to the housewife and the farmer and at the same time proper support to the producer. My predecessors worked out the plans, and those plans are working well. Every housewife knows today how much better the shops are catering for her needs in quantity, quality and variety.
I made a speech about price the other day, and if the hon. Gentleman will read the report of that speech, he will find the answer to his intervention.
The preferences of the housewife have been made known through the price system to farmers who are shaping their production accordingly. The point for us to remember is that today the consumer is once again in charge. But free choice for the consumer has to be reconciled with security for the farmer. It is quite natural that after 15 years of State control the farming community should have had some misgivings about changing, but, in the event, their misgivings have already proved unfounded and are now steadily giving way to increasing confidence.
What we have done by the provision of guaranteed prices is to provide a sound basis of security and scope above that floor for the producers, by skill and experience in providing what the consumer wants, to do still better. If the market price is less than the standard guaranteed price, the Exchequer makes up the difference. That is the basic principle, and it is working fairly. All the time we are seeking still better ways of implementing these guarantees, and improvements in detail are continually being introduced.
The point I want to make is this. Only in the completely artificial marketing conditions of rationing and price control can a general fixed price system work. Hon. Members opposite seem to want to bring that system back, but I say quite categorically that one cannot bring back a fixed-price system, save with reckless disregard of cost, without also returning to the worst features of control and allocation.
Hon. Members opposite have been careful to say—I think the right hon. Member for Don Valley said it again today—that they intend no return to rationing. They may not intend it, but they have not explained how effective controls of the type they envisage can be used without ultimately creating the need for rationing. They seem to me to be deluding themselves and the nation if they pretend that rationing will not be the final result. We certainly do not want to restore those conditions.
Making up the deficiency as we are doing assures a proper return to the producer and at the same time encourages him to produce the kind of goods and products that the market wants. It gives the consumer and the country the benefit of buying at world prices, while encouraging the producer to produce a high volume of home food of the right kind and the right quantities. This objective never could be achieved in times of plenty and peace if prices were rigidly fixed and schedules of quality, grade and season were issued from offices in Whitehall.
When these changes which we have introduced were made, there were suggestions that it was a device for the Government to withdraw support from the farmer. But today the opposite of that is seen to be the truth. Last year the cost of support to agriculture was about £250 million, and in the current year it is likely to be rather higher. That is a lot of money, but in the aggregate I am convinced that the nation is getting value for it. Once again here is concrete evidence that the Government are standing fully and firmly behind their obligations under the Agriculture Act.
Hon. Members opposite allege sometimes that the free market we have reestablished and the methods we have chosen for assisting home agriculture are unnecessarily costly to the Exchequer. But the market is not being depressed, nor the Exchequer liability increased by our guarantee system, unless by the volume of production which is called forth as a result of the guarantees. Few hon. Members, I think, would suggest that we are wrong in aiming for the highest level of economic output that we can get. The market price is clearly determined by, and reflects the balance between, supplies coming forward and the demand for them.
I now wish to refer to the middleman. What about the suggestion that the Government's policy is providing an easy living for the middleman at the expense of the producer and the consumer? I know that it is easy to tilt at the distributor, particularly if we call him a middleman, but we must not forget that, from the livestock dealer, who takes surplus supplies off the local market and finds markets elsewhere for them, to the wholesaler and the retailer, who see that the customer gets what she wants when she wants it, the distributor renders a necessary and useful function.
What evidence is there for the allegation, which I understand is sometimes made, that the middleman and the retailer are absorbing the large sums of money which are devoted to the support of agriculture, and also causing the housewife to pay more than she need for her food? I know that some of this criticism is directed against the meat trade. Some butchers may have been averaging prices between home and imported meat, and charging more for imported frozen meat than was really justified by the prices charged by my Department. That is why I wrote a letter to the retail butchers some weeks ago, and the retail prices of imported meat have dropped since then.
Some criticism of retailers' prices is unreasonable. After all, they are today giving improved services beyond what they could give in the days of control and rationing, and these improved services cost extra money. That does not mean that I do not think we ought to be continually on the watch for chances of encouraging better and more up-to-date methods of distribution. That is why I have recently set up a high-powered committee on horticultural marketing, and why I am now on the point of setting up a pig marketing reorganisation committee. I have no patience whatever with abuses, whether perpetrated by middlemen or any other section, but I am not prepared, as many hon. Members of the Opposition seem to be, to damn the whole of a trade because of misdemeanours alleged against a few members of it.
The answer to the middleman allegation is discriminating and even aggresive buying, accompanied by the most active encouragement of competition. What does the party opposite recommend? Fixed guaranteed prices and controlled retail prices, but have the members of that party thought out how such a system could work? Who will pay the fixed guaranteed prices to the producer? Who will foot the bill for losses of State enterprises that must inevitably occur if those who are going to buy all produce have to buy it at fixed prices, irrespective of the state of the market, and if buyers for that produce have to be found again sometimes at give-away prices?
How will the middleman be eliminated? Apparently, the State-sponsored machine which hon. Gentlemen opposite have in mind will be taking over wholesale distribution. In other words, it will be a return to State trading in a very big way. I cannot think that this will ever come off, but what would happen to the quality of foodstuffs under such a system?
Very definitely, as a success. I have said many times that milk and bread are two things with which large-scale organisation of sale and distribution is possible.
The kind of system which hon. and right hon. Gentlemen opposite have advocated would also be absolutely fatal to variety. Does the party opposite really want a return to the system that produced the kind of meat that we used to get under control?
The story does not end there, because the party opposite, I gather, also intend to introduce retail price control. How would that work in practice? Apparently, hon. and right hon. Gentlemen opposite wish to control prices at below market prices. Thus, at the controlled prices, demand would be bound to exceed supply, and it follows that some system for sharing out supplies to consumers must accompany any effective price control system. There are many ways of doing it, and all of them are distasteful to the consumer—queues, favouritism, under-the-counter operations, conditional sales and rationing. Hon. Members who have had experience of these operations in the days of food control should know that this is true, and should know that this is what happens with price control.
I will deal later with the allegations about what we propose, but the right hon. Gentleman says that, if we control prices in the shops at below market price, demand would then be bound to exceed supply; hence all the other things which the right hon. Gentleman forecast. That must mean that supplies in the shops at the moment are not sufficient for effective demand. What controls them now?
There are so many other things I want to say in this agriculture debate, and one of the difficulties is that there is so much to talk about and so little time in which to do it.
This Government have made production grants a particular feature of their policy. The Opposition reduced these grants, and we restored and increased them.
I hope the right hon. Gentleman will not make a party point on that. It was the Labour Government which initiated certain production grants, with which we always agreed, but, when we introduced them, we usually had a four-year period, and they only faded away after that period expired.
I want to be just, and I will give the right hon. Gentleman the credit for having started a number of these grants, but I do not give him so much credit for having allowed them to fade away. I believe that they are very sound in principle, and that in practice they inject ready cash into production, and in many cases are a particular help to the small farmer and the farmer on the more difficult land. We have reintroduced or improved the fertiliser subsidy, the liming subsidy, the ploughing grant and the calf subsidy and grants for drainage, water supplies and the marginal production schemes. It is estimated that these production grants will cost about £60 million this year, compared with about £50 million last year and with just over £30 million when we came into office.
Will the right hon. Gentleman also say what the Government intend to do about cheap credit facilities for farmers, which was one of the things which the Conservative Party promised, and so far we have not had that promise fulfilled?
Again, I have made statements in this House on this point and I have said that I agree that it is an important thing. I have studied it very carefully, and I must tell the House that so far I have not found any wide gap in the facilities that are already available. I am keeping a very close eye on this, because if there was a bad gap it would be serious. I have quoted figures in the House on several occasions. I can only say that I am keeping an open mind and that it remains our policy to ensure that credit facilities are available. I believe that they are available today.
I want to say this about horticulture. I am glad that we have been able to increase the tariffs on a wide range of horticultural products during the past two years. This has been a substantial help to the industry. I well know the difficulties with which horticultural producers are grappling, and we will continue to safeguard the welfare of this most important section of the industry.
The right hon. Member for Don Valley referred to the fall in the tillage area. It is true that the tillage area has fallen recently, and the right hon. Gentleman quoted this as a proof that our desires have not always been fulfilled. I remind him, however, that the same thing occurred very often during his period of office too, when the results achieved looked very odd compared with the plans he had made in advance.
I hope that those acres which have come off tillage will go into good grass leys, but I would be particularly sorry to see a falling trend in tillage acreage in the traditionally arable farming areas. I hope that that will not happen. It has happened only to a small extent in those areas so far. I repeat again that we need a high arable acreage for many reasons, in particular for balance of payments reasons. That was why we increased the guaranteed prices this year for barley and oats.
I want for a moment to consider what has happened to the aggregate net output of the industry during the present Government's term of office. Up till the beginning of the past exceptionally bad season the net output continued steadily to increase. Since the Government took office, the indices have risen from 145 in 1951—that was a few months before the Labour Government went out of office—to 155 in 1954. The forecast for this year, after the exceptionally bad season, is two points down at 153.
It will be two or three points down. I remind the right hon. Gentleman that in 1946–47, when he had the misfortune to have a bad year, I think, the drop was six points. That deals with net output.
What about the net income of the industry? The average aggregate net income of the industry over the past four years has substantially exceeded the average of the previous five years. The gross investment in fixed equipment, in terms of money, has been maintained, although I admit I would like to see still higher figures, because I agree that the value of money has not remained constant. Productivity per man has continued steadily to increase at a rate faster than that in most other industries. By any test, from whichever angle one looks at it, the past three and a half years have been years of improvement, achievement and progress.
Does the increased productivity to which the right hon. Gentleman has referred outweigh the drift from the land which has been going on all the time under the present Administration?
Yes. The drift from the land began long before the time of the present Administration, but the increase in productivity does, I am glad to say, exceed the fall in the total labour force.
As a Government we have no part to play directly in marketing, but we are anxious that the industry should work out the most efficient marketing arrangements possible for its products. Efficient marketing is extremely important. As hon. Members know, we have a number of marketing schemes already in existence, and we have approved financial arrangements under which producers can now put forward and operate an egg marketing board if they wish to promote one. In fact, we are anxious to give facilities to producers to promote marketing schemes in every case where one can be devised that will work efficiently in the general interest.
I want to take the opportunity of announcing that for the season 1955–56 Recommissioned Mills Limited will again be operating under the control of my Department to provide a drying and storage service, on broadly the present lines, for wheat and coarse grain, charging commercial rates. The National Farmers' Unions and other interests concerned are now being consulted as to the detailed arrangements to be made in the light of last year's experience.
I am far from maintaining that all marketing problems in agriculture have yet been solved. There are still problems concerning the marketing of pigs and pig products. That is why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland and I have appointed a reorganisation commission to investigate and report. Similarly, as I have mentioned, we have appointed a committee to inquire into horticultural marketing. I am convinced that whatever defects there may be in the workings of some aspects of the competitive system, it is in every way preferable to a return to the control system envisaged by the party opposite. I have not the slightest doubt that if housewives realise the full implications of price control they will vote unhesitatingly for the present freedom of choice. So much for the past.
I want to take a quick look at the future. After the worst season for 50 years, I am glad to tell the House that the doughty efforts of farmers and farm workers in the past month or two are achieving wonders in restoring the situation. The fine weather throughout April enabled farmers to make excellent progress in sowing their spring corn and much of the time lost because of the bad weather is now being made up.
The industry has been much encouraged by the steps taken by the Government at the recent Annual Review. The new price guarantees and production grants will, I am convinced, ensure the resources required by the industry to enable farmers to maintain their net output, and, indeed, to expand it in the directions most needed.
Yes, because, as I have said before, that is not one of the directions in which that help is needed. We cannot do with more pigs than we have at present until we can get the costs down and concentrate on the quality that we require.
All this has been backed by research and technical advisory services. The Government have been financing agricultural research and are doing so at the rate of about £6 million a year, compared with less than £4½ million in 1950–51. In my opinion no other expenditure is more worth while over the years or will earn bigger dividends. The attested herds scheme has made astonishing strides in the last four years. We now have about half our total cattle attested as against one-quarter four years ago.
The practical effect of this research and advisory work can be shown, and is an indication of the way in which farmers are now making use of the new techniques, by looking at the increased yields that have taken place over the last few years. Comparing the average of the years 1952 to 1954 with the average of the years 1949 to 1951, we find that the yield per acre for wheat is up by 6½ per cent.; of barley, by 7½ per cent.; oats, 7 per cent.; potatoes, 6½ per cent.; sugar beet, 3½ per cent. and turnips and swedes, 11½ per cent. Milk yields per cow are up by 8½ per cent. and eggs per hen are up by 16 per cent. I would like to express my grateful thanks to county and district committees for the invaluable help they have given and are giving me and farmers in all these matters.
If agriculture is to flourish, we must be sure that it has a chance of doing so against the background of a flourishing countryside. Housing, water supply, electricity, transport and education—all these things must be made as good as we can get them. Much remains to be done, but in all these matters progress in the past three years has been encouraging and much faster than it was in any of the years preceding. Let me quote one or two examples. As against every four houses built in rural areas in 1951, between eight and nine houses were built last year. As against £1½ million spent on water schemes in 1951, £3 million were paid out last year. Last year 13,000 farms were connected up to electricity—easily a record—and this year the aim is 14,000.
I agree with my right hon. Friend the Minister of Education that better educational facilities in country areas justify completely the high priority which the Government are now giving these matters, the importance of which cannot be exaggerated. On several occasions I have said I believe that in Britain we have the best farm workers in the world. The hon. Member for Norfolk, North (Mr. Gooch) will testify to that fact, I think. The improvements I have mentioned will do much to ensure that those who earn their livelihoods in the country have the conditions they deserve.
It has been stated already that we intend to introduce a Measure for health, safety and welfare in agriculture as soon as Parliamentary time can be found—
Finally may I take a glance at the more distant horizon. At the risk of being called an idealist I like to look at the horizon sometimes, and what I see there gives me steady confidence. I have great faith in the skill and adaptability of our farmers and farm workers, both old and young. The progress of recent years, to which I have referred, in crop, grass and milk yields, in the breeding of our stock, in animal health, in mechanisation and in farm management, offers us assured hopes of further progress in the future. The population of this country—over 50 million—enjoying a high level of employment and rising standards of living, will provide an expanding market for high-quality products from agriculture. We have had experience of this during the past few months and behind all that, the permanent policy of the present Government, which of course will be the next Government too—
The permanent policy of this Government is steadfastly to continue the support of the industry, so that it can continue to serve the nation to the utmost of its potential resources. There are no grounds for complacency because fresh problems beset us every day, but I believe sincerely that British agriculture has never been in better shape nor in better fettle nor better served than it is today. I am sure that it will give a good account of itself in the challenging but hopeful years ahead.
I think the right hon. Gentleman will find, when he studies what I have said, that during the course of my speech I have answered three of the questions he raised. However, there was one I did not answer and, with your permission, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, I will answer it now. The right hon. Gentleman asked how many slaughterhouses we have in use at present. The answer is about 4,500. He knows that there is a committee sitting on this matter which I hope will report within two months. After we have considered that report, we shall have to decide on future policy for slaughterhouses. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that many important steps will have to be taken in this section of the industry as soon as the basic information is available.
We on this side of the House have an advantage over hon. Gentlemen opposite, in that when a Minister recites his Election piece, describing glowing states of affairs which he knows exist only in his imagination, and then imagines what will be thought by people outside who really know, whose bread and butter is concerned with these things, his eyes go into a glassy stare, as we saw in the case of the Minister just now. Indeed, we saw it with the Prime Minister earlier in the afternoon when he was giving the most shameful piece of electoral bribery which most of us in this House have ever heard.
For instance, the Minister of Agriculture spoke in glowing terms in his peroration of the service rendered to agriculture. He said how well served agriculture has been. I thought it was a little immodest.
Or, as my right hon. Friend suggests, as inaccurate as I believed he was. The Minister was at least modest when he said there was no room here for complacency. That we could all approve. I do not understand why the right hon. Gentleman spoke so warmly about the support which he and his party had given to agriculture recently considering that the incomes of farmers have gone down by £40 million in the last year. The right hon. Gentleman talked about the increase in subsidy or other payments which are supposed to be in support of farmers, saying how these had gone up in the last year. If the support given by the Government to agriculture has gone up even by only a few millions, as the Minister claims, and farming incomes have gone down, where has that money gone? The suggestion of my right hon. and hon. Friends on this side of the House is that it has gone to the middle men to a large extent. If not, where has it gone? Plainly it has not gone to the farmers since their incomes are down.
The Minister said that the Socialists look wistfully to a past period of planning. Of course we do: and it is true that the past era of planning was prosperous. Now prosperity has gone from the agricultural industry—prosperity as we knew it some time ago. So of course it is true that now we are planning for a future era of prosperity which we hope will return to agriculture when once again we bring stability and security to this industry.
Perhaps the most striking feature of these disastrous three years of Conservative rule to which we have been subjected has been the manner in which the confidence of the agricultural industry in the intentions of Government—whatever the party may be—has been completely dissipated. By painstaking work, by a great deal of thought—some of it not very recent thought, as my right hon. Friend has pointed out, but thought that had been indulged in over a long period of years—by that thought and by that painstaking effort the Labour Government did produce a state of confidence on the part of the agricultural community in the intentions of Government. That has now all gone.
The Minister tried to persuade the House that recently the trend was the other way. He did not give much evidence of it, and I must confess that I have not seen it. Perhaps it is my fault. In reading the agricultural Press and in talking to farmers, I do not find any return of that confidence at all. How did this come about? Is it not simply that the people who pay the piper call the tune, and that the people who paid the piper of the party opposite have been none other than big business in the towns? They wanted to get rid of all controls in order that they might introduce for themselves an era of smash-and-grab. That they surely have had their era of smash-and-grab can be seen from the Economic Survey. We have only to look at the way the profits of companies have gone up.
The sad point about it is that these controls having been removed at the behest of town big business, they had to be removed also from agriculture; otherwise town big business would have looked so silly had agriculture prospered under the controls which they had said were harmful to industry in general. If during this period of smash-and-grab town big business had expanded our exports, there might have been some excuse for all this. Unfortunately they have gone for the easy money of the home market, which has resulted in the sorry state of the balance of payments of which we are now only too well aware. However, if controls had to come off their businesses they had to see that controls came off agriculture, otherwise comparisons very unfavourable to the Tory policy of absence of controls would have been made.
Under this Conservative Administration controls came off agriculture, in spite of the fact that the majority of farmers realised, I am quite sure, that those controls were not fetters but were merely orderly arrangements freely arrived at between themselves and the Government to enable them to carry on their business in a proper and orderly way, to free them to a very large extent from the incubus of the unnecessary middle man and to free them—and here is the essence of the matter—to carry on what should be their main job, that of food production. They ought not to have to leave that job in order to spend their time haggling in private deals or wasting their time and energies in going back to the old system of auctions.
The auctions have been brought in again, with all the frustration to which they can so often lead, with the folly of their gamble and the waste of time and the distraction from what should be the farmer's main effort. Controls brought to the farmer independence from the freebooter. By this Conservative Government he has now to a large extent been handed back into the control of the freebooter and price-ring maker once more. The whole reason, of course, is that the Conservatives do not like controls. They know that controls lead to planning—and the farmer now knows that the absence of planning leads to drift. And the farmer knows that drift may only too easily mean a return to those conditions in the 'twenties and 'thirties from which Labour rescued the industry.
The Socialist Party was not the controlling party then, but when it was the controlling party it took such steps as the 1947 Agriculture Act which restored security to agriculture. It is the taking of security from agriculture of which I am now complaining. I am not surprised that there should have been a letter the other week in the "Farmer and Stockbreeder" signed "Lincoln Farmer" which ended up: "Vote for the Tories? Never again."
Hon. Gentlemen opposite may have seen the letter in "The Times" some weeks ago from Lieut.-Colonel Corbett, who used to be a distinguished Member of this House. He seemed to put the matter in a nut-shell from our point of view when he said, in effect, farmers now wish to be relieved of the burden of disposing of their produce. That is precisely what Labour hopes to do for the farming community—to leave those working in it to get on with their own job of food production, and to leave the distracting burden of disposing of their produce to specialist agencies well suited for the purpose. That is what Labour hopes to bring back in the very near future and what will again restore confidence on the part of the agricultural community in the intentions of Government.
Before the hon. and learned Gentleman leaves that point, could he extend his argument one stage further? Would he be prepared to offer the services of a Labour Government to enable, for example, the Lancashire cotton industry to dispose of its products after it has concentrated on producing them?
The Lancashire cotton industry, being in totally different circumstances from agriculture, may be able to dispose of its goods on its own—I do not know—but I am now speaking of agriculture. I am sure that the farmers are ready and willing to have this system so that they can get on with their real job.
I have only two points to raise, with, perhaps, another possible half a point. The first relates to what has been going on as regards the level of production. Being in the business myself, I am very well aware of what has been happening and of the general feeling in the farming community. Whatever deductions we draw from the index of net agricultural output, the fact is that agricultural output has been rising until the last disastrous year, and that this follows a fall in the years around 1950 and 1951.
The tillage acreage is a figure to which I, as an arable farmer and the Member for an Eastern Counties constituency, attach the very greatest importance, but the tillage acreage between 1950 and 1951 in England and Wales fell by 269,000 acres. It then rose steadily year by year until last year, when it fell by 159,000 acres. That is admittedly a big drop and one of which we have to take account, but it was not as big as the fall in tillage acreage in 1950–51.
There was also a considerable fall at that time in the numbers of cattle. Between 1950 and 1951 the number of cattle fell by 102,000, and between 1951 and 1952 by 185,000. It was not until 1952–53, I think very largely due to the restoration and extension of the calf-rearing subsidy, that the number rose by 134,000, and between 1953 and 1954 it rose again by 209,000. Those figures indicate very clearly that there was a downward trend in production around the years 1950 and 1951 which was reversed by the measures taken by the present Government on their coming into office.
In this matter of increased production, I wish that hon. Gentlemen opposite would pay due regard to the increase in the number of pigs. I propose in a moment to refer to the question of the marketing of pigs, but, in considering the question of increased production, hon. Gentlemen opposite take up a rather false position when they tend to ignore the tremendous increase in pig production, an increase of around 2 million over the last three years. I should have thought that, though it has brought problems of marketing, it was a factor of production which it was quite impossible to ignore.
The Minister of Agriculture took great credit for the over-all increase in agricultural production which has taken place under the present Government, but he did not say how much of this production was attributable to the increase in the number of pigs. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman could enlighten us on that.
I cannot give an exact figure. I am saying that the increase in the number of pigs is a factor of production which no one can ignore, and one which has enabled meat to be taken off the ration.
I now turn to quite another matter connected with production. I am always concerned about the fall in the number of farm workers. To my mind, that is a matter which must be watched very carefully. Hon. Members opposite have referred to the drift from the land, which is undoubtedly a problem of long standing. There are many aspects of it, and it cannot be separated from the increase in mechanisation which has taken place.
The fall in the number of regular farm workers, including both male and female, in England and Wales between 1950 and 1951 was about 21,500. Between 1951 and 1952, it was 20,100. Between 1952 and 1953, it was 13,400, and between 1953 and 1954, 13,300. That shows that the fall in the number of regular farm workers during the last two years has not been so rapid as it was during the previous two years.
How do hon. Members opposite match those figures with their suggestion of an all-round decline in confidence in the industry? I am gratified with the rate at which mechanisation has proceeded. There has been an enormous increase in the number of tractors, combine harvesters, pick-up balers, and of other modern machines. Between the 1953 census of agricultural machinery and that of 1954, the number of tractors rose from 283,000 to 334,000, an increase of 51,000, which, I think, is one indication of a very rapid advance and improvement in our agricultural techniques.
I now turn to the very important question of agricultural marketing. We on this side of the House put our faith in the continued operation of the Annual Farm Price Review. I have here a copy of the last issue of the "British Farmer," the official organ of the N.F.U., which has some very pertinent comment on its front page dealing with the operation of the February Price Review under the new conditions which have been operating in this country. It says:
The lessons of each annual review are always worthy of study, but the eleventh in the series, 1955, has produced certain elements of particular significance. Undoubtedly the most important of these is the fact that this review was the first to be negotiated wholly in terms of free markets, and the results emphasised that the medium of Part I of the Agricultural Act was sufficiently flexible and practical to apply as effectively in the new conditions of freedom as it did to the relatively simpler mechanics of price control.
It also says:
Whatever criticisms there might have been of the results, the review machine has proved itself in the new circumstances.
That is a very important statement on the part of the National Farmers' Union. It
proves that the price guarantee system, to which we on this side of the House attach very great importance, operates successfully under the new conditions.
In his speech, the hon. and learned Member for Brigg (Mr. E. L. Mallalieu) said that farmers were quite ready to have taken from them the whole responsibility and burden of disposing of their produce. I do not think that the hon. and learned Gentleman has quite rightly judged the feelings of the farming community on that point. Farmers may be willing for the responsibility to be taken from them if they are absolutely assured of a full and good price under that system.
I should have thought that the method of fixed prices would very greatly weaken the farmer's power in putting forward his point of view about prices at the Annual Price Review. It would weaken their bargaining power. I know that, ultimately, the responsibility for fixing prices under the Price Review rests with my right hon. Friend, but, to my mind, a fixed price system would very greatly weaken the farmer's position if, in fact, the Government were the sole buyers of his produce.
I entirely agree with what my right hon. Friend said about the inevitability of the fixed price system leading to allocation and rationing. I was very interested to read, in the "History of the Second World War" by R. J. Hammond, in the volume dealing with food and the beginning of rationing in war-time, that neither the Ministry nor the retail trade liked the prospect of control without rationing. I think they realised that, if there were a partial control over food and its distribution without rationing, they would land themselves in very considerable difficulties.
I believe that those difficulties would be repeated in peace-time, and that if, under present circumstances, the Government had to purchase all livestock products, including pork and beef, they would have no alternative at the moment but to compel people to eat pork. That, it seems to me, would be the inevitable step which the Government would have to take at the present time if they had complete control over the purchase of livestock on a scale of fixed prices. That would be the method by which they would attempt to solve the present pig problem. There would be the great temptation for them to say, "If you do not eat the pork, then you will have to go without meat altogether." To my mind that would be a very wrong decision to take, because I believe that the problem of our pig production can be solved by much better methods than that.
The hon. Gentleman said that he agreed with his right hon. Friend that fixed prices and assured markets lead to that sort of thing. I have just been looking up what was said by the present Leader of the House during the Committee stage of the 1947 Act. He said:
We have said that we agree with the principle … that there should be guaranteed prices and assured markets … We all agree about that."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Standing Committee A, 13th February, 1947; c. 63.]
I understood the hon. Gentleman to say that he agrees with his right hon. Friend in no longer agreeing with that. When did the Leader of the House change his mind?
The right hon. Gentleman must understand me correctly on this point. I stated absolutely definitely that it was the system of fixed prices and Government purchases which would lead to the consequences I mentioned. On the other hand, I am all in favour of guaranteed prices and assured markets, but they have to be administered by methods very different from those which the right hon. Gentleman and his friends are suggesting in their manifesto, in which they say what schemes they would put into operation if they were returned to power.
I am against the fixed-price idea, which is entirely different in conception from that of the guaranteed price and the assured market, although hon. Gentlemen are putting the fixed-price idea before farmers as being the same as the guaranteed price.
Surely the right hon. Gentleman has read the speech made on the Second Reading of the Agriculture Bill by his own right hon. Friend. I have studied it with great care, and also the Financial Memorandum linked with the Bill, in which the meaning of guaranteed prices was fully set out. It was fully understood by the farming community, which also reads and studies these matters with very great care. That distinction should be obvious to the right hon. Gentleman. On this side of the House we believe in the extension of the principle of the producer marketing board as the alternative to the conception of the fixed price. We have made our attitude very clear.
My right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture and his predecessor have restored full trading power to the Milk Marketing Board. Tonight I hope we shall approve of the Scheme for the revival of the Potato Marketing Board, which would be of very great importance to my constituents. My right hon. Friend has also agreed to the principle of the financial basis of an Egg Marketing Board, and now he has taken steps to set up a Reorganisation Commission for pigs under the agricultural marketing Acts.
I want to say a few words on the subject of pig marketing and the cost of the pig guarantee. Although my right hon. Friend has said on many occasions that pig prices are too high, yet I have it from some very careful and efficient pig producers that with costs as they are at present they have a job to make a profit out of producing pigs.
We are sometimes apt to make comparisons with pig production in Denmark, but they do not always truly reflect the difference in cost in the two countries. I accept as a fact that there are difficulties in this direction, but I always ask pig producers in my constituency to look at the guaranteed-price structure as a whole. Some people are specialist pig producers. The hon. and gallant Member for Brixton (Lieut.-Colonel Lipton), judging from all that he has to say about pigs, must be a specialist pig producer. The majority of farmers, large and small, who are pig producers derive their income partly from pigs, partly from livestock, and partly from crops.
I ask them to look at the picture as a whole. It is not possible to pay to the pig side of the industry a disproportionate share of the guarantees which are being paid to the industry as a whole.
The payments amounted to about £60 million last year and I understand they will be £80 million in the coming year. That must be recognised as a very full share of the total amount of the agricultural guarantees as a whole. That is the first point which pig producers should bear in mind.
Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that where producing pigs is only a side-line or a subsidiary to general farming work the farmer is to meet the cost of producing pigs out of the profits he makes on other lines of agricultural activity?
The hon. and gallant Gentleman is not justified in that assumption. I am asking producers to look at the guaranteed-price structure as a whole. That is what we are doing today. The purpose of the guaranteed price is not just to benefit farmers and farm workers but to ensure that agriculture produces the kinds of food which are generally required and produces them in their proper balance.
The main problem to be overcome in this part of the industry is that of summer production. It is no use avoiding that issue. The consumer will not purchase pork in big quantities in the summer. That is the problem to which we must all direct our attention, and not make party capital out of it. It is a fundamental problem affecting the pig industry. I want to see as much marketing organisation in that industry as possible. The Fatstock Corporation has been right in putting a premium on high quality pigs delivered to it, and what may be regarded as a penalty on lower quality pigs. It accumulated a fund with which it has been able to cushion to some extent the difference in price between winter and summer, which has been the curse of the pig market and influences the amount of money which has to be found by the Chancellor to make up the guarantee.
I am sure that the principle is right and may be extended further in the pig industry. It may be that we should extend the principle of producer marketing to the whole of the pig industry. That may be the outcome of the Reorganisation Commission's findings. We do not know. I certainly do not want to prejudge those findings, but there is a case for suggesting that a greater degree of organisation might help us with this fundamental problem. Meanwhile producers do have their guaranteed price.
I want to make only two further points on production and marketing, and to ride a hobby horse on this agricultural theme if I may, before I sit down. I refer to the problem which I have raised in this House many times of smallholdings. I am as much of the opinion as ever I was that we most urgently require an extension of opportunity for people who want to start smallholdings on their own. I am sorry that faster progress has not been made in this matter.
One difficulty is the high cost of land and equipment, but I hope we shall press further ahead in this matter. The Norfolk County Council has made some progress in this matter, but in Norfolk and over the country generally progress is not as rapid as I should like to see.
I hope that the Minister of Agriculture will give attention to these points when he gets back to office after the Election, and that he will do his best to encourage local authorities to go ahead. I believe this matter is not unconnected with the problem of keeping people satisfied with their job on the land, because people like to see a prospect of "having a go" on their own after they have done a period of work at working for someone else.
We always listen to the hon. Member for Norfolk, South-West (Mr. Bullard) with great interest, and give him credit for knowing what he is talking about. In contrast with most of the speakers from the other side of the House this evening, he has not tried to make a General Election speech. I am grateful to him for the honesty of his approach to this problem of agriculture.
In company with my right hon. Friend the Member for Belper (Mr. G. Brown), I want to point out that we must do something about the figures which we are given by the Government. I am supposed to be fairly good at arithmetic, not like the father of the ex-Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Woodford (Sir W. Churchill)—who, like a rogue elephant, will be sitting shortly on the back benches—who was never able to manipulate decimal points. I am supposed to be able to do it, but I find that the Written Answer given by the Minister to my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mr. J. Johnson) yesterday differed completely from the figures which the hon. Member for Norfolk, South-West gave today when he spoke about the reduction in acreage under tillage.
The written Answer given yesterday was:
The June census returns show that the acreage under tillage (crops and bare fallow) in the United Kingdom was 12,304,000 acres in 1953 and 11,832,000 acres in 1954."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 2nd May, 1955; Vol. 540, c. 89.]
I admit that the hon. Member for Norfolk, South-West may have made a different approach to the figures.
I have not relied on any compendium for the figures. I extracted them from my files yesterday. I do not know whether the hon. Member is using different terms. I used the term "arable," or at least should have done so.
That confirms my opinion that occasionally figures can be used on either side of the House to prove any kind of argument.
I want the House and the country to realise that over the past 10 years it has been my right hon. Friends who, more than anybody, have made agriculture the primary debating issue on the Floor of the House. There was a tendency for 30 years or more, on both sides of the House, to neglect the problems of rural England. Frenchmen, Dutchmen and Scandinavians who came to this country and saw how it was that
The rolling English drunkard made the rolling English road.
were amazed at the neglect beyond the hedgerows in our countryside.
But we have learned in Britain, especially in times of modern war and in times when the art of war strategy is finished for ever, that the most important asset which Britain possesses is the ability to produce the maximum amount of food. Without going into the mass of statistics which would prove my point, I charge the Government with having had a lower rate of agricultural production during their term of office than we had when we were in power.
It is trickery, and I should have thought it beneath the present Prime Minister, to make the statement which he made about textiles today, when we had been told categorically by the Chancellor of the Exchequer that it would be impossible to make any further concessions to the textile industry. Now, just on the eve of a General Election, and it may be for all sorts of reasons because of the atmosphere that is growing, we find that we have a piece of political trickery in the shape of a statement by the right hon. Gentleman, for whom all of us in Britain, of whatever party, have great respect. It was a desperate procedure. We could see that the Chancellor of the Exchequer was chagrined and uncomfortable because his advice, as one who is in charge of the nation's purse, had been pushed aside and neglected.
The party opposite is afraid that the electorate of rural Britain will start moving in favour of this side of the House once again because we honoured our pledges to British farming. My right hon. Friend the Member for Belper and others amongst us have been asking for months, long before we reached a General Election atmosphere and these deteriorated standards of debate, that the House should be given the opportunity to discuss farming quietly at the usual level of debate which we enjoy in the House. I appealed many times to the Leader of the House, and so did my right hon. Friend the Member for Belper, but I think that I am correct in saying that on no occasion during the past months was Government time given to us to discuss this vital problem. The reason was that the Government's promises to the small farmers and others have been broken.
The hon. Member for Norfolk, South-West, of whose honesty of approach and sincerity we have no doubt, asked his party to expand policy in relation to smallholdings—when the Bank Rate is 4½ per cent. and the raising of capital is so difficult for the small farmer. Initiative is smothered under this party of a property-owning democracy which was going to give a fillip to initiative and freedom for the small man.
Let the House imagine a small man who has been working in the pits of Durham or South Wales, who has had to come out of the pits because of pneumoconiosis or some other chest disease, and who would like to farm in the fresh air of the Welsh hills or the Pennines. Suppose that he has had £400 or so in compensation. Could he start on a smallholding with that amount of capital? Could he go to the bank and hope to find there that drive and that fillip which the Government have promised? Would the Bank Rate be a priming pump for small-farm production? No.
I believe that the Government are ignoring a credit policy for the small farmer. The Government are on the side of the big farmer. I do not want to repeat statistics to the House to prove my case, but I can obtain such statistics. The incomes of large farmers are expanding whilst the small farmer has a job to make £10 a week without counting the help which he is given on the farm by his wife and children.
The pig is a wonderful animal which has appeared in our nursery rhymes down the ages. Suddenly the Tory Party has discovered him. The Government said first to the pig producers, "Produce for all you are worth," but afterwards we had the Minister saying, "We have too many pigs." Unfortunately, the pig is a very expensive animal to eat. In eating him we are eating dollars all the time.
There is more in this question of pig production than a matter of the small farmer versus the big farmer. We shall never be able to feed the pig economically so long as the House of Commons, whatever party is in power, has not the courage to tackle the milling monopolies and thus enable the small man to procure offals cheaply. Three large combines control flour milling in this country. I understand that if a farmer buys back the offals he has to pay a higher price than he obtained for the wheat which he sold to the mills in the first place. Something should be done about that.
If something were done about that, it would do a great deal to liberate initiative and to open up the springs of Conservative property-owning democracy in rural Britain. The party opposite will not do anything about it because it is a party which is in the hands of the big financiers in the City. It is only a few months since a group in the City produced an important document denigrating British agriculture and asking that once again we should go back to a policy of allowing the farmer to function in a laissez-faire economy and of importing into Britain as much food as possible. That, of course, is the ideal, and I should like to do it. If we could get that kind of world it would be much better for all mankind.
I say that British agriculture today is in a much more shaky position. As my right hon. Friend asked, how many bankruptcies are there in British agriculture today. I do not want to bore the House with figures because it takes time to quote them, but the fact is that there are more bankruptcies in British agriculture now under the Conservative Government than there were before. No matter what statements are made from the Dispatch Box, no matter how the Government make categorical statements with resounding phrases, there can be no doubt that there are more bankruptcies in British farming today than there were when Labour was in power. Will anyone opposite get up and denounce that statement? Let them try.
The hon. Gentleman is making his point, but I would not set too much store by the number of bankruptcies. Many other factors lead to bankruptcy, quite apart from the return for the produce which is sold. He would be drawing a false conclusion about agricultural policy generally if he relied on the figures of bankruptcies.
Many factors lead to bankruptcy but the fact still remains that the numbers of bankruptcies today are higher than they were. It does not alter my facts one iota. It is admitted that there are more bankruptcies under this party. Is the party that claims to defend the small farmers going to say that British farmers have grown worse in their capacity?
Exactly, but that is playing into my hands. Will the hon. and learned Gentleman go to the cattle markets of Britain with red, white and blue ribbons showing and tell the hardworking farmer who is trying to sell his produce that the Conservative Government are putting him to such a test that if they are restored to power there will be higher bankruptcies than ever? I do not mind, but tell them that at Election times, and not in between them—
I shall be speaking at a cattle market tomorrow. I shall use this information, and I shall be justified in using it. I am not going to bore the House with any further facts, but I have heard no arguments and no policy. We on this side of the House are charged with not having a policy. I have heard of a suggested agricultural producers' marketing scheme. We gave birth to ideas like that. As my right hon. Friend said, 30 years ago we were trying to work out a policy outside the old laissez faire under which British agriculture was allowed to work in the days of Chamberlain.
Neither is there a policy in the party opposite about monopolies. My right hon. Friend, in opening this debate, asked what were we prepared to do not only to help agriculture but the whole of productive industry in regard to petrol, oil and such other important raw materials. The facts are on record. Only a few weeks ago the hon. Gentleman for Norfolk, South-West was giving us examples of how, since the Tory Party came to power, the price of fertilisers has gone up somewhere in the neighbourhood of £8 million and feeding stuff prices £12 million. I am leaving the decimal points out for the moment. The only way in which that can be dealt with is by tackling the growth of monopolies, which are sucking the initiative and the life blood of the farmers, particularly the hill farmers and the small farmers.
I took the trouble to read the policy expounded by my opponent at the last Election, and I have here the Tory book of answers prepared for this Election. I see that even the price for this book of answers has gone up since 1952. I looked for a policy, and after reading the main features I can say that there is no true policy to be found in the Conservative Party statement. But here are all the questions which the Young Conservatives will be asking during the coming Election. I shall be prepared. I am always prepared for the Young Conservatives. We have a very charming and pleasant time together.
Let us come to something real. I paid a visit to the Conservative Central Office today and bought a copy of the party's "Agricultural Marketing." I thought, "We will get something concrete out of this." I remember discussing this question of agricultural and horticultural marketing over a year ago in the House, and I mentioned the problem of the distribution by Covent Garden of foodstuffs, vegetables and flowers from the Scilly Isles. I argued that Covent Garden had grown too large, that it was antiquated and that it resulted in a waste of manpower, petrol and other commodities. I suggested the creation of a central market with plenty of fresh air, light and better facilities for the distribution of these fresh vegetables, fruit and flowers.
So I opened this publication giving the dynamic policy of the Conservative Party—this party which is going to give freedom and initiative to the small man—and I turned to page 46 thinking that I would find something. I did, and this is what I read:
Unfortunately the present system is often judged by the appearance of Covent Garden, which at the busy time of the morning is not a reassuring spectacle. The congestion, delays and traffic jams leave the casual visitor wondering how anyone in London gets fresh vegetables at all. This congestion is the result of the physical limitations of the market and not of the defects of the system. The market was designed centuries ago to carry a fraction of the present trade, and since there was no room to expand it has become progressively more congested. In a new market large enough to handle the present volume of produce the impression might well be very different.
I said to myself, "Here it comes, we are going to have a new market." Then the next sentence read:
There seems little prospect of this appearing in the near future and the result is that growers are being driven to find alternative markets in the provinces where the delays are not so serious.
In connection with the difficulties of vegetable growers, will my hon. Friend bear in mind that the consumption of fresh vegetables in this country has gone down from 130 lb. per head in 1951 to 117 lb. per head in 1954? The outlook for vegetable producers is indeed gloomy.
My hon. and gallant Friend could have made a first-class point with that information had he caught Mr. Speaker's eye. It would have been much more effective. It is because I know the value of my hon. and gallant Friend's statement that I have now allowed him to get it on record.
There are two other points I want to make. When we proposed the nationalisation of electricity we were scoffed at by small-minded men and women who played the cheap political party game, but I wonder what would have happened to the 13,000 farms which have been supplied with electricity by the nationalised undertaking. I give due praise for that to whatever Government have been in power for getting on with the job. Thirteen thousand farmers have been given electricity while this Government have been in office. Do the Conservative Party think that electricity would have been supplied to that number of farms if the electricity industry had been left un-nationalised? Is it the view of Conservative hon. Members that, because more farms would then get electricity, it should be the policy to denationalise the industry? No, the Conservative Party does not mean what it is saying at the present time.
I cannot give way. I must finish. I have been speaking a little too long.
I am pleased to see that at last India is coming into the market with fodder. For the first time since 1941 we have this year had about 75,000 tons of fodder, cakes and so on. That is worth while, and I am delighted that it has happened. There was no magnificent statement about the fodder from India such as there was today about the textile position, because that happened a month or so ago. My hon. Friends and I believe that if we had intelligent long-term agreements with many such friendly countries prices would be cheaper and the development of those countries would be aided. We welcome India's entry into this market again.
At the last General Election my hon. Friends and I were scoffed at over the balance of payments problem, but the position is even worse now. In this matter agriculture is of vital importance. Of all the parties which have come into power in this country, it was the Labour Party which had the courage to keep its promises.
I want to know what the Conservative Party's policy is to be about rent per acre in Great Britain. At the moment the figure is about £7. In Holland it is about £6, in Norway £5 10s., and Sweden £8 10s. The Chairman of the Agricultural Executive Committee in Cheshire, Colonel Verdin, in a paper read the other day before a group of influential agricultural people, advocated that the rent per acre of land should increase. If the Conservative Party returns to power, will it be part of its policy to increase rent per acre, as advocated by that gentleman? The small tenant-farmers and small farmers in my constituency would like to know.
I have no hesitation in saying—of course there has been progress; that is bound to happen—that there will be 250,000 more votes in rural polling booths for a Labour Government this time than at the last General Election.
Mr. W. M. F. Vane:
Will the hon. Member for Leek (Mr. Harold Davies) say exactly what figures he is averaging? On hill farms the average rent is that number of shillings per acre or less. Even for the best agricultural land the average is less than the figure which he has given. I should have thought that throughout the mixed farming areas of the country the rent would be £2 per acre, and often a great deal less. Will he explain himself a little more? Although the figure which he has given may be admirable for the auction mart tomorrow, it is extremely misleading, being a long way from the truth.
I was very pleased to hear the Minister mention the horticultural industry and its difficulties. There is no doubt that horticulturists, who are valuable food producers, have many difficulties at the moment. I beg the Government to keep a special watch on the tariff position. I think it is not generally realised that during the time of the last Government tariff changes were introduced and it has been said that we must have time to watch the situation. However, I hope that my right hon. Friend will consider favourably any application for a tariff change which comes to him, and that there will be no chance of any further bindings being accepted in respect of horticultural articles without very careful thought.
It is not clear how Article VI of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, which relates to anti-dumping, can be enforced. The difficulty arises out of the words:
The Organisation shall waive the requirements of sub-paragraph (a) of this paragraph, so as to permit the levying of a countervailing duty, in cases in which they find that a subsidy is causing or threatening material injury to an industry in the territory of another contracting party exporting the product concerned to the territory of the importing contracting party.
This is a most difficult problem to tackle, but I hope we can have an assurance that the matter will be very carefully watched.
I do not think any good horticulturist, certainly in west Cornwall, would wish to have inferior quality produce bolstered up, but it must be remembered that the good quality produce of these growers has to compete with certain factors from abroad and that these create serious problems. First, although wage scales abroad and here may not be so dissimilar, the standard of living in, say, Italy or France is very different from that in this country where, I am glad to say, it is very much higher. That is an important point.
Another matter which is very important to west Cornwall is the item of transport costs. It seems to me that if the road transport services are to be renationalised it will do nothing to bring costs down because there will be little or no competition between the railways and the road services. I hope that when the Government are returned my right hon. Friend will use his influence with the Minister of Transport to persuade the licensing authorities that A licences should be granted as freely as possible so as to ensure as much reasonable competition as we can have in transport over long distances.
It is not only freight charges, but non-delivery or late delivery and damage in transport which are such serious problems. The other day a grower in west Cornwall showed me a roneoed form which he and others used to complain of delay or damage to their produce in transit and which they sent to their local station masters direct. The problem must be serious for that to have to be done.
I hope that the Government will also consider petrol tax concession for small petrol-driven agricultural tractors. I know that this has been mentioned before, but the small growers think that such a scheme could be worked, and there are many people who feel that it would be of very great benefit to them. It is also essential that the report of the inquiry into horticultural marketing should be published as soon as possible. I understand that there have already been one or two meetings, and I hope that the inquiry will go into all the complex problems such as Covent Garden, which those of us who know anything about it realise is extremely difficult. It is all very well to say that Covent Garden is out of date; most of us who have been on the local authority concerned for many years know that it is. It is a question of finding another suitable site as against the needs of housing and rebuilding which are so important in great cities like London.
I hope that the inquiry will be as all-embracing as possible and will put into true perspective the positions of the middleman, about whom much has been said, the costing of transport and so on. Most important of all, I hope that the Government will give us an assurance that they will act as quickly as possible upon any of the reasonably practical suggestions that are put forward.
It is probably not realised by the growers the help given by the Government in the increased production grants, such as the ploughing-up grant, the lime subsidy, the fertiliser subsidy, and so on. I should like to ask my right hon. Friend if potash could be included among these fertilisers, because that inclusion would be very useful to the horticulturists. All of us realise the importance of good fresh vegetables and horticultural produce in this country. I am quite sure, whatever way we may go about it, that the one thing we want to do is to give the greatest possible confidence to the men and women in this very difficult and complex section of agriculture.
I have very little to say on agriculture today, because I said most of what I wanted to say about a month ago when we had another debate on agriculture. I hope that I shall not now repeat myself. There are some things I want to say because of the political trend of the debate. There have been boasts from both sides about who will come back after the Election. There is a verse in the Old Testament which it is useful to keep in mind.
Let not him that girdeth on his harness boast himself as he that putteth it off.
If both sides kept that verse in mind they perhaps would cease boasting about who will get back and cease making forecasts for agriculture. It is most unfortunate to make forecasts in agriculture because there are so many circumstances to upset them.
To touch on a political point, I have been looking at the promises of the various parties at the last Election. I am beginning to wonder whether farmers were deceived or not. The system which was in operation at the last Election was a system of guaranteed prices and markets, as set out in the Agriculture Act, 1947. I found that the parties at the last Election promised the farmers to continue that system. In the Conservative Agricultural Charter, 1948, the Conservatives said that they would give the British farmers real confidence in the future by guaranteeing prices and markets for all the food they could produce.
The party manifesto issued at the Election read:
We shall maintain our system of guaranteed agricultural prices and markets.
That was the system in operation when that promise was given, and it was the system that was carried out by the Labour Government. In their manifesto the Conservatives promised to continue that same system. I looked up my opponent's Election address and found that he promised:
We shall continue the system of guaranteed markets and prices.
That was the system then in operation, the system which the Labour Government had operated up to that time.
A definite promise was given by all three parties that that system would be continued. The Liberal Party said:
The system of guaranteed prices and markets is essential.
On this issue each of the three parties made the same promise to the agricultural community. I looked up the National Liberal manifesto and found that agriculture was not even mentioned, so we do not get much benefit from that. If the three parties all promised the same thing at the last Election, why have the Government deviated from their promise? The system now in operation, the system of deficiency payments and minimum price guarantees, is not what was promised. It is something entirely different.
If it is different, in whose interests was the difference made? Was it made in the interests of the farmers? Was it made in the interests of the Treasury? I think it was made in the interests of the latter. In changing this method of price guarantees for the farmer, the Government have departed from the definite promise they gave to the agricultural community at the last Election.
I leave that political point and deal more with agriculture itself. When last I spoke I dealt at some length with pig production, and I do not propose to discuss that now except to make one suggestion. We have a tremendous number of breeds of pig, some of which have no more relation to bacon than has a cow. They are purely and simply pork pigs. We consider that the best breed of pig—and here I shall get into trouble—for bacon is the Large White.
What is required is for the agricultural community to make up its mind which shall be the bacon pig and to stick to that breed for bacon production. I am not a pig farmer, but I know that it is said that the Landrace is a better breed of pig for bacon than any we have in this country. That is why we have been importing Landrace pigs. If the Landrace is a better pig, I suggest to the Ministry that it should make a purchase of Land-race boars and establish breeding centres so that that breed can become established here.
The cost of the Landrace pig is so heavy that few farmers can afford it, but if the Ministry established breeding centres so that that breed could be established here and we could have a proper bacon pig, that would give us a far better opportunity to compete with the producers of Danish bacon. It is up to the pig breeders and the Ministry to decide which shall be the bacon pig for this country.
I should also like to mention the curing of the bacon. Far too much bacon is too salty; so much so that sometimes one imagines one is eating salt. It is time that the curers found out what the people want. The British public likes Danish-cured bacon. It may be that the people have had it for so long that they have acquired the taste, but certainly they like it. It is up to the curers of our bacon to get the measure of the likes of the people and to cure bacon to the public taste. That can be done and then British bacon will, so far as taste is concerned, take the place of Danish bacon.
These two principles are essential; first the breed of pig, and then curing to the taste of the people. One can go into different shops or into the same shop week after week and buy bacon with a different taste each time. That is a feature which tells against the sale of British bacon. If people knew that they could buy bacon cured in the same way and having the same taste, I am sure that the British farmer who produced that bacon would be able to hold his own against any competition from abroad. What is the good of the British farmer producing the best bacon pig on the market if the bacon is ruined by bad curing?
The stability which came to the meat market when the Government withdrew control and went over to a free market was due to the efficient working of the National Farmers' Union Meat Marketing Corporation. The stability which that Corporation brought into the markets was astonishing. If the farmers themselves would support the Corporation more than they do, the stability would be even greater and confidence would be stronger than it is today. The Government cannot lay claim to responsibility for that stability. If there had been no Corporation the market would have been in absolute chaos. We should have been in the hands of the butchers. When that Corporation came into operation and we knew that we could put our stock into its hands and receive a fair price for quality, that gave confidence to the farmer and stability to the market.
I wish to ask a question about a matter causing concern in Lancashire, which is a big poultry-producing county. A statement has been made—I have not seen it stated officially, but I have seen it in a number of newspapers and it is quoted as being official—that the Government are to permit the import of 250,000 dollars worth of poultry meat from America. I should like to know whether or not that is correct. The meat is what is known as broiler meat. That is a horrible word which does not mean "boiler," though it sounds like it.
We have a surplus of poultry meat at home. If we continue to produce at the same rate we shall drug the market just as pigs are drugging the pig market. In Lancashire we feel that it is a serious matter to allow the importation of poultry meat from America when we hear so much about the scarcity of dollars. Moreover, this raises once again the danger of the spread of fowl pest. Fowl pest is endemic in America. If poultry from America is brought here and spread throughout the country, there is little hope of us getting rid of fowl pest. We have already had trouble caused by it being imported from other countries. If it is to be imported in meat from America the position will be serious. I should like to know whether or not this is a rumour.
I can answer the hon. Gentleman straight away. It is true that a limited quantity of cooked poultry is being allowed in from the United States; but the meat is cooked and I assure him that there is no risk whatever. The Government would not have allowed the import if it had been thought that there was the slightest risk. There is no risk whatever of fowl pest.
I am glad of that assurance from the right hon. Gentleman, and I hope that fowl pest will not extend further. We have had quite enough of it in Lancashire.
I wish to support what was said by the hon. Member for Norfolk, South-West (Mr. Bullard) about smallholdings. There should be some method by which a small farmer can increase his farming activities, but we should be very careful about encouraging people to take smallholdings. The two main sources of income for the smallholder are pig and poultry production, neither of which offers a certain market at present. A smallholder engaged in pig and poultry production can lose the whole of his capital in a very short time. All smallholdings should be large enough to enable the smallholder to extend his activities beyond those two things. He should be able to go in for cattle and, if possible, for sheep. The size of smallholdings should, in my opinion, be larger than is usual under county council schemes.
If we are to have an extension of agricultural production in this country, the agricultural community must have cheaper credit. I have stressed that point before, and I do so again. Agricultural commodities will not keep. Unlike manufactured articles which, if the market be not right, may be held up, agricultural commodities must be marketed when they are ready. For instance, when fatstock has reached a certain condition it must be sold, otherwise the animals will continue to consume and their condition will deteriorate.
It is essential, therefore, that the farming community shall have cheap money to enable it to risk putting a commodity on the market when it is ready. The agricultural community also must have command of working capital at all times and at a cheaper rate. Whatever may be the complexion of the Government when this House reassembles, I hope that the agricultural community will continue to take its rightful place in the economy of the nation.
I entirely agree with most of what was said by the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Kenyon) particularly with regard to pigs and the Fatstock Marketing Corporation, and smallholdings. People should consider carefully before they take a smallholding and should regard it generally only as a step towards something greater.
I disagree, however, with the statement of the hon. Member that the Conservative Party made promises at the last Election about guaranteed prices and assured markets which it has not kept. To the best of my recollection any promises made were that it would conform to the provisions of the 1947 Act. I believe that that has been done, but I will refer to the matter again later in my speech.
The right hon. Member for Don Valley (Mr. T. Williams) also said something with which I cannot agree. He said that the Conservative Party never had an agricultural policy.
I do not know how far back the right hon. Gentleman was going in making that statement, but he should remember that the Conservative Party was out of office for 16 years before coming into power and forming the policy upon which it is acting now. A Government, predominantly Conservative, in which the right hon. Gentleman played a very honourable part produced an enormous change in British agriculture during the war. Between 1932 and the beginning of the war a Government, also predominantly Conservative, raised agricultural production by 25 per cent.
We are sometimes a little too critical about some things which have happened and which did not go too well during the changeover from the old and more fixed methods of marketing to the present methods, and we tend to forget what a tremendous operation that changeover proved to be. If a few more oats were brought from abroad than was necessary, that was better than that we should risk a food shortage. If people were encouraged to produce more pigs than was necessary, that was better than risking a lack of meat at a time when things were in a transitional stage.
Unfortunately the hon. Member for Leek (Mr. Harold Davies) has left the Chamber. I wish to take up one thing which he said—that he did not believe that under private enterprise the electricity industry could have provided connections to the farms, as has been done by the British Electricity Authority. I would ask the hon. Member to recall that just before the industry was nationalised, the National Farmers' Union and the then electricity undertakings had a five-year agreement for supplying practically all the farms then without a supply of electricity. I believe that could have been done quite as quickly as, if not more quickly than, the B.E.A. has been doing it.
The right hon. Gentleman will remember that the business agreement was drawn up only in the year before nationalisation.
The question of rents raised by the hon. Member for Leek was answered by my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland (Mr. Vane). The level of British farm rents quoted was grossly exaggerated, and to clarify the picture I would say that whatever are the rents it is a fact that more than one-third of the capital in British agriculture, that is, fixed capital belonging to the landowners, is lent on terms that produce, at the most 2 per cent. for the owner, and in many cases nothing at all. It is obtained extraordinarily cheaply.
I am fully in agreement with the agricultural policy with which the Government are going to the country. I consider—and here I repeat what I have said before—that it is both in the spirit and within the letter of Part I of the 1947 Act. I went carefully through the Act recently to assure myself that that is so.
Secondly, I think that it is the nearest approach to the long-term policy, for which people keep asking in a vague sort of way, that we are ever likely to obtain, because anything that is long-term must be made to last. Unless it is fairly elastic, it will not last. It must be flexible and based more on principles and policies than on hard and fast provisions of what is to be done.
I believe that the policy of this Government for the last year, and the policy on which they are going to the country, is the only possible long-term policy. It is the only policy that will meet the needs of the day. Our overall need is to cherish and develop our agriculture in a country that is perforce predominantly industrial and dependent on its exports. This has also to be done at the same time as we are trying to avoid any return to State trading or rationing. We also want to minimise, as far as possible, control by Whitehall over our agriculture.
I am convinced that one of the principal causes of the failure of Russian agriculture has been the fact that its control has been too centralised. I formed that opinion when I was there for a short time in the autumn, and, from what I have since heard, I am convinced that that is so. Neither from Moscow nor Whitehall can one control the day-to-day operations of farmers.
At the same time, we must have a policy that will give the consumer a free choice. In that connection, I was delighted to hear the Minister use the expression that the consumer is once again in charge. It reminded me of the old business phrase, "The customer is always right." Any businessman knows that unless he acts on that principle, he will never get very far. The Government's policy has an additional advantage. It allows of improvement by competition, whereas, I believe, the policy advocated by the party opposite of fixed prices for everything produced would result in practically no competition at all.
In passing, I wish to make one small exception to what I have said. I am not quite certain that our present policy is as applicable to Ulster as it is to us. It is sometimes forgotten that whereas we in this country are predominantly industrial and live on our industrial exports, Ulster is an agricultural exporting country. I believe that some of the difficulties which Ulster experiences in working with us under our schemes arises from a failure to recognise that fact.
One last observation on the Government's agricultural policy. To find such a policy is no new problem. We have been searching for it ever since the days of the Corn Laws at the beginning of the last century. We have never really found until today a plan flexible enough to meet the difficulties. I asked the hon. and learned Member for Brigg (Mr. E. L. Mallalieu) what the Socialist Party did for agriculture in the 1930s. In reply, the hon. and learned Gentleman mentioned the Marketing Acts. I give the Labour Government full credit for introducing those Measures, even though they never really did anything with them.
The right hon. Gentleman says that because the Labour Government went out of power they therefore could not do anything about them. I would point out that, with the exception of the Sugar Beet Industry Bill in 1925, the Labour Party certainly did not vote for any of the later Marketing Acts and, in fact, divided against them in nearly every case. We did not vote against the 1947 Act.
We voted against it because it had no teeth. It was no use until some control of imports was introduced.
Whichever party may be returned to power, I think that we are all agreed in our wish to do what we can for agriculture. The farmers most likely to be in need are what I might term the medium farmers. I mean the type of farmers who work on their farm themselves and who employ, say, two men. Such farmers are likely to have more difficulty than the others. The big man and the family farm are all right, I believe.
I wish to make one or two suggestions which I think might help these smaller farmers. They are not suggestions which would require much money, though they might mean some slight redirection of money at present being spent by way of production grants. The first concerns the advisory services. I should be the first to pay tribute to all that those services have done in the matter of research and the accumulation of knowledge, but I am not so sure that they are really getting that knowledge disseminated as quickly and as thoroughly as I could wish.
I know the difficulties. There is the time factor. The farmer has no time to go to the agricultural school or to read books, and so on. On the other hand, the advisers have a great many farms to visit. I know the grip which traditional methods have on farmers, but I feel that more might well be done, and I should like to see county agricultural executive committees, in addition to their usual methods of imparting knowledge, try something new.
I should like to see those committees take over the tenancy or the ownership—preferably the tenancy—of typical farms in various parts of the country. The farms should not be too good nor too bad, and certainly not farms under supervision or anything of that sort. The kind of farm I have in mind is that of the older man who has been farming all his life by rather old-fashioned methods, whose son, perhaps, has grown up and left him, who is getting a little crochety, and whose men do not stay with him long—the type of farm that is gradually going down.
I should like to see the county agricultural committees run such farms, using the most modern techniques and practice that are well within the economic scope of the ordinary farmer. They should not use very expensive machinery or methods, but only those which the ordinary farmer can afford. If they were then prepared to explain what they were doing to people who came round, and so made all the accounts available for inspection, it would be very much more impressive than much of the advice which is being given at present. Farmers would learn more quickly and the county agricultural executive committees might also learn quite a lot.
I was presuming that the farmer had given up. In many cases, if an older farmer were offered a house he would be quite ready to retire. Many of them hang on because they cannot find anywhere else to live. If the county agricultural executive committees offered them houses I think that they would be quite prepared to give up the leases of their farms and retire.
When he went out the farmer would receive a certain amount of money for the value of his holding. I am assuming that he is not a bankrupt. He could invest that money or buy an annuity. What do all old farmers live on?
I do not think that the right hon. Gentleman's objection would be an insuperable obstacle.
My next point concerns the veterinary service. Here again wonderful advances have been made but I wonder if we are travelling upon the right lines. The practical application, too, is very good. Wonderful cures of sick animals are achieved; many diseases are now avoided by inoculation and money is thereby saved. The small farmer cannot afford to have sick animals. One cow with mastitis, which causes it to lose its milk, is a very great hardship to a small farmer. I wonder, however, whether our veterinary service is concentrating to a sufficient extent upon trying to raise the general level of animal health, especially what I will call the constitution of animals.
It is very much better to produce an animal which does not become ill than to cure it. I may be a pessimist, but I have a feeling that when we inoculate against one disease we find that a fresh disease develops. Incidentally, curing animals which are sick is quite contrary to nature's plan for the survival of the fittest.
Again, the number of lactations which we get from most of our dairy cows is a disgrace. We should get many more, and that would be a tremendous economy to the small farmer. If our veterinary service would concentrate upon improving the constitution of our stock, I believe we should derive great benefit.
Lastly, I suggest that far too many small farms have too much money locked up in machines which are used only part-time. It would be far better if the farmers invested that money in animals. Waste of machinery could be avoided by the encouragement of contracting—not only by individual farmers doing a little contracting work besides running their own farms but by small co-operative groups of farmers and even by firms doing contracting business. Great economies could be achieved in that way. I leave the Minister with those suggestions. I hope that it will be agreed that they are ones which could be adopted by any party, whatever the result of the Election.
The pleasure of following the hon. and gallant Member for East Grinstead (Sir R. Clarke) is one which I have not hitherto enjoyed. It is true that he has done his best to defend the present Government's agricultural policy and to exculpate them from some of the electoral misfortunes that may lie ahead, but I very much doubt whether his defence will lash the farming community into a white heat of enthusiasm for the present Government when it is called upon to exercise its vote on 26th May.
Previous speakers have referred to the number of bankruptcies which have occurred in the agricultural community during the past few years. I recently put down a Question to the Parliamentary Secretary on this subject, and he quoted figures showing that the number of bankruptcies in 1951 was 101 and, in 1954, had risen to 121. On that occasion he assured the House that those figures were obtained by him from the President of the Board of Trade. It seems to me that there may possibly be some inaccuracy in those figures, because figures which I have obtained from an alternative and reliable source produce a different picture.
I would remind the hon. and gallant Gentleman of what everybody knows, namely, that it takes a farmer longer to go bankrupt than anybody else, owing to the nature of his business—and it is quite likely that some of these bankruptcies are a sort of delayed action from the activities of the previous Government.
That is a new doctrine which I have not heard advanced before. It is of so original a character that I hope the hon. and gallant Member will excuse me if I say that I should like a little more time to consider it. I should not like to hazard an opinion at the moment. All I would say is that in Kemp's "Mercantile Gazette"—a well-known publication which specialises in such matters—the statistics show that the number of bankruptcies in England and Wales—and these bankruptcies apply to farmers, market gardeners and smallholders—went up from 93 in 1951 to 140 in 1954. Those figures differ fairly substantially from the figures which the Parliamentary Secretary gave to the House upon the basis of information supplied to him by the President of the Board of Trade.
A similar increase is evident in the number of deeds of arrangement, which went up from 18 in 1951 to 38 in 1954. Those figures indicate one of two things—either that British agriculturists have for some reason become much less efficient during the past three or four years, or that, for a variety of reasons, they are finding it more difficult to carry on their business under the present Administration than was the case before.
Reference has been made to the problems of pig producers. It is quite true that in the last Price Review the Government made a present of a total increase of £28 million to the farming community. I suggest that that was due partly to the fact that the Government knew at the time that this was likely to be an Election year, and they therefore felt obliged to make some contribution towards British agriculture. I remember how the Chancellor of the Exchequer was brought along to provide further assurances to the annual conference of the National Farmers' Union. He made very brave and gallant undertakings to the National Farmers' Union on that occasion. On the strength of those undertakings a motion of censure on the present Administration, which would have been moved and carried at the conference of the National Farmers' Union, was withdrawn.
While it is true that £28 million more was given to the farming community in the last Price Review, it did not apply to all sections of British agriculture, the chief exception, of course, being that of pig production, which has suffered substantial reductions in prices. At the same time, pig keepers will have to pay more for their feeding stuffs than before.
Previous speakers have mentioned the profits obtained by the British milling industry. As a result of the increased prices of feeding stuffs there has been a steady increase for some considerable time now. That has been accompanied by an equally steady and even more substantial increase in the profits of the two or three very large undertakings that engage in the business of supplying feeding stuffs.
It is quite true that the future of the pig breeder and producer in this country is somewhat bleak. For far too long we have been producing far too many kinds of pig. My hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Kenyon), who is not a pig producer—he is far too wise for that—drew attention to the need for us once and for all to make up our minds what breed of pig will be the best pig to produce in this country for bacon. If we consulted the bacon factories, I think we should find a surprising unanimity of opinion on the subject of which is the best pig.
Vast sums of money have been spent on the Landrace, but there is no evidence so far to indicate that the Land-race is the answer to the problem of bacon production in this country. Very fancy prices have been paid, quite beyond the reach of the average farmer, and until and unless the Government, as suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley, are willing to engage on the long and somewhat expensive experiment that will be necessary, many pig producers will remain unconvinced that the Land-race is the answer. It may be that in the Scandinavian countries the Landrace has been a success. That does not mean that the Landrace will necessarily be a success in this country.
We have to cut out all these unnecessary breeds of pig which, for a variety of reasons, pig producers and pig associations are encouraging, and concentrate on the kind of pig we want. For this reason, of course, progeny testing, I know, is to be embarked on to an increasing extent, but we should have done that a long time ago. It is no use complaining about the competition of Danish bacon producers, who concentrate on one breed of pig, while at the same time we are playing around with all these different varieties of pig in this country.
Reference has been made to the fact that the housewife buys a different kind of bacon every week. That is partially explained by the fact that we have all these different breeds of pig. It is not too difficult to understand that with different breeds of pig the same kind of curing methods will not necessarily produce exactly the same result. That is another reason why if we want a stabilised product, palatable to the taste of the British consumer, we have to concentrate on one breed of pig which is likely to produce that result most economically.
It is quite true that the Fatstock Marketing Corporation has yielded a most valuable service to the fatstock producers. It has certainly got the Government out of very serious difficulties with which they would otherwise have been faced, if the National Farmers' Union had not created the Fatstock Marketing Corporation. Statistics show that the percentage of Grade A pigs being handled through the Fatstock Marketing Corporation is steadily increasing, but the one thing that we are not quite sure about is this.
A Grade A pig goes along to the bacon factory and is cured for bacon. Grade B and Grade C pigs also go along to the bacon factory and may be cured for bacon. The bacon leaves the bacon factory and passes to the wholesaler and, through the wholesaler, to the retailer. By the time it gets to the counter of the ordinary retail shop it is quite impossible to identify. It is impossible to say whether the bacon being sold in the shop has come from a Grade A pig or a Grade B pig or a Grade C pig, which means that the British housewife is probably, in a very large number of cases, paying the Grade A price for a Grade C product.
Someone is getting some money out of that to which he is not entitled. It is not beyond the wit of those concerned to mark the carcase in such a way as to ensure that the housewife buying the bacon in the ordinary retail shop will be able to identify the bacon without any difficulty, and be able to know whether it comes from a Grade A or a lower grade of pig. That would do something to obviate the bad name which British bacon has in some quarters. We have to remember that, so far as Danish bacon is concerned, we see only the Grade A type on the counters of the British shops. In the case of British bacon, heaven knows how many grades find their way to the shop counters. There is no distinction of price, and the housewife may buy an inferior quality product in the belief that she is really getting a cut from a Grade A pig.
It is quite clear—and I think in this respect hon. Members on both sides of the House find themselves in agreement—that there is not much future for a smallholder whose smallholding is so small that he must concentrate on pigs and poultry exclusively. It is most unfortunate that the future for pigs and poultry taken by themselves is not very bright. I do not think that the Minister or the Parliamentary Secretary will say that the present time is a propitious one for anyone wishing to manage a smallholding and relying solely upon pigs and poultry.
We have heard over and over again the argument that it is only the farmer who is prepared, perhaps, to lose a bit on his pigs and poultry, prepared not to get so much profit out of that side of his business, who can continue pig and poultry production, because he has other things which will bring him in money. That, of course, cannot be regarded as satisfactory.
The Minister of Agriculture tells the House and the British farming community that too many pigs have been produced. What he does not say is how many pigs he wants the agricultural industry to produce. He never tells us that. He shakes his head when that point is put to him. So how is the wretched pig producer to decide on a question of policy of that kind when the Minister himself is not prepared to give a lead? He is prepared to give a lead in almost every other aspect of agricultural policy, but not on that aspect.
The Minister says that we want more of this and that, and he boasts about increases of production if the figures suit him. It is no good his talking like that to the small pig or poultry producer. He wants to know whether it will be worth while to sink his little bit of capital in the production of pigs and poultry. If he sees that the Government are following a deterrent policy, the conclusion he will come to is that this is no proposition from his point of view, and therefore he will not go in for it. The result will be that in the not-too-distant future we shall have a Minister of Agriculture in some future Government announcing new terms for the purpose of persuading pig producers to produce more pigs because the level of production has fallen to a deplorably low level.
I proceed from the question of pig production to another result of the Price Review to which little or no reference has been made. I do not believe that the majority of farmers realise that they will receive less for their wheat and rye in 1956 than they will in 1955. My argument arises in this way. The price for the 1955 crop of wheat was fixed in 1954 at an average price of 29s. 9d. per cwt. This price remains unchanged for 1956. In the meantime, however, there has been an increase of 3d. per cwt. in the Special Review for the 1955 crop owing to increased wages. The same consideration applies to rye, for which the price of 23s. was fixed in the 1954 Price Review and rose to 23s. 3d. in the Special Review because of the increased wages and reverts to 23s. for the 1956 crop.
I should like the Parliamentary Secretary to say—because it will be a matter of considerable interest to farmers and may persuade many of them to grow more wheat and rye—whether or not the farmer is to get less for his wheat and rye in 1956 than in 1955. If it so happens that the price of wheat and rye in 1956 is to be less than it is in 1955, the farming community generally will regard the Government as having been guilty of a little sharp practice and guilty of misleading the farming community.
Reference has also been made to the plight of horticulture. There again the future cannot be regarded as rosy. I drew attention, in the course of an intervention, to the fact that the consumption of fresh vegetables in this country, despite the increase in population, is for some reason going down. According to the Economic Survey, 1955, the average consumption in terms per head for 1954 is estimated at 117·8 lb. The average consumption in 1951 was 130 lb. The point that I want to make is that if consumption of fresh vegetables has gone down by 13 lb. per head between 1951 and 1954, do the Government expect British horticulturists to go in for more vegetable production?
I should like to know what information the Government have to explain the reasons for this fall in consumption and what advice the Government are giving to British vegetable growers in these circumstances. The Minister of Agriculture admitted in the course of the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley that permission had been given for the import of cooked poultry from the U.S.A. The Parliamentary Secretary will, I hope, give us some information as to the quantity and the value of this rather inexplicable import, costing dollars, to supply a need which I should have thought could have been more easily met by British producers.
Again, the Economic Survey, 1955, provides some interesting statistics, because the figures on page 22 show that the average consumption per head of poultry, game and fish has gone down from 30 lb. in 1951 to 25 lb. in 1954. I do not know how the fall is allocated between poultry, game and fish, but if the consumption of poultry in this country is going down I should like to know from the Government the reasons for that fall and what advice the Government are proposing to give to poultry and game producers.
If the present trend continues, I do not think that the farming community can view the future with any degree of equanimity. There are many other points to which I should like to refer, but time does not permit. The one fact that stands out at the moment is that there has been developing during the past three or four years a growing lack of confidence in the Government on the part of the farming community. I do not think there can be any doubt about that. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Member for Belper (Mr. G. Brown) will be able to produce conclusive evidence to that effect.
In any event, we shall not have to wait too long before knowing whether there is a growing lack of confidence or not, because I am quite sure that the present Government will be in for a shock when some of the results in the agricultural areas are announced on or after 26th May.
Today we have had a very pleasant debate, as we usually do when discussing the question of agriculture. The hon. and gallant Member for Brixton (Lieut.-Colonel Lipton) has brought a little party political flavour into the debate. I think he will be surprised to see the support which this party will get in the rural areas in the General Election.
I should like to congratulate the Minister on what he has told the House about the state of our industry and its prospects. I congratulate him on the way in which he has told us of the advance and the increase in production that have taken place during the last four years. Had there not been a change in administration four years ago, I feel quite sure that the amount of home-produced food would be considerably less than it is today.
I am very sorry that the right hon. Member for Don Valley (Mr. T. Williams) is not present. I listened with great interest to his speech, but I felt that as he gets older the more innocent he tries to be. He reminded me of the "girl" of 35 who was taken out by a lad of 20 and tried to convince him that this was the first time in her life that she had been taken out by a young man. The right hon. Gentleman was definitely trying to do that sort of thing in part of his speech.
I was particularly surprised to hear him say that the Labour Party were the original fathers of the 1947 Act. At home I have a copy of a White Paper, which was produced about the end of 1944 or the beginning of 1945. Lord Woolton was then Minister of Reconstruction, and a Committee was set up comprising hon. Members from both sides of the House, and representatives of the Agricultural Workers' Union, the Country Landowners' Association and the National Fanners' Union. As a result of the document which that Committee produced the 1947 Act came along. It is very interesting now to compare that document—produced while the war was still going on—with the Bill which became the 1947 Act.
Mention has been made, I believe by the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Kenyon), of guaranteed prices. The hon. Member tried to suggest that they were introduced by the first Socialist Government, but we know full well that guaranteed fixed prices for farm products were introduced at the commencement of the war.
I think the hon. Member for Leek (Mr. Harold Davies) should clear up the statement he made that rents in Great Britain are £7 per acre. I know that Dorset is the most beautiful and, I think, one of the most productive counties, but it is a very average county in this respect—we have rich land and poor land. The average rent in Dorset is about 40s. an acre. If it went out from this House that the average rent of land in the country is £7 per acre it would do more harm than good.
In fairness to my hon. Friend the Member for Leek, it should be pointed out that he was quoting a statement made by the Chairman of the Cheshire Agricultural Executive Committee.
That may be, but I think the hon. Member would have been wiser to check the figure. Had he known as much about the soil as I do, he would have known that there was something wrong about that. Only a few odd acres let at such a price. If my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Mr. Baldwin) had been here—a man of very great experience in the matter of rents—I am quite sure he would immediately have challenged the statement.
We have heard today something about a new policy of the Labour Party for agriculture under which the farmers are to be given fixed prices instead of guaranteed prices. That would be a costly process because, with fixed prices, one takes the product, whatever its quality, and someone has to pay for the losses sustained. To my mind, the most serious thing about fixed prices is that we should immediately begin to lose quality. As a result of the policy of the present Government in giving greater freedom to producers we are seeing quality returning to the shops. The housewife certainly likes to get a higher quality of food—milk, vegetables, or meat, be it what it may, she likes quality. If hon. Members opposite were successful in a few weeks' time their policy would do nothing but reduce the quality of our farm produce as we know it today.
I mentioned the great progress made since we have been in office. There has been the reintroduction of the fertiliser subsidy, the calf subsidy and the ploughing-up subsidy. The previous Government allowed those to lapse. The Minister has given the figures for the increase in the amount of output from our farms. Another thing which perhaps some hon. Members have overlooked is the amount of new buildings which have gone up in the last four years and the amount of new machinery brought on to the farms, all of which makes for greater efficiency in the industry.
I was very pleased to note in the document on which this debate is founded the increased amount of money which is being spent on research on the production of pigs and poultry. I believe that in that lies the future prosperity of our industry and the possibility of having better and healthier animals. The testing stations being set up will definitely mean money well spent. Unfortunately, it will take some considerable time before we begin to notice and appreciate the results of the work going on in those stations.
I was disturbed to see that the estimated fertiliser subsidy this year will not be quite so great as last year. I am a little worried about that because I believe the finest investment that the farmer can make today is to use more fertiliser on his soil. There is no doubt about that. If only we could get all producers to use the average amount used by the best producers we could easily double the amount of food we are getting today. Far too many people still have the silly idea that the putting of fertiliser on the land and growing bigger crops is robbing the soil. It is nothing of the sort; doing that feeds the soil.
We have some very rich soils near our great towns and cities. That is because they have been fed throughout the centuries by the waste produced from those towns and by the manure produced by animals. Producers today should have a different idea about the use of fertilisers. They give the soil and the plant food, and the more food the plant receives—in the right proportions—the greater will be the crop produced.
A great deal of time has been devoted in the debate to the question of pigs. I should like to touch on that subject. This is a very important question. We should increase our pig production instead of allowing it to remain static. But there are certain difficulties. I know that the Minister is very keen on increasing pig production and is doing what he can to further it. One of the biggest problems that we have to solve is that of virus pneumonia amongst pigs. If the scientists can give us the answer to that problem, we shall be able to produce our pigmeat cheaper than we are today.
Mention has been made of the fact that people do not eat so much pork in the summer months. We all know that fresh pork is one of the most difficult types of meat to keep in hot weather, and that it "goes off" quicker than any other sort of meat. Our ancestors would not eat pork during the summer. But what about using refrigeration? Today the butcher keeps his pork in the refrigerator, and the public can do likewise. There is not the danger of pork going bad that there was before the war.
We should take much more care about the grading of our pigs, and we should also develop an export market for fat pigs. When I was in Germany last year I found that the German housewife loves fat bacon as much as the English housewife dislikes it. We should produce more pigs and export our fat bacon to Germany, leaving the good lean bacon for the British housewife. We consume about 10,000 tons of bacon a week. I believe that only 4,000 tons of that amount is home produced. I should like that to be increased to 5,000 tons, and I should also like 1,000 tons of our fat bacon to be exported to the Continent of Europe.
Hon. Members opposite have referred to the cost of feedingstuffs. I know that the cost is high, and we should turn our attention to using more wheat in our feedingstuffs in view of the surpluses of wheat in the United States, Canada and Australia. In those great wheat exporting countries wheat is the cheapest grain they have to sell.
I regret that no mention has been made of what I consider to be the most useful animal on any farm, the sheep. The number of them has increased during the last three or four years, but I feel that farmers would be well advised to increase the number still more. We have ample room for them on our new leys and pastures. The price paid today for mutton compares very favourably indeed with that paid for other types of meat.
No mention has been made of the extent to which the output per man in the farming industry has increased during the last 10 or 15 years. The number of hours worked has been reduced, but more has been produced per hour. I believe that that is due to the efficiency of the farmer in procuring new machinery and to the keenness of the farm worker. The farm worker is an example to the rest of the country. If an opportunity arises of using some new form of machine, he is only too ready to use it, and in fact is very proud to do so.
I wish to conclude by reminding the House that the prosperity of this nation depends upon the prosperity of the countryside. We are an industrial nation, and yet I feel that for too long the nearest market that the industrialists have had is completely neglected. This applies to all sections of industrialists, from the men in the workshop to those at the top. They think of the market a thousand miles from home. I suggest that they think of the agricultural market. The more farm produce we can sell the more we can produce, and the more we can produce the more economically we can produce. This would be to the advantage not only of the farming industry but of every man and woman in this island.
The hon. Member for Dorset, North (Mr. Crouch) said that the prosperity of our country depends upon the prosperity of the countryside, and I agree with him. What happens in the countryside affects what happens in the towns and the industrial areas, and it is essential to have a right balance.
I can remember the time when my constituents were demanding the produce from our farms but because of the economic policy which was pursued at that time they were unable to purchase the produce from our own countryside. Yet our farmers were leaving the land and good land was going out of cultivation. I agree that it would be very wrong if we ever returned to that situation.
Therefore, each one of us must think in terms of an economy which provides not only a thriving agricultural industry but one which is complementary to developing productivity elsewhere. I have always held the view that it is wrong to argue the case of the countryside against the town, and vice versa. In our island economy it is essential that we should strike a correct balance, and we should appreciate that if there is a crisis in our agricultural industry it affects industry elsewhere, and vice versa. There I agree with the hon. Member for Dorset, North.
I am afraid, however, that I cannot accept the hon. Gentleman's strictures. He seemed to be apologetic about his party's approach to the Agriculture Act, 1947. Indeed, he seemed to wish that he could somehow or other give his party credit for that Act. He tried to produce some obscure evidence to show that the Tories believe in planning and believe also in the 1947 Act.
I am glad that the hon. Member can produce his document. In 1945, and until the time when that Act went through this House, I listened to every agricultural debate, and I remember the attitude of hon. Members opposite to that Act. Indeed, on Part I we divided in Committee upstairs. Time and again hon. Members opposite opposed that Measure. They said that it would provide only a false security for farming industry. I can, if necessary, quote speech after speech from hon. Members opposite who participated in those debates, attacking the planning proposals which we put forward.
I am glad the hon. Member for Dorset, North nods his head. Although he is a Tory politician, he is a farmer with a sense of responsibility for his industry, and he knows quite well that it was the Labour Government who provided those security measures in the 1947 Act.
If we have to go back into history in order to find out who provided the guarantees, we can talk about the Corn Production Act, with its guarantees for wheat, and how that Act was repealed in 1921 by a predominantly Conservative Government. Nevertheless, I am glad that the hon. Member agrees that the Labour Government's Agriculture Act, 1947, has given security to the farmers; indeed, that is really what divides us from hon. and right hon. Gentlemen opposite—our whole approach to agriculture.
I make no apologies for introducing politics in an agriculture debate today. The Minister did so in his own speech, and, after all, we are at the end of a Parliamentary Session, and we shall be asking these political questions in the countryside. I do not mind a vigorous debate in this House on agricultural matters, but I do believe that, in relation to the main principles which were laid down in the 1947 Act, there is a difference of approach between hon. Members opposite and ourselves.
We believe in a form of planning, and we are not ashamed to say that we planned for agriculture. Hon. Members opposite take every opportunity to attack it, because they do not believe in planning. While they say they want freedom for the farmer, they also want freedom for the middleman and for those financial interests behind the scenes, which, I believe, from time to time, negate the interests of the farmer-producer in our country. Therefore, there is certainly a difference of approach between us.
I should like to ask the Minister some questions, and, certainly, they are of a political character. I intervened earlier today on the issue of credit facilities, and I want to press this issue again, because it was the right hon. Gentleman's party which, time and time again when we were in power, used to argue that we must have credit facilities for the small farmer.
I go further than that, and I will quote, as I did before, to show that it was the party of the right hon. Gentleman opposite which, in its earlier manifesto called "The Agricultural Charter," stated specifically that if a Tory Government were
elected, it would give credit facilities for the small farmers. Here, on page 38 of that document, we find the following words:
Conservatives believe that sufficient credit should be made available at a reasonable rate to farmers and landowners to undertake development which will lead to increased output and lower costs of production.
I see that the Minister nods his head. His party's propaganda was even more specific, because it said this:
… additional credit facilities are needed. Just as it has been found desirable to make additional money available to the smaller type of industrial enterprise through the Industrial and Commercial Finance Corporation, so funds should be placed at the disposal of co-operative and marketing organisations to assist in financing new enterprise in both agriculture and horticulture.
I ask the Minister what the Government have done. Here was a specific promise given by the Tory Party at the last Election. What has the Minister done about it? I am not blaming the Minister individually. He is a pleasant individual, who has been placed in his office, perhaps because of his personality, to act as a political soothsayer in the countryside. He must know about that specific promise, and that the Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer has failed to do anything about it.
I would not mind that, because we are used to the Tory Party letting down the countryside, and we are also used to that party throwing away its promises, but the Chancellor himself made a speech at a dinner in 1952. What did he say? I have here a report of his speech in "The Times." He was proposing the toast of agriculture at a dinner of the Farmers' Club. This report says:
Mr. Butler said that he was fully aware of the problems of agricultural credit. He would simply say, without wishing to forestall his Budget, that he would go on examining with sympathy this question.
Nice and pleasant words, but what has happened? Time and time again, the Minister and the Treasury have been approached on this matter, and we have heard the speeches which Ministers have made, but what has happened?
Farmers' costs go up, and no one denies that. Their costs have gone up, and they affect particularly the small farmer. I know that that is the case in my own constituency, particularly in regard to hill farmers. There has been an inflationary trend in that sphere, and no one denies it. Costs have gone up and up during the period of office of the present Government, and yet the Chancellor and other right hon. Gentlemen opposite, over and over again in that pamphlet and in their speeches, have promised that they would do something for the small farmer.
We have this remarkable leaflet—an all-time low for the Tory Party in the countryside—entitled "Who's To Be The Farmer?," which suggested that, if a Labour Government were elected, there would be a Whitehall civil servant with a brief case farming from Whitehall.
I hope the Minister is not responsible for that type of propaganda, but even in this leaflet, which is an all-time low in political propaganda in the countryside, and of which even the Minister himself must be ashamed, we have a specific promise from the Conservative Party Central Office that the Conservatives would provide loans for small farmers and smallholder tenants of private landlords. I am asking the Minister what he is going to do about it, and I should like the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to give me a reply. I should like to know the effect of the decision of the Chancellor of the Exchequer to raise the Bank Rate. I should like to know what has been its effect on the small farmer. What approaches have been made from the National Farmers' Union on this issue?
It may be said that I am electioneering, but it was the right hon. Gentleman's party which put forward this specific proposal, and, therefore, I say today, when we are faced with a General Election, that it is essential that we should have an answer to the question why this promise has not been fulfilled and why no credit facilities have been given for small farmers, who have been facing great difficulties and who certainly will face increasing difficulties over the raising of the Bank Rate.
I come back to the second point which has been raised in the debate. I refer to the drift from the land. I have here the figures of the June returns, which no doubt will be quoted again, and perhaps over and over again in the countryside. The figures are rather alarming. They show that in June, 1953, there were 376· 5 thousand regular workers—males over 21 years and under 65—and that, in June, 1954, that figure had dropped to 3656 thousand. What is more interesting is the position regarding workers over 18 and under 21. In June, 1953, the figure was 328 thousand, and it has now dropped to 326 thousand.
Hon. Members may ask why I am raising this matter, but I can remember that during the period of the Labour Government, hon. Members opposite time and time again chided the Labour Minister on the drift from the land. Time and time again we were attacked on this issue. Indeed, the predecessor of the right hon. Gentleman said that this was one of the most important issues with which we had to deal, and I remember his speech at a farmers' meeting in the North of England.
What is the right hon. Gentleman going to do about that, because, after all, it was the Conservative Party's policy to encourage young people to go on the land? That is what they said in this dreadful document "Who's To Be The Farmer?" It said this:
We will encourage young people of proved capacity to obtain farms of their own.
What has been done about it? Absolutely nothing so far, and we can see from the June returns that there has unfortunately been a drift from the land.
If we are to have a healthy, flourishing agriculture we must see that young entrants are encouraged to go into it, and we must also alter this unfortunate drift that now takes place. So tonight I ask the Minister what he is doing about it. That is what my right hon. Friend, when he was Minister, was asked by hon. Members opposite when they were in opposition. Where is the fulfilment of the promise to give an incentive to young people to own farms? Is it only propaganda? Is the Tory Party again merely putting forward specious promises which it knows it cannot fulfil? I suspect that that is what the Minister believes. Therefore he is trying to work out honestly, in his own way, a solution to the difficulties which he has to face because of the general policy which is pursued by his Government and, above all, by his Government's Treasury.
My right hon. Friend has mentioned the lack of confidence. In a previous debate the Parliamentary Secretary said that we were partly responsible because we used this argument. Surely, over the years, hon. Members opposite have read farming papers and the reports of N.F.U. meetings. Surely they have read carefully the proceedings of the last annual conference of the National Farmers' Union.
Hon. Members opposite must have read even the articles by the hon. Member for Worcestershire, South (Sir R. De la Bè re), who used to be a bitter critic of my right hon. Friend. In an article which is a strong condemnation of the policies pursued by the party opposite, the hon. Member for Worcestershire, South says:
Why hide the truth? The Government must face the facts. I have said that the Government's present agricultural policy must result in a ghastly muddle.
That was what the hon. Member for Worcestershire, South said in the "Farmer and Stock-Breeder "in April, 1954. Over and over again we have had speeches in that tone from hon. Members opposite. We have had speeches, too, from responsible farming opinion. There is uncertainty in the countryside.
The real reason is that there is a difference of approach, as I stressed at the beginning of my speech. We on this side of the House believe in the security which was given in the Agriculture Act, 1947. We believe in planning for the countryside. We believe that the farmer will only be set free if we give him those essential guarantees and security measures which are contained in the 1947 Act. We believe in injecting new capital into the countryside by the Measures which we produced in that period—for example, the Hill Farming Act.
We do not believe that the farmer will benefit if we allow our economy to rip or if we allow the price mechanism to operate. That is why it is essential that the home producer should have that security. That is why I am worried that the home producer will be let down if a Conservative Government continues in power. We have had examples of that in the past.
That was why I put Questions to the Minister dealing with the common market for Europe. The right hon. Gentleman's colleague, the Paymaster-General, who attended all the conferences which led to the Paris decisions of last year, more or less pledged the Government's support in principle for a common market in Europe. As yet we have had no policy statement on this issue. It is a matter which affects particularly our own home horticultural industry.
How far will the Government let down the producer, as they did in the inter-war years? How far will they again say, "We will allow a flow of cheap products into our own country"? I have heard the Leader of the House and others say that the home producer must come first, the Commonwealth second and others third; but how is that to be reconciled with the activities of the Paymaster-General at the Paris Conference on the question of the common market? After all, the Paymaster-General was representing the Government and Government policy. Either the Government do not believe in a European common market, in which case they should say so, or they believe that horticulture should be protected, as it was protected during the period of the Labour Government.
That is why we are suspicious of hon. and right hon. Members opposite. As individuals they may have good intentions. Many of them are sincere men in the sense that they are practical farmers, but as farmers they must know that in the inter-war period they were let down by a policy which we must not pursue in this difficult post-war period. If we go back to the price mechanism, and if that vague phrase "Set the people free" is applied to the agricultural industry, I believe that the small farmer, and particularly the small farmer in my constituency on the hill farms of Cumberland, will suffer as he suffered in the inter-war period. Therefore, I hope that for the sake of the countryside Conservative policies will be rejected and that we can have that stability and confidence which we had in the industry when we had a Labour Government from 1945 to 1950.
Mr. W. M. F. Vane:
I have listened to nearly every agricultural debate during the life of this Parliament, if not to every agricultural debate, and this is the first time, Mr. Speaker, that I have tried to catch your eye. During all those debates a large part of the speeches from the benches opposite developed such a gloomy tone that one would have thought that the first wish of many farmers was to wind up their businesses before they found themselves approaching the Bankruptcy Court. Instead, the effort which has been put into the industry has been increasing year by year and output has increased year by year, until last year, with its disastrous weather, but for which a still further increase would have been shown.
Now, the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Peart) complains because land is so closely held that there is not sufficient room for new entrants to the industry. That last point answers his first contention that there is so little confidence. All the same, we cannot treat lightly the question of the decline in the number of workers in the industry. That decline is not peculiar to this country. I believe that it is to be found in all countries, and particularly in those with a high degree of industrial development.
It is also understandable that in many farming enterprises the invention and development of the internal combustion engine has not only helped to raise our production to record levels but has also been responsible for seeing the displacement of a number of men. But we must also accept the fact that today there are many other jobs which seem to be more attractive to young men than working on the land.
Hon. and right hon. Members opposite must accept some responsibility for the fact that they were so slow in encouraging new building and the improvement of farm workers' houses after the war. There was then a great chance to do something—there always is after hostilities, when a curious additional interest is shown in work on the land, in forestry as well as in agriculture. Men who wanted to take up that work after the war found that there was no accommodation for them. Strange though it seems in retrospect, the building licence system in those days favoured the improvement of cowsheds rather than the improvement of farm workers' houses. So during those years we lost a number of men who would have wished to take up farming as their work.
Is my right hon. Friend the Minister satisfied that really effective opportunities are given in the Forces for men doing such vocational training during the last few months of their National Service to learn about agriculture and particularly about agricultural engineering? Are there really such pieces of equipment as cut-down tractors in the shops on which they can learn or is all this engineering training given in terms of urban industry, as I fear it may be?
I am glad that the hon. Member for Workington did not mention the question of pay as one of the difficulties. The Principal of the Cumberland and Westmorland Farm Institute, whom the hon. Member will know and respect, as I do, said recently when giving away the prizes at one of the Midland farm institutes that there had never been an opportunity such as today whereby a young farm worker could save a sum sufficient to enable him to enter a smallholding almost without recourse to credit. I am assuming, of course, that he has not married over-young and that he has only himself to support. Hon. Members can work out for themselves how much a young man who cares to be economical can save in the course of 10 years or so. Mr. Davis, whom I quote, mentioned a figure of £1,000 and I do not think that is out of the way where the man has no dependant.
The difficulty is in finding the opening. This is a small, crowded country and we cannot easily extend the acreage of available agricultural land. I was wondering what the hon. Member for Workington meant. Did he mean to push out some of the old in order to make room for the young whose cause he was championing? And since he quoted from certain Tory papers, all old—
—he will not object if I quote a sentence from "Challenge to Britain," which refers to farming efficiency, on page 18, as follows:
Labour will institute a system under which each district will have a standard output per acre, worked out on the basis of the output of farms in the district.
A farmer whose output is appreciably below this standard may be placed under the supervision of the County Committee, and during the period of supervision every help will be given to him by the Agricultural Advisory Service.
If there is no substantial improvement within a given period and there are no special circumstances, the farmer may lose his farm….
I hope the right hon. Gentleman who will wind up the debate for the Opposition
will tell us whether that is still Labour agricultural policy. I was wondering whether the hon. Gentleman was relying on that in order to find room for the young entrants. If he is, I think it is a harsh view.
The hon. Gentleman then went on to speak about credit. I wish that hon. Gentlemen opposite would tell us what they have in mind when they say that new or different credit facilities should be available.
But is not that the responsibility of the Minister? It was the party of hon. Gentlemen opposite who promised this specifically at the last Election, and they have been in power now for four years. Surely there is a responsibility on the people who promised that they would do something.
I am just about to tell the hon. Gentleman how I look at this question of credit.
I first asked him what he had in mind because there are two sides to this issue. There is first the quantity and there is secondly the rate, and they are two very different things. When credit was restricted by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, agriculture had special treatment. This is frequently forgotten but I know about it from my own experience because my banker told me that for other purposes he would not have been able to meet me as he did. Then comes the question of the rate. It is true that the rate of interest current at any time is taken into account in the Annual Price Review calculations. That is an answer to the hon. Gentleman.
For most people in the industry the existing facilities are ample, but I am prepared to accept the fact that for the small man, whose security is restricted more or less to his personal skill, there is a small gap which is extremely difficult to fill. On the Continent, where cooperative organisation is accepted somewhat differently from the way it is by us, that gap is filled largely by co-operative groups. Most of them would not be acceptable in this country, but the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and since I have been in this House representing an agricultural community where the typical individual holding is a small farm, I can say truthfully that I do not think I have heard more than one or two comments on agricultural credit in 10 years.
I have heard agricultural experts say that if the small farmer on marginal land would learn to use and accept more credit than he is willing to do at the present time, he would not only improve his output but would increase the national output and probably his own profit at the same time. Yet the last thing we ought to do, here or outside, is to encourage anyone to borrow more than he is justified in doing. If we do that, we shall certainly hurry a certain number of the weaker vessels towards the bankruptcy court.
Electricity was mentioned in this debate, as it has been in every agricultural debate we have had during the last three years, when hon. Members argued whether or not the rate of connections of farms today was higher or lower than it might have been if the electricity industry had not been nationalised. That is a sterile line of argument.
However, I should like to suggest two things to the Minister. First, is he satisfied that in all parts of England the forms of agreement offered by the various boards are suitable for the small farm, which offers a difficult problem to the distributor. Consumption of current is never likely to be large, and it may mean considerable capital costs to effect the connection. I am not suggesting that everything should be uniform throughout the country, but I believe that some regional boards have been more enterprising in developing a form of agreement which is particularly acceptable to these people.
Secondly, may I ask my right hon. Friend to look carefully into the system of single wire high-tension distribution which is especially suitable for work in thinly populated areas? It has been adopted widely in Australia and New Zealand and in some other countries and it may bring about a substantial reduction in the capital costs involved. There are a number of difficulties, but I heard yesterday that the Southern Board was carrying out experiments. Would my right hon. Friend look specially into this and, if he thinks it is a way of getting electricity more quickly and more cheaply to a number of farms and hamlets which are at present isolated, will he urge the electricity authorities to carry out more work on these lines?
I am not going to apologise for mentioning common land. I know many of the difficulties relating to it. I asked my right hon. Friend a Question about it earlier this week. I now ask him whether he would consider charging two or three county committees with the task of carrying out a very close survey of the commons in their areas. The commons could no doubt be classified by him into various categories. Some have little or no agricultural possibilities but great amenity value. In the case of others agricultural and amenity interests may clash. Others will have large agricultural possibilities and could be developed without any detriment to amenity interests.
At the same time, I ask my right hon. Friend whether it would be possible, by means of simple legislation, to widen the powers for the regulation of commons. The provision of water supplies, temporary fencing and ploughing old pasture land and re-seeding are at present beyond the statutory powers of those responsible for regulating commons. I should have thought that it would have been possible to draft something along these lines without setting in train complicated legislation which would probably have to be preceded by a very long and elaborate inquiry.
On the subject of marketing, I hope that the right hon. Member for Belper (Mr. G. Brown) will tell us more about what the Labour Party means when it speaks about a system of fixed prices. How will that fit in with the existing chain of distribution? Will the body or bodies that the Labour Party intends to set up supersede the existing wholesale machinery, or will it be a system of shortening the chain by adding one more link to it, which is how I think it might work out? Will these bodies sell direct to retailers or not? The whole industry is entitled to know a little more about the proposal. It is cleverly phrased to make it appear attractive, but I think that when the farmers examine the Labour Party's proposals and the present situation during the next few weeks they will be satisfied and agree with me that the industry has never seen a better system of markets and prices in times of peace and plenty than it has today.
As a method of whistling in the dark to keep up one's courage it is very much to be recommended, but as a statement of the real position it is a little wide of the mark.
There has been one thing about the debate which my hon. Friends and I have found very flattering. It is that although we are having a General Election very soon at a date chosen by the Government on issues chosen by the Government, and although to a large extent the result of the General Election will be determined in the rural areas, speakers from the Government benches today, from the Minister at the beginning to the hon. Member for Westmorland at the end of the debate, have turned the debate into a discussion of the Opposition's proposals and not the Government's proposals. The debate has been not upon the ideas and plans that the Government have in mind but upon the Opposition's plans. Of course, that is absolutely right, because the Government have not a single idea to put before the rural areas.[Interruption.]
Does the hon. Member for Derbyshire, West (Mr. E. Wakefield) wish to interrupt me? As we are political neighbours, I shall be happy to allow him a chance to justify that rather curious noise. No, he is as silent in the House as he is in Derbyshire, West. As I shall no doubt be appearing in his constituency very soon, I shall be delighted to draw the attention of his constituents to the fact that even when I offer him an opportunity he has nothing to say about agriculture.
Even if the Opposition's proposals for agriculture were wrong and were open to all the criticism that the Minister tried to lash himself up to make, the Government have nothing to put in their place. That is the outstanding deduction which the countryside must draw from the debate. The countryside must give the Opposition's proposals very much greater attention at the General Election because they are the only proposals before it, the only proposals designed to meet the uncertainty, unhappiness and unrest that exist in the countryside.
The Minister, whose predecessor I have repeatedly said was as good a Minister of Agriculture as the Conservative Party has ever produced, was pulled out of what was, from the point of view of agriculture, decent obscurity to take over the job when the Conservative Party had to get rid of the one man who knew how to do it, because he has the facility to stand up blandly, stolidly stonewalling and repeating a series of words without any regard to whether they fit the circumstances of the case. He made that same contribution to the debate today. I counted the number of times that the words, "rationing," "control" and "allocation" appeared in his speech. It was every other half sentence. It was a quite fantastic performance—just a repetition of the three words with a few other words to link them with the next repetition, and there was the whole speech.
Considering the uncertainty and the unrest in the industry, considering what the Vice-President of the National Farmers' Union said about it only a short while ago, considering—as my right hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Mr. T. Williams) pointed out—that the Minister only just missed the most humiliating thing of all, a vote of no confidence carried at the National Farmers' Union annual conference—and the vote of no confidence is still on the agenda; they have not had sufficient confidence to take it off, but they did not proceed to pass it—despite all that, to get up and claim that the years the Government have been in office have been years of progress and achievement was a pretty fantastic tall order.
It is the Government's job, or should have been their job, to have produced in this debate some evidence that they have thought about the problems which they have created. The first charge I make against the Government, the first charge I make to the countryside about the Government, is that they have created the unrest and uncertainty that exist. This is not a period of difficulty that has come upon them through outside events or through anything that the industry has done. It has been injected into what otherwise could have been a settled period by the Government for what one can only presume to be doctrinaire reasons.
One of the incidental points I want to put to the Parliamentary Secretary arises out of the Minister's continual references to the fact that in his view and the view of the Government the farmer knows best what to do with his land; that this Government do not want to tell him what to do with it; that only the Socialists would tell him that. I want to ask the Parliamentary Secretary, if that is the case, what has happened to the circular which the previous Minister, the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Sir T. Dugdale), issued in 1952 instructing his county committees to toughen up the procedure by which they were then dealing with farmers who were not farming efficiently. The circular instructed the committees to dispossess those farmers without as long a period of supervision as they had given them before.
That is telling the farmer what to do with a vengeance. That is not letting the farmer choose for himself. That was a direct instruction from the Minister's predecessor to the county committees to be much tougher and to dispossess without allowing as long a period of supervision as had previously been given. Is that circular still in operation? My information is that it is. I want to ask the Parliamentary Secretary, if he is in a position to speak for his Minister, to tell us how the right hon. Gentleman squares the brave words he issued here publicly with what he is apparently secretly instructing his committees to do. There is a great contradiction here, and I think that the countryside should know whether he has withdrawn the circular or not. I should be interested to find out. My information is that the circular still exists, and the Minister's words today have no meaning in that context except to give a rash view outside.
Everybody would like to believe that one can have all this and heaven too—planning and freedom from planning, the benefits of planning and the benefits of freedom at the same time with no limitation at all. We all know that that is not possible. On this side we are prepared to say so, but the Minister hopes to get away with it by leading people up the garden path.
As to the reference to the years of progress and achievement, I want to put one or two questions to the Parliamentary Secretary about that. His Minister proclaims these as years of progress and achievement. Was the Minister thinking of the Chancellor of the Exchequer's Gadarene swine when he said that. When one of my hon. or right hon. Friends uses a phrase that can be turned or twisted, it gets turned and twisted for years and years. The former Minister of Agriculture—the predecessor to the present Minister, who has not been in office long enough to have any influence at all on these matters—asked the farmers to produce one million more pigs. The farmers produced the one million more pigs; whereupon the Chancellor of the Exchequer comes along and says, "Yes, but you having produced all these pigs, we shall all be swept away in the rush of the Gadarene swine." Is that progress? Does the Minister call that progress or achievement, or both?
Incidentally, I was astonished, and I am sure that the country will be too, to hear one of the Minister's remarks. I took his words down when he said—and perhaps he will correct me if I misquote him, because this will be used again—that the market gets depressed under the present system of support prices only if the production called forth by these guarantees itself depresses the market. If the Minister disagrees, would he say what it was that he tried to say?
We can see the exact words tomorrow; we will play fair about it. I thought he said that the system of de- ficiency payments that he is operating can depress the price which is received only if it calls forth a sufficiently large volume of production to affect the inter-relation of supply and demand. That is what I thought he said, but we can see the exact words tomorrow. The Minister says that that is perfectly sound, but did he think of this: that under the system the more the farmers produce in response to his incentives the greater the risk of reducing the amount they receive? Otherwise this statement means nothing. That is the only meaning of those words—"Under our system, if we are successful in calling forth greater production from you, what you are producing may depress the market price."
"If you produce so much in answer to our deficiency payments that the consumer will not buy it all at the previous market price, then the market price will drop and that will affect your earnings."
Exactly, that is what the deficiency payment is for. Now have we got the guaranteed price and the assured market into perspective? Is this the guaranteed price? Is the deficiency payment scheme designed to produce a result whereby the more the farmer produces the lower the end price he receives?
This is claimed to be a guaranteed price. The hon. Member for Norfolk, South-West (Mr. Bullard) was a little upset when I interrupted him earlier in the debate and asked what was a guaranteed price. Does he accept this definition? Does he think that the farmers in South-West Norfolk will accept that a guaranteed price is a price which falls if the farmer produces more than the consumer will pay for at the old price? That is not a guaranteed price—
Since the hon. Member for Norfolk, South-West refuses to answer my question, it is quite clear that he does not feel comfortable about having to answer it. We shall see that it is put to him again in South-West Norfolk, at Downham and in other places.
This is exactly what I was saying earlier, that guaranteed prices and an assured market must mean telling the farmer that if he produces a quantity of food it will be bought from him at a guaranteed price. That is the only meaning there is to the words, "guaranteed price and an assured market."
Unlike his predecessor, the present Minister of Agriculture has lent himself to a system which perhaps he did not rightly understand when he started—they brought him in too suddenly. He has lent himself to a system under which, when a farmer sets out to produce food, all he knows is that there is a guaranteed average price operating. But if by ill luck—mark those words—the farmer produces too much, the consumer will not pay the price; and the ultimate price which the farmer receives will be lower even than the guaranteed average price which he originally expected.
Why is that? Because if, for example, a farmer produces grain under this system and sells when the price is very low, because the quantity coming on the market—as in the autumn of last year—happens to be too much and "depresses the market"—to use the words of the Minister—the producer receives a very low price. Then it may well be that three months later the people who were able to hold on to their grain sell it for a much higher price. The very low price and the higher price are then averaged. That figure is deducted from the guaranteed average, and the resulting difference is shared between the man who sold at a low price and the man who sold at a higher price.
Consequently, the man who has already sold at a low price gets only the same share of the difference as is received by the man who sold at the higher price. That man may have sold at more than the guaranteed average price, so that he receives more than the guaranteed average price, plus the share of the difference between the two prices. The man who sold at the low price will get less than the guaranteed price, plus the share of the difference, and he may find that his ultimate price is below the guaranteed average. That is why I say that the more that is produced the more likelihood there is of uncertainty about a producer receiving even the guaranteed average price, let alone the guaranteed price.
This is not a system of guaranteed prices and assured markets at all. There is not even an assurance that the producer will be able to sell. There is not even an assurance that there will be a market for the goods produced. If we allow the millers to buy all they want from overseas, and then allow them to tell the British farmers whether they want their grain or not—and to pay as little for it as they like—it may well turn out that in a particular year the home-produced grain will not be sold at all. And if the British farmers do not sell they do not receive even a share of the guaranteed price. A farmer may have produced grain, but he has to sell it before he can share in the guaranteed price. Therefore he has to take the price which is bound to result from his helping to depress the market by securing a sale in order to get any entitlement at all.
I want the countryside to understand that this alleged system is not following either the letter or the spirit of the 1947 Act. The Minister can keep wagging his head and saying that it is, but the answer is that it is not. The Minister makes a bland assertion and repeats it again and again, but he cannot solve the problem of the man who has faced precisely this situation during the last year. The term, "guaranteed price and an assured market" must mean just that. If it does not, it means that there is neither, and the situation today is that there is neither, as the countryside is well aware, and that explains the uneasiness which exists today.
Then there is the meat muddle and the millions of pounds a week which are flowing out; the situation which has let in the dealers once more; which has let in the auction markets. The muddle would have been much worse had not the National Farmers' Union come to the rescue of a wretched Minister without a policy and set up the Fatstock Marketing Corporation to put some kind of floor into the situation.
In addition to the meat muddle which has cost us millions, there is the grain muddle, in which the millers were allowed so to rig the market with imports that they insisted on paying £8 or £9 a ton less than the guaranteed price for home products; and have since, for example, sold wheat offals for more than they paid for the whole grain when they took it. We, the taxpayers, have paid the subsidy on that for a situation which gave no real assurance to the producers, which cost us all a lot of money, and which has not helped the consumer at all.
The Minister is awfully self-satisfied. His last words were that we must not be complacent. My golly, when the right hon. Gentleman goes home tonight, he ought to repeat those words to himself in front of a mirror, because that is just what he is. Prices to the housewife have gone up, farmers' incomes have gone down and farm subsidies have gone up, and the right hon. Gentleman tells us that we are now paying out rather more than £250 million a year for a system that has assured nobody at all. It really is a most incredible record
I will come to the consumer in a moment. For the present, I am taking the Minister through his record with the producer. I am quite certain that the producer would rather have a situation in which he had guaranteed prices and assured markets and in which the Exchequer liability was known. As the "British Farmer" said in its last issue but one, the fact that the Exchequer liability is undetermined and the fact that the market returns are undetermined is the inevitable outcome of the Minister's own policy of deficiency payments. It means that there can be no knowledge at all of what the Exchequer is going to pay out and no knowledge of what the return to the producer will be.
The present system which is alleged to be a guarantee is nothing of the sort. It is costing far more than would a reasonable system of guarantees or assured markets, and certainly far more than the Government forecast that it would. Nobody knows what it will cost in any year, and neither the housewife nor the producer is getting the benefit.
The Minister talked about our attacking the little retailer. We are not dealing with him, but with the millers, the compounders, the dealers and the auctioneers who, under this system, are the people who have got away with the swag. They are the people who have been feather-bedded by the right hon. Gentleman, and it is to them that the subsidies are really going.
The Minister keeps telling the agricultural industry, "We are supporting you to the tune of £250 million a year." But the people in the industry know that what is really happening under the present system is that they are being blamed for the cost of a system which does not support them, but which is, in fact, enabling the big boys in the distributive trades—the middlemen—to get away with the swag at the expense of the taxpayer and of the consumer, and that at the risk that some day the industry will be told that it is getting too much.
The price this year was very nearly not an agreed one. It became an agreed price only when someone politically a little higher than the Minister came along and said, "There will be an Election soon, and we must have an agreed price." The Council of the N.F.U. know that. My friends in the industry tell me what is happening. That is where I get my information. They know what happens in price negotiations. Where will they stand next year when, perhaps, there will not be a General Election in the offing?
When hon. and right hon. Members opposite were the Opposition, they were under no illusion that this was not a guaranteed market, because every Conservative Member of the Standing Committee which dealt with the Committee stage of the 1947 Bill voted against Clause 1 of that Measure. Every single one of them voted against guaranteed prices and assured markets. Why did they say that they were doing so? They said, "It does not go far enough; it does not give guaranteed prices and assured markets to everybody." They did not talk about deficiency payments, supports or minima in those days.
The present Leader of the House said that it did not guarantee the British producer the first place in the market. The Government are not guaranteeing him first place in this way. My friends who produced grain last year in East Anglia did not get first place in the market; they got the place left after Mr. Rank, Mr. Spiller and the rest had filled up with foreign stuff. Yet the Leader of the House, the Attorney-General, the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Hurd)—all those hon. Members opposite who sat upon that Committee were saying that we did not go far enough. Now it turns out that we went a good deal further than they were prepared to go.
The Minister now says that our system cannot operate without rationing, controls and allocations. Nothing I can say will alter the view of the Government. They will placard the hoardings in this Election with the words "Rationing, allocation and controls." The only difference is that those words will appear instead of "nationalisation." On the last occasion, nearly every Conservative hoarding referred to land nationalisation, although we said that we were not going to do it, and it was not in our programme. Now they have invented three new words.
In this House we are not allowed to say that something is a deliberate lie, but outside the House the people who say that our system will mean rationing, controls and allocations will face that accusation. It does not mean rationing or allocations. We have the Milk Marketing Board. We have a guaranteed price and a fixed price for milk—a monopoly distribution, if one likes to call it that, by the Milk Marketing Board—but that does not mean that milk is rationed, and we do not need to ration anything else.
If the Minister says that under our system the demand will be greater than the supply, I say that that presupposes that the supply must be greater than the demand today, but that is because the Government have other ways of reducing the demand than by rationing. If the supply is equal to the demand, of course, there is no question of limitation. The Minister's assertion is not true; it is an invention because he cannot produce a constructive answer to our proposals.
For once the Minister read from a brief which was obviously not prepared in 55, Whitehall; it was obviously prepared in the Central Office of the Conservative Party. It could not have come from 55, Whitehall, because the people there know about marketing boards and the Conservative Central Office does not.
The Minister said that we were proposing to set up vast new Government-sponsored bodies. We are proposing to encourage industry to set up producer marketing boards. Does the Minister suggest that such bodies are vast Government-sponsored bodies? We want marketing boards for other products besides milk. It is true that in two cases only, where the imported product is a large part of the supply, we propose that independent commissions should be set up, because unless we are going to let the producer down—I am not suggesting that we should give the producer first place in the market—somebody has to integrate the overseas supplies and the home supplies and make them complementary instead of conflicting.
Instead of merely throwing meaningless words and abuse at us in connection with our proposals—rather like a little schoolboy in his first political debate—the Minister could have told us how he proposes to make sure that the imported element of the meat supply does not depress the market for the home supply at some stage. He has no ideas in the matter of integrating supplies.
We believe that the way to do it is to set up an independent commission. Elsewhere, we would set up producer marketing boards, because we gave birth to them; we passed the main Acts in connection with them, and we still believe that they are right. We are not going to run away from our opinion because of all this abuse about these vast Government-sponsored bodies. What do we propose to do? I am delighted to tell the House, and through the House the countryside, since the Government have nothing to tell the people there.
We propose to have a long-term production policy. We propose to agree and negotiate with the industry what the production policy shall be, what it is we want, what it is we are prepared to buy, what kind of things, instead of just leaving it to the farmers to make the best guess they can, only to find that the millers have depressed the market. We propose a long-term production plan to start with. We shall agree with the industry, as my right hon. Friend used to do, and have a system of guaranteed actual prices and assured markets.
I remind the House that the National Farmers' Union a little while ago said that, in its view, a system of guaranteed actual prices and assured markets known in advance was fundamental to any increased expansion of British agriculture. We agree with the National Farmers' Union, as it happens, on this issue, and with the National Farmers' Union we are against the Government upon it. We shall have guaranteed prices and assured markets. Hon. and right hon. Gentlemen opposite can say what they like about that in the countryside. Let them try. The farmers know what it means.
We propose to deal with the shortage of credit. The Minister says that there is no real gap. However, his hon. Friend, the hon. Member for Norfolk, South (Mr. J. E. B. Hill), who won a by-election in that constituency not long ago, and who the other day made his maiden speech here, spent most of it proving to the Minister that there was such a gap. We propose to deal with that by setting up some agency, or, it may be, using existing agencies, to see that credit to finance an expansion programme will be available to the people for whom there is a gap at the moment, and at favourable rates of interest.
We propose to see that the capital investment programme goes up. It actually fell under the present Government from £86 million in 1951 to £79 million in 1953. We propose to see that some land which is not in use and which should be in use is brought into use. We propose to see that the county committees are enabled to play a useful and good part again, as, I know from personal experience, they once did.
We propose to see that the agricultural workers get a fair deal. As a result of guaranteed prices and assured markets and an agreed production plan, the prosperity which will ensue in the industry will enable the workers to get wages comparable to those of their colleagues in the towns. We propose to see that the tied cottage problem is ended, and that alternative accommodation is provided for such people as the unfortunate family of whom we read in this morning's papers, who have had to leave a house that goes with a farm. We propose to see safety measures introduced on the farms. We propose to deal with that problem, on which the Government have steadfastly refused to spend any time, although they could have found time for it. We shall deal with that when we come back.
If the Election is to be fought on the kind of speech the Minister made today, so be it. If no programme is to be discussed but our programme, because the Government have none, that will suit us. If there is to be nothing from hon. and right hon. Gentlemen opposite but abuse of us, and the parrot-like repetition of "Rationing, allocation and controls," so be it. We believe that we have a plan for food production in this country that the producers understand, that has worked well, and that enabled the industry to expand and that can do so again.
Those of us who have urban constituents as well as rural constituents believe that it is a plan we can confidently take to our urban constituents, too. We believe we can tell the housewives that it will pay them well, because it will guarantee them food. For myself, I assure hon. Gentlemen opposite who sit for marginal rural seats in Norfolk, Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire and elsewhere that we are more than willing to try our plan and the event in their own constituencies.
If I do not reply to the many points made during the debate I hope that hon. Members on both sides of the House will forgive me, as the time at my disposal is very short.
May I begin with one of the controversial issues which the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Don Valley (Mr. T. Williams) dealt with in his speech, and which was discussed by hon. Members on both sides of the House. I refer to the issue of whether or not the system of deficiency payments operating in a free market is indeed a system of guaranteed prices within the principle of the 1947 Act.
The hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Kenyon), who made one of his usual valuable contributions, made that point. I think that it was well answered by my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, South-West (Mr. Bullard), and I would remind right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite of a passage in a speech which I made last June in the Supply Day debate which we had then. This was an extract which I read from the White Paper which accompanied the 1947 Act, which the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Don Valley issued:
The price may be a guaranteed fixed price; a rate of deficiency payment related to a standard price; an acreage payment; a subsidy; or a price calculated in accordance with a formula, of which, for example, the price of feedingstuffs might be the basis. Of the other major factors the most important is the quantity which is to be covered by the determination."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 3rd June, 1954; Vol. 528, c. 1580–1.]
The right hon. Gentleman, in his speech in the Second Reading debate, added this:
It is, however, possible in the Bill to use some prewar machinery should that be the best method, such as, for instance, the Wheat Commission "—
which operated on a wheat deficiency payment system—
the Milk Marketing Board, or anything parallel to these."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 27th January, 1947; Vol. 432, c. 631.]
That has been said here many times, and I think that it does no harm to say it again, because out of the right hon. Gentleman's own mouth he directly controverts what the right hon. Member for Belper (Mr. G. Brown) has just said.
The right hon. Gentleman and his advisers foresaw at the time that the day would come when supplies would be sufficient and it would no longer be possible to use the fixed price system such as was used during shortage. The right hon. Gentleman wisely provided for it. Let no one go out into the country and say that the system of deficiency payments is contrary to the spirit of the 1947 Act—it is not.
The right hon. Member is simply saying that black is white.
The next controversial point—I am sorry to labour it again with the right hon. Gentleman—is the question of indices of production. I see that there is a Question to my right hon. Friend relating to that subject on the Order Paper, and we will publish them in full, so that everyone can see them.
The hon. Gentleman must not expect us to accept any figures that he or anybody else cares to provide.—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."]—since the Government have already provided White Papers in 1952, 1953, 1954 and 1955. Surely their own White Papers are good enough for this House without giving spurious figures.
These will be the figures of the White Papers. Some slight revision has been made in the light of the best information which we have had recently, and the right hon. Gentleman need not be afraid because they do in fact operate on his side. The most recent figures which we have had since decontrol of pig production showed that there should be some revision of the figures which we had in the past.
The figures which I quoted are all concerned with total production. The figures which the right hon. Gentleman quoted were those of agricultural holdings, excluding holdings under one acre, and that caused, I think, some confusion in the discussion which we had. I assure the right hon. Gentleman that the figures which I gave are correct, and there was in fact an increase—from 127 to 145—of 18 points in the six years of Labour Government.
The hon. Gentleman is not going to get away with that. There is no such thing as a 127 increase in any of the White Papers published by his Government. Where has he got that 127 from? Is it from the Conservative and Unionist Campaign Guide? He cannot expect us to sit here and let him or the Conservative Central head office conjure up figures to suit their purpose.
I am obliged to the right hon. Member for the way in which he gave way to me when he was making his speech, but he will realise that his right hon. Friend the Member for Belper has taken up five minutes of my time. The figures are Departmental figures. Naturally, I would not quote any others.
In regard to the first two years of the previous Administration I had something to do with Price Reviews on the other side. I remember very well indeed the extremely tight awards that were given in both those years. In fact, not until August, 1947—more than two years after the right hon. Gentleman came into office—did he realise that it would be necessary to give better prices in order to get an increase in production. That was the reason why production went down in those two years. Let me put that on the record.
I am not avoiding the truth; I am speaking the truth.
If the right hon. Member will look at the figures of net income for those two years he will see it was under £200 million and it was not until he gave the Special Review in August, 1947, that the income went up to anything of the kind which would give the industry an incentive. I shall have to turn from this controversial subject to deal with another, but I hope that it is on record that the right hon. Gentleman was very selective.
The right hon. Member has had his turn and plenty of time to make his speech.
In the few moments remaining I wish to say this. My right hon. Friend recalled in his speech today what has been done in the last three and a half years. The fact is that we have managed to get an expanding production in the foods that were particularly wanted and have managed at the same time, by our general policy, to restore the financial strength of the country in order that we could import from abroad the necessary additional food so that gradually, commodity by commodity, we have been able to reach sufficiency instead of shortage.
The result has been that, one by one, we have had to tackle those commodities and decide how we were to see them marketed and what sort of price guarantee we would provide to give consumer choice at the same time as we kept stability of returns for the producer. That is what we have done. The systems are now all working. We have got rid of the ration book, we have continued to give security to farmers throughout the country, and production has continued to increase, with the exception of the period affected by the weather conditions of last year.
The charge of right hon. and hon. Members opposite is that the free market system which we have established is expensive and inefficient. We have to meet that charge. Whatever defects right hon. and hon. Members opposite may say there are—and I quite agree there are defects, as there are in any human organisation—nevertheless this is the most efficient system we could devise. I wish to examine the alternative which right hon. Members opposite have put to us of how they think the most difficult of all commodities, meat, might be marketed if it were not marketed through the free markets which we have set up.
Let me put this on record. During the current year estimated consumption has gone up from 1,950,000 tons to 2,250,000 tons—an increase of 13 per cent.—in the free market. What a tremendous blessing that has been to every household in the country. It could not have been done unless we had established this system. Let me make that clear.
Let us see how the free market system works and what we have done in order to bring it about. I do not doubt the sincerity of hon. Members opposite in saying that they believe that their system would not lead to rationing, but it may be that they have not examined this problem in such detail as we have. We examined this problem in the very greatest detail for every commodity—not just meat but every one. We naturally considered every means by which we could bring about what everybody desires. I am quite prepared to accept the statement of hon. Members opposite, but I do not think they will find it is convincing when I have finished what I have to say.
There are two choices. There is the experience that we have had of the wartime system, with the Ministry of Food buying all the meat from abroad and all the meat at home, bulking the two together and pushing them out through the system of rationing at fixed prices and fixed margins all the way through. I hope and believe that everybody understands that once a sufficiency of supply is achieved, that system breaks down. It cannot work. I am not making an Election point. I made a speech similar to this a year ago, and I was not controverted by any hon. Member opposite. I said it because I knew it to be the truth.
As I say, the war-time system involving Ministry of Food operations breaks down when there is sufficiency. It is not possible for the housewife to choose over the counter what she wants, unless the retailer who supplies her has the chance to go out and select what he believes his customers will want.
The alternative that hon. Members opposite would be driven to is that their commodity commission would operate as a single central marketing organisation buying all the imported meat and all the home-produced meat. They would then bulk it together and operate as a single seller. There would be two main difficulties with which they would have to contend. Their first difficulty would be that, having got rid of all the live auction markets in the country, they would have to find the immensely increased premises for this meat to be sold on a dead-weight basis.
At present three-quarters of our cattle, two-thirds of our sheep and one-third of our pigs are sold in the live auction markets. It is no use saying that the premises that the Ministry of Food had during the war could be used. They could only be used for a system of allocation where the meat was passed through in a very few categories, and where there was no attempt at any selection or choice and no system of buying and selling.
The first requirement would be the building of a range of large-scale dead-meat markets throughout the country. Behind that there would have to be a system of refrigeration and storage to take care of the meat that was not sold, and that would take perhaps five or six years. It would be physically impossible to introduce this system immediately. At the end of the building programme, the physical facilities would exist, but there would then be a second objection. That is the difficulty of a single seller selling a commodity which is highly perishable and has to provide a very big range of choice.
The difficulty would be that, responsible as this commission would be to the nation, it would have to have a sufficient supply to ensure that everybody's need was met. Therefore, it would always be, so to speak, long of supplies. It would make up its price schedules at the prices at which it was going to sell, and it would have to take a decision weekly, monthly and yearly to buy £400 million worth per annum—the nation's supply of meat—and decide what the nation wanted in advance, an immensely difficult undertaking.
Obviously the particular varieties that were wanted would find some market and buyers would go for them, but the less wanted varieties would attract no market and the buyers would simply stand off, with the result that the prices would fall and fall, so that in order to clear stocks the central seller, the commission, would have to bear an unlimited loss. Here, indeed, would be a paradise for the middleman—no competition at all, and knowing that, in the meat market, the commission would have to sell a perishable article, and that the only alternative was to put it in the refrigerator, which it will not get for five or six years. When the commission gets it, it would find that it would cost, with the cost of refrigeration and the lower value of the frozen meat, about 6d. or 7d. a pound in depreciation. What a paradise for the buyer.
In a word, it is an experiment which, goodness knows, nobody else has ever tried to carry out in any other country—to make a single seller of a highly perishable and immensely variegated commodity like this—and it is perfectly evident that the dilemma which this commission would have to face would be that it would either be wishing to give the advantage to the consumers, in which case it would expose itself to unlimited losses, or it would be pressed to keep down the loss and would really be forced to restriction, allocation and rationing.
I do assure the House that we gave the most earnest thought to this subject when we were considering what should be done in the derationing of meat. We were most anxious to have the best system that we could have in this country, and that is the conclusion which was inevitably brought home to us. Indeed, if hon. and right hon. Gentlemen, in the light of what I have said, stick to their view about marketing in this way and do not believe that it would lead to rationing, it leads to one conclusion, and that is not only that if they came back to govern this country we should have rationing, but that, had they continued to govern the country, they would never have had either the understanding or the courage necessary to undertake this huge operation and we should still have been rationed today. [An HON. MEMBER: "Bogy, bogy."] It is not a question of "Bogy, bogy" at all.
Here, indeed, is a proposal from the other side of the House under which the costs of marketing would really be astronomical. Let me make this further point. Hon. and right hon. Gentlemen opposite have been charging us with a disregard for the farmers and saying that their proposals would please the farmers. Let me quote this comment, which Mr. H. J. Twigg, President of the 1954 Cooperative Congress, made about their policy. The heading is "Muddled Thinking About Marketing: A Silly Policy Statement." He said:
I happened to be, on the day of its publication, attending a farmers' conference at Oxford which was dealing with marketing policy, and it was notable that the references, even from those known to be Labour Party sympathisers, to this latest statement were of the most tepid character, whilst the attitude of the farmers was aptly summed up in a comment which I overheard between three of them, none active politicians, describing the new policy as 'plain daft.' As a co-operative worker with some business experience, I warmly endorse those sentiments.
Let not the Opposition think that this policy has made any impression whatever on the question of the farmers' confidence.
The right hon. Gentleman made a considerable attack on the present system of cereal marketing, saying that in his opinion it was a blissful paradise for the merchants and millers, and that it was unhelpful to farmers and so on.
First of all, on the question of the operation of the deficiency payments, I have made it quite clear to the House and beyond controversy that it is within the principle of the 1947 Act, and that the actual operation of the deficiency payment is to guarantee the industry that on the whole it will receive a payment sufficient to make up the average market price to the guaranteed price level. That certainly means that the farmer who puts his cereals on the market in such a condition or at such a time that they fetch a low price will obtain a lower premium than the man who puts his stuff on the market in good condition and at the best time.
The whole object of this exercise is to try to get the best marketing that we can, in the best condition and at the time that the consumer wants it. If the farmer gets an extra reward, surely that is what we would all desire. He would be serving the country as we wish him to do.
The alternative of setting up a commission which would buy all the wheat, home-produced and imported, would be to create exactly the same difficulties. First, it would have to extend its operations to cover all coarse grains. Again, this is a subject to which we gave great attention when we were considering derationing. Because of the interchange-ability of wheat and coarse grains for feedingstuff purposes, it is essential that if one takes control of one commodity one must take control of the lot. Therefore, the commission would have to trade in all three. Once again, it would be in the difficulty of being a single great seller.
Its position would roughly be the same as that of the Cotton Commission, which we all remember, with its unhappy end, making finally, in its last two years, the enormous loss of £40 to £45 million. My right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade, in the debate that followed, made these remarks, which put the matter in a nutshell:
They are compelled by the inexorable logic of circumstances to sell at the bottom
of a rise and to accumulate at the top of a fall. I do not say that they gain nothing on the swings, but I do say that they lose nearly everything on the roundabouts."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 18th November, 1953; Vol. 520, c. 1743.]
My right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade hit the nail on the head. A single marketing agent like that would have to buy all the grain for the country; it would have to ensure that it had a sufficient supply to meet both the milling and the feedingstuff requirements, and it would, therefore, always be at the mercy of the market when the market turned. Once again, it would be in precisely the same difficulty.
We have most carefully considered these circumstances. Far from making a stronger market, in which case the cost to the Exchequer would be less, the Commission would make weaker markets, whereby the cost to the Exchequer would be infinitely more. The logic of the whole procedure would be that by the pressure of the Exchequer the party opposite would be driven back again to allocation and rationing. If hon. and right hon. Members opposite go out into the country and tell farmers that they will revert to the rationing of feedingstuffs and other commodities, they will not find a very warm welcome for their words.
My right hon. Friends have to their credit the development of a policy which has met the nation's need in these extremely difficult three and a half years. The business of developing forms of marketing and price guarantee to operate in free markets and shifting the business of the nation's food supply—about £2,000 million worth per annum—from the Ministry of Food to private hands is an immense operation involving very big risks and an enormous amount of work. If it had not been undertaken with both vision and courage the nation would never have been freed from rationing.
What hon. and right hon. Members opposite have made clear tonight, if they have made nothing else clear, is that either they do not or will not understand the working of a free market. It is only in a free market that one gets equilibrium between the producer supply and the consumer demand and where one gets the prices naturally formed and equilibrium established. Any alternative of the kind that the right hon. Gentleman opposite suggested can but lead to unlimited expense or to the return of rationing. And so we can say, in our last word on the agricultural policy of the present Government, that it has met the nation's need, that it has continued to keep production increasing, and that it has finally freed a grateful country from the shackles of rationing.
Mr. SPEAKER then proceeded to put forthwith the Questions, That this House doth agree with the Committee in the outstanding Resolutions reported in respect of Classes I—X of the Civil Estimates and of the Revenue Departments' Estimates, the Ministry of Defence Estimate, the Navy Estimates, the Army Estimates and the Air Estimates.