Agriculture

Part of Civil Estimates, 1956–57 – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 30th April 1956.

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Photo of Mr Thomas Peart Mr Thomas Peart , Workington 12:00 am, 30th April 1956

That is so. The hon. Member for East Aberdeenshire was critical of the Labour Government. It is vital that we should arrest this trend. We can argue in detail the reasons. The previous Chancellor of the Exchequer and a previous Minister of Agriculture were not quite certain whether it was mechanisation or the competition of industry in the towns. It may be a combination of both. I suspect that the low wage rate is one of the main factors. We must give the rural worker not only the amenities of the town worker but give his wife the same purchasing power. This matter will have to be discussed by responsible bodies outside this Chamber.

There is a drift from the land, which reflects the pessimism which exists. If we attack the small farmer and destroy his confidence, we also undermine the confidence of the rural worker and we create an adverse climate of opinion. Hon. Members who seek to defend the Government policy must admit that in the last four years there has been great uncertainty in the agricultural world. The hon. Member for Dorset, North shakes his head. He speaks for his farmers, and he must surely know that many of the farmers are worried and concerned. They are afraid that the return of what has been termed by Conservative statesmen the "freer economy" will mean that they will have a repetition of their experience in the 'twenties and 'thirties. It is no good the hon. Member for Dorset, North shaking his head again -that is no answer to an argument. He must realise that there is in the world today a great accumulation of farm surpluses and dairy products, particularly in the United States. Farmers remember that the disposal of farm surpluses on the market in 1929 by American producers partly created the economic crisis of 1931; partly created an economic crisis which shook not only the industrial but the rural communities.

That is why farmers are very concerned about this, and about the failure of this Government to produce a positive long-term policy. That is why they use such strong language time and time again, and why they are critical of a Government which has depressed farm incomes. That is the paradox that farm producers have faced; that whilst production has gone up, farm incomes in that same period have decreased, and whilst farmers have been exhorted to produce more there has been a decrease in the rate of capital investment within the industry itself.

That is precisely why there is uncertainty in the industry and why it is no good the Minister being suave and polite and trying to dismiss criticism as being something which has been engineered by extravagant Labour politicians. The uncertainty, the uneasiness, exists in the countryside. The Minister knows it and so do hon. Members opposite. That is why, as I said earlier, some Tory leaders in another place were very critical of the Minister and of the Price Review.

We, on this side, believe in a positive approach to agriculture. We believe that it should have high priority—that it should certainly have priority over defence and exports, because it is, after all, one of the main industries which will contribute to our serious balance of payments problem. I go further. Agriculture is a way of life, and a nation that neglects its soil does so at its peril. That is why we indict the Government, and why we are proud to go into the Lobby, critical of a Government that has failed—believing, as we do, not in the negative approach but in a long-term policy based on the principles of the Act which we passed in 1947.