§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ 3.30 p.m.
§ The Minister of Agriculture (Colonel Sir Reginald Dorman-Smith)
I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."
I move this Motion with a great sense of responsibility, because I realise to the full that I am asking the House to consider a Measure which will inevitably in some way or another affect all the sections of our farming community and which also may—I hope will—have far-reaching results from the broader national standpoint. This Bill is designed to deal with an important matter, that is, the machinery which has been built up over the last quarter of a century to regulate the fixing of agricultural wages. Anybody in my position could not be other than gravely concerned about the present and future position of labour in the agricultural industry. We are now engaged in trying to expand our production of food, and while there may be some divergence of opinion as to the methods of carrying out that expansion, I think there will be general agreement to one proposition, namely, that we cannot possibly expect to achieve anything like the expansion which we all hope to achieve unless we do in fact have an adequate number of skilled workers on our farms.
I do not think anyone will deny that agriculture demands of those who serve our soil a very high degree of skill and, indeed, of energy and patience as well. It is common knowledge that even today, quite apart from the demands which have been made on our men for military service, we are in many districts losing all too many of these skilled men to other industries, to munition works, aerodromes, camps, and so on. I would be one of the last to pretend that wages are the only consideration which weighs in the mind of a countryman when he has to make up his mind whether he will continue in agriculture or will seek new pastures in the fields of industrial employment. Of course, there are other considerations, such as housing, lighting, 174 water supplies and other amenities, besides the general conditions of his employment—holidays, hours and work—and that sort of thing. There is also, and this is important, the rate of benefit if he falls out of work. All these must be weighty considerations and inevitably would be set against the more intangible advantages of living a country life and working on the land. Such considerations are admirably set out in one of the most remarkable books I have read for a long time called "Brother to the Ox" by Mr. Fred Kitchen, and I thoroughly recommend the book to those interested in the life of the agricultural worker.
However we look at the problem of wages it must inevitably play an extremely important part in the mind of the worker. There are two factors which have a real bearing on the mind of the worker, whether he be a potential worker or one already in agriculture—the minimum wage which he can earn and the assurance that beyond any shadow of doubt he will get a fair and proper share of any prosperity which may come to the industry. I have always looked upon the employers and the workers in agriculture as partners in the industry. Farmers to-day are asking for guarantees that their efforts to increase food production will be adequately rewarded. I think the House will agree that that is a reasonable request. Those assurances have already been given and are being put into effect. I am sure the House will agree that it is equally important that the workers for their part should have their own assurances so far as their sphere of life is concerned. That is what this Bill seeks to do. It seeks to give greater assurances to the workers, assurances which the farmers have already got, and to give equality of treatment to both the partners in the industry. At this time the one thing we really want of the nation is the greatest co-operation between all sections of the community. If there is a feeling, as has been represented to me, that perhaps the agricultural worker is not getting equality of treatment, I am sure it would be the wish of the House to devote its mind to getting rid of any such suspicion and to eradicate any cause for that feeling.
With regard to the provisions of the Bill, it may be convenient if I say a few words on the history of the agricultural wages machinery and explain candidly 175 the circumstances in which this Bill came to be prepared. If I do that it may perhaps serve to show why the Bill goes as far as it does and why it does not go any further. If we look back on its history it will be remembered that before the last war the wages of agricultural workers were estimated to be round about 18s. a week. By 1917 they had risen to about 25s. Then came the Corn Production Act which set up a Central Wages Board. This Board set the initial basic minimum wage at 30s. Then prosperity came to the industry and by August, 1920, that rate had been raised to 46s. After that came the decline in prices, and by September, 1921, the minimum rate had fallen to 42s. While it is deplorable that such a decline should have taken place, nevertheless, in view of the usual line of criticism which is levelled by some employers against central wages machinery, it is worthy of note that that decrease was prescribed by the Central Wages Board itself.
It is important to note that, because I find to-day that there is a certain amount of suspicion among farmers. They ask what will happen after the war, and they say—although I myself doubt it—that there is bound to be a slump in agriculture. I do not hold that view, but that is the usual line of argument. Therefore, the farmers say that prices may sag and that they will be saddled with a body which will inevitably keep wages up without having regard to their ability to pay. As I have tried to show, history is against that argument, just as I believe reason, too, is against it, because I am convinced that the representatives of the workers know as well as anybody else that, by and large, an industry can only pay wages out of its earnings, and if earnings do decrease materially then wages must eventually follow the decrease or else the industry goes bankrupt, no matter what form of Government may be in power. Therefore, I myself have no fear that the type of Central Wages Board which is in existence to-day would, in fact, not give full weight to the economic conditions of the industry and the country in deciding after the war what might be the right and proper basic rate of wages.
To return to the history of agricultural wages, with the repeal of the Corn Production Act the Central Wages Board dis- 176 appeared and the industry tried, not very sucessfully, to work under a system of conciliation committees. By 1924 wages had fallen from the high level of 46s. a week to the level of 28s. I will not try to pretend that such a fall could have been avoided, having regard to the conditions in the industry. Indeed, my own farming accounts of those days led me to believe that it could hardly have been avoided, because both partners in the industry were suffering very badly at that time. But I am bound to reflect upon one aspect of this matter. Looking back, I doubt very much whether at that time the country as a whole was really conscious of what was happening to agriculture and what was happening to the wages of agricultural workers. There was no sort of independent body which could focus attention on this very important question. I agree that little use is served by going back into what might have been done, but I feel that had there been a central wages board charged with the duty of giving an independent judgment on agricultural wages then, indeed, the whole post-war history of agriculture might well have been different. Anyway, I think that that is a point worthy of consideration by those who are worried about the future prospects of agriculture.
After that came the Agricultural Wages (Regulation) Act, 1924, which provided for the fixing of minimum rates of wages by the 47 committees, each covering one or more counties, which were set up under that Act. These committees are autonomous bodies, and although their decisions are brought into effect by Orders of the Central Wages Board those decisions are not subject to any review by the Board, nor are the Board empowered to give even general guidance on what should constitute a suitable level of wages. It is true that the Board—that is, the present Board—have power to act if any committee should fail to fix wage rates for its area, but that has never happened, and the power has never been used; so that in practice the function of the Board has been to put the decisions of the local committees into legal form and to give effect to them by Order. I think at this juncture the House would desire to join with me in paying a tribute to the work which these committees have done. I do not think anybody will deny that they have had a difficult and sometimes rather a thankless task to perform, but they 177 have done a great work of public service, and our thanks are due to them for that as, also, for the knowledge that for the future they will carry out their duty in the same conscientious way.
It may be asked, indeed, it has been asked of me, If this system has worked well, why try to alter it now? I will try to tell the House the full story of why we are trying to bring about these alterations. During September I was approached by the Agricultural Workers Union, who represented to me that, as far as their members were concerned, this present system of wage fixation possessed certain defects which, they said, were regrettable enough at any time, but were particularly regrettable in the circumstances which were being created by the war. They pointed out that the fixing of wages by 47 more or less unco-ordinated authorities often led to anomalies, and certainly gave rise to delay in making adjustments to meet changing conditions—and, of course, conditions can change pretty quickly in time of war. They suggested, too, that a lot had happened since 1924, when this battle was fought out on the Floor of the House, and that the factors which should go to determine wage rates in agriculture were becoming increasingly national rather than local in character.
I do not think one can stand against that, because it must be agreed that in recent years the factors which govern the prices of agricultural products are influenced by conditions of a national character. For example, there are the marketing boards. Hon. Members will recall how the Milk Marketing Board has materially closed the gap between what used to be the milk prices in Wales and in Somersetshire. Again, we have had improvements in transport which have made a great difference to the ability to send things to market. We have price insurance schemes on a national scale. We have had subsidies which have also been paid out on a national scale. The workers' representatives pointed out that this tendency, although not the direct outcome of the war, would inevitably be accentuated by the war, by the Government's own activities in fixing prices and becoming the purchaser of goods. One has only to instance the fact that to-day the Government are the sole buyers of the finished livestock products.
178 On that argument their proposal was that the wage-fixing powers of the committees, or at least a substantial part of them, should be handed over to a central board. The House will be aware that although farmers now accept the Act of 1924 almost without question, I think they have expressed themselves frequently and forcibly as being opposed to the principle of regulating wages on a national basis. It was, however, agreed by the workers' deputation that this was a matter which ought in the first instance to be discussed between their representatives and representatives of the National Farmers' Union, and I readily consented to make myself responsible for getting the two parties together, so that they might exchange views on this highly important problem. I should like to say at once, in all fairness, that the National Farmers' Union readily agreed to meet the workers to talk the matter over. I think the House will be aware of the farmers' attitude towards the proposal for the handing over of the effective powers from the county committees to the Central Board. They were, however, fully discussed at the meetings which followed.
Without going into any great detail I may say that, broadly, their objections are these: They contend that any wage-fixing machinery must be sufficiently elastic to take account of the many differences in farming practice and farming conditions, the productivity of the soil, and so on, which are to be found up and down the country. There is no doubt that the amount of profit which a farmer makes—[Interruption]—of course farmers do make a profit sometimes—depends not only upon the level of prices but upon other conditions as well; upon the productivity of his land, his proximity to markets and so on. That must continue, even though the prices of agricultural commodities are fixed on a national basis. Those considerations will still obtain.
Farmers fear, moreover, that a complete transfer of powers to a central organisation will mean complete uniformity in wages and in hours. They say, for example, that for practical reasons it is impossible to apply the same hours to men who are responsible for a dairy herd as to men engaged in field work. I think the House will agree that there is substance in such arguments, just as there was substance in the arguments put forward by the workers' representatives. I 179 think it is all to lie credit of both parties that, instead of digging themselves in and entrenching themselves, and refusing to budge an inch from their preconceived ideas, they did get together and try to seek means by which proper recognition could be given to the importance of both the national and the local factors in fixing agricultural wages. I cannot pretend that, as a result of those negotiations, this Measure can be described as an agreed one, but I think that those talks and conferences were not altogether unsuccessful. The only really serious point of difficulty which remains is outside the scope of the Bill, and I will return to it later. I hope the House will agree that in the Bill a suitable balance has been found between the spheres of influence of the national and the local considerations.
So far, I have been interested in making clear the position of the two parties who are most intimately and directly concerned in this matter. I think the House will agree that these are matters of great importance, but I must make it plain that the Government, representing the country as a whole, also have a vital interest in these questions, and that the aspect of that interest which I, as Minister of Agriculture would have the House keep in mind this evening is that agriculture, as hon. Members on all sides of the House miss no opportunity of reminding me, has for many years been losing far too many of its best men to other industries. There are many reasons for this, but the main reason is not very far to seek; everybody agrees, farmers no less readily than everyone else, that it is because wages are low, very low, as compared with the wages paid in other industries. It is true that, during the past few years, wage rates have tended to rise slowly. Since the war broke out that tendency has been accelerated. Nevertheless, the movement has not been sufficient to remove the disparity which, after taking into full account the advantages and disadvantages of agricultural life, exists between agricultural wages and wages in other occupations, and the drift from agriculture has continued.
We cannot afford to let it continue. At no time in our history has it been more important that the land of this country should be enabled to produce to the utmost, and in order that it may do so it simply must have its skilled labour. In 180 agriculture, as in other industries, we shall, of course, have to make the best possible use of a great deal of substitute labour. I would be the last to disparage the value of the assistance which has already been given, and which will continue to be given, by those patriotic men and women who are making agriculture their war work, but it must be borne in mind—this is something which does not so readily come to one's mind—that at the present time there are in England and Wales, taking the total number of farmers and their employés, about 1,000,000 in round figures. Even, therefore, if one could get 10,000 full-time volunteers, that 10,000 would represent only a 1 per cent. addition to our labour force. You may have any conception that you like of how the campaign for increased food production should be carried out; you can put on paper any schemes that you like; you may offer to farmers prices which are, in fact, sufficiently attractive to encourage all the production possible; but it is no good whatsoever your doing so unless you have skilled men able to carry out the work. I do not think there is any doubt that the success of the campaign for increased food production depends, in the last analysis, upon the farmer having those skilled men retained in agricultural employment.
Therefore, as a matter of national interest, as well as in common fairness, agricultural wages must rise. There is no doubt about that. They would rise in any case—do not let anybody doubt that either—because of the ordinary supply and demand of labour. The first thing that we have to do, if we are planning ahead for the future, is to see that the gap which now exists between agricultural wages and wages in other occupations is very substantially lessened. Naturally, the Government are anxious to take every possible step to avoid the vicious spiral of rising wages and rising prices, against which the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Prime Minister have, on more than one occasion, warned this House, but in the case of agricultural workers some increase in wage levels is absolutely essential if we are to prevent serious interference with our food-production campaign. As I see it, this is not merely a matter of adjusting and raising wages to meet rising costs of living; it is a matter of making adjustments to reduce 181 certain disparities which are of very long standing, the effects of which we are now feeling to the full and which we cannot possibly afford. We believe that those adjustments will be brought about more swiftly and equitably if the machinery for fixing wages in agriculture is strengthened in the way we indicate in the Bill.
Naturally, it follows that the returns which farmers receive for their products must be such as will enable them to pay those wages. That is common ground, but it is an inescapable fact that, if we are to intensify our food-production campaign, a fair and proper reward must be paid not only to employers but also to farm workers. I venture to think that there is no party in this House which will attempt to keep these farm prices of food products so low that the wages cannot be paid, just as I am certain that the country will not readily agree to rising price levels unless they are convinced that such a movement will be swiftly and truly reflected in the wages of the agricultural workers. That assurance we want the country to have, and we feel that it can best be given through the machinery of this Bill.
Now, if I may, I will turn to the provisions of the Bill itself. The new principle that this Bill introduces into the machinery of wage regulation is this, that the minimum wage levels are to be looked at, in the first instance, from the broad national view and that whatever adjustments may be necessary to meet local conditions are to be superimposed upon the basic figure. The effect of the 1924 Act and of this Bill together would therefore be to create a new division of responsibility as between the Central Board and the county wages committees. It will be for the Central Board to fix, as it were, a datum line and for the county committees, working from that datum line, to decide upon the details of the rates which should be applied in their own areas. That, in short, is the effect of the Measure which we are putting before the House.
§ Sir R. Dorman-Smith
I will come to that matter in going through the Clauses. Clause 1 sets out the duties of the Board, and it also defines what I might call the 182 Board's terms of reference. They are required, in the first place, to consult with the county committees, but the precise method of consultation is left to the Board themselves. We suggest this because these county committees have had long experience with these wage questions and will have a lot of information which will prove of real use to the Central Board, but the method of consultation I think we can well leave to the Central Board themselves. The Central Board at the present moment consists of eight representatives of employers and eight representatives of workers, with four impartial members, who are appointed by the Minister, sitting under the chairmanship of Viscount Ullswater, a figure whom I think this House has very good reason to remember with respect and affection, and I feel that it would be safe and wise to leave to this Board the question as to how they should in fact consult their county committees.
§ Mr. Orr-Ewing (Weston-super-Mare)
My right hon. and gallant Friend said the Central Board were to consult the county committees in the first instance. Does he mean to say that that is the only occasion on which they should consult the county committees, or on every adjustment of agricultural wage rates?
§ Sir R. Dorman-Smith
I mean that they would consult with them in the first instance only, and, having fixed the datum line, they would be able to judge by events after that. Secondly, the Board are required to take account of the general economic conditions and of the conditions of the agricultural industry. It is to this point that I have already promised to return later. At present I think it is sufficient to say that this phrase has been chosen so that it shall be plain to the Board that Parliament expects the Board to look at all the factors, both of a general and of an agricultural character, that ought to be taken into account when arriving at the minimum wage rates. When the national minimum wage rates have been fixed, it will then be the duty of the Board to notify the individual committees. In some cases—and I hope they will be very few—these county committees may come to the conclusion that this minimum is too high for them to be able to afford within their area. If they do that, it will be open to those counties 183 to make representations to the Central Board to that effect, and if the Board are satisfied, as the result of those representations, they may grant some rebate; that is to say, they may be able to allow the particular committee to fix rates somewhat below the national minimum. I believe that this is really a necessary piece of elasticity, because it will enable the Board to deal with any special case without being compelled to fix a national minimum at a level determined by the conditions of the most depressed agricultural area.
In the ordinary way the next step would be for each county committee to go over the rates fixed for its area and to bring them into conformity with the national minimum. First they would have to see that the rates fixed for their adult male workers do not fall below the national minimum, but, as the Bill points out, there is nothing to prevent them from fixing wages above that level, as in fact happens at the present moment. Secondly, it will be their duty to look at the rates fixed for women workers and for other classes of workers, such as juvenile workers, and also at the special rates which will be fixed for cowmen, horsemen, and so on, and to make what adjustments may be necessary to bring those rates into general line with the new basis of agricultural wages.
§ Sir R. Dorman-Smith
That would be a matter still for the local committee to decide, and the local committees are formed of the workers, the employers, and the independent members too. As far as hours are concerned, and as far as the value to be attached to benefits, such as a house, milk, and that kind of thing is concerned, it will be for the local committees to retain the same free hand as they have at the present moment.
§ Sir R. Dorman-Smith
Yes, Sir. When the committees have arrived at the new schedules of wage rates, they will send them up to the Central Board as they do to-day, and it will be for the Board to 184 make the appropriate Order putting them into force. The Board will make that Order just as it does now so long as the weekly wage rates fixed by the committees for the adult male workers—who after all comprise the great bulk of the agricultural labour force of the country—do not fall below the national minimum or whatever figure may have been substituted for that minimum in relation to any particular district. If, however, the committees should fail to carry out the obligations imposed by the Bill, then the Board would be able to exercise default powers, which are already provided under Section 5 of the Act of 1924.
I mentioned earlier that there was one matter to which I would have to return, and that is the provision whereby the Board are required to consider general economic conditions and the conditions of the agricultural industry before fixing a national minimum wage. The workers' organisations, I think I have made it clear, are anxious that there should be some central control of agricultural wages. The National Farmers' Union, as I have gathered from my conversations with them, are ready to accept a reasonable measure of central control if that will assist agriculture to maintain its proper place in our economy. The farmers, for their part, very naturally and very properly, feel that it would be useless to fix wages which they could not pay out of the returns which they receive for their commodities. With that, I think we all agree. The farmers have therefore strongly urged that this Bill should be so framed that there would be a definite link between wages and prices, and I have no doubt whatsoever that this phrase to which I have referred does give a fair link between wages and prices, because I cannot believe that, if this body are considering the agricultural conditions, some of the most important considerations will not be the question of prices which are received and also the cost of the requisites which the farmers themselves have to buy.
I am bound to say, therefore, that for reasons which I have discussed with the farmers themselves at long length, I cannot think that a more rigid system, such as might be obtained through trying to set out in a Schedule that when prices arrive at such and such a level wages should automatically go to whatever the 185 appropriate figure might be—I simply cannot believe that that would in fact be practicable. But obviously it will be necessary, when the Board are fixing the national minimum wage, to take full account of price levels, and it will also be necessary to take those into account with other very pertinent and relevant considerations. But, of course, I believe the farmers' objections are concerned at least as much with questions of price levels themselves as with actually linking together prices and wages, and if that is the case, I think I might remind the House of an assurance which I gave on behalf of the Government, speaking at this bench, on 14th December last—an assurance which has since been repeated and which has been amplified by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister—that we, the Government, recognise that in fixing agricultural prices regard must be paid to the workers' wages and the need for a reasonable wage to be paid to the workers.
I am sure the House will agree that we have a tremendous amount of work ahead of us in the fixing of prices. We have now got to deal with cereal prices for the new harvest, with wool prices for the next clip, and with potato prices, and I could go through a long list; and in the consideration of those prices the Government are keeping firmly in view the need for a reasonable wage for the agricultural worker. I do not myself see how, even if you could put it into a Statute, there would be anything more binding upon the Government than the solemn undertaking which has already been given to the industry by no less a person than the head of the Government.
§ Sir R. Dorman-Smith
I do not think I need deal with that. I do not think I need weary the House with an exposition of the remaining provisions of the Bill, because they are all explicit.
§ 4.15 p.m.
§ Mr. Tinker (Leigh)
May I ask a question on Clause 1? I take it that it is proposed to fix a national minimum wage and that an appeal can be made for the national, minimum wage to be lowered in certain districts? If that is the proposition, in my submission that is the wrong way to approach it.
§ Sir R. Dorman-Smith
That point was discussed very carefully with the workers' organisations. It was felt that there might be a case where it would be found proper for some county to have special consideration, and therefore the matter was left with that elasticity so that the Board would not have to base its rate on the most depressed areas in agriculture. I hope I shall have an opportunity, in winding up the Debate, to deal with any specific points. There is one question which has been asked, namely, why no actual minimum figure is inserted in this Bill. The short answer is that neither the workers nor the farmers asked for that to be so inserted, and I think Parliament has agreed generally that it is better for an independent body to deal with this very difficult problem. There is only one point I would like to add. This Bill does not represent the whole of the Government's agricultural policy. I would like to make that clear. It deals only with one aspect of the policy. I hope the House will consider that in dealing with this Bill it is a useful and a helpful Measure, and I hope it will be received with sympathetic consideration and indeed with support from all sections of the House.
§ Mr. Orr-Ewing
Before the Minister sits down, I would like to ask a question on the same point which I put to him just now, because I think perhaps he inadvertently made some error in answering me. I asked whether, in fixing a minimum wage, after the initial fixing the Central Board will again have to consult the county committees. If they do not, it would mean a material reconstruction of the Bill.
§ Sir R. Dorman-Smith
I am sorry that I did not make myself clear. Clause 1 (2) provides that each time the national minimum wage is altered the Board have to go through all the necessary motions. I am sorry if I misled the House.
§ 4.18 p.m.
§ Mr. T. Williams (Don Valley)
After listening to the Minister's speech I feel like a modest film actor. Having acted on the set and seen the film completed, I sat in the audience at the trade show and listened to myself. I think I have made the first part of the right hon. and gallant Gentleman's speech in this House about 70 times in the last 15 or 16 years. 187 I am glad that he does now appreciate the true value of the agricultural labourer. The right hon. and gallant Gentleman occupied something like three-quarters of an hour describing the contents and the import of the Bill. I hope the farmers in the country will take note of the lecture which they have received this afternoon and that they will realise the true value of their labourers. The Minister does appreciate that without the appropriate body of skilled agricultural labourers no intensive campaign of increased food production is likely to succeed. I should like to congratulate the right hon. and gallant Gentleman on being the Minister in war-time, because it is obvious that the only occasion when the real value of an agricultural labourer is appreciated is in war-time.
I have heard my right hon. Friend the Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George) say on many occasions that during the last war we reached a stage when we were within a few weeks of starvation. The Government had to legislate in more ways than one to succeed in their campaign to produce more food and the agricultural labourer was embodied in the Corn Production Bill. The Minister referred to the establishment of the Central Wages Board, and I agree that wages crept up to 46s. in 1920, but the moment the emergency was over the agricultural labourer was forgotten. [Interruption.] The agricultural labourer was forgotten immediately the emergency was over, and whatever interjections may be made by any hon. Member sitting on the opposite benches, it will not alter the simple fact that once the emergency of the last war was over the agricultural labourer was forgotten by the farmers of this country, as I shall try to show in a few moments. We know that the Coalition Government were largely dominated by members of the Conservative party, whoever happened to be the Prime Minister at that time. They were therefore responsible for the abolition of the Corn Production Act, and they were responsible for the abolition of the Central Wages Board. Not even the hon. Member for Stone (Sir J. Lamb) can dispose of that well-known fact. If he tries to controvert it, he will have to be more slippery than the Secretary of State for the Colonies was a week or two 188 ago—and that would be saying a good deal. Every hon. Member knows that once the Central Wages Board was disposed of, wages were reduced to an abominable level, a level which made one almost ashamed of one's countrymen when one knew what wages were being paid in many parts of this country. Between 1921 and 1924 we were supposed to have a series of conciliation boards. They were voluntary institutions, but they were not functioning, and wages went down from the 42s. in 1921 referred to by the hon. Gentleman to anywhere between 20s. and 22s. in 1924. If the right hon. and gallant Gentleman wants to satisfy the hon. Member for Stone in particular and will make an inquiry of the officials of the Ministry of Agriculture, he will find that in 1924 there came into the Ministry of Agriculture scores of letters indicating that labourers with three, four, five, six and seven children were being paid as low as 22s. a week. There is no denying that, because I happened to be operating as a messenger boy for the then Minister of Agriculture, and I saw some of those letters.
The Minister of Agriculture in the Labour Government was obliged to do the best he could with regard to wages of agricultural workers. A Bill was introduced, as is now well known. The Labour Government comprised about 192 Members out of 615. There was still a Conservative majority. That Bill was designed to restore the Central Wages Board and at the same time to establish, county wages committees which would operate on the lines on which the 1924 Act has been operating for the past 16 years. When the Bill secured a Second Reading and was proceeding to the Committee stage, I, acting on behalf of the Ministry of Agriculture, attempted to collect the voice of the Conservative and Liberal parties. I ascertained from the Conservative party, who were in an absolute majority in that Committee, that if the Minister of Agriculture persisted in retaining a Central Wages Board with power, the Conservative party would kill the Bill. I am sure that no hon. Member opposite will deny that statement. The Liberal party, who were in a minority on that Committee, said on the other hand that unless the Minister of Agriculture insisted upon a national minimum of 30s. a week, they would vote against 189 the Minister in Committee. Quite religiously the Minister sat down to consider the pros and cons. He had to decide whether he would lose his Bill altogether by deleting the effective power of a Central Wages Board or whether he should support the minimum of 30s. a week and possibly lose the Bill. I think the Minister did the right thing. He decided to take what he could get, and with all its shortcomings the 1924 Agricultural Wages (Regulation) Act has literally been a Godsend to the agricultural labourers in this country. Thanks to the legislation and the assistance given to the labourers by the trade union at the wages committees, they have been able at least to improve their lot since 1924 to a far greater extent than would have been the case had that Act not been on the Statute Book.
If the hon. Member for Stone has taken those words of mine to heart, he will observe that implicit in them was this fact, that had it not been for statutory compulsion agricultural labourers' wages would have been infinitely less at the commencement of this war than they actually were. Therefore, this Bill with which we are dealing this afternoon is a very welcome addition to the 1924 Act. I would not say that it is a good Bill, I would not say that it is comprehensive, but since there has been some element of agreement between the Minister, the trade unions and some of the more decent-minded members of the Farmers' Union, we welcome the Bill as it stands. We know the shortcomings of the Bill. We know that had it been a Bill to deal with miners' wages there would have been a great deal more hostility than there will be to this Bill. The right hon. and gallant Gentleman has approached this Bill in a time of emergency because he recognises, as the Government and indeed the farmers must recognise, that unless something tangible is done now, and done speedily, to help the labourers upon the land, having lost over a quarter of a million skilled labourers since 1921, they will lose a great many more in the next few months.
We know that since the last war there has been a development of transport: urban dweller and rural dweller have more or less been brought together, and they understand each other better than ever they did before. It is not reasonable 190 to expect the agricultural labourer to continue to exist on his miserable wage, to live in his miserable, wretched hovel, called a home, enjoying few social amenities, side by side with the urban worker, who lives in a decent house, with a far better wage and a good many more social amenities. It ought to be known, and I am sure it is known, by every hon. Member opposite, that while the older generation of labourers have perhaps remained on the land, and while there are lots of juveniles still on the land, the young men, who are of most value to the land, have gone, as the Minister has said, to new aerodromes, to factories, anywhere where they can double the wages that they were receiving on the farm. I have said before in this House that unless a Bill was brought in which would materially improve the wages of agricultural labourers, we should have our farms worked by old age pensioners and school children. We have almost reached that position now. It is easy to lose a skilled labourer, but not easy to replace him. It is well nigh impossible to replace the man who was born, as it were, on the land, who has an intimate knowledge of all the operations on the farm, who knows the cattle and knows the seasons; and it is well nigh impossible to recall him when he has obtained other work at double the wages that he was receiving on the farm.
We understand that the National Farmers' Union do not accept this Bill with a good grace. Indeed, I understood the Minister to say that there was a tendency among them to oppose the Bill. They want any such Bill to be linked with the question of prices. Having sat here for some years, I do not recall the farmers willingly accepting anything except subsidies, and then increased subsidies. When I learned that there was a possibility that the National Farmers' Union would oppose this Bill, I was not surprised. Farmers, Conservative Members of Parliament, and others, for generations, have expressed profound sympathy for the agricultural labourers. The farmers love their employés, says the hon. Member for Stone; they appreciate their skill and their love of animals; indeed, they think there is no better class on earth, and they are prepared to give them anything except a decent wage. That is why we had to have the 1924 Act, and why we have to have this Bill. I very much 191 doubt the sincerity of many of those expressions of sympathy which I have so long been hearing. Those hon. Members who still think that there is a possibility of linking the minimum wage with prices might tell me to what kind of prices they would link wages: to the price of cereals, to the price of livestock, or to the price of dairy produce? Would they have the wages scheme linked to prices for a dry season, to prices for a wet season, to prices, when wheat crops are good and cereals are bad, or to prices when cereals are good and root crops bad? Those are questions to which agricultural representatives must reply if they persist in saying that it is possible to link a minimum wage to prices.
What more can they expect the Government to do in order to win their wholehearted support for a Bill of this description? Almost every conceivable thing which is produced on a farm has a guaranteed market and a guaranteed price. Wheat, beef, mutton, lamb, pigs, milk, oats, rye, potatoes, sugar, butter, all have a guaranteed market and a guaranteed price. Everything that is produced on a farm, except watercress, has a guaranteed market and a guaranteed price. What more do farmers expect? If we had a first-class costing system for dairy farms, for mixed farms, for farms in the southern counties, for farms in the north, for farms in the east, and for farms in the west, if we had a real costing system upon which we could base our calculations, there might be something in the submission that this Bill should be tacked on to a prices scheme. But it is the farmer himself who can supply that costing system, and if he fails to do so, I do not think the Government or anyone else can provide it for him.
It should not take us long to deal with the Clauses of this Bill. Clause 1 sets up the Central Wages Board, and gives them power to establish a national minimum wage. It carries a provision that where a county cannot afford to pay that wage it shall be allowed to pay a wage below the national minimum. Clause 2 almost repeats Clause 1 and sets out what the county committees must do. But Clause 1 says:The Agricultural Wages Board shall, after consultation with the agricultural wages 192 committees and after considering general economic conditions and the conditions of the agricultural industry, fix a national minimum wage.…Why do they need to consult the county wages committees? They know the existing wage in each county; they have all the information required. Is not that unnecessary consultation allowed really as a delaying process? We know that there are several county wages committees to whom application for increased wages has been made, who have held over the applications because of this Bill. If there are to be delaying processes, holding back for a month, two months, or three months, the establishment of a minimum wage, it means that the labourers will become hopelessly dissatisfied, and that by the time you get your minimum wage the agricultural labourers will have left. I ask the right hon. and gallant Gentleman to consider whether it is necessary to have that further consultation. Subsection (4) of Clause 2 seems to introduce another unnecessary delaying process. Again, I ask whether the Minister will look at that, and see whether it is necessary. We welcome this Bill for what it it. We want to see it operating as early as possible. We want this food campaign of the Government to succeed. We want amity on the countryside. We want to see the farmers accept this Bill, as they ought to accept it, and we want them to treat their agricultural labourers with far greater consideration than they have done in the past. I made a statement in this House three or four weeks ago about the Farmers' Union being slightly anti-machinery in outlook. They replied to my observations, and their reply found its way into both the weekly papers in my division. They say:This is nonsense, and it can be proved so. Statistics published by the London and Cambridge Economics Service show that between 1924 and 1935 the output per head in agriculture rose by 40 per cent. and was still rising. In contrast, the average increase in output per head over the whole of factory production was 25 per cent., and in mines 31 per cent. In fact, the percentage increase in the output per head in farming was greater than in any other industry in the country.Their answer to me is my answer to them. They have proved too much. In any case, they have proved that they can pay a better wage to agricultural labourers than they are paying. I hope this Bill will be quickly placed on the Statute 193 Book, and that the members of the Central Wages Board will remember the increased output per head of agricultural labourers, and will give effect to that increase by establishing a national minimum wage which will mean an all-round increase for the agricultural labourers of this country.
§ 4.44 p.m.
§ Colonel Sir George Courthope (Rye)
I happen to be one of those who went through the Debates to which the hon. Member for Don Valley (Mr. T. Williams) has referred. I admit that I was one of those who, in 1924, thought that it would be better to deal with questions of wages through local committees rather than through a central board. Apart from that, I supported the Bill, because, as the hon. Member said, the consultative committees which were set up by the Corn Production (Repeal) Act had not functioned in many parts of the country. Although I agree with many of the statements made by the hon. Member, I must point out that he has not given a complete picture. He has told us of the part that the Coalition Government, with its Conservative majority, under the leadership of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George), took in repealing the Corn Production Act, but lie has not told us of the Agriculture Bill which was put on the Statute Book in 1920, in order to implement the pledges which were given—and given with the greatest possible sincerity—by the right hon. Gentleman in order to perpetuate not only the wages, but the prosperity of agriculture in this country. The wages and the general system of guaranteed prices set up by the Corn Production Act, 1917, were admittedly designed to cover the emergency, and it was in an attempt to translate the emergency legislation into something perpetual in the method of benefiting the farmer and the farm worker alike that the right hon. Gentleman made the very remarkable speech to which I have already referred, and the Agriculture Bill was introduced in order to implement it.
I must remind the House of some of the provisions of that Bill. They were to perpetuate not only the local agricultural committees, but the Central Wages Board, and the Bill also guaranteed to farmers a minimum price for two important products. There was the mini- 194 mum price of 68s. per quarter of 504 lb. for wheat, and 46s. per quarter of 336 lb. for oats. Every step was taken in the Act itself to suggest to the farming community, both employer and employed, that this was to be part of a permanent system. The provisions, both as regards the guaranteed prices and the wages of labour, were to continue until an Order-in-Council had been passed varying the terms, and such an Order had to give a minimum of four years' notice. Consequently, both farmer and worker were given, with the greatest solemnity by Parliament, the assurance that, if there was to be any change in this beneficial system, they were to receive ample notice. Personally—and this may be brought up against me—I opposed that Agriculture Bill of 1920 on the ground that I believed that it would be so costly that the country would not be able to stand it, as events proved. The Bill was introduced by a Conservative Member, Sir Arthur Griffith-Boscawen, who met with the great misfortune only eight months later in having, as Minister of Agriculture, to introduce a Bill repealing it.
That Bill, which set up a false sense of security in the minds of both master and man, which could not be implemented for more than a few months, was, in my opinion, one of the most grievous disasters which has befallen agriculture. It led, as the hon. Member for Don Valley has just told us, to a catastrophic fall in agricultural wages. It led to a great migration of skilled workers from the land and also, linked up with that, to very general distress throughout the whole agricultural community. The agricultural community as a whole was not paying its way, and, consequently, that was the main reason why it could not pay a wage that would keep the labour on the land. The result has been that which we have been deploring in recent Debates, namely, the loss of fertility and the neglect of drainage, which we are now trying, all too late, to remedy, and, in addition, a great deal of land, which, during the Corn Production Act period, was profitably cultivated and gave a good deal of employment, has gone out of cultivation altogether? I do not think that anyone will deny these facts, and I do not think anyone will deny also that it is very desirable, if possible, in setting up a national standard for agricultural wages, that we should endeavour to provide for a longer future 195 than the emergency of war, and that we should try to obviate the disaster which occurred in 1921, when the whole of the system set up for the benefit of agriculture collapsed.
Personally, I have not the smallest objection, in present circumstances, to the setting up of a Central National Wages Board. It is desirable that it should be done. I am not one of those who think that wages can be definitely linked with prices, but I am one of those who think that there is a very grave risk, unless steps are taken in good time, that the good intentions of the present Government, which have already been announced by the Prime Minister, as they were announced by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Carnarvon Boroughs when he was Prime Minister, of not letting agriculture die after the war, again may fail through economic forces which are too strong for any Government.
What will happen after this war? I think that we cannot do better than look back to see what happened at the end of the last war. Demobilisation took place, and there was a great flow all over the world from the Fighting Forces, and still more perhaps from the munition factories, back into civil occupations. In the meantime, during the war, a very much reduced volume of labour had somehow or other, by the help of machinery and so on, been producing sufficient foodstuffs for the world to live upon. When you get many millions added after demobilisation, you must inevitably get a great increase in the production of primary products at a time when the consuming power of the world, to a very large extent, has been reduced, even if it has not collapsed. In 1921 there was such a slump in world prices that the cost of the guaranteed minimum for wheat and oats would have reached a figure which the democratic people of the country would not have tolerated at all, and the right hon. Gentleman was compelled to repeal his Act of only eight months before.
What can we do to provide against that to-day? It is inevitable when the war is over—and, please God, it may be over soon—that there will be this great flow of people now employed in the Fighting Services and in munitions manufacture all over the world back into civil life. It is inevitable that there will be 196 an increase in primary production, and equally inevitable that the consuming power of the world will be at a very low ebb, and it will not be in a position to absorb this increased quantity of foodstuffs, which, I claim, will assuredly be produced. We are not in quite such a bad position to-day as we were in 1919, 1920, and 1921 in dealing with the situation, because our fiscal system has become much more elastic than it was then, and we are no longer the dumping ground to the same extent as we were then for surplus products from all over the world. We can deal with foreign competition much better to-day than we could then, but it is no good shutting our eyes to the fact that the most serious competition that the British farmer, and consequently the British agricultural labourer, has to face is competition from our own Dominions. That is a much more difficult matter with which to deal.
Greatly daring, I am going to make a suggestion, which I hope the Government will look into, as to how this may possibly be dealt with. It is no good waiting until the war period is over and then setting about trying to devise a system. It will be too late; the harm will be done. I take it that the farming position, and the consequent agricultural labour position, is reasonably secure from severe Dominion competition for one year after the actual war period, because the contracts with the Dominions for the supply of primary foodstuffs, I understand, are to run for one year after the cessation of hostilities. What we want is a system, already built up and complete in its structure, into which we can step at the end of that one year, which will give adequate protection to master and man in British agriculture. A very big step, in my opinion, has already been taken towards the construction of such a system, and it was taken by my right hon. and gallant Friend the Minister of Agriculture himself and some of his colleagues. In 1938, before he was in office, he went out as the representative of the National Farmers Union, accompanied by his colleagues, one of whom was the hon. Member for Honiton (Mr. Drewe), who is acting with him to-day, to endeavour to arrange with the primary producers of the Dominions for what I may practically describe as the extension to the Empire of the system of the Agricultural Marketing Acts, or, in other 197 words, the voluntary control by the producing elements of the production and marketing of primary products which competed with each other all over the Empire.
My right hon. and gallant Friend handled a very difficult problem with marked success, and we all welcomed the announcement when we heard that he had secured the unanimous adoption of what was then known as the Sydney Resolutions. They were adopted by the representative agriculturists of Australia and New Zealand, and subsequently, on his return home, I believe he secured a very large measure of support for them from the representatives of agriculturists in Canada also. The system proposed was this. First of all, the general underlying principle of the Ottawa Agreements was accepted, namely, that each part of the Commonwealth should treat their own people first, the rest of the Empire second, and the foreign competitor anywhere else. Subject to these Resolutions, it was suggested that every affected part of the Empire should send representatives to what was to be called the Commodity Councils, corresponding to our agricultural marketing boards, which would endeavour to regulate production throughout the Empire, and the marketing of each imported primary product with which competition was serious. Of course, Australia, New Zealand and Canada are the Dominions primarily concerned, and no doubt South Africa will be concerned with wool and possibly with some other products.
What I want the Government to consider is whether they should now, without further delay, commence to build the structure, the foundation-stone of which their own Minister of Agriculture laid so successfully only 18 months ago. It may be difficult, and no doubt it is, but, greatly daring, I suggest that the Government should consider whether they ought not only to build up the structure but send the Minister, with a representative party of producers, round the Empire this summer to add to the structure and lead up to a final conference in London at which agreements could be signed for the regulation of production and marketing. Unless something of this kind can be done, it is impossible to provide for sufficient continued prosperity for our farmers to enable them to pay a satisfactory wage to a sufficient number of 198 people. It is no good paying a high wage to a number of workers so small that they cannot produce what is necessary. There must be sufficient agricultural prosperity not only to pay a good wage but to employ sufficient labour to maintain the fertility of the land. I believe we can do that only by taking time by the forelock and making preparation to-day for the unknown to-morrow, so that, at least, wages and profits may be secured from the repetition of the disaster which wrecked them both in 1921.
§ 5.4 p.m.
Mr. Lloyd George (Carnarvon Boroughs)
The right hon. and gallant Member who has just sat down has treated us to a very interesting survey and prospective examination of what we might do after the war. Some of his suggestions are, I think, valuable, and I may allude to them later on. But one of the suggestions I must certainly discount at once, and that is that we should banish the Minister of Agriculture from this House and send him trapesing about the Empire at harvest time and when he should be preparing for his next production campaign. I do not think we can spare the Minister of Agriculture. No doubt there are some Ministers whom we might spare, and I think we might send in a list to the Prime Minister. It certainly would not lack in variety, and it would be a fairly long one. I have no quarrel with the very fair—almost judicially fair, if I may say so—account given by the right hon. and gallant Member of the circumstances under which the Corn Production Act was introduced and then, within eight months, abolished at the instance of the same Minister. I would just add one or two circumstances with which the right hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Rye (Sir G. Courthope) would, I am sure, agree.
In 1921 there was not merely a slump in agricultural prices; there was a tremendous trade slump. It was the beginning of a slump from which our trade has not yet really recovered at the present moment. We had an unemployment register of about 1,600,000—I am not sure that it did not go over that—in the year in which the Act was abolished. We have never gone underneath 1,000,000. That created a kind of financial panic in this country. There was something which was known as the "Anti-waste cam- 199 paign." There was a tremendous move for a reduction in the very heavy war taxation which had continued without much abatement during the two or three years which succeeded the war. There was an attempt to get back to the pre-war level of reasonable and moderate taxation, and even this was denounced at the time as robbery and spoliation. In fact, some of the names given to it always amuse me when I recall that the Income Tax before the war was at 1s. 2d. We were confronted with the fact that there was a tremendous slump in the price of wheat, and oats, too, were very troublesome. I think it was oats that broke the Corn Production Act. If we had included Scotland and Ireland, the Chancellor of the Exchequer of the year would have been confronted, not with a reduction in taxation, but with an increase in taxation, and it could not be done. We came to the conclusion that whatever method could be adopted to save agriculture the procedure of the Corn Production Act was not the way to do it. It might have been woven into the texture of a bigger Measure, but at that time there was a military operation in progress which dispensed with my services. I was actually engaged with the Minister of Agriculture in considering an agricultural Measure on a much wider and more comprehensive scale.
Although there was an overwhelming Conservative majority, not merely in the House of Commons, but behind the Coalition, only two Members of that party voted against that Bill. Most of the Opposition in fact was from the Liberal party, and I am not sure that their motives were agricultural. In fact, I am absolutely certain they were not. The Labour party did not vote against it at that time either, because conditions were such that you could not have gone on with it under the financial conditions of the time. But the mistake that was made was that we were not prepared with an alternative proposition which would have at any rate given the farmers and cultivators of the country some conception of what the State expected from them, and the extent to which we would support them in carrying out a totally different policy. I am afraid we are rather getting into the Corn Production Act position even now. The Minister is bringing in one little Bill after another. 200 He explained carefully that this was not the whole of his policy, having regard to the criticisms that were passed upon his last Bill.
I think we ought to have some sort of idea what is to be the agricultural policy of the country. There has been too much in all our war preparations of doing a little thing, then finding it not enough, and doing a little more. We have been getting along by what I would call rabbit jumps. We have been taking a little jump and then having a nibble, and another little jump and then another nibble. I am afraid that as regards food production we may one day find ourselves in the position where it will not be adequate if the need suddenly confronts us. My counsel, for what it is worth, and my appeal to the Government, is that they should not bring in one little Bill after another but give us a comprehensive conspectus of the whole thing and let us know what is in their minds. These things standing alone will not enable the right hon. and gallant Gentleman to raise the output of food production to a position where we can feel secure, however long the war may last. I am not dealing with the military situation, but I have been reading very carefully what has been said on this side of the House and the other, and I am alarmed at the prospect.
The right hon. and gallant Member for Rye hoped that it would not be a long war. We all hope so, but we must not allow ourselves to be misled by hopes. The outlook at the present moment is that it will be a very prolonged war, and I am not at all sure that the other side are not budgeting for a long war. At any rate, a Government that does not take into account the possibility, even the probability, that it will be a long war is not doing its duty to the nation it represents. That is why I have taken a very active part, for an old fellow like myself, in trying to stir up Parliament and, as far as I can, the nation to go in for a programme of food production which will ensure that whatever happens we shall not be driven by privation into humiliating terms, as our foes were in the last war, through lack of foodstuffs. Do not let us repeat their mistake. They have learned the lesson. Let us also take the same lesson to heart and rather than have these measures, each of them 201 making some contribution but never quite enough, let the Minister of Agriculture take the matter thoroughly in hand.
On the last occasion on which I spoke in the House I said that it was not a question of ploughing up 1,000,000 acres or 2,000,000 acres, or 3,000,000 or 4,000,000 acres. It is a question of how you are to increase the yield of the soil, which is a different thing. You can go on ploughing and sowing, and in the end the soil will become so defertilised that even the soil which is now very productive will not be producing one-half the present amount. That is exactly what happened in Germany in the last war, and it may happen here. You can turn over your 2,000,000 acres this year, you can plough in your fertilisers this year, containing nitrates and all the elements of fertility, and allow it to rot inside the soil. You will get something out of it when it is sufficiently decomposed to give strength to your seeds. But that dies out; and there ought to be a policy which will make the soil more fertile. There should be a great policy of fertilisation, and—again I emphasise it—there should be a policy of drainage. In my own constituency I have recently met some of the leading agriculturists. They all told me the same story—that you will not get one-half as much out of the soil as you would have done if you had taken steps to drain the land first. The Minister of Agriculture may get 2,000,000 acres under the plough this year, but he will have 2,000,000 acres of worse land next year, and instead of getting more food he will ultimately get less food.
What the right hon. and gallant Gentleman ought to aim at is not so much the number of acres under the plough as the tonnage of food that it produces. I should like to see the right hon. and gallant Gentleman put before the House of Commons and the country a great comprehensive plan. It would involve expenditure, considerable expenditure, but when we are spending £6,000,000 a day on the war a few hundred million pounds should be spent in reconditioning land which has fallen very much out of condition since the last war, for some of the reasons given by the right hon. and gallant Member for Rye, in order to bring it back into cultivation. You cannot bring it back without expenditure. I know that from the little experience of 202 my own. You cannot do it without the expenditure of money. If you are to restore land which was once productive but which has been allowed to run down until it produces nothing but weeds, you cannot restore it without the expenditure, in my judgment, of hundreds of millions of pounds. It is no use looking at this as a sort of two penny halfpenny problem.
Three hundred and fifty thousand pounds for drains! It should run into tens of millions of pounds. The right hon. and gallant Gentleman should take that matter in hand. We have lost also 250,000 of our skilled workers, and as the hon. Member for the Don Valley (Mr. T. Williams) has said, the worst feature of it is that we have lost the young men, and it is the old men who remain. You cannot change their conditions, their lives. They have been living in their cottages and under these conditions all their lives, and they do not want to go into the towns. It is the young men who can get jobs in towns. They are young, strong and intelligent; they are full of resource and skill. The agricultural labourers of England and Wales, as far as I have met them, are full of resource and adaptability. Theirs is not a monotonous task of pulling switches. They have to think almost every moment. In ploughing they have to be very careful. They are really skilled workers. You have not got them. The young people have gone; and they are still going. Instead of a wage of 38s. a week, there is plenty of work for them in the towns, where they can get £3 and sometimes £4 a week, and make more with overtime.
Mr. Lloyd George
But working the ordinary hours they can get £3 a week and always have the chance of making extra money if they like. That is not the case on the land, and, therefore, the young people are going. I agree with the Minister of Agriculture that you cannot work any programme of food production unless you get the necessary labour. If you are to get the 2,000,000 acres or the 4,000,000 acres of fresh crops, you will have to clean the ditches. The farmers in my constituency told me that there are many cases where the land has been 203 completely ruined by the fact that the ditches could not be kept clean. That means that the fields are ruined and the drains become worthless. You cannot produce crops. You must have more labour. I will tell you what I have in mind in that connection. I have been told by an expert that these young fellows will not come back; they have settled down to their new life and will not come back. If you increase wages, you will want a system of training young men on a very big scale. I urged this in 1935, and pressed it upon the present Government. If they had done so then, we should have known now where to get the agricultural labourers who are wanted. They are not available now. There were scores of thousands of young fellows who had never done a day's work in their lives who ought to have been trained in training centres for agricultural work.
One thing said to me by one of the experts was that the young men who were trained were very often more useful than the older agricultural labourers, because agriculture has advanced enormously during the last 20 years, in knowledge of the quality of the soil, its productiveness and what can be done to quicken its fertility and increase crops. That is very largely a new world to the old agricultural labourer, and he is a little inclined to sniff at it now and again. These young fellows would come in after having had those things taught to them, and it would really fertilise the soil with a new knowledge, a new outlook, a new impulse, and a new interest if there were these training centres. It is really not too late to have them now. When I was Minister of Munitions, one of the things I had to do was to set up training centres in order to train young people and women for the purpose of undertaking certain engineering functions in the production of fuses, for instance, and other things. They were at those training centres, some of them for three months, and some of them for six months, but they learned there, and they were invaluable to us in the production of munitions.
The same thing could be done now for agriculture. There are in this country still over 1,250,000 unemployed. These training centres ought to be organised, and organised without loss of time, because the right hon. and gallant Gentle- 204 man will find himself with an increase of perhaps 4,000,000 acres of arable land and no workers to operate it. If that happens, the condition will be worse than it was before; the ordinary business of the farm as it is now will be neglected, because operations will have to be extended on such a scale and the labour will have to be spread over the whole of the undertaking. Unless the right hon. and gallant Gentleman undertakes the organisation of training centres I am afraid he will fail. There must be fertilisation on a very great scale. We have not got here—at any rate not to the same extent—the nitrates which they are producing in Germany. We are trying the same machinery, but it is a very limited operation. In Germany, they produce on such a scale that they were able to export nitrates before the war. We have not got it here. There are other essential components of fertilisation which we cannot get—it is, for instance, very difficult to get potash—but we may get something which will answer the same purpose. But this ought to be the concern of the Government.
There is to be a central authority on wages. That is right. I am supporting this Bill, although the right hon. and gallant Gentleman may not have thought it from many of the things I have said. I am supporting it particularly because there is to be this central authority. The centre has got to do the thinking. Farming is not a highly organised industry. It is not like other industries where there are huge concerns that can always do the thinking for the whole of the industry; they can afford to do it, they have to do it for themselves, because they work on such a large scale. The farming industry is hopeless from the point of view of organisation. The National Farmers' Union may be very good in negotiations with the right hon. and gallant Gentleman, but from the point of view of conducting the industry as a whole, the National Farmers' Union is not of the slightest use. I am not criticising them. This has got to be done. It has a definite bearing on the fixation of wages. Lord Ullswater has a very fine brain; he is highly intelligent and very shrewd; he has had very great experience, and he has been trained in a way in which few of us have been brought up—he has been trained in impartiality, trained to take a detached view, to listen 205 to both sides, and to listen to both sides with patience. Therefore, he has a fine mind for this purpose, and I am very glad that he is still a man of great physical and intellectual vigour. But you are doing it from the top. I do not like this consultation with local committees. I do not like the word, because it may mean a great deal, or it may mean little.
Mr. Lloyd George
It means a waste of time if there is to be real consultation. If there is to be consultation with every local committee, it will take too long. If it simply means that you will get from them the fruit of their experience, the facts which they have gathered, any information which they may have resulting from any examination which they have made of the accounts with regard to the profits the farmers are making, and so on, then obviously you must get all that gathered together and focused at the centre. But if it means that you have to consult every one of the 47 committees, it will be a waste of time—and there is no time to waste.
But you cannot do this without knowing something about prices. What was said by the right hon. and gallant Gentleman to-day is probably as far as he can go at the moment. I agree with what is said by Sir John Orr in the very remarkable pamphlet he has just issued. I hope those who have not read it will at once pay their 1s. 6d.—it is worth a great deal more—and read that very remarkable document. One of the things I want to urge upon the Government is that it is not merely a question of increasing production. You have to decide not merely the quantities you are going to produce, but which are the most important things to produce, so that if anything has to be done without, it will be only those things which are not essential to the vitality of the human frame. That is where enormous value attaches to what Sir John Orr says; he says—and he emphasises it by putting it in italics—that if you are going to put burdens on the farmer which he cannot bear, he will not carry them. That is so. It is just like going to somebody and asking him to do a job, whether in a munitions factory or anywhere else; he will say, "What am I going to be paid for it?"
206 There are all sorts of things to be considered, but if he is not paid, then in spite of all his patriotism, the worker will not work and the farmer will not work. That is not a popular thing to say, but it is a thing to be faced. The costs to the farmer are going up, and they are going up more than the percentages of which we have been told. Yesterday, we had a feast of percentages and statistics, and at the end we really did not know where we were. Therefore, it is better to put the matter in simple unarithmetical language. The farmer is paying more for some of his things than the percentages would lead us to believe. In the case of feeding-stuffs, for instance, it is said that they are up by 30 per cent.—I think that is the percentage given—but that is not the reality. The quality is so much lower that the farmer has to buy more to produce the same results. I should say that the farmer has to pay from 50 to 55 per cent. more for his feeding-stuffs, when one takes into account the quality. One has also to consider all sorts of other things, and the delays that occur. He has to pay more for repairs, more for implements, more for transport.
I am not in favour of profiteering by farmers or anybody else, but to anybody who knows what the farmer has been making in the last few years, talk about profiteering is sheer rubbish. The farmer has had great difficulty in carrying on at all, and I should say that if he kept accounts, he would find that he is worse off to-day, much worse off, than he was four years ago. That is why I did not like the remarks of my right hon. Friend the Member for Hillsborough (Mr. A. V. Alexander) yesterday, when he talked about the profiteering of the farmers. Why, on my right hon. Friend's own showing, it is not really very extravagant profiteering. He gave a very interesting figure of the profits made by the Co-operative stores on 18,000 acres. He said they were farming 55,000 acres. He did not tell us what were the profits on the remaining 37,000 acres. There was the figure of 18,000 acres, and they made £17,000 profit. I will examine that later on, because it contains a valuable lesson. Most of the farmers have 100 acres and under. Those figures would mean that they would make a profit of about 19s. an acre. A farmer having 100 acres 207 would make about £95. I am assuming that the figures could be applied all round.
Mr. Lloyd George
It means that he gets less than £2 a week. That is not very flagrant profiteering. If one makes it a farm of 200 acres—which is a big farm—I think it would cover two-thirds, if not three-quarters, of the farmers of the country. It means that the farmer would make less than £200 in a highly skilled enterprise, which is skilled not merely in the actual work, but from the point of view that the farmer has to be a trader as well. What business would you regard as being extravagantly profitable if it got such a return, with the capital which is necessary to equip a 200-acre farm? You would get far more in any other business. Honestly, I do not think it is quite fair to talk about profiteering in those circumstances. Besides, it does a lot of harm. We want to get production, and we want to make, it worth the while of the people who, alone, can give us production—those who do the work. May I point out this fact? What is the position of the Co-operative stores? First, they have an absolutely assured market. They are producing for their own counters, for their own shops. They know exactly what they want produced and the man who is producing knows exactly what he is going to sell. The farmer does not always sell everything he produces. Take vegetables, for instance. He may send them to market one day and sell them and get a fairly decent price for them. He may send them another day, only to be told, "We are very sorry, but we cannot sell them," or he may get only a small price for them.
Mr. Lloyd George
I agree. But that is not the case with the Co-operative stores. What they produce they know perfectly well they can sell in their own shops. Another point is this. They have a better control of road transport than have the farmers. They can despatch goods in their lorries and bring the produce back. They can organise their transport. There is another point. I 208 should like to know what they charge for their produce in their books. Here, undoubtedly, is a lesson. They have eliminated the middle-man altogether. The produce is carried straight to the consumer. Anybody who deals, especially with Covent Garden, knows perfectly well what that means. With its porter ages and its commissions, there is very often nothing left for the producer. The Co-operative stores have a real marketing system. This is one of the things which, I hope, the right hon. and gallant Gentleman before he leaves office will undertake. As it is, there are far too many men who are having a cut at the producers' joint. I am amazed at the difference between what I get as a producer, and what my friends in London tell me they have to pay for the things which I produce. It is twice and sometimes three times as much. Well, the Co-operative stores undoubtedly have eliminated that; it makes an enormous difference in the profit, and that undoubtedly could be done, to a very considerable extent, if you had a real marketing system.
§ Mr. A. Jenkins (Pontypool)
Does not the right hon. Gentleman regard that as a strong commendation of the organisation of the Co-operative societies?
Mr. Lloyd George
I quite agree. I said that there was a lesson to be learned, but I do not think you need have a Co-operative society in order to do that Lord Addison, in the marketing Measure which he carried through in 1931, introduced the same element, but that has not been carried out. I hope that the right hon. and gallant Gentleman will take all these matters into consideration—training and draining and, finally, marketing—so as to eliminate all these commissions and give an assured market.
Now, with regard to the provisions of the Bill itself which I have been examining with great care, I should like, finally, to say this. I do not see how Lord Ullswater and the Wages Board can settle the wages until the prices are known. The right hon. and gallant Gentleman has not given any indication about that. There have been increases in some cases, but in other cases there have been practically none. The potato grower does not quite know where he is with regard to this matter. I hope the right hon. and gallant Gentleman has not said his final word—
Mr. De la Bère (Evesham)
Hear, hear! That is very important.
Mr. Lloyd George
It is very important to a poor hard-working farmer like the hon. Gentleman. At any rate the prices must be known before the wages can be fixed, and it is in the interest of the labourer that the prices should be known. If the right hon. and gallant Gentleman means to fix these prices at a limit which will enable the farmers to pay the wages, then it is in the interest of the workman that it should be known beforehand. Personally, I am in agreement with Sir John Orr that, during the war, we ought to deal, in one comprehensive stroke, with the whole question of keeping down food prices and that the State should give a big comprehensive subsidy for all vital foods.
The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Sparkbrook (Mr. Amery) spoke yesterday about the difficulties of the workman with a family of three. He gets the same wages as if he had no family at all. As the right hon. Gentleman very properly said, it is the family that reduces the standard of living in cases where the wage is not adequate to cover the whole business. The advantage of Sir John Orr's proposal is that you meet that case. The more the consumption, the more beneficent will be the operation of the subsidy, because it covers the produce and not the individual. You are not subsidising wages; you are subsidising the standard of living and preventing the war from driving wages up to a height which will, in the end, increase the cost of living again. You stop that process, and, at the same time, you cover the cases in which there are large families and in which, if the price goes up, then the quantity goes down. I ask the right hon. and gallant Gentleman, the Minister, whether he will not, one day, come down to the House of Commons and give us a great, broad, comprehensive scheme for seeing that this nation is fed, however long it may have to fight.
§ 5.54 p.m.
§ Mr. Orr-Ewing (Weston-super-Mare)
Like every other Member in the House, I have been extremely interested in what the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George)has said, and in the survey of the background of this Bill to which he has in- 210 vited our attention. But I feel that that is an aspect of the matter which is better left alone by me, and I wish to speak rather more about the machinery of the Bill itself, except for dealing with one or two points which the right hon. Gentleman stressed. I think it fair to say that there is general, indeed unanimous, agreement in the House on the necessity of improving the standard of the agricultural worker and making it a better and a sounder standard than that which has existed in this country during the past 40 or 50 years, as compared with the standards of other workers. It is not, therefore, on that ground that I would be critical of this Measure, but critical I feel I must be. I confine my criticism to the machinery side of the Bill. Though I do not wish to be thought to attack my right hon. and gallant Friend the Minister in any way, I must say that I am not quite happy in my own mind as to the pedigree of this curious little Bill—and it is both little and curious from my point of view. I rather felt that it was a curious animal, by "T.U.C." out of "N.F.U.", but we have been almost assured by my right hon. and gallant Friend that that is not so and that he, himself, is personally responsible for the contents of this Measure. In that case, I am afraid its pedigree had better be described as being by "Good Intention" out of "Little Consideration," which is a most dangerous combination in any form of legislation.
In considering the aim on which we are all agreed, namely, that of raising the standard of the worker, we cannot forget the background of this Measure. It is based on the principle that at the present time it is right and possible to have a standard minimum wage for the industry of agriculture. The mere expression "industry of agriculture" is, in itself, an entirely false description of agriculture in this country. We must recognise that there is more than one industry in our agriculture. It is, in fact, a series of interdependent industries, grouped under the general head of "agriculture." Examining the principle of a standard minimum wage against that background, I go a stage further and say that in the application of a standard minimum to any industry, certain conditions are necessary if that standard is to succeed. The first condition, in general, I 211 would say is that the work to be performed is of a standard type throughout the industry as a whole. The second is that the conditions under which the work is performed are also comparatively standard in character, though not quite as much so as the actual work itself. I believe that neither of those conditions exists in the group of industries called agriculture.
If I am right—and I think there will be general agreement in the House on my proposition—then we are attempting here to establish a standard which cannot possibly be maintained throughout the country as a whole. The fact is that unless you adopt a standard which is palatable and is accepted as reasonable by the majority of those to whom it applies, whether they pay or are paid wages, then the application of the principle of standardisation must be essentially faulty and wrong. That is my first criticism of the Bill itself. It attempts to apply the method of standardisation to a group of industries which do not lend themselves to that standardisation. I think a full examination must include a comparison of the proposals in the Bill for raising and maintaining the agricultural worker's standard of life with the existing machinery.
Take, first, the raising and maintenance of the standard. I was not clear, from my right hon. and gallant Friend's opening speech, about how and why he blamed the existing machinery for slowness of action as regards the increase of agricultural wages. It is quite true that the rate at which these wages have increased over the last few months has not been as rapid as some people would have liked, but equally I might suggest that the return to the farmers has not been as rapid as has been the return to the industrialists since we were involved in war, or during the months immediately preceding war, when the system of increased guaranteed prices was coming into force. The delay in increasing wages and passing on new money, which everybody imagines is going into the agricultural industry, is brought about by the very fact that the money has not yet come through. To blame the existing machinery and the county committees for slowness in the passing of the money through the industry to the wage earners 212 is really rather unfair. That that blame should have been fastened on them by the Minister seems to me rather unfair.
The same consideration applies also to the question of a future higher wage. It is one of the circumstances which varies as between county and county. Obviously the length of time of the lock-up, the time lag between the expenditure of starting production on some agricultural products, varies with the type of product which is produced and the time it takes to produce. The dairy farmer is in a very much better position to pass on any gain he may have than the man who ploughed up his land in the autumn and will see no return on it until the following autumn. You may say that there are essentially certain parts of this country which devote the major part of their agricultural effort to long-term agricultural production and certain other parts, the more western parts of England, which devote their energies to shorter types of production. But there again we have an argument against the application of standard wages to differing types of industries in different parts of the country.
No one so far this afternoon has mentioned the rather important point on this wages issue, namely, the actual amount of money taken home by agricultural workers. It is perfectly easy to say that the minimum rates as set out by the county committees which apply in the counties and appear on paper are very low, but I am sure the Minister realises that in a dairy county the actual amount of money taken home at the end of the week by the worker is considerably higher than that set out on the paper. The reason for this is that in a dairy county, such as that in which I live, Somerset, it is impossible for the worker to complete the work he has to perform within the normal number of hours, and he is paid a regular overtime rate. Therefore, while the minimum stands at 38s. to 38s. 6d., the actual amount which is taken home by the worker in many or most cases is about 43s., and in some cases well over 48s.
§ Mr. T. Williams
But the hon. Gentleman would not deny that the agricultural labourer in a dairy area is not getting that excess unless he has put in excessive hours over the normal period.
§ Mr. Orr-Ewing
Certainly. I absolutely agree. I was not even attempting to imply that the wage was at the present time as high as it could be. What I was saying was that when people come to examine the county rates, as set out on paper, they do not, unless they know the industry very well, appreciate the fact that the figure does not represent the actual amount of money taken home at the end of the week by the worker.
The next difficulty in raising wages by the machinery of this Bill is as to how the Central Wages Board can decide where in the scale of existing wages they are to fix the standard minimum wage. That is one of the most crucial difficulties in the scheme which the Minister has devised. Suppose they choose a high figure, as high as the highest county is paying at the present time, about 43s. to44s. Then every county which is unable to pay that wage will immediately appeal to the Central Wages Board, and it obviously follows that the standard itself becomes no standard at all, because it will apply only to the very small number of counties paying the highest wages. Suppose they fix it half way up the scale. Then those who felt that they could not pay that amount would appeal, and the fact that they appealed will cause a risk of attaching stigma to those bodies to which the Minister has attached considerable importance—the county wages committees. Whether the Central Wages Board attempt to fix the standard minimum wage at the top, half way down, at the bottom, or at an intermediary stage, they will by that actual fixing destroy any value which might possibly have attached to the system of the standardisation of wages in this industry.
Another duty, if we are to devise some new wages machinery, is to devise a machine which is flexible. There again I feel confusion in regard to the meaning of the Minister's opening speech. I interrupted the Minister and asked whether it was proposed that the Central Wages Board should consult on every occasion with the county wages committees before they fix, alter or modify the standard national minimum wage. First his reply was, "No, they will not so consult," and his second, corrected reply was, "Yes, they will so consult." The mere fact that he was not very clear in his own mind seemed to me to indicate that 214 he was not exactly attaching very great importance to the consultation or advice which could be given by the county wages committees to the Central Wages Board. At the same time he did pay a tribute to these committees. Most people in this House who have studied, or had any connection with, this wages question would pay the highest tribute to them. They not only have had what is frequently a very invidious task, but they have to the best of their ability devoted considerable time to the solution of long-standing difficulties in the counties, difficulties which now no longer appear as a result of the working of this Act since 1924.
I cannot believe that the Minister would willingly deny that the Central Wages Board, charged with this extraordinarily difficult problem of trying to fix a national figure, would appreciate the value of the local knowledge of the county wages committees collected since 1924 in every county. I take it that when the national wage is fixed, altered, or amended, he will always see to it that the Central Wages Board will consult with the county committees. I hope I am not misinterpreting his view. I hope also that the Central Board will be able to make the best possible use of the local knowledge acquired since 1924. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Carnarvon Boroughs said we must have a machine which is flexible, and I think the Minister used the word "elastic." We must have a machine which will act quickly. Now which would act the more quickly—the direct advice of the county wages committees, who themselves have the local knowledge, as admitted by the Minister, or the Central Wages Board, which first of all has to consult with the committees and then has to make up its own mind as to what is the right wage? Undoubtedly all the evidence would go to show that the quicker method of acting in the adjustment of wages is the direct method through the body which has the local knowledge—the county wages committee. The Minister has provided us with something which is very analogous to the county wages committee—thecounty war agricultural executive committees. After all, they carry a very considerable amount of responsibility. They are responsible for interpreting the general orders of Whitehall as to what or what should not be done regarding the preparation of the soil and also on the 215 question of crops. The Ministry very wisely left the detailed application of these orders to the county committees, with the true local knowledge, which are composed of local men with the confidence of the industry in each county. If it is right that a county committee should carry that immensely important responsibility in regard to the method of production of food in each county, should not the Minister then be equally prepared to trust the county wages committee to fix a decent wage at a decent standard for the agricultural worker?
I cannot help feeling that the Minister, with the best intention in the world, is giving way to that amazing demand which so often lies behind the minds of hon. Gentlemen opposite, namely, that in order that a thing shall succeed it must be centralised. Centralisation seems to have an amazing appeal, but very often I have seen, not only in industry, but in many other walks of life as well, this demand for centralisation, after centralisation has been experienced, followed by an equally strong demand for decentralisation. We have seen the tragic effect of over-concentration of power before in the hands of those without local knowledge. I do not know whether the Minister can give us any assurance as to what will be the position under this Bill in the event of there being a definite combination between the farmer and farm workers on this question of wages and prices. For instance, what would be the position supposing both sides put their heads together and the farmer and the farm worker agreed that it did not matter what rate of wages was paid, and that they could take it out of the public every time? They could say that they only had to explain that the cost had risen because wages had risen; they could come along for a bigger subsidy, and go to the Ministry of Food for a bigger price. I am not sure how the Minister would be prepared to meet that sort of situation.
My right hon. and gallant Friend and the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Carnarvon Boroughs suggested that we must have a machine which will function flexibly during the period of war and the period of guaranteed prices. I wonder whether the Minister wishes to make use of the existing Central Wages Board, and, when he gave us that description of the 216 functions which the Board had performed since 1924, whether he was advertising the capabilities or the structure of the Board—I am not attacking any individuals upon it—and whether he was advertising it from its actual performances since 1924. What he told us was that this Board, admirable on paper, had had no duties whatever to perform, that it had no responsibilities, and that, in fact, it could not take any responsibilities because it had no executive power. I wonder whether, when we come to a later stage of the Bill, we might not consider rendering some service to the Board by altering its title.
I think the Minister is losing a great opportunity. I agree very much with what was said by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Carnarvon Boroughs about bringing forward piecemeal measures dealing with agriculture. We know that it is impossible to bring forward an omnibus Measure to deal with every aspect of agriculture in war-time. Yet so often has the Minister used the adjective "mighty" that I expected, when he dealt with agricultural wages, that he would produce a Bill which would have been a mighty big Bill. I am afraid, however, that he has produced only something which is mighty like a raspberry. There was an alternative available, a mightier alternative, if the right hon. and gallant Gentleman had approached the problem from the point of view of the responsibility for the conditions of the agricultural labourer. Why was it found impossible to make use of this opportunity when he had already been approached, as he tells us, by one agricultural union, to set up something in the nature of a joint industrial council to care for the welfare of agricultural workers and to study their conditions of work; a joint industrial council, not necessarily on identical lines with those already in existence in industry, but at least as the beginning of something much bigger than that, the beginning of some sort of general commission or council which could deal with the problem of the lives of those engaged in the industry as a whole. The problem of living is not only the problem of the actual return in cash; that is not the only problem of the agricultural worker. I am sure many people could think of a large number of farmers who in the last few years have actually been 217 having less in their pockets at the end of the week than the men they have employed.
I would stress the other side of the failure to produce a more outstanding Measure to deal with this great problem. The real point behind the problem of agricultural wages is not only the question of cash, but the sense of security which the worker may have, so that he can progress and get on with his work and be assured that the man who employs him will get a fair return for what he has helped him to produce, and that out of that fair return he will get a fair share. There is something even more than that. He wants a sense of security from the industry in which he is engaged at all periods and not only in difficult times when the population of this country in its timorousness turns to it, as it often does to heaven, and prays. I want my right hon. and gallant Gentleman to devote his time, not to evolving unnecessary machinery to deal with agricultural wages, but to the education of the people as to the essential nature of this industry with whose workers he is attempting to deal to-day. If he would give every minute of his spare time to that educational purpose, if he would send up and down the country during a time of war men and women who understand the value of the work that agriculture is per forming and why it has not been able to produce as much as it should have done because of the bad state in which it has been for many years; if he would drive those points home at a time when the mind of the country is sensitive to these things, I believe he would do a far greater service to the agricultural industry and the agricultural worker than he is doing by the introduction of such a Bill as this.
§ 6.21 p.m.
§ Mr. Richards (Wrexham)
In the speech of the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Orr-Ewing), to which we have just listened, we have really found out at last the kind of opposition that there is to this Bill. We on these benches are, on the whole, prepared to congratulate the Minister heartily on doing one thing, at any rate, that is, to set up a real Agricultural Wages Board. The difficulty hitherto has been that the Board has never functioned. The county committees more or less decide what the wages are to be and 218 refer the matter to the Board, who merely sanction what the committees have decided. That means, as the Minister pointed out, that there is a curious lack of uniformity in the country with regard to the wages paid in the various counties. That is because the Central Wages Board is not allowed to function. We all admit the considerable differences that exist in agriculture in different parts of the country. It is not a homogeneous industry but a collection of industries. On that basis various criticisms can be made about standardisation of wages. The fact remains, however, that this is not the first attempt at standardisation and that the previous attempt proved on the whole very successful. There was considerable variety from county to county then, but the agricultural labourers felt, what they have not felt since the repeal of the Corn Production Act in 1921, that they had in the Agricultural Wages Board a body of people who were vitally concerned in their wages. Consequently, it is a considerable step forward to get a Board whose main concern will be to see that the national minimum wage is established in the industry.
The Minister has made some attempt to meet local variations. I am not, however, very happy about the position. He said that where a committee objected to paying the national minimum it could make a case to the Central Wages Board and that it would be allowed in certain cases to depart from the minimum. That is a dangerous policy, because if one committee succeeds in this respect it will be found that another committee will make the same application, and the national minimum will practically go by the board. That is a weak point in the Bill. It is well that we should meet local difficulties as far as we can, but there is an overwhelming case for a national minimum which should be applied universally in the country. There is another difficulty, and it is what really brought the previous Agricultural Wages Board to grief. It was connected with the minimum price scheme for wheat and oats, and when prices broke the Chancellor was faced with the difficulty that he could not guarantee prices. Then as a sop to the agricultural community, in order to induce them to depart from the terms that were laid down in the Act, they were promised that the Agricultural Wages Board would be abolished. 219 I do not like the close association that is suggested in the speech of the right hon. and gallant Gentleman between wages and prices. I do not think the two halves of the question can at the moment, in the absence of a long-term policy, be co-ordinated. We ought to deal exclusively with the question of agricultural wages and not wait until we get a statement as to the Government's policy on the other part of the question. We are glad that an attempt is being made at last to deal with this difficult problem. The tragedy seems to me to be that we have always to wait for a war before we attempt to do anything like justice to the agricultural workers. It is a curious coincidence that the last attempt was made in 1917 in the course of a war. Even over100 years ago, in the course of the Napoleonic wars, it was suggested in this House that something like a standard or minimum rate should be provided for the agricultural labourer. He had to wait a long time, however, for it was actually on 24th April, 1917, when the first resolute attempt was made in the House to bring in an Agricultural Wages Board.
Anyone who has looked back on that Debate must be astounded at the character of the speech that was made by Mr. Prothero in introducing the Bill. He did not agree with the Bill in the slightest particular. He said he did not agree with any regulation of agriculture and, speaking on the question of a minimum wage, he said he disliked the principle and he saw practical difficulties which would make it impossible of application. That was not a very auspicious start for the Agricultural Wages Act, 1917. But he went on to say that the war had changed all that; that though he was a rank individualist he had found that the submarine had converted him to an entirely different view.
I am wondering whether that is not the case to-day. The Minister emphasised the necessity, which we all feel, for increased production, and in view of that we are back to the position of trying to do something for the agricultural labourer, because we feel how essential are his services to the community in times like these. I agree very much with what the right hon. and gallant Member for Rye (Sir G. Courthope) said. We ought to regard this question not from the narrow point of 220 view of the war or the difficulty in which we now are regarding food production, but from the humane standpoint of the needs of a very essential section of the community, the agricultural labourers. I do not think we shall get much further than did our predecessors if we concentrate attention exclusively upon the production which is so much desired at the present time. I feel that there is an overwhelming case for the standard of life of the agricultural labourer to be preserved as it has not been preserved so far. It is a long and very tragic story. We ought to recognise that some attempt, at any rate, was made by the old Agricultural Wages Board to establish confidence on the part of the agricultural labourer and to give him something like a decent standard of life.
The work of the Board as it functioned then was one of the best things ever done for the industry. It was illuminating to find, for example, how the agricultural labourers on the committees and on the Board itself were able to stand up to the representatives of the farmers and to the appointed members. Again and again the advocacy of the case put forward by the agricultural labourers left very little to be desired, and they managed to win the ear and the support of the appointed members. That is evidenced by what the Minister of Agriculture said this afternoon about wages gradually mounting. The agricultural worker had to defend his point of view against that of the farmer, and had to win the jury over, so to speak, to his side. We ought to recognise the great service that was done by the members of the Board in those days, and particularly I should like to refer to the late Sir Henry Rew, who really did a tremendous amount of work in establishing the wages that were then set out by the Board.
Something has been said this afternoon about the danger of a central Board fixing wages without reference to local conditions. That was not true of the Agricultural Wages Board, which represented every aspect of the industry. The first thing the Board did was to find out what was being paid in different parts of the country. The document is there to be seen. It was issued about the end of 1917, I think, and is a most revealing document. The average wage in certain 221 counties in England was just 12s.; and it was shown that the wage was really declining in a great many areas in the southern and south-western parts of the country. Consequently, everybody felt that something must be done for the agricultural labourer, who was really living under sweated conditions. That was the basis from which the Board started. Not content with getting this information, the Board sent out a commission consisting of members of the Board, together with such men as the late Sir William Ashley, Professor Bowley and the late Dr. Somerville, to inquire into the profits that were being made in the industry and into the cost of living in rural areas. The Board did not take a single step before it had made this very thorough inquiry into conditions in the industry generally, so it is not true to say that it took no notice of local conditions. That report, both from the point of view of the farmer and of the labourer, is one of the most valuable documents dealing with agricultural conditions ever published in this country.
§ Mr. Orr-Ewing
I think the hon. Member will agree that those local inquiries were all the more essential because at that time we had not the system of county wage committees which we have had since 1924.
§ Mr. Richards
The county wage committees were in existence then and were an integral part of the work of the Board. The whole difference is that a greater degree of autonomy was given to the local committees by the Act of 1924. Before 1924 the local committees were not autonomous; they recommended to the central Board, and that, I take it, is going to be very largely the position again. The agricultural committees were in existence then and operated in close co-operation with the central Board.
§ Mr. Richards
Not before 1917, but they were before 1924. The fact of the matter is that since 1924 the Board has been merely an emaciated shadow of its former self, and agricultural labourers feel very unhappy about the activities of these committees. Several references have already been made to the gradual drift of the agricultural labourer from the land. We ought to have a sense of perspective 222 in looking at this problem. It is not one which is confined to this country, because it exists all over western Europe and, stranger still, is a problem in newer countries like Canada and Australia. I am not optimistic enough to believe that the establishment of a standard wage, however high, will cure this drift. Despite what the Wages Board did and what this new Wages Board is going to do we shall not find the industrial community offering fewer inducements to the agricultural labourer to leave the land than was the case before. As has been said several time this afternoon, it is not a mere question of wages. There are all kinds of inducements to the agricultural labourer to leave the land—unfortunately, as many of us believe; but the fact that he is leaving the land does not mean that the productivity of agriculture has declined. Although the numbers in agriculture have been declining the productivity of agriculture has been increasing at the same time. I rejoice, on humanitarian grounds, at the introduction of this Bill, because I feel that again and again the agricultural labourer has been hardly dealt with, and I welcome this small step towards putting him, one of the most important members of the community, upon a footing where he will have a nearer equality with the industrial worker.
§ 6.40 p.m.
§ Mr. Ross Taylor (Woodbridge)
As chairman of a county agricultural wages committee, and probably the only Member of this House to hold such a post, I should like at the outset of my remarks to acknowledge the tribute which has been paid to these committees by my right hon. and gallant Friend the Minister. As he said, they have very difficult and responsible work to do, and there can be no doubt that they have done that work extremely well up and down the country for the last 15 years. Specially responsible has been the work of the impartial members. Now, if this Bill passes, as it no doubt will, the committees will lose their autonomy, and their status will be very much diminished, but I feel confident that there will always be found those who are sufficiently interested in the wellbeing of agriculture and of those engaged in it to serve on those committees and to do their best to exercise a wise judgment. I had hoped when I heard that this Bill was on the stocks that it might lead to an easing of the 223 duties and responsibilities of those committees; but on reading it I find that not only will it greatly increase the responsibilities of the Wages Board but that it will increase the duties and responsibilities of the county committees. Not only are these committees to be called upon to consult with the Board when the latter are fixing the national minimum but if, after that national minimum has been fixed, they consider that it is too high for their areas, having regard to the local conditions, then they are to have the task of establishing to the satisfaction of the Board that that minimum should be lowered.
Why a national datum line should be introduced when the Bill itself recognises that there may be variations in local conditions I really do not see. It seems to me to introduce an element of rigidity into a system which has hitherto proved sufficiently flexible to enable local conditions to be met on the whole very satisfactorily by committees which obviously have a much greater knowledge of local affairs than any central Board can have. I am not going to labour that point, because it has already been dealt with, and we have been told what the origins of the Bill were, and I can only trust that the Minister's hopes in regard to it will be fulfilled.
Personally, I feel that this change in the wage-fixing machinery cannot alone effect what is presumably the underlying purpose of the Bill and that is to raise both the wages and the status of the agricultural worker. The Bill may have the effect, and I hope it will, of raising the agricultural worker's status. I hope that it will be recognised, as it has been pointed out it is recognised in war-time, that he is a skilled worker engaged always on work of national importance. But neither this Bill nor any other on the same lines can by itself have the effect of raising his wages to the level to which that status entitles him, that is, a level reasonably comparable with the level of wages paid to skilled workers in other industries. If that level is to be reached and maintained then the industry must be put in a position to pay those wages. I submit that the industry is not at the moment in a position to pay better wages than it is paying at present.
224 Clause 1 of the Bill provides that the minimum wage is to be fixed by the Board after considering general economic conditions and the conditions of the agricultural industry. What are the conditions of the industry to-day from the point of view of its capacity to pay wages? I maintain that those conditions are accurately and clearly reflected in the wages which are at present in force in the different areas.
We have heard that there are 47 of these committees. They have been at work for 15 years. Their business has been, from time to time and often at frequent intervals, to consider what the minimum wages should be in their areas. Under the Act of 1924, they have to decide what minima are practicable, and they have been engaged in that work for 15 years. They therefore have had very great experience, and it may be assumed that they have arrived at a fairly accurate estimate of what the industry is able to pay, that is to say, that to-day's wages represent the industry's present capacity to pay. Unless, therefore, the ability of the farmer to pay wages is increased it is difficult to see how the Board in fixing the national minimum, can fix it at anything more than the average of the county minima already existing. It is still more difficult to see how they can possibly resist representations which may be made to them by county committees that the minima in their particular cases should, owing to local conditions, be reduced.
The hon. Member for Don Valley (Mr. T. Williams) made reference to the farmer being unwilling to pay better wages. In fairness to the farmers I would say that many of them would be willing to pay better wages if they had the wherewithal to do so. Many of them are in urgent need of skilled men who have left the land in recent years to find more remunerative employment elsewhere. The farmers would willingly pay the necessary wages to attract those men back. If then the Bill is to carry out the purpose of improving wages for the agricultural workers the industry of agriculture must be made more prosperous. On that account I am glad to find that the Opposition support this Measure. I hope that their support is something more than a mere war-time change of heart. In the past they have not been very sympathetic towards Measures brought 225 forward by the Government for the betterment of agriculture. In the last nine years there have been a good many such Measures before the House. Most of them have been opposed by the Opposition, and on such occasions two arguments, among others, have been very frequently brought forward. The first has been that the Measures were designed to put money into the pockets of the land lords and the farmers, who were represented as being the special proteges of the party to which I belong. The second was that any increase in the cost of agricultural produce would raise the cost of living and have a most adverse effect upon the poorest section of the community. During those nine years, we have also had many Debates on Measures designed to improve the coal industry, but the arguments to which I have referred in the case of the agricultural Measures have not been conspicuous on those occasions. We have never heard, for example, of the risk of putting money into the pockets of the coal owners, presumably because it was recognised that if that were not done the miners could not get better wages. There has also been scant reference to the risk of raising coal prices, although coal, like food, is an essential commodity. It did not seem to matter whether coal prices were raised, provided that the coal miners got a better wage. To what extent that contrast of argument and attitude affected the final result I do not know, but it is true to say—
§ Mr. T. Williams
I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Member, but he is making a criticism of the action of hon. Members on these benches. Is he not aware that on all the small Measures that have been introduced since 1931, the Opposition have made the case that day-to-day expedients were not their policy, and that the net result of the 10 years' legislation has placed the industry where it is to-day and not only justifies the actions of hon. Members on these benches but is a condemnation of the policy which has been pursued during those nine or ten years?
§ Mr. Ross Taylor
I was making a statement of fact and comparing what has been done in regard to the two industries. It is true to say that in recent years the wages of coal miners have been increased to a very much greater extent than have 226 those of farm workers. That has been achieved by putting into the hands of coalowners a coal-selling and price-fixing monopoly by means of which they have been considerably enriched. That, in turn, has enabled them to pay better wages. One has only to look at the published accounts of colliery companies to see that many of them have prospered exceedingly in the last few years. My attention was directed only the other day to the case of a Scottish company—the Niddrie and Beuhar Coal Company—which found itself in a position to raise its reserve fund from £115,000 to £335,000, to capitalise £200,000 of that amount and to hand out a bonus share of £1 for every £1share held by its shareholders. If the farmers of the country had been placed in anything like as favourable a position as that this Bill would not have been necessary because agricultural county committees would long ago have raised the minima to levels which would have satisfied the farm workers. I lay great stress on this distinction, because I do not think that agriculture has had a fair deal. When therefore the promises made by the Prime Minister and the Minister of Agriculture come to be translated into changes of price, I hope that hon. Members on the Opposition benches will support the Measures proposed for that purpose, and thus enable the aims of the Bill to be achieved.
I support very much the plea which was put forward by the right hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Rye (Sir G. Courthope) that the Government should look to the future. Twice in the lifetime of most of us we have been made unpleasantly aware of the importance of home food-production. Unhappily, the lesson of the last war in that respect was not learned. After 1919, agriculture was neglected. Thousands of men left the land and tens of thousands of acres went derelict. Admittedly, since 1931 a great deal has been done to improve conditions, but the leaway has not been made up. Even with all the feverish efforts which are being made at present it will not yet be possible for the agricultural industry to produce from the soil the maximum which that soil can contribute towards our food supply. It is to be hoped that the lesson will be learned this time and that the Government will plan ahead for the time when the war is over and when 227 agriculture will again be in danger of relapsing into the conditions into which it fell after the last war.
§ 6.55 p.m.
§ Mr. Price (Forest of Dean)
The Debate so far has shown that speakers on all sides of the House realise the connection between the rise and fall in wages of agricultural labour over the last few decades, and the general state of prosperity or depression, as the case may be, in the agricultural industry. In the course of the Debate we have had an interesting glimpse into the history of the post-war period. The right hon. Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George) and the right hon. and gallant Member for Rye (Sir G. Courthope) made contributions relating to the jettisoning of the Corn Production Act at the end of the last war, because of a world situation which existed in the immediate post-war years, and which over-production coupled with under-consumption brought about. All the Measures which had been introduced, in order to regulate production and stabilise prices during the war, were then thrown overboard.
It is just that fear which the farmers have to-day, of anything which is done now to stabilise the position during this war being thrown overboard when the war is over. At the same time, there are certain elements of stability which did not exist last time. I may be wrong, but I do not think that world over-production of certain staple commodities is very likely now. In recent years a process has been steadily going on in the new world of soil erosion through overgrazing and generally of impoverishment of the land. Our agriculture has for years lived on the fat of the world, cheap feeding-stuffs for our livestock. I believe all those days are passing. These war conditions are forcing upon farmers in this country the necessity of growing not only human food, but of making us less dependent upon imported feeding-stuffs. I believe that is a permanent change which will tend to bring about a greater stabilisation of prices. If that is so, there is every reason for introducing a Measure like this in order to stabilise wages at the highest level that the industry can possibly afford.
I therefore welcome this Measure as one which will do this. I do not think 228 that the farming community need be afraid of the dangers which existed at the end of the last war and which brought about the disastrous throwing over of the prices and wages position. The farming community fears that, but I believe that fear to be unfounded. I also believe that agricultural labourers are realising how closely their fate is bound up with that of the industry in which they work. There is a certain comradeship between the farmers and their men, particularly in the grazing and dairying districts, where the men are more permanently employed than the type of labour employed on the arable farms. They realise how closely their position is bound up with a stable level of prices.
I do not think that the fixing of a minimum wage for agricultural labourers at a reasonable figure—I hope it will not be anything less than £2 a week—will place a serious burden on the agricultural industry. The cost of wages in relation to the percentage of general farm costs varies, of course, from farm to farm, and according to the type of commodity produced on the farm. I have over the last 14 years worked out on my farm, a grazing and general stock farm, the wage costs in a percentage relation to the general costs of the whole farm. I find that my average labour cost for working a dairy herd is 28 per cent., for feeding cattle 25 per cent., for sheep 23 per cent. and for the production of wheat and beans 35 per cent. I have here figures produced by the School of Agriculture of which I was a member when I studied at Cambridge University, showing the labour costs on East Anglian farms. The trend is in a downward direction. Between 1936 and 1938 the costs varied between 27 and 29 per cent. of the general farming costs. The last report states that the labour bills have tended to fall, in spite of a substantial rise in wage rates, because of the considerable decline in the number of workers employed. The average number of manual workers on these farms was as much as 5½ per cent. less in 1938 than in 1937, and this decline continues the trend which has now been noted for many years; in other words, it is going on in arable as well as in stock farming. There is less labour being employed, but what is employed is remunerated at a higher rate. And not only that. The figures of the Department show that there is a greater productivity 229 of the farm per man. That is in the right direction. It indicates greater rationalisation, with the introduction of more machinery and scientific processes.
§ Mr. Loftus (Lowestoft)
The hon. Member says that is in the right direction. I have watched those farms yearly going largely out of cultivation owing to the lack of labour.
§ Mr. Loftus
The hon. Member has not got my point. The farmers in Suffolk have not been able to afford sufficient labour in the last three or four disastrous years to maintain the land in condition.
§ Mr. Price
The difficulty is probably lack of capital. The farmer cannot afford to undertake the new processes. I think we are agreed in the main that the eliminating of certain classes of labour by machinery is essential, however much we may regret it, if we are to meet world competition. I do not take the view that a rise up to, say, £2 a week for the general labourer will cause a serious increase in costs. There are farms of 200 acres with a herd of, say, 15 dairy cows and two men tending the stock. A rise of 2s. a week would mean an increase of only £10 a year, or about 2.9 per cent. on the gross return of the dairy herd. I do not call that anything very serious. We could perfectly well afford a rise upon existing rates without seriously affecting the position in regard to the dairy industry in the districts that I know. A far greater burden has been imposed on the dairy industry in the last few months in the rise of £2 a ton in cakes.
§ Mr. Price
That proves my case all the more, but I want to be moderate. That works out at three times more than a 2s. a week rise in wages. If you have a herd of 20 and an output of, say, 40 bullocks or fat heifers a year, yielding 400 live cwt., a rise of 2s. to your stockman would not be a serious matter. I work it out at about 3d. a live cwt. on the total output of the herd. And so on with other categories.
I can understand the National Farmers' Union, with the experience of last time, asking for the linking-up of wages with 230 prices, and I believe that in actual fact it might be done, but whether it would be practicable from the point of view of legislation I am a little doubtful. There are variations from season to season—in a dry season the cost of the production of milk may go up 3d. a gallon—but they generally even each other out. An increase in the cost of a dairy herd in a dry season may be accompanied by a decrease in the cost of hay production, and the same with corn. But costs vary not only from season to season, but from area to area, and that is a much more serious matter. There are marginal farms which are producing at a much higher cost than others. One wants to avoid taking the least efficient farms, those with the highest costs of production, owing to the fact that the farmer has not enough capital or that the geographical conditions are not satisfactory, and making them the standard on which you base your costs. I think farmers can well be satisfied with the history of the last 10 years. It is not like it was after the last war. We have a rock bottom now to the markets. There are the Agricultural Marketing Act, the wheat quota and the Milk Board. Potatoes and hops were dealt with in 1933. In 1937 we got the Livestock Industry Act and in the following year the Bacon Industry Act, and last year we had stable prices for barley and oats. That means that the farmers can face the future, not in the defenceless way they had to do it at the end of the last war. They can look the future more confidently in the face. I think this Measure is one to which the agricultural labourer is entitled and to which no objection can be raised, and I am sure no objection is raised by fair thinking and progressive farmers, for it is only an insurance to enable them to keep their most invaluable farm workers on the land.
§ 7.15 p.m.
§ Brigadier-General Clifton Brown (Newbury)
I think the hon. Member who has just spoken is a little sanguine in some of his remarks as to the effect of a 40s. minimum rise. The rise in wages from 37s. 6d. to 40s.—a rise of 2s. 6d.—has put an additional burden upon me of £150. I do agree with the hon. Member, however, in his remarks concerning the rise in prices of certain animal feeding-stuffs. The cost is now nearly £3 a ton. That is a very serious extra burden to put upon the dairy industry in which 231 he and I are interested. A colleague of the hon. Member said you can separate the question of wages from the question of economics, but the hon. Member who has just spoken showed quite clearly that you cannot. If an industry has not been able to pay its way surely it cannot pay the wages. I desire to say a few words from the point of view of the agricultural landowner. We landowners have an association of which there are some 13,000 members; 5,000 of them occupy farms of not more than 100 acres and others are some of the biggest landowners in the country, farming many thousands of acres. We have no representation on the Wages Board; we do not seek representation. We think it better that the farmers and workers should, if possible, settle their own grievances. If we can afford to give our labourers a little more it is often a bit unfair on the farmer who probably cannot afford higher wages. Although we have no representation in unemployment insurance, which is represented by workers' unions, farmers' unions and the T.U.C., we have a great interest not only in agricultural wages but in foresters, gardeners and others whose wages depend upon any change in the Wages Board or in legislation. For example, we were much concerned in the Access to Mountains Bill, for which the hon. Member for Shipley (Mr. Creech Jones) was responsible.
It was owing to the friendly contact which was made by the hon. Member to whom I have referred with the landowners, that he passed the Bill. We landowners want to help in passing a practical Measure and we do not wish to hinder it in any way. While we have no responsibility and refuse to accept any responsibility for the principle of the local or county committees, we do not see how these wages committees will help in the long run unless this Government, and I hope succeeding Governments, will guarantee a minimum price for the producer. As the hon. Member for Woodbridge (Mr. Ross Taylor) pointed out from his experience of 15 years as chairman of a wages committee, any wages committee must depend upon the amount of money in the pockets of the man who has to pay it. That can only come from a guaranteed policy. I would like to see the Government and the Opposition confer on a 232 permanent policy, not for three years but for a considerably longer period. The money has to be found, and I expected the hon. Member for Don Valley (Mr. T. Williams) or some other hon. Member to say that if the money cannot be found in the industry the landowners should put down their rents. Agricultural land owners' rents are very seldom more than 2 per cent. and when one considers what has to be put back in maintaining the farms and keeping the cottage up to date, many landowners are losing money instead of making it. There are land owners who have made money in other professions and who sometimes like to spend it in helping agricultural life—
No Government will accept rent bringing in only 2 per cent. The present Government will not lend money at 2 per cent., nor anything like it. However, I do not wish to raise that thorny subject. Farmers and tenants would have to pay bigger rents than hitherto under Nationalisation. An hon. Member said that it was not only a matter of wages which created this drift from the land. I agree. It is a matter of better cottages, water and light. There must also be better transport and opportunities for seeing the cinemas in the towns. If all that is provided for we shall get more people on the land but not merely by improving wages alone. That does not mean to say that I am opposed to giving extra wages to the labourers. Just as you cannot produce food without agricultural labour, so you cannot produce food without the farmer and landowner paying a decent wage, at the same time making a living out of it. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George) referred to contracts which the Government are having to make, and he mentioned the agricultural labourers who are working on aerodromes and being paid anything up to £7 a week, whereas they should be on the land. That is a difficult state of affairs. Agricultural wages can never be raised to that level, and while you have that unfair competition you cannot expect young fellows to keep on the land.
There is another difficulty which occurs to me. If land was the same value in 233 every part of England it might be easier to form a basis for fixing proper rents and wages. In some places good land is worth almost £4 an acre. In other parts of England it is worth 15s. to 25s. an acre, and that is all it is worth and is therefore all that one can expect. But when comparing the figure of £4 an acre in some parts with 20s. an acre in other parts it creates a difficulty for the Wages Board. Whether a national Wages Board will deal with that problem more successfully than the county wages committees remains to be seen. I asked the other day how many exemptions there were from the present minimum wage. I know that the Opposition thinks these exemptions should not be given or that they are given when they should not be. In my own estate and on others of which I know there are a lot of men who have grown old or infirm, some of whom are drawing their old age pensions. They have been there for years; they are living in their cottages, their children may be there and we do not want to turn them out. One may say to them. "Do you agree to an exemption so that you can keep your cottage and live there, and come and work for six hours a day or whatever hours you feel equal to?" When I asked how many of those there were I found there were over 4,000. If they are all exemptions on those lines I am sure hon. Members opposite will realise that the labourer is more happy in being occupied than if he has nothing to do. He can do an immense amount of good. As the right hon. Member for Carnarvon Boroughs said, the older men did a lot of good in the last war and we shall depend upon them again. You can let them dig, taking their own time, although they may not be able to climb ladders or do things of that sort. Of course I do not put that forward so that any owner can try to get out of paying his proper wages.
I would like to say how much I agree with what the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Carnarvon Boroughs said about Sir John Orr and the book that he has written. I hope the Minister will look well into it. He said that it is impossible to guarantee any wages fixed on prices. That may be so. At all events I should like to read a few lines of a quotation from Sir John Orr's book which appeared in the Press. He said: 234On the production side the Government would have to decide what additional crops were wanted and what animal products it would have been most advantageous to produce with the feeding stuffs which will be available. Then a bold policy would have to be adopted to ensure that the required quantities are produced. The only way to get the increased amounts of foods needed is to offer guaranteed prices which would induce the farmers to produce them.If you get a guaranteed price there is no trouble about a minimum wage.Sir John Orr believes that we can get our different foodstuffs in the proportions we want if we adjust the price offered for each in the right proportions to others. This would require a vigorous, bold policy with guaranteed prices and markets for two or three years ahead. He believes that the policy can be so clear and simple that both the public and the farmer would understand what the Government were trying to do. He is certain that if the prices are right the farmer will get down to his job with a feeling of certainty that the nation will get the food.I want to conclude by saying that this Government and the Opposition should get in touch to arrange a policy extending over five or six years to deal with a national agricultural policy. If you cannot agree on a policy, why not turn it over to the Agricultural Council of England, started under the Corn Production Acts, of which hon. Members of the Opposition, the Liberal party, and the Government party are members, who have a non-party Advisory Committee who formulate agricultural requirements, and whose councils are attended by the Minister of Agriculture every quarter of the year? They all met once a quarter, with representatives of women and of smallholders and everybody else concerned. The Minister comes—I have been present when Lord Noel-Buxton came—and takes the advice of that council. Unfortunately, their advice is not often put before this House, or before the Government of the day. It would be better if more use were now made of that agricultural parliament. If that were done, we should not need all the officials we now have at the Ministry of Agriculture. The Minister's plans would be made out for him by this agricultural parliament, and it would give a much more representative view of what the country wants than is obtained through this game of politics with which we all play about now. I believe that all parties intend to see that after the war agriculture is not left out. If they stick to that, I believe that the work of the Central Wages Board will be a success, 235 and that the agricultural labourer will have a better time than he has had in the past.
§ 7.32 p.m.
§ Mr. Wilfrid Roberts (Cumberland, North)
Only two speeches in criticism of this Measure have been made to-day, and I am sure the Minister is pleased with the reception that the Bill has had. I should like to add my word of approval. I feel that the criticisms expressed by those two hon. Members were hardly justified. The speech of the hon. Member for Weston-Super-Mare (Mr. Orr-Ewing), for instance, was based on the suggestion that the work of the county committees was to be destroyed by this Bill, and that that work has been carried out so well in the past. But it is the very fact that the county committees have done their work so well that has now made this Bill possible. If you look at the rates of wages paid you will find that the spread between the different counties is very much less than it was in 1924, when the present Act was passed. Listening to the hon. Member for Weston-Super-Mare, one might have thought that there were tremendous differences, and that the possibility of paying a level minimum wage all over England was still very remote.
I think the best answer is to ask the hon. Member to study the list of minimum wage rates which the Minister of Agriculture gave in answer to a Question on 11th March. Since the hon. Member spoke, I have looked again at that list. There are only three counties, I find, where the minimum wage is now as low as 34s. Those are all Welsh counties. No doubt, there are special difficulties in the poorer Welsh districts. There is one county where the rate is as high as 43s., and three have a rate of 40s. That was on 11th March; I think there have been changes since. Forty committees out of 51 had rates ranging from 36s. to 39s. That shows that the disparity which existed before the last war, and again after the last war, when the war-time machinery broke down, has been tremendously narrowed. One of the chief uses of the committees has been to bring up the lower counties nearly to the standard of the counties which pay better wages.
§ Mr. Orr-Ewing
The hon. Member would not call a difference of 25 per cent. a very small difference. That is the difference between the highest rate and the lowest.
§ Mr. Roberts
Yes, but, as I pointed out, in 40 of the 51 counties the variation is as small as 3s. I pointed out that in only three Welsh counties was the rate as low as 34s., and that there was one single county in which it was 43s. I suggest that the hon. Member should study these county rates—he has them in his hand, I see. We know that there are great differences as between one farmer and another, but I cannot see that there are such differences as between one county and another. If you take Cambridge and the Isle of Ely, you find that the rate is 37s.; while Cornwall, with a totally different agricultural industry, also has a minimum of 37s. Dorset has a minimum of 37s. 6d., and Oxfordshire has the same figure. Really, those counties are very different from one another. The hon. Member mentioned his own county of Somerset. I know that there are differences as between Somerset and some of the other counties around it. But I see that Somerset pays 38s. 6d. I should not have thought that Wiltshire, where the scale is 36s., or Gloucester, where it is 35s., or Devonshire, where it is 38s., were really so very much different.
§ Mr. Orr-Ewing
I am quite sure the hon. Gentleman does not wish to misrepresent the position. There are, he will realise, quite different conditions in Somerset and in Wiltshire. Wiltshire has a considerable wheat-growing area, but Somerset has practically none.
§ Mr. Roberts
Yes, but there are wheat-growing areas which have a much higher minimum wage than Wiltshire. There is Berkshire, where the figure is also 36s. I should have said that Berkshire was a poorer county than Somerset. Then there is Lincolnshire—exactly what I was looking for. That is one of the counties with the highest minimum rates, and it has very poor arable land. In Lincolnshire, they are paying 40s. and 39s. Their product, at any rate, is much the same as the arable farming product in Wiltshire. One of the counties with a really high rate is Derbyshire, with 40s. Conditions are changing greatly. It is the arable counties which are able to pay a high 237 rate since the war began. The process of grading wages by the county committee procedure would, I am sure, be very slow, and would not overtake the actual rise in wages, which is going on much more rapidly than the rise in the minima which are being laid down by the committees. The variations between one farm and another within a county are, in my opinion, very much more significant nowadays than the variations between one county and another. The difficulty which occurs to many farmers, in connection with this question of higher minimum wages, is that they readily admit that many men are worth higher wages and they pay those higher wages, but they do not want to have a higher rate below which they cannot go.
I hope that the tendency will not be for the fixing of a higher national minimum to prevent the rise in wages which is going on, in the bargains being made individually between farmers and their employés. I hope that the tendency to raise the minimum rather faster will not mean that the farmer himself will throw his men back on to the minimum. I am convinced that unless wages are raised considerably, we shall find ourselves in a very difficult position soon. I believe that agriculture is able at present to pay higher rates, and that the farmers know it. Prices of agricultural products have gone up—in the Debate yesterday, the figure of 26 per cent. was given. Even allowing for a great rise in the cost of production, 26 per cent. is a considerable figure. When my employés ask for a rise in wages, I work out what it is going to cost, and whether the income of the farm can stand it. The idea that the Farmers' Union are canvassing, that wages should be linked with prices, might not be so satisfactory from their point of view, therefore, as at the moment they think it is.
An increase of roughly 1s. a week for all the agricultural workers at present employed would mean another £1,000,000 a year on the farmers' wages bills. I calculate that a 25 per cent. increase in the value of agricultural products is equal to about £50,000,000 a year. If the agricultural worker got a rise of 5s., at present, it would cost the farmers £5,000,000, or 10 per cent. of the increased prices that they have got since the war began. I know that those increased prices are to a considerable extent offset 238 by increased prices of feeding-stuffs and other extra costs, but the farmer ought to be willing to pay out 5 per cent. of that increase in the form of an additional 5s. a week to his farm labourers. That would bring the minimum wage up to over 40s. a week.
There was a Debate in this House a few months ago on an Amendment moved by the Opposition to establish a 40s. minimum wage. I pointed out in that Debate that, in reference to pre-war costs, I considered that 40s. was a minimum that was required from the point of view of the worker. I do not think that 40s., under present conditions, with the cost of living rising, is now any longer enough, and very soon, if the agricultural workers are to be retained on the farms, farmers will have to pay a higher wage. We are only just now beginning to feel what may be a rapid exodus of workers from the land. It has been going on for long enough, and it was going on during 1939, before the war started. The tendency for county committees to raise wages during the first half of 1939 was not dictated simply by general considerations, but by the fact that farmers were realising that workers were leaving them, and that they must be retained.
The thing which affects agricultural wages always is the competition of other industries for the agricultural worker. Before the last Great War agricultural wages in the north of England were always higher than in the south. I believe that that was simply due to the fact that industrial employment in the north of England made an alternative that the agricultural worker could choose if wages were not in some sort of relation to those obtainable in the coal mines and in the big industrial towns of Lancashire or on Tyneside, or in Glasgow and Edinburgh in Scotland. During the period between the two wars, from 1914 to last year, the south-country agricultural worker caught up with the north-country agricultural worker, and the wage rates now do not show that difference in favour of the northern rates of wages. In fact the noticeable thing to-day is that, in Scotland, which has only recently had any machinery affecting wages, the wages are so very low, whereas before the Great War in 1914 they were higher than wages in the south of England. I attribute that to the industrial unemployment in the north of England and to the fact that there 239 has not been the opportunity for agricultural workers to find work in industrial occupations. But they are finding the opportunity now, in camps, in munitions, and in aerodromes, and some are going into the Forces, voluntarily if they can, and I believe that we are at the beginning of a rapid exodus from agriculture unless the farming community are wise enough to alter the conditions so as to retain their men.
In that connection there are only one or two other points which I would like to put to the Minister. Nothing has been said in this Debate of the exemption of agricultural workers from military service and of the withdrawal of men from the Army and their return to agriculture. That bears upon the whole question of labour, and I know that in my part of the world at any rate we are still very concerned about the position. A rumour has gone around that the Army is not going to release any more men. I trust that that is not correct. I am sure that I shall only be pushing at an open door in asking the Minister to oppose such a decision. Let me give an example. On a large hill farm, where there are 800 in-lamb ewes at the present time, a farm worker made the mistake of applying to the hardship committee in the autumn instead of to the agricultural war executive. He obtained postponement on hardship grounds, and he was called up in the middle of March when the 800 ewes were starting to lamb, with no shepherd whatever to look after them. This man has only one eye and can never make a good soldier. Surely, he would be far better employed in the occupation in which he is really a first-class skilled man.
It would be right that in a case of that sort the man should be released to return to agricultural work. I can assure the Minister that there is no political bias in this case because of the politics of the person who employs him. I do hope that, in cases of that sort, no rigid rule will be laid down that no more men are to be released from the Army, but that the Ministers concerned will continue to judge cases on their merits. Another thing which affects many people in the North of England is the possibility that Irish workers are not to be allowed to come into this country. We can use machinery for many things, but for hoe- 240 ing sugar beet and turnips, and for other work, Irish workers are excellent, and it is exceedingly difficult in some parts of England to get casual labour, or any type of labour, to replace the Irish workers, and if the Minister can tell us something about that matter I shall be very grateful indeed.
Lastly, I would ask the right hon. and gallant Gentleman to follow up the suggestion which the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George) made with regard to training schemes. There are some very interesting training schemes going on, and there are possibilities of getting new recruits into agriculture at the present time. I have on a pig farm a boy who came to the house of my foreman as an evacuee, and I believe he will make a first-class stockman. He has come to me with quite a new interest in life, and I have been told of other evacuees in country districts who intend to stay on and go into agriculture. The hon. Gentleman the Member for Weston-super-Mare told me that in Somerset they have organised a system for the placing of boys on farms, and there is a great deal to be said for that. I would mention a different type of scheme. The Altrincham voluntary scheme, which was reported on in the "Times" the other day, seems to be a very valuable departure.
It may not amount to very much, but I would like to have the Minister's blessing for this sort of thing, and county committees to be encouraged to do this sort of thing, and to get perhaps business men or others, or anybody who is willing to go into agricultural work in their spare time, not to undercut the agricultural worker, but to receive wages, even if they like to give those wages to some good cause. I believe that that might have a very valuable effect. Last autumn some of my personal friends and others volunteered to help farmers to get in the harvest, and if this sort of voluntary temporary labour became a widespread arrangement—it is done in many countries—it would help to create a much better understanding between the country people and the townspeople. The townspeople would find out that agricultural work is not a clodhopper's job but a really skilled job, and the country people might also find that, while it is a skilled job, it is not a mysterious job, but one 241 that people can learn. Such people might do badly at first, but they would get better at it. You do not always need to be born and bred a farm worker or a farmer to be useful on the land.
That brings me to the last thing that I want to say, and I want to address my remarks in this connection partly to the agricultural trade unions. I would like to see them taking an imaginative and constructive view of the problem of agricultural workers during the war. I believe that they might well assist with this type of scheme at the present time. We want to see wages higher—and I think I have made that abundantly clear in what I have said—but we also want to improve the status of the farm worker. We want to improve his status in the country as a whole. There is still too much of a feeling that it is only a job for the dullest of the family who cannot get anything else to do. The position of the farm worker has improved immensely since the end of the last war, and in my experience men who have been in industrial work sometimes come back to agriculture or come fresh into agriculture and make very good workers. In the poultry industry there are great numbers of people who have come in during the last 25 years and have raised the whole status of that industry, as they have come into other branches of agriculture.
Even as the agricultural industry becomes more mechanised, we need not feel hopeless that, given proper conditions of wages and living in the countryside, it will not be possible to attract a substantial and an important number of people into the industry and thereby, together with those who are there already, raise the whole status of the agricultural worker, and—I hope that we may eventually get this policy agreed to by all parties—put agriculture permanently upon a far sounder basis.
§ 7.56 p.m.
§ Miss Ward (Wallsend)
I wish to intervene for only a very few moments to obtain, I hope, clarification upon one particular point. I shall be extremely grateful if, when my right hon. and gallant Friend comes to sum up, he will explain in detail the precise position of women agricultural workers under this Bill.
§ Mr. Speaker
This is an Agricultural Wages Bill and deliberately applies to men, and it would be out of order to discuss the position of women. That would be outside the scope of the Bill.
§ Miss Ward
In view of what my right hon. and gallant Friend said about Clause 2 of the Bill, when he specifically referred to the county agricultural committees being able to consider under their machinery the position of other workers than men, I was going to ask whether the position of women would also be included under Clause 1. I think my right hon. and gallant Friend specifically referred to the machinery in Clause 2, and said that it could be utilised with regard to women agricultural workers. Would I be in Order in developing that particular point and asking for a clarification of that statement?
§ Mr. Speaker
The hon. Lady will no doubt realise that, if that sort of thing were allowed, it might be endless. I am afraid that I cannot allow it.
§ 7.58 p.m.
§ Sir Ralph Glyn (Abingdon)
I am sure that the House will recognise that the intentions of the hon. Lady the Member for Wallsend (Miss Ward) to include women are very laudable, and on another occasion I hope that she may have better support. I want to address the House on the subject which the hon. Gentleman the Member for North Cumberland (Mr. W. Roberts) mentioned with regard to training centres. I have raised this question in the House on many occasions. It is a subject which has nothing to do with party, and it is one on which all parties are agreed. It is dependent upon each one of us having the appreciation that, if we advise a boy to go on the land, we ourselves believe he will have a future in front of him. That means that there must be confidence restored to the industry in some way or other. Unless there is confidence, the agricultural worker, the farmer, and the landowner cannot really feel that it is worth while 243 making the terrific effort which we must make if we are fully to utilise the land as it ought to be utilised.
It seems to be a most extraordinary anomaly that to-day we have not sufficient casual or even unskilled labour to carry out a great deal of the drainage work that is necessary. We are very short of drainage machinery. We have something like a million unemployed, and the work that can be done on drainage under the direction of engineers of catchment boards can perfectly well be carried out by casual labour. Many men who have been engaged in the building industry, and who are now out of work, would find plenty of opportunity, and unless we tackle this drainage at once there is the serious danger that the 1940–41 harvest will be in as much jeopardy as, I believe, the present harvest will be.
This matter of labour on the land is an old problem. It is, as the hon. Member for North Cumberland stated, one that is increasing in anxiety. It can be tackled in two ways—first of all, by getting the training system for youths on a proper basis and not ignoring the machinery that exists. This question of training centres was raised last November in the House, and we were told that it was under immediate consideration and that a decision would soon be reached. Further questions were put at the beginning and the end of March, and on both occasions we were told the same thing. I recognise that the right hon. and gallant Gentleman is as anxious as are many of us to utilise the machinery of the Y.M.C.A. or any other organisation, but the present position is that over 4,000 applications have been received from young men who wish to go on the land and that absolutely nothing is being done, either by the Treasury or any of the Departments concerned, to meet their demands. It seems to me that that is a very ridiculous situation. It is all very well to say that you have 10,000 extra workers; it is a small percentage of the whole, and if you are to argue like that, you will never bring back to the land the type of persons you want.
Large numbers of boys who have been evacuated from our great cities have found a great wonder-land and a new life in the rural areas. Many of those boys are reaching school-leaving age, and there 244 are many opportunities for doing work on farms, either as shepherds or as tractor drivers. It is often forgotten that a modern farm is really a mechanical factory, and must be so if it is to be efficiently run, and the age-old desire of boys to drive a steam engine or a locomotive can easily be diverted by putting them to drive tractors. Nothing is being done in rural schools to give technical education in regard to the internal combustion engine or to ensure that the desires of a boy for mechanics can be satisfied by his working on the land. None of us ought to ask these boys to adopt that profession if they are to be let down later on. You cannot lead a youth up the path and then sandbag him at the end of it. You have to be confident that you are offering him a life and a profession for which he will be adequately paid. I think a cost accounting system should be adopted throughout the country, and if a farm is being indifferently or inefficiently worked, there should be power to go on to it and farm it efficiently.
One of the troubles to-day is that you have a large number of farmers who simply do not believe a single word uttered by any Minister of any Department. They believe that everything a politician says in regard to agriculture has some snag about it. They have lost so much, and have been disheartened so often, that they loathe anything to do with politics. On neither side of the House can any of us pretend that there is not some justice in their condemnation. If we do not do our duty by the land, we are betraying our trust. That there is a golden opportunity is shown by the fact that of the 4,000 boys who have applied, the Y.M.C.A. have approved 2,655 and are turning down from 30 to 40 applicants a day. Of those who have been trained during the last seven years, over 71 per cent. are happily on the land and are highly efficient workers. Surely this is a record which at this time is worthy of support. Hon. Friends of mine have raised this question on the Floor of the House and by correspondence with Ministers. The Board of Education had the matter under discussion for a long time and took months to decide whether it was really an educational matter. Then the Board decided that the problem was one for the Ministry of Labour, which then started to tackle 245 it. It was then decided that while it was a labour and educational question, it was, perhaps, a matter in which the Ministry of Agriculture might be interested. We have been flitted about from bush to bush and are now perched on the agricultural bush, and I hope to-night we shall have something definite from the Minister as to the reasons why the Treasury is holding up any small grant that is required.
It is not enough to say that in the past substantial sums have been granted by the Treasury to help boys and youths in distressed areas. What to-day is a distressed area? We ought to seize this fleeting moment; we always lose everything by misjudging time. You may have the best attitude and the best stance, but if you time your shot wrongly, you should give up the game. Our Government have mistimed more shots than they have hit the ball. We are in a position so serious that we cannot afford to set aside any one of these things, and I beg the Minister to realise that it is discouraging to men and women who are anxious to help boys and men to go on to the land, and to farmers and those who believe that this situation has to be faced. To-day we have not enough skilled labour and certainly not enough thatchers in the country. The Minister talks about ploughing up 2,000,000 acres, but if this is done, how many thatchers have you to do proper thatching? How much grain is going to suffer because of the inadequate protection of stacks? If you drive down country lanes to-day you see hedges which have been dealt with in the modern way, by a person who has slashed the top of them with a knife. A countryside that is ill-fenced means a district where farming cannot possibly be done on skilled lines. A man is proud if someone goes past his work and says, "Well done. A good bit of work. "It gives pride to the craftsman, and it is in that craft that the agricultural worker excels. We are losing the skilled craftsmen of the land and with it half the beauty and spirit of the land. You have to reckon with this thing.
What we have to do is not to talk about ploughing up so many million acres of land. That does not matter; what does matter is the cultivation of the acres. In the last war there was a council advising the War Cabinet on the question of the nutrition of the people. You have no such body to-day to tell farmers what 246 they ought to produce and that their work will help national nutrition. There is talk about fertilisers when we are allowing a policy of slaughtering ewes. The land in my constituency is hungry. It will take anything you give it, but the thing it wants most is sheep dung, and it cannot get it. Mechanical means will never supply it; you have to have flocks and the shepherds to deal with them. The work of a shepherd is hard. It is not a question of spending so many hours and leaving a ewe to lamb by herself if she is in any difficulty. Every decent shepherd knows that he is contributing not only to the food value of the country but to the fertility of the land by means of his flocks. Sometimes I think that all of us who have connections with the land here or in Scotland must often think, while walking in the black-out, of what we are really aiming at. As the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George) said, we must try not to have little bits and pieces. We all want the same thing, and we can all reach the goal if we are honest and sincere. The right hon. and gallant Gentleman has had a very difficult task and has entered into it with great gallantry. The successes he has had have not been as obvious as some other results, but that is not altogether his fault. It seems to me, however, that we want to bring back to agriculture the advice of the scientific people on the chemical and mechanical side and set up this Food Advisory Committee to tell us what to grow and how to grow it. Any hon. Member who reads Sir John Orr's book will realise that.
This is work of national importance. It is to put right what we have neglected, that is our duty to the land, to let the land give of its fertility. But it is more than that. We want to ensure that whatever may happen we shall feel, in our island position, that we ourselves can take what God has given us; that it will not be because Providence has not provided us with wonderful land and fertile soil, with the finest livestock in the world and the best labour that has ever existed, which has been neglected because politicians have been playing at politics and have betrayed the land of England. That is the position. Let us face it. We shall face it only if we adopt these schemes here and now and cease talking of how much better off we are now than in 1914. 247 It is a new situation. We must face it, and we have the support of the people. I cannot think why we should hesitate in coming forward with a policy which is so obvious.
§ 8.17 p.m.
§ Mr. T. Smith (Normanton)
No one can complain of the speeches we have heard so far in the Debate. Some have been interesting on the general position of agriculture, and some have been critical and, if I may say so, fairly accurate. I wish that some hon. Members who have made these speeches had remained in the House, because I want to remind them of one or two gaps in their historical survey. The right hon. Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George) is always interesting. In my book-case there is one speech of his which I keep. During the war, 25 years ago, we had speeches from the present Chancellor of the Exchequer and the then Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Carnarvon Boroughs, in the Kingsway Opera House, telling us of the need for more production of coal and what great fellows the miners were. This particular speech from the right hon. Member for Carnarvon Boroughs told me some things about the miners. The right hon. Gentleman said he had known the miner as a fighter, and there was none braver; that he had known him as a footballer, and there was none better; that he had known him as a singer, and there was none sweeter. He went on to extol the miner and said that after the war he should have better conditions than before. When we talk about the decontrol of agriculture in 1921 we have to remember that these same miners, these brave men, these footballers, these singers, had had to stand a 13 weeks' lock-out due to the short-sighted policy and the mistakes of politicians in the Coalition Government.
This afternoon we have had a rather similar type of speech. I must say that I have never enjoyed a speech of the Minister of Agriculture more than the speech which the right hon. and gallant Gentleman delivered to-day; and that is said in no spirit of flattery. He pointed out that at long last this House was going to try and put the agricultural worker more on an equality of status with the town and industrial worker. For a good many years I have been pressing for a £2 a week minimum wage for agricultural workers, and I honestly believe that 248 if agriculture had been tackled years ago as it should have been, the 200,000 agricultural workers would never have left the land. I hope that the right hon. and gallant Gentleman will carry out what he said. There is no doubt that the agricultural worker is a skilled worker. Before the last war there were hundreds of men who left the land to come into the pits because the conditions were better in the pits than on the land. They did not come into the pits to shirk; they worked hard.
With regard to the Bill, I want to put one or two points based on my knowledge of how minimum-wage legislation works. In this country we have no wage system in the strict sense of the term. It is a haphazard kind of way of fixing wages, due largely to the agitation of the trade unions. In the two major industries of agriculture and mining we have legislation giving a minimum wage. In 1912 it was thought unwise to put figures in the Bill of that year. Those who were in the House at the time tried to get a minimum wage of 5s. a day for adults and 2s. a day for boys in the mining industry. Experience has shown that that legislation has been successful. While there were some who believed then, and believe still, that when you fix a minimum wage it rather tends to become the maximum, experience has shown that with a proper organisation and understanding of the problem, and a proper co-operation between the two sides, the minimum fixed need not be the actual wage operating in the industry. It is on that point that I want to refer to the proviso in Clause 1.
The right hon. and gallant Gentleman told us that one of the reasons for the Bill was that since 1924 there have been 47 different committees fixing the rates of wages in their own areas, that you have rates varying from 34s. to 43s., and that a number of anomalies have been created. As a contrast to that, the State assistance to agriculture has been more or less uniform, and the Bill is to remove some of the anomalies and lift the general minimum wage of the agricultural worker. I want to put this point. In Clause 1 you permit the National Wages Board to fix a national minimum, but any district may appeal against it, and then it is laid down that within a district, the county, you may vary the county minimum operating in any part of that county. I should like the Minister to define what is meant by 249 the proviso. Our experience shows this. In the miners' minimum wage Act wages are fixed on a county basis, but the owners within that area have power to appeal to the wages board to vary that particular county minimum.
The result is that in Yorkshire, within one county, although I agree within two districts under the Act, there are at present five different minimum wages. What happens is that a group of owners—as you may get a group of farmers—say that for certain reasons they are in a worse economic position than the owners in the remainder of the county. Therefore, they apply to the National Wages Board for a variation of the national minimum. What one finds is that within that group, which is usually on a geographical basis, there are firms which are able to pay as high a minimum wage as is paid in some other districts. With regard to agricultural wages, the present position is that there are in Yorkshire three committees. There is a variation in Lancashire, and I believe in Yorkshire, between different parts of the county. The position will now be somewhat changed. If a national minimum on a decent level is laid down—that is to say, a minimum which is higher than that in operation now—in my opinion, some of the farmers in certain districts will claim that they are entitled to have a variation of that minimum. Unless the Agricultural Wages Board keeps a fairly strict hand on the operation of the Clause which gives power to vary the national minimum, instead of there being a national minimum wage, there will be as many anomalies as there are to-day.
§ Mr. R. Morgan (Stourbridge)
Does the hon. Member mean that the wage would be lower than the national minimum?
§ Mr. Smith
According to the Bill, it could be made lower than the national minimum, and that is why I say that unless the Agricultural Wages Board keeps a strict hand on that matter, there may be more anomalies eventually under the so-called national minimum than there are at the present time. I say this because of my experience in the mining industry, where the effect of variations in the national minimum has been to give to the workmen in some areas lower wages and to give to the employers in those areas a competitive advantage over employers paying a higher minimum. I 250 think the Minister will agree that that matter is worthy of consideration.
I believe that this Bill is long overdue, and that it ought to have been in operation a long while ago. Its introduction serves to remind me of how quickly time flies; it does not seem to me to be 16 years ago when we were thrashing out the present agricultural wages machinery. It seems hardly more than five years ago, but that Act was passed in 1924, and without doubt it has justified its existence. The Minister spoke about the slump of 1921 and 1922, the abilition of the Wages Board at that time, and the return to conciliation committees; he knows that although at that time 28s. a week was the national average, there were some counties where the minimum fell to just under £1 a week. Mr. Noel-Buxton—now Lord Noel-Buxton—stated in the House that experience had shown that voluntary committees could not meet the task which confronted them, and that some legislation was necessary. I believe that at that time some hon. Members, who are still in the House, made a mistake when they took out of that Bill its overriding Clause. If there had been from 1924 to 1940 some overriding power to see that within different counties the minimum wage was reasonable, the situation in the countryside now would not be as acute as it is.
No matter how much you talk about men leaving the land or returning to it, you will not encourage men who have left the land and gone into industry, where they have found a good job and good wages, to return to the land unless you make the occupation an attractive one. Both inside and outside the House, I have always held that agriculture is the most important industry in the world. Men can live longer without coal than they can without food. It does not matter how food is served up, whether it be in a big hotel or in a small kitchen, it has to come from the land, and the farmers and farm workers who give their best in working the land have a right to a decent existence. My hon. Friends and I have had many controversies with many hon. Members opposite about the ability of agriculture to pay. Hon. Members opposite may have thought that we have shown hostility to the farmers, but we are not hostile to the farmers. During the bad weather of this winter, I had the privilege of seeing some of the difficulties of one 251 or two tenant farmers. First, their farms were a mass of snow and frost, and then came the floods. The farmer's existence is a most precarious one, and I say without the slightest hesitation that these men have a full right to a decent existence.
The one great difference between us has always been this—what is the best policy for agriculture? I have searched through all kinds of periodicals to see whether I could find some policy that would put agriculture where it ought to be. There is still a good deal of difference of opinion as to what is the best thing to do. One hon. Member has spoken about the position in the Dominions. I have had the privilege of visiting a good many farms in New Zealand and Australia. I was astonished to find that even at one of the most lovely stations I visited—a station with 10,000 acres and 86,000 sheep—the men who did the work, who worked from the moment they got out of bed in the morning until they got into it at night, were neglected as compared with the industrial workers.
When discussing after-war problems, as sooner or later they will have to be discussed, I want the House and the country to appreciate one fact. We are at war, and nobody can complain about the attitude either of the organised workers or the workers generally towards the war. We want to win the war. But for heaven's sake do not tell people things about the future unless you intend to carry out your promises. That is the worst thing that could be done. Some of the miners have vivid recollections of what happened in 1919. At that time, I believe we were nearer to revolution and industrial upheaval than at any other time I can remember. The men had been demobilised, industries were not working, and there was unemployment; and a good many of the promises that had been made were not carried out. When speaking about the future, when considering what to do with the surplus labour which there may be, it is of no use talking about the emigration of men from this country to the Dominion sunless you have carefully thought out how those people will exist when they get to the Dominions.
It is not merely a question of production. There is such a thing as a disequilibrium in production. You must have a market for what you produce. The 252 hon. Member opposite made a suggestion about going to the Dominions. Well, there is at least one Member of this House who would like to accompany anybody who goes there this summer, and I know that Dominion farmers would be as anxious as any hon. Member here that we should get together and think out schemes and policies for our mutual advantage. But let us not go in again for any ill-considered land settlement schemes. Let us remember the experiences of 1919 and 1920 and recommend no policy which has not been thought out carefully and thoroughly. I hope that the House at some time will get down to these after-the-war problems. Meantime, I am pleased that the right hon. and gallant Gentleman has brought in this long overdue Bill. I hope there will be no delay in passing it into law and that those men who work on the land will be enabled by it to get a better existence than they have at the present time.
§ 8.36 p.m.
§ Sir J. Lamb (Stone)
I support the object of this Bill, and I wish to make it clear that it is the object of the Bill which I support more than the way in which it has been drawn. As I understand it, the object is to give adequate recognition to those who work and render service on the land. I realise, as many people realise, that service on the land is service to the nation and ought to receive full recognition. It is a commonplace to say that we all live by the land. The saying is so trite that it is almost ridiculous to repeat it, but it is absolutely true. Why, then, has nothing been done for the land by which we all live? One reason is that the community, as a whole, has been prepared to live on the impoverishment of the land rather than on the land itself.
Not only in this country but abroad, land has been cultivated without any regard for the maintenance of the fertility of the soil. Agricultural products have been sent here from abroad, and sold here at prices against which farmers who were doing justice to the land which they cultivated could not compete. Agriculture here could not compete against what was, until very recently, the open competition of produce from lands throughout the world which were being absolutely destroyed by over-cultivation, without any regard to fertility. Millions of acres of land in America and Australia and 253 other countries are now being blown away, simply because the fertility has all been extracted from the land and nothing is left to prevent the winds from carrying away all the surface soil. Large sums of money are being spent in America to try to restore land which has fallen into a condition of absolute neglect as a result of over-cultivation. That is an error which has occurred over the whole world, and I am afraid it is to be attributed to the fact that the population of the world demanded food at prices which were not economical. This led to over-cultivation and the deterioration of the soil. That is a condition which has existed, not only in respect of agriculture, but in respect of all other primary industries. They have been at a great disadvantage for a long time compared with other industries.
When hon. Members talk about men leaving the land in this country and about emigration, it should be remembered that people have been leaving the land in other countries as well. People have gone out full of enthusiasm to colonise other countries in the past. The first generation and possibly the second may remain on the land, but it has been found in all the Dominions that the third generation to a very large extent will go to the towns. The Minister, quite rightly, referred to the skill of the agricultural worker. I give place to no one in my recognition of that skill, but I am not so much concerned with that aspect of the matter at present because I realise that, unfortunately, it is only those who remain on the land who will be able to apply that skill. The men have gone—that is the difficulty—and I hope the Minister will realise that it is not a question merely of bringing back men to harvest the crops which he is asking farmers to grow, but of finding men to cultivate those crops and in some cases to sow the land. It is no use sowing a field unless you intend to cultivate it properly afterwards, and it is no use arranging to harvest crops, unless we are given adequate labour from some source to cultivate the crops in the first instance.
It is not only the ordinary competition of industry with which agriculture has had to deal for a long time. To-day the position in some areas that I know is being made absolutely impossible, because of the demands which are being made by the Government themselves. 254 Camps are being constructed, and other Government works are being carried out in connection with which large sums are being paid. Only last week a farmer told me that one of his men had been offered work of this kind and had asked for advice about what he ought to do. The farmer said he could not honestly advise the man not to go, and he could not offer the man the money which he was offered for the other work. This man, he pointed out, would probably have to go into the Army later, and there seemed no reason why he should not make a little extra money for his dependants before he went. I do not blame those men for going any more than that farmer, but in the national interest it is disastrous. Something will have to be done to provide adequate labour for the farms.
There is one item in the Bill which has been discussed, namely, the power of local committees to vary the minimum downwards. I believe that the power to vary both upwards and downwards is necessary. Without it, you may get a minimum which is impossible in one district and which is too low in other districts. Somebody will have to decide where these variations are to be made, in accordance with the varying conditions in agriculture. There is an old saying that a certain place is paved with good intentions. Certainly, the path of agriculture has been strewn with broken promises and delayed remedies. A remedy may be very good in itself, but unless it is applied at once it will be of no value. Unfortunately, with regard to agriculture, in many cases the remedy has been applied too late to overtake a decline which was already in progress and to give the results which were desired.
The Minister was rather more optimistic than I am when he said that he did not expect a decline in agriculture when the war ended. I hope he is correct. All I can say is that farmers have memories of the past. That is why they wish to have in this Bill something to give them that feeling of security which has been lacking for so long and put heart into them to carry on with the industry. What happened in connection with the Corn Production Act was a great blow to them. Many speakers have stated reasons why that Act was scrapped. I am not here to deal with that subject at present, but 255 I agree absolutely with those who have said that it was not so much the scrapping of the Act, as the fact that nothing was put in its place, which caused the difficulties of agriculture.
The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George) made a speech to-day which I think most people would appreciate. But there are one or two points in regard to that. He said that farmers are not organised, but the farmer, to my mind, is very well organised. The National Farmers' Union has done a great deal since its inception to organise farmers into a body for negotiation. It is not a question of trading, because their articles of association prevent them doing that. I do not believe the Minister or the Government would say that the National Farmers' Union are not organised for negotiation purposes; I think that the representatives of labour who have been negotiating with them will also agree with that. I was afraid, when he said that the farmers were not well organised, he might be asking for more control from outside. Agriculture will never be conducted successfully by a bureaucratic body. It must be flexible, because of its variations. Every field varies as does every district. It is not only a question of variation in seasons but climatic conditions also can bring about variations from day to day. Even animals require different treatment one from another. An industry which varies so much cannot possibly be controlled by hard and fast bureaucratic methods. There is only one way to farm successfully, and that is by the man on the spot. If he is not competent, the farmer himself will say that he ought to be got rid of, but if he is energetic and efficient, he is the man who should say what should be done.
The right hon. Gentleman is not here, but I have his permission to say that he was not referring to control of cultivation but to bad organisation in distribution, and here I agree. I believe a great deal more could be done in this direction, but to organise distribution you must have capital. The farmers have not got it. We have lived off the land for so long and have so impoverished it that we cannot blame the farmer when we have taken away the only thing which would give him the power to organise distribution. The right hon. Gentleman also said that 256 we must know the prices, and I agree with him in that statement. Is there any industry, other than agriculture, which does not make the same demand before it produces? The labourer in all industries has a right to know, before he starts work, what his wages will be. Surely it is not an unfair request that agriculture should also know what it is to receive. It is only asking for the same guarantee which a man would receive in any other industry. He recognises as much as anyone does that the labourer has not been paid as much as he could receive in other industries, but he has not the money and cannot pay and cannot be expected to pay. It is impossible for him. There is nothing in the Bill to ensure this. The Minister referred to the Central Board, and said they would consider the matter, but I do not think that is satisfactory. I do not think they will go into the details they should to ascertain what will be the ability of the industry to pay. In regard to prices, I am afraid they will consider it too detailed and of too wide a scope. I believe that the matter is of such importance that it requires some independent or separate body to assist the Minister to ascertain what the industry should receive.
There was also a question raised in regard to wages being linked with prices. That could not be done, and I would oppose it, for this reason. Prices may go up, but in many cases when the price of a particular item goes up it does so simply because the farmer has not any to sell, and, consequently, he cannot avail himself of the high price thus enabling him to pay the wages. The hon. Member for Don Valley (Mr. T. Williams) referred to me when he was speaking. I appreciated, as I always do, his remarks on these subjects, but I think he put the farmers in a rather unjust position. I put it no higher than that. He said that the agricultural labourer was forgotten after the last war. I would agree with him that the agricultural labourer, in addition to other sections of agriculture, was forgotten by the community, and perhaps by the politicians. But let it be remembered that if he had not been forgotten by the community, the politicians too would not have dared to forget him. It is really the community as a whole who are to blame. I am confident that the farmers did not forget the 257 men. In many cases the farmer has been paying more than he has been receiving because of the strong bond of union there is between the farmer and his man. He works with him and knows him.
§ Mr. T. Williams
The hon. Member, I am sure, will readily concede me this. We have always said, when referring to farmers and farm labourers, that we have only to legislate for the worst section and not the best. I have said many times that there are as good farmers as there are good labourers and as bad farmers as there are bad landlords. It is only because there are variations that we have to legislate at all.
§ Sir J. Lamb
That is exactly what I was going to say. There are farmers who have not paid their men the minimum wage, but you cannot show me any other industry where the same thing has not happened. There are always those who will not play the game, but this is not general, it is rather the exception. The hon. Member also relies on the costings system, but he will realise that while the costings system is suitable and essential for many industries, it is certainly one which would be almost impossible to apply to agriculture because of its variations. There are some items which could be exactly ascertained, but because so many items are not static it would be absolutely impossible to rely on a costing system. I admit that you could have it for a particular farm and for a particular crop, but it could not apply in general. I hope, therefore, that the hon. Gentleman will give careful consideration to his demand that on all occasions there should be costings figures before a given price can be justified for a given crop. I wish the object of this Bill success, but I warn the Minister and the country that the Bill is of no value whatever except as apiece of machinery unless it is made possible for the industry to pay the wages to which the men are entitled.
§ 8.56 p.m.
§ Mr. Sexton (Barnard Castle)
I was discussing wages with an agricultural worker this week-end, and this Bill was the topic of our discussion. His remark was that the Bill was a bit wobbly, because it put a bottom in the tub and then, in Clause 1, Sub-section (1), allowed the bottom to be knocked out. I thought that was a blunt and practical, commonsense way of putting it. This Bill is a 258 necessary Measure; it has the necessary object of fixing a national minimum wage. No one can deny that something urgent ought to be done to keep the workers on the land; I say "urgent" unless the cry before long should be "Too late." The decline in such numbers is alarming in peace-time, and far more so in wartime when the food supplies of the nation depend so much more upon home production.
It will be wise to inquire how other industries keep their men, and not only keep them but attract other workers. It will be found that there are three main conditions which serve to keep an industry well manned. The first is adequate wages, the second reasonable hours of work, and the third is that the social surroundings should be of an encouraging and attractive nature. There are other considerations, but I believe these are the three main ones. On social surroundings, as on the other two, the agricultural industry has failed. It has failed to provide adequate wages and reasonable hours of work. As for the social surroundings, just go and have a look at some of them. This failure to fulfil those, three fundamentals has led to the migration from the land. This Bill is largely concerned with the first two considerations, for although hours are not specifically mentioned, they must be reckoned in with the national minimum wage. This wage is necessary because there is such an inordinate diversity of wages for agricultural workers up and down the country. On looking through the varying rates of the wages committees, I find that there are at least 14 different rates, varying from 34s. to 43s. as the minimum wage for adult male workers. I get my statistics from a publication called "The Land worker," which is the official organ of the Agricultural Workers' Union and is an excellent publication. I worked out some of these minima in terms per hour and found that the lowest comes to about 8d. and the highest to no more than 10d.
How can it be expected to retain men on the land at such ridiculously low wages? These land workers are not the country bumpkins imagined by town dwellers. They are human beings with bodies to feed, clothe and shelter and with the same potentialities of mind to be educated and trained as of those who work in any other industry. Although 259 they are often living in contact with sheep and cows, that does not mean that their mentality has deteriorated to the animal level. I speak "as one having authority," because for many years I taught boys and girls, the sons and daughters of agricultural workers, and I know from my knowledge of teaching them and from what some of them have made of themselves that they are equal in brains and ability to any other boys and girls in the land. Look at the work these agricultural workers have to do, work that is laughed at by some people and called unskilled. I say definitely that the work of an agricultural worker is skilled in character. The popular idea is that these men are "of the earth, earthy" and that their needs are primitive. With this idea has come the neglect of this vital section of the nation. For far too long they have had to contrive to get along with inferior schools, inferior housing and inferior wages. An hon. Member opposite referred to the fact that there was no technical education in the rural schools. Have a look at some of them. Many of them are lacking hot water, or apparatus for drying the children's clothes, or facilities for making a hot midday meal for children who have to walk miles to school. The rural schools will want a good deal of reorganising before any technical education can be given in them.
I insist that the valuation placed upon agricultural workers is far too low. It is tragic that it has taken a war to bring belated recognition to them. If anyone should still imagine that they are unskilled, let him look at the work they may have to do. In the words of the old song, "The Farmer's Boy," they have "to plough and sow and reap and mow." Besides that, they have to thatch, to hedge and to ditch. They must be ready to attend to the wants of sick animals and almost perform the services of a veterinary surgeon. To some come important jobs of acting as midwife to the ewes, the cows, the mares and the sows. Here again I speak with knowledge, because I live in a sheep-farming district, and I know some of the bitter experience and hard work and the intelligent appreciation of their animals on the part of the shepherds who attend the sheep at this time of the year. Besides these things, agriculture is becoming mechanised, and 260 the farm worker has to be a mechanic too. The remuneration for the ability to perform all these different crafts is the lowest in the country. Much has been heard of the rising cost of feeding-stuffs for cattle. What about the rise in cost of food for agricultural workers? In present circumstances the agricultural worker is one of the hardest-hit victims, for apart from any increase in the cost of living he has far too low a wage. I welcome this Bill, wobbly as it might be, as I said at the outset, because I hope it will be the beginning of the recognition of the value of land workers, first as craftsmen and secondly as human beings.
In conclusion I should like to say a word on costs in agriculture, which have been referred to by the hon. Member for Stone (Sir J. Lamb) and also by hon. Members on this side. If there is to be a minimum wage there will have to be some system of costings. That may be difficult, but difficulties are meant to be overcome. In other industries the difficulties have been overcome. When the difficulty in this case has been overcome it will be possible to stabilise prices on a secure foundation. In my opinion it is the wrong method to fix prices first and then allow the wages to be based upon those prices. Other factors in the costs may mount steeply and force down the wages so as to fit the fixed price. The more excellent way is first to fix wages, take into account the other factors in cost and allow prices then to depend upon the stability of such minimum wages, plus the other costs. I repeat that I welcome the Bill as one step towards the recognition of the agricultural worker as a craftsman and a human being.
§ 9.7 p.m.
§ Commander King-Hall (Ormskirk)
Like the hon. Member for Barnard Castle (Mr. Sexton) I also welcome the Bill. He qualified his approval of the Bill by telling us that an agricultural labourer had described it as a tub but "rather wobbly" because Clause 2, which I take it was the Clause to which he intended to refer, had knocked the bottom out of it. I would prefer to look at the offending Clause as being more in the character of a drain plug fitted with a tap. I hope the working of the Bill will show that the drain plug will be opened rarely and be for use only in exceptional circumstances. The Debate has ranged over a very wide 261 field. I have had the pleasure of listening to every speech made on the subject, and I hope that hon. Members who have covered so many aspects of the question will forgive me if in the few remarks I have to make I confine myself in the main closely to the actual Bill itself. I support this Bill for two reasons, first on broad grounds of national policy, and secondly from the point of view of the interest of the agricultural industry.
My right hon. and gallant Friend the Minister of Agriculture has given us reasons why the Agricultural Labourers' Union asked for this Bill. Clearly, to have denied them this Measure, or something like it, would have been, so it seems to me, to do something definitely harmful to national unity at this time, unless it could be clearly shown that a Measure of this character was extremely harmful to the industry as a whole; and the national unity, always important, is a vital commodity in time of war, when our broad way of life in this country, which I take it is supported by every Member on both sides, with one possible theoretical exception, is so gravely menaced. At such a time we must be prepared, if necessary, to make many sacrifices for the sake of national unity, but I do not agree, as a matter of fact, that any very great sacrifices are being called for from anybody by this Bill. In fact I am much more inclined to regard it as a somewhat overdue act of justice to one section of the agricultural community.
This brings me to my second reason for supporting the Bill, and that is its merits as a means of assisting the labour situation in agriculture. We all know, and many hon. Members have spoken of it, of the difficulty in which agriculture finds itself at the present time as regards labour. A very good test is to pick up a local paper and look at the advertisement column offering situations. I have been watching it in a local paper in my own constituency, and the column has been getting longer and longer and is now running over into two columns. In the division of Ormskirk, which I have the honour to represent, it may well be that during this coming season, owing to the peculiar circumstances already mentioned by the hon. Member for North Cumberland (Mr. W. Roberts), we may be as much as 7,000 men short.
I have been in my division during the last few days inquiring into the situation, 262 and that is the figure which I was given by responsible farmers who have been good enough to try to assist me to make an estimate of what the position may be. Like every other area we are suffering from what I should describe as the general shortage of agricultural labour, but the particular difficulty here arises from the uncertainty which the hon. Member for North Cumberland has mentioned, as to whether the Irish labour which usually comes over will or will not come on this occasion, and in my opinion the signs are that it is doubtful whether that labour will come. By now Irish labourers would have been there in considerable numbers had they intended to come. Incidentally, although it is a subject which I can only just mention—by giving the headlines of it—I feel that the phrase "agricultural labourer" entirely misrepresents, especially in the mind of townspeople, the highly specialised craft of the land worker at the present time. Many hon. Members have developed that point, so I will not enlarge upon it beyond saying that there is an analogy to it in the way in which domestic service has got a bad reputation simply through the way in which it is spoken of as being work which anybody can do.
I feel that I ought to warn my right hon. and gallant Friend the Minister that, so far as I can judge, there is a real danger that in this one area of Lancashire, at any rate, there will be a serious labour emergency which I think can be met only by the use of emergency measures. We may have to do some pretty audacious things if we are to produce the labour on the land at the right moment. On the more general question I notice that the Prime Minister gave a pledge in a speech not long ago that farmers could be assured that when the labour was needed it would be provided. That is a general statement, and I feel that people would like to know in some greater detail from where that labour will be provided. One hears suggestions that it may be by school children, or refugees, or the Army; but all that is very vague, and not very satisfactory to the anxious farmers, who see themselves faced with a serious labour shortage. But though the labour situation is admittedly one which cannot be completely solved by anything which is in this Bill, this Measure does, in my judgment, help the situation, especially 263 from the long-term point of view rather than from the point of view of the coming season. It will raise the whole status of agricultural labour. That is one of several things which need doing, and doing well, if agricultural labour is to take its place as one of the key, skilled industries of this country.
A number of other very important things need doing as well, and many hon. Members have referred to them. In particular there is the provision of better amenities in the country, such as better housing and so forth. You simply will not get a young man, and still less his young woman, to put up, nowadays, with the kind of conditions which perhaps their fathers were content to accept on the land. It may be argued that status is a somewhat intangible asset and that, unless one is a dictator, one cannot live upon prestige. I agree with that, but, nevertheless, status is of the utmost importance, particularly the status of any given industry in the eyes of the nation when it comes to a matter of recruiting for that industry from the younger generation, or when school teachers are discussing with parents into what professions boys shall go. Status is also of the utmost importance when questions of wage fixing or wage bargaining arise. I would re-emphasise the importance of the Bill in what it does to raise the status of the agricultural labourer.
Before I sit down I would like to say a word with regard to the attitude of farmers towards the Bill—or to be precise, some farmers. From various parts of the House we have had a general impression, and I think the Minister also gave it to us, that, on the whole, the National Farmers' Union, if they accepted the Bill at all did so with reluctance, and in the hope to see in it a price-fixing arrangement. The farmers to whom I refer are a very representative body. I went into conference with them with the Bill on the Table before me. If I may say so, they were more representative than a meeting of the National Farmers' Union, although they included among them prominent members of the National Farmers' Union. I asked them to accept this Bill unconditionally. I said to them: "I want your authority to go back to the House of Commons and to say that I support this Bill with your full authority, 264 without any question of conditions that there should be price-fixing arrangements mixed up with it." I put it to them on broad national grounds that this Bill was intended to benefit the rank and file of the agricultural army, that they were the officers of that army and that it was up to the officers to think of their men in a matter like this and to support the Bill from that point of view. I am very glad, and perhaps I may be allowed to say very proud, that I can stand here on behalf of those farmers, a thoroughly representative body, and say that they authorised me to come back and tell the House that, as far as they were concerned, they supported the Bill entirely unconditionally.
When they had said that, I told them that I thought they were acting not only in a patriotic manner but in a businesslike and sensible manner. I told them that by supporting the Bill in that way, and by co-operating as they were, they were doing something which would greatly strengthen their own position if in the post-war period—which is a matter of much apprehension to every farmer—any Government tried to break or not to fulfil pledges which had been made to agriculture, or tried to treat agriculture again as it was treated in 1921. I said to those farmers: "If you will do this to-day in regard to the Bill, you clearly put yourselves in a strong position to have a square deal after the war, for whether or not you get a square deal does not depend upon any resolution passed to-day but upon how the general public think you behaved during the war."
In conclusion, I think that the right hon. and gallant Member for Rye (Sir G. Courthope) correctly diagnosed the economic cause of that disaster in 1921, when he referred to the catastrophic fall in primary prices and asked what could have been done. I agree in part with the suggestion that he made, but I would like to add a warning note. With the right hon. Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George),I think the chances are that this will be a very long war, and it is only right and honest to say that an agricultural programme which is primarily intended to produce the maximum amount of foodstuffs, not necessarily in the most economical manner but as rapidly as possible, is not necessarily in all respects what is wanted by 265 the country in peace-time. This opens up, of course, an enormous subject, which is not being investigated nearly enough. This matter of totalitarian war shows that you cannot undertake an activity in one department of government without immediately causing a reaction in every other department of our war effort. It will be the same with peace problems. After the war we shall have to make plans for the various industries in such away that they will be integrated into each other, so it is no good people talking about comprehensive plans for agriculture as though agriculture could be dealt with in a vacuum without any relation to shipping or other industries. At the moment our war needs must take priority. For the reasons I have put forward I give the Bill my full support.
§ 9.22 p.m.
§ Mr. Tinker (Leigh)
The hon. and gallant Member has referred to approval given to the Bill by certain farmers. When we hear that farmers are willing to accept anything, we begin to wonder what is behind it. I have never known farmers accept anything without there being some gain in it. We have always argued on this subject, and farmers have always said that when they received better prices they would pay better wages. On the other hand, I have always found it better in any industry to get about fixing a wage, and to let the product follow afterwards. It is a wrong policy to wait until the product brings in a certain amount before wages can be paid. We have had that experience in the mines. My argument is that you should get a strong organisation to demand a wage. Those who control the industry will follow on and get a price for it.
The Bill seems to have in it a new feature in fixing a minimum wage, and that feature ought to be examined before we can agree with it. I refer to fixing a national minimum and giving power to districts or other parts of the country to appeal to have the national minimum lowered. That seems a wrong principle. Perhaps the minimum will be fixed and go out to the country as 40s. or 50s. a week. That will be taken in the country generally as the minimum wage for a farm labourer. It may then be said, "That is not a bad wage at all," and there may be an agitation on behalf of some farming community to have the wage for that part of the country cut 266 down. Therefore we may have a national minimum in three-fourths of the country and, in the remaining fourth, a much smaller minimum. I think that is a wrong principle. I would rather fix a minimum and try to build up on that. I never like to think that I am being a party to a national minimum being lowered in any part of the country.
There may be good reasons why it is in the Bill. I understand that agreement has been reached between the Agricultural Workers' Union and the farming community. I have known agreements reached many times because under pressure you have to give way on many points. I am asking myself whether the Agricultural Workers' Union had to accept this provision in order to get some kind of Bill passed in the House. If that is so, I feel that I cannot agree to a principle of that kind. If, on the other hand, I am assured that the Agricultural Workers' Union, with full knowledge of what it will mean, have agreed to this without pressure, I will accept their point of view. It seems to me that, if I accepted this principle without some protest, later on, if the miners come forward with a proposal for a national minimum, it might be argued, "You were a party to giving it to the agricultural labourers. You did nothing to defend their rights, and yet, when the same thing is brought before you, you object." I want the Minister to explain clearly how this Measure has been arrived at, and also to show the advantages, if any, of putting this into the Bill. It may be argued that they will fix a very high minimum and therefore can afford to go lower, but I cannot see that. I am afraid the minimum will not be a high one and that it can be still further lowered in poorer districts. Before I give my full assent to the Bill I should like some explanation from the Front Bench.
§ 9.29 p.m.
§ Mr. R. Morgan (Stourbridge)
I am keenly interested in the question of agricultural labourers' pay, and on a recent occasion I supported an Amendment moved by an hon. Member opposite that no agricultural labourer should receive less than 40s. a week. Two things have been on my conscience ever since I have been a Member of the House—the low pay of the old age pensioners and the miserable pay of agricultural labourers. I congratulate the Government on having 267 tackled both those questions. I do not know what the minimum wage is to be, but I really cannot understand the phrase "lower than the minimum." I thought a minimum was a rock-bottom figure. If the Bill means anything at all, it ought to mean that we are going to ask somebody, a national wages board or an agricultural wages board, to fix a sort of Plimsoll line under which no one shall be allowed to go. I hope that in the arrangements for fixing that line several circumstances which have been mentioned in the Debate have been taken into account. The datum line ought to take into account the position of married men and housing conditions. I remember it being stated in a Debate on evacuation that young people had suddenly discovered their inherent love of the land. I am afraid that is talking in a rather woolly sense. I know, and they know, what it means. I have seen several of these children and their parents on the countryside, and they know perfectly well what the conditions are as regards housing and, what is more important, pay. These people are not fools. The great difficulty is getting the farmers to realise that they can pay these rates, small as they are, and goodness knows they are small enough.
If it is true that we cannot have a reasonable rate of pay for the agricultural labourer, if we cannot house him in proper conditions, if we cannot provide educational facilities for his family, it is time we had a thorough examination into the whole conditions of farming throughout the country. The hon. Member for Don Valley (Mr. T. Williams), in a Debate upstairs, once suggested that a travelling commission should go round and see what parts of the country were being farmed on a proper basis, which were economic farms and which were uneconomic, and he moved an Amendment which was only narrowly defeated. If the argument is put up that they cannot afford it, such a commission would be very necessary at present. A Liberal Member mentioned how the question was dealt with in the Isle of Ely. I hope, if there is difficulty in getting agricultural labourers in any part of the country, they will not adopt the methods employed there, where children of 12 are sent out to help the farmers. That would be a calamity.
268 The hon. Member who spoke last made a suggestion which wants very careful examination. He said there may be a difficulty in getting Irish labourers over here to help the farmers get in the harvest. I do not know what particular virtue the Irish labourers have, but it seems a bit of an anomaly, whilst we have a million and a quarter unemployed, that we have to beg and pray of people to come over from Ireland. I do not want to repeat anything that has been said, but I would like to convey my congratulations to the Government with the very fond hope that they will make an effort in this direction. The country desires to see the people go back to the land, and, what is still more important, a cheerful husbandry would be a great thing for the country at large. I am afraid that we have to take a leaf out of the book of the industrial people. The great people in industry know how to deal with the workers; they give them good wages and housing estates.
I may be unfamiliar with the difficulties of farming, although I represent part of the county of Worcestershire, and I only hope that my militant friend who represents the peaceful vale of Evesham (Mr. De la Bère) will follow me in what I am going to say. If those great industrial firms can house their people and fix their prices accordingly, how is it that these things cannot be done in the country? At any time one can go in a train on a long journey and see how some of these great industries are treating their people. The other day I saw a set of working people's houses, beautifully arranged in ideal conditions and with good sanitary conditions. With the sanitary conditions which exist in the country you cannot possibly expect people to stay there. The best way to speed the plough is to house the people properly and pay them a good rate of wages. [An Hon. Member: "And feed the ploughman."] Yes, and feed the ploughman as well as speed the plough. I hope that this Bill means the realisation of something for which I spoke some time ago in this House.
§ 9.38 p.m.
§ Major Owen (Carnarvon)
One question which was raised by the previous speaker is, I think, extremely important. He asked, Why cannot the agricultural community pay the same wages as industry? I think my right hon. Friend the Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. 269 Lloyd George) also touched upon that point this afternoon. If an industrial organisation puts in for a contract, that industrial organisation seeks to make certain that it will have a profit. Here we have to-day a typical example of what is happening in the farming community. The farmer is asked to pay higher wages, but he gets no quid pro quo from the Government in this Bill to enable him to pay those wages. That has been the difficulty all along. The farmer never knows what profit he will get at the end of the year. There has been no fixing of prices. If he turns up a field this year and puts a crop in it, he has no idea whether when he harvests that crop he will get any profit at all. He is subject to all sorts of uncertainties, and that, I think, is the main reason why the agricultural labourer has been the most poorly paid in the community.
I am in favour of a proper minimum wage being established for the country as a whole. I do not like these exceptions. I do not like to see the agricultural committees for various counties fixing a lower rate than the minimum rate which is fixed by the Agricultural Wages Board. It should be the same minimum throughout the country. The cost of living is practically the same everywhere, so far as the agricultural community is concerned, and if a minimum wage is to be fixed by the Agricultural Wages Board, I see no reason why that minimum wage should not be general throughout the country. I would urge the Government to bring in some sort of Measure that will enable the farmer—the man who takes the risk—to see a certain profit at the end of the year, so that he can provide his men not only with better wages but with better housing too. It is most unfortunate that the Government have now stopped all civilian building. In my constituency the local authority have been rather slow in providing houses. Recently they had started to make a move and they had certain schemes for providing houses for agricultural workers, but the moment the war came it was stopped at once, and there was no further building. It is no use providing a wage unless that is accompanied by better housing, better sanitation, by the provision of a water supply and various amenities in the village districts, and unless you do that you cannot hope to improve conditions 270 so as to keep the young people on the land.
There is one other point I wish to make, as I notice that the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour is present. I urge upon him and his Department—I have already made the suggestion to the Department more than once—that they should provide training centres for the unemployed, so that we can have more agricultural workers in the countryside. That is absolutely essential, and it is more essential than ever now that the war is on. If we are to have the full benefit of the increase in wages, we must also have the men to whom the wages are to be paid. At present there is a great shortage. I can sympathise with what has happened in my county. Until recently men working in agriculture received no unemployment benefit. Kind-hearted council officials put them on the roads, and they qualified for the dole, but once they qualified for the dole they never went back to agriculture. Wages were low. I suggest that for the sake of production in this country the agricultural labourer should be put on exactly the same basis as any other worker in the country and should receive the same amount of unemployment benefit. I understand that this is one of those small Bills, as the Minister says, with patches here and there, but it does not complete the job. We who live in agricultural districts know that agriculture is in a parlous condition. It is no good patching here and patching there. We should take the whole industry, survey it as a whole, and find what its needs are, and the country should foot the bill.
§ 9.45 p.m.
§ Sir Annesley Somerville (Windsor)
There is just one point which I should like to make quite clear. It has been referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir J. Lamb) and other speakers. At present, practically the whole House is agreed that agricultural wages should be improved, and we are almost all agreed that there should be a minimum wage. But those increased wages and that minimum wage depend upon prices. This intimately concerns my hon. Friends opposite. The wretched wage that the agricultural labourer had in the 'twenties and the 'thirties was not due to a callous Conservative Government. 271 It was not due to the hard-hearted farmers. That miserable wage was due to world competition. It was due to the prices of imported produce; and who were the people that were clamouring that this imported produce should be admitted, without duty, as cheaply as possible? My hon. Friends opposite, and the executives of the Co-operative societies. It is not for them now to reproach us or the farmers with those low wages. They have, one and all, agreed that agricultural wages should be raised, that there should be a minimum wage. It is possible to do that in war time, when prices are regulated; but what about after the war? Are they prepared to keep up prices? Are they prepared to have a duty, for instance, imposed upon imported produce, which will keep up prices? Unless they are, it does not lie in their mouths to say that the wages of the agricultural labourer should be kept at a certain level.
§ Mr. T. Williams
Has the hon. Gentleman forgotten that the Conservative party were in office practically from 1918 to 1929 and from 1931 to 1940? So if it was not the callous Tory party, who was it?
§ Sir A. Somerville
I have just said that it was not any party, it was world prices; and it was the hon. Gentleman and his party who were so insistent upon prices being kept low. The point which they must answer, if they are honest in their reasoning, is this. After the war, when prices are no longer regulated, are they prepared to support measures which will keep prices at such a level as will enable the industry to pay the agricultural worker a proper wage? That is the question to which they must face up. It is no good going to the agricultural labourer, and saying, "Here are we, your supporters, anxious to give you a proper wage, but we are not going to do that after the war. We are then going back to the towns, to say to the townspeople that they shall have imported food, which will bring down agricultural prices; and it will then be impossible to pay the agricultural labourers the wages that they think they should have." That is the dilemma in which hon. Members opposite are placing themselves.
The hon. Member for Don Valley (Mr. T. Williams) spoke of the "hovels" in 272 which the agricultural labourers lived. That is a gross exaggeration. He did not mention that the cottages in which they live are let at either no rent at all or a very small rent; and he did not mention that most useful Act, which was introduced in 1926 by the present Prime Minister, the Housing (Rural Workers) Act. In the counties where that Act has been used, it has brought health and contentment into thousands of rural homes; and my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Carnarvon (Major Owen) will find that if he persuades his county to use that Act fully, it will go a very long way towards meeting what he asked for—satisfactory housing for the rural workers.
§ Major Owen
Originally, the rural district councils carried out the provisions of that Act. Unfortunately, they had no finance to continue doing so. I do not know what it was, but there was some reason why the county council did not put it into operation. To my knowledge, in any county, until the county council took over the administration of the Act, practically nothing was done.
§ Sir A. Somerville
In some counties, in Devonshire, for instance, and in my own county of Berkshire, very satisfactory results have been obtained from that Act. I come to another matter, which was referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Abingdon (Sir R. Glyn). That is the schemes, and particularly the Y.M.C.A. scheme, for placing boys on the land. I understand that my right hon. and gallant Friend has this matter under careful consideration. I would appeal to him to take advantage of this exceptional time to start that scheme. We have an opportunity now of doing what is so essential, as has been stated by other speakers—that is, to get the young men settled on the land before the countryside is broken down. What is to be done for boys from the age of 14 until the time of calling up at 20? One of the most useful ways of employing their time is settling them on the land. I would appeal to my right hon. and gallant Friend to develop and encourage this scheme to the full.
§ 9.53 p.m.
Mr. De la Bère (Evesham)
My right hon. and gallant Friend the Minister of Agriculture, in introducing this Bill, mentioned that we were faced with an inescapable fact. That inescapable fact is just that we are at war. When we are at war, party politics and the scoring of party points might be left out. I am not going to talk along those lines. In Committee upstairs, I voted for a national minimum wage of 40s. My hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge (Mr. R. Morgan) and I and one or two others supported that, and helped to defeat the Government. I wish the Government had listened to us then. If they had done so, much time would have been saved. I support this Bill, because I hope that it really represents an attempt to establish a national minimum wage, although I share the misgivings of some hon. Members opposite that it may be that, as a result of the wording of this Bill, its proposals may be whittled down; and there is a danger that certain local authorities will manage to get round this issue. I shall be brief, as I always am; but I feel as many people, in this House and outside, feel, that the Government are not really in earnest about agricultural matters. There is no bold, wide approach to this subject. These tiny Measures are put up, with no real meaning in them, except that the Government hope that they will be able to get their proposals into operation. When you are at war, you should scrap convention, both from the right and from the left, and get on with the job.
I have one last opportunity, in connection with this Bill, of alluding to the powerful aid we might have looked for from the Chairman of the War Agricultural Committee of the Cabinet. I mention this, because I feel that, after this evening, he might not be the Chairman of the War Agricultural Committee dealing with these matters. I hope that whoever is to deal with them will really give my right hon. and gallant Friend the Minister of Agriculture a whole-hearted measure of support. There ought to be one man put in charge to carry through all these Measures. When the harvest comes it is no good saying, "Something must be done." My hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir J. Lamb) said that something must be done. I was very 274 glad to hear him say it, but he did not tell us how it was to be done. The reason why agriculturists cannot get what they want is that they are not really organised. If I mention the National Farmers' Union on the Floor of this House I expose myself to most vigorous opposition in the News-Letter of the National Farmers' Union. But I shall go on doing it. I do not consider that the National Farmers' Union are sufficiently organised to ensure and to obtain for agriculture, and indeed for the agricultural minimum wage, everything that ought to be obtained, though I admit that they have worked exceedingly hard, and are doing so in an endeavour to get something done. I do not say that they are perfect, and they ought not to abuse hon. Members who try to assist agriculture in the way they do in the News-Letter. I shall not pursue that matter, but I merely make mention of it. I am exposed to this attack, and I am entitled to reply to it on the Floor of this House.
I want to speak from the point of view of the Government taking a broader and wider outlook on all agricultural matters, and especially in connection with this Bill. This Bill has not carried us anywhere very much to-day, except with reservations. The hon. Member opposite hit the nail on the head. He does not belong to the party that I support, but this has nothing to do with party politics. If the Government are honest and intend to fix a national minimum wage, why have these reservations in the Bill, which make us feel that it is not an honest intention? I am prepared to give them credit for the fact that it is. I hope that it is, and I am going to support the Bill. It is one of those big, wobbling hopes, but it is not absolutely certain; it is only a hope. I hope with all my heart that they are going to do this, but I fear very much that they may not.
We have been told by the Prime Minister and by various Ministers that the Government will see agriculture through, and that there is no need for anxiety. All that we have to do is to "Dig for victory." But you cannot dig for victory without diggers. What is the good of getting up and making these meaningless speeches unless you show by some constructive Measure how we are to obtain these diggers? The Bill does not tell us how we are to obtain them, but merely says that there will be a national 275 minimum wage, subject to reservations. It leaves us with very grave misgivings as to how the proposalis to be carried out. It can be carried out by a very simple method—by putting one man in charge. I hope that my right hon. and gallant Friend the Minister of Agriculture will accept something nice about himself that I am about to say. He is that man. I believe that he could do it. I believe in him. I believe that he is sincere, and that if he were given the power to do it, he could do it, and could get these Measures through, and that we would really see a prosperous agriculture and one ready and able to produce the maximum output.
My right hon. and gallant Friend cannot carry out his policy if he is not given the power, and I had hoped that my right hon. Friend the Lord Privy Seal, in his position as chairman of the War Agricultural Committee, would have given him that help and assistance. It is with a feeling of very deep regret that I am bound to say that, in my humble opinion, my right hon. and gallant Friend has not had that support which he might reasonably have expected during a period when we are at war. This is no joke or jest to be passed off by saying, "Anything will do for agriculture. There is nothing as important as munitions." Agriculture is equally as important, and even now the Government do not seem to realise that something must be done, and done at once. There must be no question of "I do not know whether So-and-so will like it, or that we can strike a bargain, or whether the National Farmers' Union would like it unless we have it tied to fixed prices." This has nothing to do with what anybody likes. It is a question of national importance, which is not governed by some institution or association outside this House.
I hope that for once my right hon. and gallant Friend will accept my speech in the spirit in which it is offered, as coming from one who is absolutely loyal and anxious to do everything possible to help him with this Bill, and, even by sometimes being more restrained, I will do my very best to assist him in order to obtain a real national minimum wage for all farm workers throughout the country. These men deserve it. They have had a very rough time of it for many years, and I pledge myself to do all that I can 276 for the agricultural workers not only in this Bill, but for all time and as long as I am honoured by being returned as a Member of this faithful House.
§ 10.1 p.m.
§ Mr. Adamson (Cannock)
The discussion on the Second Reading of this very minor Bill has covered a very vast sphere connected with the industry of agriculture. The hon. Gentleman the Member for Evesham (Mr. De la Bère) has given his approval to this Measure, so that, after all, we are a very united family to-day. But I want rather to dispel what may have been in the mind of the hon. Member for Evesham that this is a war Measure. That it certainly is not in our minds. We believe that it is a part of the permanent machinery that will be incorporated within the administration of agricultural wages. There are various aspects indirectly connected with the question of wages that were bound to arise to-day. One cannot divorce entirely the question of the adequate fixation of wages for agricultural workers without taking into consideration the conditions under which they are paid, the circumstances of the agricultural industry that is responsible for the provision of these wages, and the machinery that is to operate to provide the safeguards equally on the side of the agricultural worker and that of the farming community. The Bill is merely an addition to the existing machinery that has been applied ever since the operation of the Corn Production Act in the latter part of the last war.
I was pleased to note that in the survey which the right hon. and gallant Gentleman the Minister of Agriculture made in introducing the Bill, he paid tribute to the discussions that have been carried on, under his guidance to some extent, between the two agriculture organisations concerned with the workers, and the farmers' organisation on the other side. I will pay this tribute at least to his Department, and indirectly to himself, that there might have been a deadlock if it had not been for the good offices of the Department in bringing us together again to find at least some method of conciliation so that we could get a common basis of agreement. I am not going to say for a moment that the Bill is satisfactory to the workers' organisations, on the one hand, or that it has the full approval of the farmers' organisation, on the other. It is a compromise, and we 277 have to accept it as such under the conditions that apply to-day. It will be to some extent an experimental Measure because of the application of new principles in the fixation of wages. It certainly is recognised to-day that the establishment of what we commonly term a Central Wages Board is essential, and it is agreed that it will be a co-ordinating body that can link up the essential work of the county committees and bring greater unity than has hitherto existed.
To a large extent mechanisation has entered into the pursuits of agriculture and if the Bill fulfils its object in narrowing the disparity between the wages that exist under the present administration it will have fulfilled its purpose. There are, however, one or two aspects that are bound to arise, and have arisen to-day, in what I think has been a very beneficial discussion on the general grounds affecting rural conditions. Some time or other we shall have to face the question of the depletion of the human resources in agriculture, the labour that is essential. That depletion can be remedied only through better relationships between workers and employers, if there is to be good husbandry and the development of rural occupations. It may be that some incentive or enticement must be given to wean back from urban areas the people who have left agriculture.
I wonder how many hon. Members have troubled to go and see the main doorways of Imperial Chemical Industries, Limited, where there is portrayed the development of the sciences, beginning with the primitive application of human labour to the soil of the country, and going on to the development of the machine with the chemist in his laboratory as the final stage. The developments of science must be used for the interests of the nation as a whole. We have had emphasised to-day not only the value of the agricultural worker but the need for the development of agriculture itself. The rigours which seamen have undergone in order to bring foodstuffs to the people of this country have impressed on the minds of the population the fact that agriculture is the basis of our well-being and practically the basis of our existence. We hope the reminders we have had to-day of what happened soon after the Great War will not be repeated when we come to rebuild and reorganise our basic industries following this war.
278 There are one or two aspects of the Bill I will touch upon because, while it is practically an agreed Measure with limitations of one sort or another, there is, at least, something that might yet be done in the direction indicated by my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Mr. T. Williams) with regard to the first paragraph of Clause 1 and the last paragraph of Clause 2. We believe they will merely add to the cumbersome machinery that is to be adopted, and cumbersome machinery means greater delays, with consequent exasperation and discontent. We hope, therefore, that during the further discussions of this Measure we shall be able to go into this question in more detail and bring about some Amendment that will help to overcome the difficulties which might arise. We are guided by the experience of men on the organised side of agriculture who have had to deal with the administration of the existing Acts as regards wages. We have learned from them that there is danger in encumbering this Measure with elaborate investigations and inquiries that will not lead to more satisfactory results.
We do not intend to discourage cohesion between the Central Wages Board and the county committees. We are rather hopeful that they may gain something from the administrative experience which has operated since the introduction of the wages committees in 1924, and that that experience will guide the Central Wages Board in their final deliberations. But we certainly do not think it is necessary to make an investigation, county by county, prior to the fixing of a national minimum wage, and we fear that the procedure which may be adopted under Clause 2 will tend to hold up and hinder the application of wages which have been agreed upon. On the main question there has undoubtedly been very strong representations from the National Farmers' Union. There has been a claim on their part, quite a legitimate claim, although probably directed at the wrong time and in the wrong place, that they should have the guarantee of a standard price. I was pleased to hear the hon. Member for Stone (Sir J. Lamb) dissociate himself from tacking on to this Bill any guarantee of price.
§ Mr. Adamson
It may be a legitimate claim of the farming interest, but in our 279 mutual discussions it was considered that it was not a proper place to apply it in a Measure of this kind; otherwise you would be applying what is called the fodder basis to the fixing of wages, which is one of the things to which in principle we object. We are very largely with the farming community that they should have some guarantee, not merely in their own interests but in the interests of agriculture and the workers generally. How it may come I do not know, but from the remarks of the right hon. and gallant Gentleman he may have some specific measure to guarantee over a period that they would operate on the standard rates that had been fixed at the termination of the war. There may be some operation of that kind, but in the main we support them not only in the interests of agriculture but in the interests of the whole community. But the moment you related prices to wages it would undoubtedly involve the operation of the costing system, which the hon. Member for Stone deprecated. We believe that in the fixing of a national minimum wage, and in the application of a reserve to county committees to fix even a higher standard than the minimum rate of wages, it may be necessary to have a costing system to ascertain the actual costs of production in agriculture. The industry should have nothing to fear from the operation of such a proposal. If we are to be co-partners in the industry, surely there is some incentive to having the interests of the workers safeguarded by the knowledge that the industry can afford to pay and that it will pay up to the maximum when it is in a position to do so.
That is outside the scope of this Bill, although it is related to the whole question of setting up a national minimum and guaranteed prices, and it is a mater that will have to be taken into consideration at some time. I trust that a later stage the right hon. and gallant Gentleman will be able to meet us still further in certain minor objections we have with regard to the Measure. If certain delays and obstacles can be overcome, there is no doubt that the Bill will receive a blessing from the agricultural industry and will be advantageous to the industry. I am reminded of the old saying:When Adam dolve and Eve span, Who was then the gentleman?I am not trying to detract from the latter 280 part of that saying, but rather emphasising the first part of it. It is undoubtedly the old industry of husbandry that we have still to develop and reorganise. The daughters of Eve and the sons of Adam are still prepared to do their part in carrying on agriculture for the benefit of mankind.
§ 10.25 p.m.
§ Sir R. Dorman-Smith
After the very full Debate we have had to-day, I think the Government have reason to be satisfied with the reception given to this Bill. It has been, to my mind, a most useful Debate. It is not for me to say how much was in order and how much was not, but it seems to me that we have roamed over a wide range. We have had some very powerful speeches and some speeches which were redolent of the countryside and which, I am sure, did us all a lot of good. As the hon. Member for Cannock (Mr. Adamson) said, this Bill is a compromise Measure, but I think he will agree that that compromise was reached in a real spirit of co-operation. While both sides retained their right to differ, one from the other, nevertheless there was a real feeling of co-operation and a real attempt to meet each other's point of view. It may be that it is because there is so little to criticise in the Bill, that we have ranged so widely to-day, but one thing which we have done has been to bring out before the country, in no uncertain terms, the seriousness of the position in regard to agricultural labour. The hon. and gallant Member for Ormskirk (Commander King-Hall) said we had to take heroic measures to deal with this labour question, and I do not think that is any exaggeration.
As far as the Bill itself is concerned, I tried in my opening remarks to steer as far as possible from party prejudices and the recriminations of the past. I think the House, on the whole, has treated the Bill purely on its merits and with a recognition of the fact that a tremendous amount has happened since 1924 and that we are dealing with new conditions which have arisen. Both the hon. Member for Don Valley (Mr. T. Williams) and the hon. Member for Cannock were rather worried lest the provision as to consultation with the county committees was some method of delay. Obviously, that is not so. It was understood that we should get on with this as quickly as possible, 281 once agreement had been reached, and that is still the intention. The reason why we put in this provision about consultation with the county committees was because those committees have got a tremendous lot of information to give to any central body, which will be of great help in forming an opinion on what a certain level of wages may mean in a certain area. I understand there is a history behind this question. I am advised that when the last Central Wages Board was in being, and when the wages rates were altered, without consultation with the county committees, a certain amount of friction and perhaps a certain amount of feeling arose on this subject. If we can overcome that difficulty and get the machine working smoothly—especially in view of the fact that these committees still have a lot of work to do on their own account—it will not, I think, make for any waste of time. As regards the first determination, there is no reason why the county committees, who know now what is in the Bill, should not proceed to think about the job straight away and consider what sort of advice they should tender to the Central Wages Board. But I repeat that this provision was not put into the Bill with any idea of trying to create delay. Perhaps we may have a chance of arguing that point on a later stage of the Bill.
As far as Clause 2, Sub-section (4) is concerned, that also has been argued. That again has really been put into the Bill in order to give protection to the workers and to the farmers. At present, the county wages committees have to publish the rates of wages, and it is open to anybody to make objections with regard to the wages fixed. The county wages committee has to take note of these objections, and this safeguard is necessary, especially in view of the fact that the county committees have still a lot of work to do on their own account. They will in fact have to show on that what the national minimum wage is, and if there was a county which had a low minimum wage it was only right that the worker or farmer should be able to compare it with the national minimum and make their objection if they wished to do so. This was put in as a safeguard and not as a method to delay anything along these lines. Perhaps hon. Members opposite will consider these two 282 points, as I will before the Committee stage comes along.
My right hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Rye (Sir G. Courthope) looked forward to the future in what I am sure the House will agree was a most statesmanlike speech and pleaded for machinery to be set up, now or as soon as may be, which would be ready to put into operation directly the war is ended, so that we shall not go out into peace without having anything to put in the place of the war-time machinery. Naturally with that I have a tremendous amount of sympathy, and I am very grateful to him for the kind remarks he made with regard to the Sydney conference, also touched upon by the hon. Member for Normanton (Mr. T. Smith). I imagine that in this respect such a step might well be welcomed by Dominion farmers too, because, let the House make no mistake, after the last war the Dominions suffered; the Dominion farm workers suffered just in the same way as our farmers suffered over here. I do not think they will want, any more than we shall, to go into the same kind of trouble they met after the last war.
As we all know and as has been mentioned to-day, in these Dominions, Canada, Australia and even in New Zealand, there is a drift from the land, which, if you take the broadest possible world view, is really a very dangerous drift. I do not believe, this country can just sit down and think of the future and that somehow or other we shall always be able to get everything we want because somebody will always produce. I am not so absolutely certain that this is true. Anybody who has seen what the industrialisation of some of this primary producing countries is in fact doing in their rural districts may pause to consider whether it would not be essential, after this war is over, to keep a reasonable level of prices of primary commodities throughout the world. That is one of the very big considerations which was touched upon by the right hon. and gallant Gentleman, and I think it was a very timely word of warning in a Debate like this. I was extremely grateful to him for offering me a holiday in the summer, and I had even hoped that I might have that holiday until my hopes were dashed to the ground by the right hon. Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd 283 George), who said I certainly could not trapes around the world during the whole of the summer.
The right hon. Gentleman gave a very exhaustive study of the Bill—I think he mentioned it twice. But he did raise the very broad issues which are connected with this Bill. I do not think there is any great difference between the right hon. Gentleman and myself as to what we would desire to do. He made it absolutely clear that it was the question of man-power which is of importance. It would not really matter if we could get hundreds of millions in order to do what we would like to do; if the man-power was not there, it would be no good.
Then the right hon. Gentleman mentioned the question of the training of the young and of getting training colleges going. My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Abingdon (Sir R. Glyn) also mentioned the question of trying to train boys for the future, and he expected me to be able to give him a more satisfactory answer than I am afraid I can give him to-night. It is true that this matter has been under consideration by more than one Department, and it has come to my hands now. I can assure the House that I am, in conjunction with other Departments and with people who are concerned, trying to expedite it. We are formulating plans for carrying on and trying to extend the work that has been done by the Y.M.C.A. and others who have been engaged in the work. I will make an announcement as soon as we have resolved this matter. I cannot go further than that to-night. We have, in an advanced stage, plans for securing the assistance in agriculture of boys and girls of 16 or 17 who are leaving public and secondary schools this year and who might be of immediate help and be able to get their training at the same time. Naturally they cannot replace skilled workers, but we are anxious to do what is possible and to take every opportunity of giving encouragement to them to think of agriculture as a future, and, as has been suggested by the hon. Member for North Cumberland (Mr. W. Roberts), we hope we shall be able to get a lot of new recruits from those who have been evacuated and from these boys and girls.
284 Unfortunately, even if we have our training centres and we pass boys and girls out on to the land, there is still the magnet of the industrial wage. That is still with us, and we have to overcome it if we are really to have any permanent success with these training schemes. Those of us who love agriculture would like to see the workers getting some opportunity of getting higher up in the scale, of getting on to the managerial staff and that kind of thing. That is an aspect I have very much in mind. I do not want these schemes just to be thought of as temporary expedients for the war. It is well to think them out very closely and to enlist the help of the workers'unions—they have been extremely broadminded over the question of the dilution of labour in agriculture—to see whether we can get on to a proper and permanent basis.
The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Carnarvon Boroughs talked of the future policy of the Government and of what we might be trying to do for the harvest after this one. I do not intend to deal with that to-night, but I would, like to make this remark. Naturally we have been and are giving thought to what agriculture may be able to do for the 1941 harvest. We have been trying to lay our plans in the light of the experience which we have gained this winter and of the future prospects of labour. Manures were also mentioned by the right hon. Gentleman. I should not like it to be thought that only the Minister of Agriculture and one or two of his chosen friends sit down and think about that. We are taking advice from the experts, from the scientists. We are working in co-operation with the Ministry of Food, which is the buyer and the provider for the nation, and the Ministry of Food has nutrition experts who are there to give advice. It is not the Ministry of Agriculture itself which is deciding these questions in connection with this future programme. We are bringing in the experts—though I realise there may be differences of opinion on who are experts—and making use of their knowledge as much as possible.
The right hon. Gentleman dealt with the question of prices, which is a vital one, and raised a point in connection with costs on which I hope the House will continue to give us its sympathy. He 285 touched on what I may call intangible costs. In dairy farming, for example, poor quality in feeding-stuffs or having to change the rations does have an effect upon these temperamental animals which it is very difficult to assess accurately to a gallon of milk or a cwt. of meat. Those with knowledge of the position will realise that those considerations have to be taken into account, even though the effect of them cannot be shown exactly in black and white in a wholly convincing way. I am very glad indeed that the right hon. Gentleman did, in fact, bring that point out.
The hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Orr-Ewing) was a little critical of the Bill. I should like to say straight away that this Bill is not meant to be a criticism of the work which has been done by the county wages committees, and I join with him in expressing the highest praise of the work they have done; but in the nature of things there is bound to be a considerable time lag when you are dealing with 47committees, and really there has come about since the time of the Act of 1924 a new condition of things of which account has to be taken. He suggested that perhaps there might be an unholy alliance between the farmers and the workers so that they would be saying, "Come on, let us put up wages to any figure because the Government will stand the cost." I do not think that is likely to happen, because they could do it now if they felt like it. I "ha'e ma doots" about their doing anything of that sort. The Government have said they are prepared to support up to the hilt reasonable wages, and I do not think anyone would expect them to support unreasonable wages. For years those bodies have been working in a really sensible way, and it seems unlikely that they will suddenly do something which they have not thought of doing for the last 15 years. Anyway I can hardly see the National Farmers' Union or the workers trying a ramp against the Government or against the nation.
I should like to point out that we are not trying to fix a standard minimum wage, but to give as much flexibility as possible. The hon. Member for Leigh (Mr. Tinker) inquired whether the workers would be forced to accept the position that there might be some county in which the minimum wage would not be in operation. I think that the hon. 286 Member will bear me out when I say that they were not forced, and that no pressure was put upon them to accept that position. They may have been impressed with the reason that it would be very much better to have perhaps one or two exemptions and to fix a reasonable level in respect of the country generally, than to have no exemptions whatever and therefore, because of the position in some counties, to fix a level which might be unreasonably low for the country as a whole. I think the hon. Member will agree that no pressure was put upon the workers' union in this respect.
I was very glad of the approval of the hon. Member for North Cumberland. He talked about exemptions from military service. He knows the difficulties which there have been in this matter, and that difficulties will always arise in relation to man-power for industries. He mentioned an individual case where we are trying to get sympathetic consideration, and not I hope entirely unsuccessfully. He mentioned the question of Irish workers. There is nothing, at any rate, from this end, to prevent Irish workers coming over here. It may be that they have their own ideas at the present moment about coming over here. I am not so certain that an awful lot come over here with the intention of going into agriculture—
§ Sir R. Dorman-Smith
There is no ban whatsoever. The hon. Member also mentioned training schemes. I think they are excellent, but not quite schemes which the people themselves can carry out on their own initiative. I hope that other districts and towns will follow suit and will, in fact, use their own initiative. I am convinced that if we are to win this war it will be on the initiative of the people themselves and not constantly and entirely by direction from the top.
The hon. Member for Normanton (Mr. T. Smith) asked whether a county or part of a county could have an exemption. The Bill maintains the existing practice. I quite agree with him that it is the kind of thing on which the Central Wages Board will have to keep a tight hand. It could work both ways, as he well sees. 287 Some counties are nearly divided into two; one part, of higher productivity, could well pay the minimum wage, and the other part could not afford to do so. I agree, also, that it might be abused; but I do not think there is any likelihood that it would be, because you will have men of sense, who will be able to see what is happening. I was very thankful to my hon. Friend the Member for Evesham (Mr. De la Bère) for his very kind words, and, again, for his renewed efforts to help. I can fully appreciate the real sincerity of the way in which he deals with agricultural questions.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir J. Lamb) was talking about price-levels and how to get prices right. What I would say to him would be this: The Government are extremely anxious, as he can well imagine, to get a fair level of prices. We have economists working in many parts of the country, and we do our best, with the information at our disposal, but I welcome the fact that the Farmers' Union themselves have now set up a committee to deal with these costs of production. I look forward to having real help in our deliberations on prices, because it is not much good for farmers to come to the Minister of Agriculture and say, "We think such-and-such a price is a nice-looking price," without saying why they think it is justified. I understand that they are going to be able to do that now, and that we shall get a lot of help from them; and I welcome that departure very much indeed.
It has been stated many times to-day that farmers have very vivid memories of the past and are very fearful of the 288 future. For all of us the future is somewhat obscure. I think we must not look so much to the past, except to try to avoid the mistakes which were made in the past, and not let past disappointments entirely overwhelm us because we have a great job of work to do before we can see any clear future. I think it is in the mind of every farmer that their first job is to make their contribution towards winning the war. I believe, if they are worried about the future, nothing could be more conducive to being able to carve out a proper place in what will be a new world than real co-operation between all sections of the agricultural industry. Active co-operation between farmers and workers will be one of the best foundations that can possibly be laid for the future prosperity of the agricultural industry. I hope the Bill, though a small one, will lay the foundations for that co-operation which will maintain agriculture in its proper place in our life.
§ Question, "That the Bill be now read a Second time," put, and agreed to.
§ Bill read a Second time.
§ Bill committed to a Committee of the Whole House for To-morrow.—[Mr. James Stuart.]
§ The remaining Orders were read, and postponed.