§ THE MARQUESS OF SALISBURY
My Lords, I rise to call attention to the insufficiency of agricultural wages in certain parts of the country. I shall not apologise to your Lordships for bringing this subject to your attention, because I believe that subjects of this kind and the grievances and difficulties connected with them are of far greater importance to the country, looked at in the long run, than the ordinary topics of polemical and controversial discussion in Parliament. Moreover, I conceive that there is no audience better fitted to consider the question of agricultural wages than the members of your Lordships' House. We have necessarily and almost universally a personal knowledge of the subject possessed, as I believe, by no other body of men in an equal degree. But, my Lords, although we have this private personal information on the subject, the public official information at our disposal is very deficient. There is, of course, the Report of the famous Land Inquiry instituted by the Chancellor of the Exchequer; but that is not official; it is not even impartial; it is an ex parte document commanding no confidence in public opinion, and not containing information on which we can rely or which I could submit confidently to your Lordships.
When I turn from that unofficial inquiry, I find that of official inquiries there is nothing later than the year 1907. In that year there was published the last of a series of statistical Blue-books issued on the authority of the Board of Trade, which is full of information; but that Blue-book, as your Lordships will observe, is already a few years old, and it is of the highest importance—nay, it is absolutely 943 required—that the information should be brought up to date. In view of this official ignorance on the matter there has been put forward on behalf of our political friends a demand that the Government should grant a proper official inquiry into the whole subject, and that claim I venture to repeat at this moment standing in this place. We consider that we have an absolute right to have a full official inquiry into the subject of agricultural wages and agricultural conditions, and the sooner the Government enter upon that inquiry the better we shall be pleased.
But although that is the state of things, yet we are in a position to say that in many cases in certain parts of England it is established that agricultural wages are too low, and I think the country will feel that where that fact is established a remedy ought to be provided. By all means let us have the inquiry which I venture to demand in order to establish how far the evil extends, and in what parts of England it prevails; but where it can be said that it is already ascertained that wages are too low, there we think that a remedy is at once called for. I say in "certain parts of England," for I am quite well aware that the evil is very often exaggerated in public discussion, notably by political friends of noble Lords opposite. There are many parts of England where agricultural wages, when all things are considered and when the allowances are taken into account, do not compare unfavourably with urban wages, and also the conditions are more favourable.
I was very much struck, in reading the Report of the secret Land Inquiry, by a statement made upon the authority of the late Mr. Wilson Fox, who was an investigator of the Board of Trade, as your Lordships are aware, of very great eminence—a statement of the success of countrymen in competition with townsmen where they come into contact one with the other. Mr. Wilson Fox shows that whereas in a great number of cases countrymen migrate into the towns, there the countryman beats the town dweller; he is the better man. That is a significant fact, because if it were true that the conditions of agriculture were very bad compared to the conditions of town life you would expect that precisely the contrary would occur—that where they were physically brought into competition 944 the countryman would have to yield to the townsman. But the fact is the other way. Mr. Fox took the cases of sixteen great corporations in this country employing 12,500 persons; of those, 37 per cent. had been born in the country and 22 per cent. of them were actually raised as farm labourers, which shows that over large parts of England at any rate the rural conditions do not compare unfavourably with the corresponding urban conditions. But although that deduction has to be made, for I am anxious not to overstate the case, it remains true that in certain parts of England—I am afraid in extensive parts of England—the scale of agricultural wages is too low.
I am anxious not to trouble your Lordships with anything in the nature of elaborate statistics, but in order to make good my point I will quote one or two extreme cases from this last Return—these are the only available figures we have, for the figures in the Land Inquiry Report are copied from this Return—of low agricultural wages. Let me say, by way of preface, that the cash wages are not the whole earnings. There are cash wages and allowances, sometimes cash allowances and sometimes allowances in kind. In Wiltshire the cash wages stood then at 13s. on the average, and the total earnings at 16s. In Suffolk they were—cash wages, 12s. 5d.; total earnings, 15s. 9d. In Norfolk the cash wages were 12s. 7d—
THE EARL OF KIMBERLEY
No, never. In 1907 the cash wages were 13s. a week at least, and then there were all the allowances as well.
§ THE MARQUESS OF SALISBURY
I am referring to the average cash wages. I will quote the allowances in a moment. I cannot, of course, compete with the noble Earl in his knowledge of the conditions obtaining in the county of Norfolk, but I am quoting the figures contained in this Blue-book. I live in the county of Hertford, and undoubtedly any average over the county of Hertford would be very deceptive, because the wages in the southern part of the county are very much higher than they are in the northern part. Any average, therefore, which I should quote of Hertford would be too low for the southern part, but per contrawould be too high for the northern part; and I 945 dare say the noble Earl opposite will find that the same obtains in regard to the county of Norfolk. According to this Blue-book the average cash wage for the county of Norfolk was, as I have said, 12s. 7d., and the total earnings were 15s. 4d. In Oxfordshire, the lowest on the list, the cash wages stood then at 12s. 11d., and the total earnings at 14s. 11d. Those are very low figures. Take, for example, the total earnings in the highest paid of the four counties I have mentioned—namely, the county of Wiltshire. The total earnings there were 16s. Well, that is a very low wage out of which to pay rent and maintain a wife and family. Take 2s. off for rent and there is left 2s. a day for the whole family; and if the family consists, as it might reasonably do, of six persons, that is equal to 4d. a day per person. Those figures represent the average, and though there are parts in which the wages are higher than the average there are also parts in which they are lower. I noticed, in a Return not so recent as this one but the only other official Return to which I had access, that in the county of Dorset the minimum was at least 1s. a week below the average, and in the county of Oxford it was 2s. below the average; so that supposing this rate still holds good you would have to deduct from the 15s., which represents the total earnings in Oxfordshire, 2s. a week, making the total earnings only 13s. Those are, as I say, very serious figures. And there must be added the fact—although I think this fact has been exaggerated in public discussions—that in recent years prices have risen to a certain extent, and therefore these wages, low as they are, are not so valuable as they used to be.
If that be the figure at which wages in these extreme cases stand, it is important to inquire whether the wages show any proper tendency to respond to any increase of prosperity in the industry. No doubt formerly when the agricultural industry was depressed—I am speaking of twenty years ago or more—there was something to be said, though not very much, I think, for wages on this very low scale; but since then the business of agriculture has taken a great turn for the better, and therefore it becomes important to consider whether wages have shared in that prosperity. I am afraid it must be admitted that they have responded 946 very slowly. I will not say that they have not responded at all. That would not be true. Those acquainted with the countryside know that wages are going up at this moment in most parts of England. But though that is broadly true, yet most of us know that it has taken a long time for the prosperity of the industry to affect wages. They ought to have gone up sooner than they have done and they are going up now much more slowly than they ought to.
What, then, ought we to desire? We ought to desire a rise in agricultural wages. A good deal is said in this wonderful document about the physical efficiency of the labourer, and in order to secure his physical efficiency I see that what is demanded is a minimum wage. I have always had a very great objection to the phrase "a minimum wage." I do not want a minimum wage for the agricultural labourer. I want a good and a reasonable wage. The word "minimum" is most deceptive. A true minimum wage is not what we should desire for the agricultural labourer. We want a good wage for good work. That is most important. I do not suggest that higher wages should be paid to agricultural labourers with no improvement in the work. Indeed, the truth really is, as I believe, that higher wages would make better work, and that in the vast majority of cases employers would not find that they lost by a reasonable rise in wages—of course, the rise must be reasonable—because the improvement in the quality of the work would be such as to more than repay the expenditure to which they would be put. That I believe to be the general experience in all industries, and I see no reason why agriculture in that respect should be different. Those are strong reasons why there should be a rise in agricultural wages. I am convinced that there must be such a rise, and, moreover, I am convinced that we cannot leave it entirely to the unaided process of economic laws to produce that rise.
There is an evident tendency in many agricultural districts to a shortage of agricultural labour. The labourer is no longer content to accept the wages and conditions which he formerly accepted. He consequently takes the remedy into his own hands and leaves the countryside, and in doing so he inflicts not only a great 947 injury upon agriculture but also, as I believe, a great injury to the future prosperity of the race to which he belongs. How, then, is it possible for us to use Parliamentary machinery of any kind in order to raise agricultural wages? After all, there is only one means by which the relations between employers and employed, in whatever industry, can be properly settled, and that is by some process of collective bargaining. But collective bargaining in agriculture is at the present moment almost non-existent. The reasons are obvious. Any one of your Lordships who is familiar with the subject will be able to give an explanation at once. The reason is that the agricultural industry is not organised. The employers are to some extent organised in the Chambers of Agriculture, but I do not believe that these bodies have any such common influence over their members that they are able to prescribe to any degree whatever the scale of wages or conditions which their members ought to give to those whom they employ. The labourers, of course, are not organised at all. The difficulties in the way of organising agricultural labour in trade unions are many. These men live not together like employees in urban industries. They are scattered; and perhaps we may say without offence that in consequence of the nature of their work they are not so alert as their brethren in urban industries. Therefore it is very difficult to see how any satisfactory collective bargaining can take place if we leave things absolutely alone.
On the top of what I have said there is great ignorance as to the facts. I do not believe that in an enormous number of cases the agricultural labourer knows how much he is paid. He knows the cash wage, but he hardly is able to realise the value of the allowances, and not at all what the allowances in kind amount to. Indeed, they are very difficult to calculate by those who are much better equipped educationally than the agricultural labourer himself. And if he does not know the facts, much less does he know what the farmer could afford to pay and yet make the business pay. Anybody who knows the agricultural labourer knows that it is absurd to imagine him thinking out a problem of that kind and arriving at a conclusion of the slightest value. Therefore in these circumstances anything like 948 satisfactory collective bargaining seems to be remote. No doubt there might be an agricultural trade union, and it might end in an agricultural struggle, but I think any such result would be most deplorable. I am convinced that an agricultural struggle by so ill-organised a body as the agricultural labourers, with the paucity of their equipment in the matter of knowledge of the facts and the possibilities of their industry, could end in nothing but disaster; and I am quite sure that in saying this I am speaking what is believed by every member of your Lordships' House.
But still, as I have said, there is no means of satisfactorily adjusting the relations between employers in any industry and those whom they employ except by some method of collective bargaining. The problem before us is whether we cannot have this collective bargaining without the process of elaborate trade union organisation first, and without all the, as I think, deplorable possibilities of an industrial struggle afterwards. What is necessary as between the agricultural employer and the agricultural labourer is that by some means or other they should be brought together in such a way that the two sides are upon equal terms, are able to deal with each other fairly, and that the result of their consideration should be subject to the sanction of public opinion and all the power which public opinion wields. That is what I mean by collective bargaining in this particular. It is quite well known to our experience, apart from actual industrial struggle. As your Lordships are aware, one of the methods by which industrial difficulties are already solved in this country and in other countries is by what is called the process of conciliation. That is a well-known procedure under the action of the Board of Trade in industrial disputes; and I suggest to your Lordships that in this case of the agricultural labourer, where wages ought to rise and have not risen, what we want is conciliation, not after an industrial struggle but before, and without the industrial struggle.
The conditions, I think, render this quite possible, because there is a tradition of good feeling in agricultural life. The various classes which go to make up agricultural society are on very good terms with one another; and may I say— 949 although, perhaps, it is not an observation which will be entirely accepted by noble Lords on the opposite side of the House—I believe that that good feeling is largely due to the landowner. The landowner is a solvent for many of the difficulties in agricultural society. He is on very good terms with his tenants; he is generally on very good terms with his labourers; and he is able to adjust any difficulties that may arise between them. There being this tradition of good feeling in agricultural society, and there being, in addition, the existence of the landowning class who act as conciliators now and are quite willing to act as conciliators in the future, we might easily conceive that a system should be brought into existence which would solve these great difficulties of agricultural wages without the necessity which exists in all other industries of a precedent industrial struggle. Then let us, if we can, enlist this good feeling. Let us get the two classes, the employers and the employed, to meet together. Let us get them to arrive at conclusions as to what agricultural wages ought to be, and let us rely upon the strong force of public opinion to carry them into effect.
Any such consultation must, of course, have official sanction. You cannot start these things on a purely voluntary basis. There must be some Act of Parliament, some action on the part of your Lordships' House and of the other House of Parliament, in order to bring them into being; but having brought them into being we might rely, as I believe, on the good feeling which exists among all members of agricultural society when they meet together upon equal terms and with full information as to the facts to arrive at a conclusion which would command universal public confidence and would be easily enforced by the strength of public opinion. I suggest to your Lordships that we ought to have some machinery of the kind I have hinted at which would establish, at any rate in those districts where wages are admittedly too low, an official standard of wages.
But a good many people desire to go a great deal further than that. I believe that the remedy which is favoured by His Majesty's Government and their friends is that old remedy of theirs—compulsion. They seem to think that no good is ever 950 done in the world except by compulsion. That is the universal specific which they prescribe. So far from believing that compulsion is good in this matter, I believe it would do nothing but harm. It was stated the other day, by no less a person than the Foreign Secretary, that compulsion was necessary to solve the land question. I do not know upon what experience or precedent he founded that view. I should have thought that all our experience was the other way. We have before us the example of Ireland. As long as we adopted the advice of noble Lords opposite and their friends in another place, compulsory systems were brought into being which made confusion worse confounded, and we reduced the condition of society in Ireland almost to absolute chaos; and the only way in which that has been remedied has been by the Unionist Party and by a voluntary system—namely, by voluntary land purchase. That is the real remedy. Let the parties interested come together; let them discuss their differences and their difficulties; let them arrive at a conclusion, and give that conclusion the sanction of the State. You will then have a real remedy. But so long as your only remedy is coercion and compulsion, depend upon it you will only make things go from bad to worse.
In agriculture it is clear that if you compel farmers to give a certain wage to labourers you will produce nothing but resentment which will last for years, and you will dislocate the industry. You will force new conditions upon it which will be bad for all parties and all classes. You will, perhaps, drive a large part of the area out of arable into grass, to the great loss of the agricultural labouring population; and you will very likely force farmers to adopt a totally different system under which they employ their labour, no longer by the week, no longer year in year out, but perhaps for a day or two when they are wanted, the men being discharged in the winter. Those are the kind of difficulties which you will produce if you come with your clumsy heavy-handed coercion and compulsion upon the top of the delicate arrangements which must subsist in such an industry as agriculture. You will not only do all these things by compulsion, but you will absolutely defeat your own ends. I put it to you that supposing you were called upon to decide what the standard of wages ought to be, and 951 you knew that whatever standard you fixed upon would be enforced compulsorily, would not you exercise the greatest caution not to go too far? Would not you most necessarily err on the side of not raising the wages beyond the point which the farmer might be willing to pay, if you could? Whereas, if it was a voluntary arrangement, you would say "Even if we do in particularly hard cases go too far, this is not going to be compulsorily enforced. The necessary elasticity will be given in the working out of the system, and no hardship will really be inflicted. All the difficulties will be got over by a little give and take on the one side or the other." So that under a compulsory system you would fix a lower standard of wages than under such a voluntary system such as I have suggested. Therefore I think that in every respect compulsion would be a mistake.
Let me call your Lordships' attention to the special difficulties which would beset a compulsory system in respect of the industry of agriculture. I suppose agricultural wages are in the main paid upon a time rate—so much per hour, so much per day, or so much per week. I will deal with the piece rate system in a moment. How are you going to enforce a compulsory rate of wages when you are dealing with a time rate? First of all, it is entirely unprecedented. The great precedent, which is the Sweating Act, is upon a piece rate basis. No doubt there is a time rate ideal standing behind it, but the actual rate enforced is a piece rate. Then how are you going to deal with second-rate labour—labour which is not wholly efficient? There is an enormous amount of that in agricultural society. Labourers who are old, labourers who are infirm, labourers who are not so efficient as their fellows from one cause or another—how are you going to deal with that second-rate labour upon a time basis? You cannot say to a farmer, You must give a certain rate of wages per hour, day, or week to a man whether he is more efficient or less efficient. It is manifestly impossible. Therefore the only result of enforcing a compulsory rate of wages upon a time rate basis would be to drive this second-rate labour out of employment altogether. Are your Lordships prepared to drive a mass of labourers of this kind out of employment altogether? Is the workhouse the only alternative which 952 your Lordships can suggest to the present lowness of their rate of wages? The case has only to be stated to show that it is wholly impracticable to apply compulsion to wages upon a time rate.
An enormous number of labourers are casually employed. Take the case of a less efficient casual labourer. How is he to be dealt with? I believe it is suggested that such labourers as these should go before some official and get leave to be employed at less than the standard rate of wages. That would be wholly impracticable in the case of casual labour. Whom is the labourer to go before? Are there to be officials in every parish throughout the country, and what jurisdiction are those officials to have? Then take the case of a labourer who has obtained leave to work at less than the rate of wages in Hertfordshire. Is that certificate of incompetence to be good in every other part of the country? And in that case what possibility is there of protecting the working of such a system from fraud of every description? I believe that a compulsory rate of wages on a time rate basis would be wholly impracticable.
Now let me turn to the piece rate basis, not that I think a very large amount of agricultural labour is paid for on the piece rate basis, but it is increasing, and a good thing too. How can a piece rate in agriculture be enforced compulsorily? I do not think that people who put such a plan forward really know the conditions of agricultural life at all. I am quite sure that a great many of the gentlemen who signed this Land Inquiry Report do not know from personal knowledge what the conditions of agricultural life are. A piece rate basis means that every different process of agriculture would have to have a different rate assigned to it. It may be said that that kind of difficulty has been faced in the Sweating Act, and has been overcome. That is true. But there are difficulties in agriculture of a wholly different character from the difficulties which present themselves in the making of shirts and paper boxes. The only element that differs in the latter case is the human element, but in agriculture there are other difficulties. There is the weather. Let me put a case. Supposing a farmer had a field which he had resolved to reap upon a piece rate basis. That is done in Hertfordshire. He would arrive at a certain piece rate which 953 he should pay to his labourers. I suppose he would have to have official sanction for that under a compulsory system. They would reap half the field, and in the night there would be a great storm of rain. The next day half the crop would be laid. In those circumstances, of course, the farmer would pay the labourers for the last half of the field a far higher rate than he would for the first half, because it would take them much longer to do the second half. The conditions vary from month to month, from week to week, and even from day to day. But there is not only variation which depends on the weather; there is variation which depends on the soil. A farmer may resolve to hoe a field; it may be a heavy clay field, and the piece rate may be a proper one. But a different rate would have to be applied in a field of another description in order that the same remuneration of labour should ensue. It would be impossible to assign a proper piece rate basis for every field in a county and for all kinds of weather.
I do not think anybody acquainted with the conditions of agriculture would say that it was possible to establish a compulsory rate of wages either on a time or a piece rate basis. Therefore you must have some other method. You should establish a standard of the amount which an able-bodied labourer ought to be able to earn in a day or a week and leave the parties to adjust the precise terms so as to arrive at that conclusion, and trust for your sanction to what we always trust to in England if we intend to make a good job of any matter—the influence of public opinion. I believe that to be the only possible method. Make the body which decides on the standard as official as possible; make it representative; above all things, make it local. What I most wish for is that it should deserve and obtain public confidence, and English society is so constructed that it will not obtain public confidence unless those who are affected by it know that the body which decides has local knowledge. If you have machinery of that kind, then you can work it. May I add that there is another reason why you must have the confidence of all parties. It is clear that in a certain number of cases the adjustment of wages under the influence of such a system as I have suggested must have a certain reaction on rent. I do not say in every case or in the vast majority of 954 cases, but in a certain number of cases it might certainly happen that the additional amount which the farmer would have to pay in wages would have to be adjusted in the rent. I say it would not happen in every case, partly because in the vast majority of cases the rents are lower than they ought to be economically, and partly because in the ordinary case the farmer would find that the better work which he got for the higher wages would prevent his being out of pocket in the result.
I have not troubled your Lordships with the actual machinery which would be necessary. That would be going into too great detail. We have local authorities in England in the shape of county councils whose machinery could be used for a purpose of this kind, no doubt with certain sanction from the central authority to see that no injustice was done. But, generally speaking, founded upon the confidence which the countryside reposes in its local authorities such machinery would, I am quite sure, be quite possible. I am well aware that in the remarks which I have ventured to address to your Lordships I have been exceedingly dull. I have not slandered anybody, not even a Duke. I have not tried to incite one class against another. I have not tried to increase the evils of social unrest. On the contrary, the whole object of the observations which I have ventured to make has been to suggest a scheme which should be entirely conciliatory in its conception and conciliatory in its operation. I earnestly believe that it is upon lines like those that a great deal of the difficulties, not merely in agricultural but in other industrial unrest, might be solved. It is capable of almost infinite development. It is in thorough keeping with the efforts which many of us are making to secure genuine co-operation between all interested in industries, whether as employers or employed, to work together for the success of their industry.
I have shown how deplorable industrial war would be in the case of agriculture, but it is most lamentable in other industries. Nobody can pretend to be satisfied with our present methods of settling industrial disputes. They seem to engender all sorts of suspicion and strife. What we want is to get all parties to act together, to share the hopes and the profits and the efforts of the industry. I believe I have stated the direction in which the solution 955 of a great deal of the industrial difficulties which we are witnessing at the present time may be arrived at. I have ventured in the sketch which I have made to your Lordships to propose it as a first step in the case of the industry of agriculture, the industry which presents particular difficulties and a particular problem; and I believe that if it could be applied in the way I have described to agriculture we should have solved the great difficulty of agricultural wages, and we should have shown that there is some method other than industrial struggle by which to arrive at a satisfactory solution and maintain the real interest of industrial peace. I earnestly hope that in the discussion which may ensue more light may be thrown upon the difficulties which present themselves and the methods by which they may be solved.
THE PARLIAMENTAEY SECRETARY TO THE BOARD OF AGRICULTURE AND FISHERIES (LORD LUCAS)
My Lords, may I say at once that we welcome the speech of the noble Marquess. We recognise in it an important contribution to this subject, which certainly does call for, and for our part we hope that it will get, a great deal of discussion before the time comes for legislation to be passed. I can assure the noble Marquess that we realise as fully as he does the great difficulties connected with this question, and the great complexity which any dealings with agriculture, the most complex industry perhaps in the world, are bound to have. When the Chancellor of the Exchequer put forward the proposals which he submitted, at a time long before he knew it would be possible to bring in legislation to carry them out, he did so in the hope, as he said himself at the time, that discussion would be aroused on the subject and the difficulties ventilated, in order that we might collect the vast information and experience which exist upon this particular subject before framing legislation. It is for that reason that we welcome this discussion, and we hope that it may be one of many similar discussions in the future. After all, farming is a difficult and delicate thing to deal with, and the experience of people who are in practical touch with agriculture is all important in discussing things of this sort.
The noble Marquess criticised the Report of the Land Inquiry Committee on lines which, if I may be permitted to say so, 956 are rather familiar. He directed his criticisms more towards the origin of the Report than the substance of it, and he complained that there has not been sufficient official information given upon this particular subject. But if he had studied the very interesting and instructive chapter on this question of wages—the first chapter in the Report, I think—he would have found, I will not say all the information which he requires, but he would have found all the information for which he has asked and all compiled from official sources. I do not think that any one of those tables of figures of which that chapter is full is not drawn straight from official sources of one kind or another. Though the origin of the Report has been very much criticised, I have noticed that so far—and the noble Marquess was no exception to the rule—nobody has yet been able to cavil at the figures which have been used in arriving at the conclusions come to.
There is no gainsaying the fact that the question of agricultural wages represents a most serious problem. As regards agriculture itself, it is the most serious question of all that we have to face. It is serious because of the very largeness of it. In twenty-three counties in England in 1907 the total earnings—the cash wages, augmented by other earnings and by the rent where the cottages are free—are under 18s. a week; in fifteen of those counties the total earnings are under 17s. a week; in three of those counties under 16s. a week; and in one county under 15s. a week. As the noble Marquess pointed out, the fact that that is the average means that there are a large number of agricultural labourers who are getting lower wages. Out of the total number of ordinary labourers, 60 per cent. are earning less than 18s. That is, stated in its shortest and plainest form, the position with regard to agricultural wages in this country.
The direct results may be summarised under three heads. First, there is the question of depopulation. In the twenty years that elapsed between 1881 and 1901, whilst the total population of England and Wales increased by 25 per cent. the population of agricultural labourers decreased by 28 per cent. Of people who are classed as agriculturists, and who, though undoubtedly they may have contained a few farmers, were mostly agricultural labourers, the total number who emigrated from the United 957 Kingdom during 1913 was 33,815. You will see, therefore, that the drain is very big, and that is quite irrespective of the number of labourers who are leaving the country districts to go into the towns. It would be perfectly possible to say that as long as the farmers received a sufficient amount of labour, as long as there was no actual shortage, this decrease might not be due primarily to wages but to changed conditions. But you are then faced in almost all the low-wage districts with the possibility of a dearth of men in the prime of life. That is a complaint that is coming to a certain extent from all the low-wage districts. The labour on the farms is done either by the very old men or by very young boys, and the percentage of men who are in what might be called the prime of life is showing a tendency to decrease. That at any rate shows the extent to which this stream of emigration is telling upon the population of agricultural labourers. That is the first result of these low wages.
The second undoubtedly is the housing question. The shortage of cottages for labourers has been variously estimated as being between 100,000 and 120,000. That is not the actual shortage, but the number that would require to be built when those cottages which have been condemned as sanitarily unfit for human habitation have been evacuated. At the present moment these houses are not condemned for the simple reason that these people have no other roof to which to go. It is undoubtedly the case that the principal reason, almost the only reason, for the shortage of cottages is the fact that under the low wages that are paid in a great many parts of the country it is the custom not to charge an economic rent or a rent at which it is possible to build proper cottages. Then there is another extremely serious result of these low wages, and that is the undoubted underfeeding of a very large number of the labourers and their families in the low-wage districts. The average labourer's family, including himself and his wife, consists of seven. It is well within the mark to say that 50 per cent. of the ordinary married labourers in this country and their families are underfed, whether you take as your standard of feeding the workhouse standard, the prison standard, or the higher standard set up by 958 any doctor; and the signs of it are obvious to any one who examines the budget of these men or looks at many of the extremely accurate and instructive books written lately on the subject. It is rather a pathetic sign. You find, in families where they have not enough money to feed themselves properly, that the best food and almost all the meat has to be given to the man because he is the breadwinner and it is of the utmost importance that his strength should be kept up. You find a starved family and an underfed man as typical of what is going on in the homes of at least 50 per cent. of the married labourers of this country.
It has been held almost universally, but the speech of the noble Marquess is a sign that it is being held less universally than it was, that there are natural remedies at work which will improve this state of affairs. What are they? The noble Marquess referred to the natural rise which is taking place in wages at the present time. There has been a considerable rise in wages, but it has, as I think he himself stated, affected the country districts less than it has affected the towns. According to official figures, the actual rise in the wages of agricultural labourers has been 5 per cent. between the year 1900 and 1912; but there is one extremely important thing with regard to that, and it is that this 5 per cent. rise has not taken place in the low-wage districts, but in the high-wage districts, where the rise has been in a great many cases a good deal over 5 per cent. But in the low-wage districts, which require it the most, there has been no rise at all in many cases, and where there has been a rise it has been considerably under 5 per cent. And you have to take into consideration in connection with that the fact, again according to official figures, that whereas there has been the increase to which I have referred in the wages of agricultural labourers since 1900, the general cost of living, worked out on the budget of these men, has increased from 10 to 15 per cent.; and there is no doubt that two-thirds of the agricultural labourers of this country are worse off at the present day with regard to the purchasing power of their wages than they were in 1900. That is the position with regard to the natural increase of wages.
959 Then there is the other what you might call natural remedy—I call it natural as opposed to legal remedy, the enactment of legislation for this purpose—a movement from within the industry to improve the position of the workers, to which remedy the noble Marquess referred at some length in his speech. That may come in two ways—either from the men themselves working together to demand an increase, or from the landlords or the farmers granting it of their own free will. But it has been open to the landlords and tenant farmers all these years to give a rise of wages. It is true that since the Chancellor of the Exchequer first called attention to the insufficiency of agricultural wages a certain amount has been done voluntarily by employers; but to claim, as I think the noble Marquess did, that in that voluntary power on the part of landlords and tenant farmers to raise wages you have a solution of the difficulty seems to me—
What the noble Marquess said was that in that lay the solution. He did not back up his assertion with sufficient argument, but he seemed to think that there was some force at work which was going to make landlords and tenants do a thing which it has never occurred to them to do before and raise wages in all the low-paid districts; and so strong was this force that it was going to be unnecessary to deal with the matter legislatively.
§ THE MARQUESS OF SALISBURY
What I suggested was that by means of legislation the parties should be brought together, should take counsel together, should arrive at a conclusion as to what the standard wage ought to be, should publish that, and should rely upon public opinion to enforce it.
All I can say with regard to that is that if it is backed by legislation that is another point. If the noble Marquess has come to the conclusion that legislation is necessary—
If the noble Marquess is of opinion that legislation is definitely necessary before we can make headway in this matter then we welcome the noble Marquess to this view, and we hope that the fact that he has announced his faith will set the example to many others in his position, because I do not see that short of legislation there is any possible means of remedying the present state of affairs. I wish to refer for a moment to what is in itself an instance of the extremely unsatisfactory position of agricultural labourers at the present time. I informed Lord Lilford that I intended to call attention to what is going on upon his estate. I have no information with regard to this beyond what I have read in The Times and other newspapers. But if the report be true that a number of men on his estate have been given a fortnight's notice or the alternative of quitting an agricultural labourers' trade union then there is in that fact a clearer proof than anything that I can give that legislation is badly required for the assistance of men of this sort. The fact that neither their own trade union, nor the law, nor the Government, nor, I am very much afraid, public opinion is going to save the position of those men, seems to me to be the best justification for everything that has been said—and has been hotly attacked, as we know it has, in this House by noble Lords opposite—for everything that has been said by my right hon. friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer in the speeches that he has made upon this subject.
I hold the view, like the noble Marquess opposite, that we have to rely upon an agency from without and not upon an agency from within for dealing with the wages of agricultural labourers and raising them to the level at which they ought to stand. I would like to give your Lordships what I believe to be the strongest economic argument for proving that a course of that kind—dealing with agricultural wages by means of legislation—is perfectly possible without injuriously affecting agriculture. As everybody knows, agricultural wages in this country vary enormously. It is the fact that they vary, not according to the nature of the land, whether it is good land or bad land, but owing to the entirely extraneous circumstance of whether or not there are outside trades competing in the labour market with agriculture in the particular 961 district. The wages of agriculture are governed by otter trades. Take counties like Northumberland, Durham, Derby, Lancashire, Glamorganshire, all high-wage counties. Not one of those counties is in any way pre-eminent as an agricultural county, but they are the counties in which there are a number of other industries, particularly coal-mining. Coal-mining is, above all industries, the one which competes most with agriculture. For this reason, and for this reason alone, agricultural wages have been raised in these counties; but you do not find as a result that agriculture there has had to cease or has suffered very seriously from it.
If you study the subject carefully—and this is borne out by Mr. A. D. Hall in his book entitled "A Pilgrimage of British Farming"—you are bound to come to the conclusion that agriculture is, if anything, more prosperous in the high-wage districts than it is in the low-wage districts. I could quote a number of cases to show that it is not in the counties which are the best for farming that the highest wages are paid. One of the best instances I can offer to your Lordships is Somersetshire. South Somersetshire probably contains some of the richest agricultural districts in the whole of England; North Somersetshire is much less fertile agriculturally, but it happens to have coal mines near. Consequently the wages of agricultural labourers are on an average from 4s. to 5s. higher in North Somersetshire than they are in South Somersetshire. Then take Warwickshire. Owing to the fact that you have other-industries in the large towns in the North of Warwickshire wages between North and South Warwickshire vary as much as 8s. in favour of the agricultural labourer in North Warwickshire. The most striking instance of all is that occurring in the district of Doncaster, which at the present moment is developing as a large new coal field. This new industry is competing tremendously with the farmers in the district and is drawing off their labourers and raising agricultural wages. What has happened? The farmers in the neighbourhood of Doncaster are adapting themselves to the present conditions.
Does not all that rather point to this? It does not much matter to the farmer, from the point of view of conducting his farm, whether it is the pressure of a neighbouring coalfield which raises the rates of 962 wages which he has to pay or whether the increase is the result of the action of a Government official or of some other form of machinery. His feelings about it sentimentally may differ, but from the business point of view it makes extremely little difference to him. That is why I put this forward to your Lordships as being in my mind far the strongest economic proof of the possibility of raising wages in the low-wage districts without at all necessarily injuriously affecting agriculture. What we want is to achieve in about half of this country what extraneous forces have already brought about in the other half; and I cannot better define the aim that we set before ourselves than to say, in the words of the Prime Minister, that the wage of the agricultural labourer should be such as to ensure a man of average industry and prudence reasonable conditions of living, among which should be included ability to pay a reasonable and economic rent for the house in which he lives. I agree with the noble Marquess that much depends upon the method in which the thing is done, but I think he a little over-rated the difficulties. He spoke about resort to a compulsory system as if that would be an unattempted precedent. But we have had considerable experience of compulsory legislation with regard to wages.
.: I do not know particularly about the time rate system, but all these difficulties have already been foreseen and dealt with. There is the coalminers' minimum wage. With regard to both time rate and piece rate the difficulties have been voluntarily overcome years and years ago by farmers. One of the things which strikes one most when one examines agriculture in various parts of the country is the different methods that exist for paying for work. In Lincolnshire almost everything is done on the piece rate, whereas in other parts of the country you will find time rates in existence. I have even come across the case of shepherding being done by piece rates and working extremely well. If you want to set up a system of time rates or piece rates, you have only to search agriculture and you will discover the thing in actual practice at the present moment; and where it was found to be a good system it could be taken as a working model. Then 963 with regard to the difficulty of old and infirm men, I would remind the noble Marquess that old and infirm men are already dealt with in the Coal Mines (Minimum Wage) Act. It is provided in the first section of that Act that district boards shall lay down conditions as regards the district to which they apply with reference to the exclusion from the right to wages at the minimum rate of aged workmen and infirm workmen. I submit that what it has been possible to do in the case of coal miners it is not beyond the possibility of arranging for agricultural labourers.
As to the method which will be employed I say at once that I am not here to-night to announce any special method. We have not in mind any special method which we propose to employ, and that is why I think a discussion of this kind is so useful. Whether it will be done by Wages Boards or in the same way as it has been done in some of the Acts already on the Statute Book, or on the lines suggested in the Bill that was brought forward by members of the Unionist Party in the House of Commons last year—these are points which are being considered. The Government have often been blamed by the Party to which noble Lords opposite belong for what they call hasty legislation. We have been told over and over again that we bring in legislation without sufficient discussion beforehand. We have been urged when we bring in new legislation to let the matter be discussed and ventilated so that the opinion of the country may be obtained. That is precisely what we are doing in this case, and we welcome all opinions, criticisms, and, needless to say, all helpful suggestions on the matter.
But whilst we have a perfectly open mind at the present, moment as to the actual method under which we are going to do this, there are certain conditions which that method will have to fulfil. First, it will have to be a system that will be capable of taking into account the very varying conditions under which agriculture is carried on in different parts of the country especially as they affect the workers. Secondly, it will have to take into full account the position of the old men and the infirm men, of whom, as the noble Marquess has pointed out, there is a remarkably large number engaged in agriculture. Thirdly, a point which in 964 its way is just as important as the others, it should make the transition period as easy as possible for the people concerned; you will have to make arrangements which will tide the low-wage districts over the change, because it will be a big change, for instance, in a county like Oxfordshire.
As I have already said I believe the general effect, judging by comparing the high-rate and the low-rate districts, will be this. We are going to improve agriculture in this country; we are going to improve the productivity of the land and the work that is done. At the same time we have to face the possibility of a decrease in the number of men employed, for two reasons. One is this, that undoubtedly when you give a man who has been receiving too low a wage a higher wage he becomes a better man and can do more work in a day than a man who is underpaid. Consequently you will get the same amount of work performed by a smaller number of men, and there will also be the inevitable result that you will have a further employment of labour-saving machinery. It is very difficult to get an absolute comparison between the conditions in the high-wage counties and those in the low-wage counties, but as far as one can gauge it—and I have studied all the available figures on the subject—taking into allowance the fact that in the high-wage counties there is a larger proportion of pasture, I am still inclined to think that the proportion of men employed is on the whole smaller in the high-wage counties than in the low-wage counties. The result may be a possible decrease in the number of men employed. I do not say that it will; but it is at any rate one of the things we have to prepare ourselves for although it is possible it may never come off.
In that connection I think the way to grapple with this matter is to deal with the Government's land policy as a whole. Our other proposals—those not connected with wages—will tend to increase the amount of employment that the land now gives. No one who has had to help to administer the Small Holdings Act, as I have had to do since I have been at the Board of Agriculture, could fail to realise that small holdings are by no means a universal remedy. There are a great many parts of this country where small holdings will not do. But there are 965 in some parts of the country men who are farming 3,000, 4,000, or 5,000 acres which ought to be all small holdings. And one of the features of the policy of the Government will be to see that some of the best small holding land in this country is made to support an adequate number of small holders, that they get their full share of all land that is suitable for the purpose; and that is a thing which will largely increase the number of men on the land. There is a particularly successful scheme in operation in Chester, where the county council bought 3,200 acres and converted the land into a small holding colony. In this way they increased the number of people living on that land from 98 to 432. Those are remarkable and rather instructive figures, and I give this instance because I think this is one of the ways in which we shall have to deal with cases which may—I do not say will, but may—arise where an increase of wages may result in decreasing the number of ordinary labourers on the land. Another thing with which we have to deal is the question of part time employment—that is one of the things which may arise out of the payment of higher wages. That, again, can be met by a judicious policy of small holdings and allotments, common pasture, and things of that kind. There are instances of this working well in the country. Therefore in connection with this question of wages you want also to take the rest of the Government's land policy in the same connection. I do not think that any of these things can stand alone. At least they suffer by being dealt with singly and separately. They want dealing with as a comprehensive whole.
§ LORD PARMOOR
My Lords, it is because of the importance of this matter and because I differ to a great extent from what has been said by the noble Lord opposite and by the noble Marquess that I desire to say a few words with regard to this great and important problem of agricultural wages. I do not agree with the noble Lord opposite that extraneous effects produced by economic causes are similar to extraneous effects introduced by Government interference. I think those two things are essentially distinct; and I am going a little further in the one or two statistics which I shall place before your Lordships in expressing my view that even without going so far as the noble 966 Marquess has suggested we can find under ordinary economic conditions and ordinary free business life that which will be a solution of what we all admit at the present time is a great difficulty.
I agree with what the noble Lord opposite said at the conclusion of his speech. You cannot differentiate this question of wages from the general question of land reform or land development in this country. It is part of the whole. The view which was expressed by my own Chamber of Agriculture—a view which, I think, was expressed also by the noble Marquess—was that before we could seriously deal with a great question of this kind, certainly long before we could determine what is best to be done, we ought to have a general and an impartial inquiry by persons of special knowledge both of local circumstances and the general principles which apply to the agricultural industry in this country; and until we have these statistics—which in my opinion will be essentially distinct from what we find in the Report of the secret Inquiry—we have really not got the foundation on which we ought to seek to construct a new system, if we are going to improve matters as regards agricultural conditions in this country.
The noble Marquess referred to statistics in 1907. He is quite right in saying that they are the last official statistics published from the Board of Trade, but I have had the advantage of seeing later statistics, very carefully made out. They are not official, but I went to the Surveyors Institution to get the latest information in order to see what was the rise in wages between 1907 and the present time. Of course, it differs in different counties. I found those statistics in accord with the improvement which has taken place in my own county of Buckinghamshire. Between 1907 and the present time there has been a rise there of 2s. I am taking the average wages. If I take the wages that I happen to know have been paid, they would be considerably higher. In other words, in my own county between 1907 and the present time there has been a rise of 10 per cent. in wages. That has to be considered, and considered very carefully, when you are coming to the determination that you are bound to introduce legislative and outside interference against the ordinary play of economic force.
967 I should like to make one other remark with regard to wages. The agricultural rate of wages in this country is far higher than in any other European country. I am not comparing rates of wages in America and Canada because the conditions there are different. I will give an illustration from Belgium, because Belgium was referred to by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. He pointed out that in Belgium, whether taking numbers employed per acre or employed in percentage of the population, the numbers employed there were much larger than in this country. But he overlooked what I believe is an economic truth, that where you have the smaller number of agricultural labourers employed in proportion to the whole number of the population you get the best conditions and highest wages; and those are the conditions which exist in England at the present moment. I am quite aware that wages in certain counties are lower than they ought to be. But take Belgium. In Belgium the average wage is 1s. 7d. a day, and in most parts it is only 1s. 2d. a day. Is it not obvious, even with regard to the statistics given by the noble Marquess, that the agricultural labourer at the present time in this country is much better situated than in Belgium In the country of Europe where, I believe, the number of agricultural labourers is the highest in proportion to the population—Hungary—there the condition of the agricultural labourer is the worst,
I do not believe, supposing you get a 'decreased demand for labourers under conditions of the kind suggested by Lord Lucas, that you will make up the deficiency in employment by any such means as he foreshadowed. The agricultural labourer in my county dislikes above all things the small holding. On a small holding no agricultural labourer, in the proper sense of the word, is employed. I have done all I could to promote small holdings; so, I think, have my neighbours in Buckinghamshire; but they are unpopular with the agricultural labourer. What he wants is as large an amount of employment as possible, and it is the large farmer who gives employment. The small holder does not give employment; he does the work by himself, or with his family. Therefore do not let us make the mistake of supposing, what the noble Lord opposite seemed to suggest, that you can at the same time increase the number of labourers 968 employed and put up the wages which they are earning under present conditions.
After all, what is the economic basis of wages in the agricultural industry? They vary very much in different places because the efficiency of labour similarly varies. In the long run, however philanthropic or sentimental you may be, you cannot pay a man more in the way of wages than his labour produces. It is an absolute fallacy to suppose that by dealing with land you can increase the wages of the agricultural labourer. It is just what you cannot do. It is an economic truth that if we are to have a minimum wage, or a fixed wage, or a legislative wage, it cannot be more than the agricultural labourer produces under the least satisfactory conditions—that is to say, where he is working on land for which for economic reasons there is no rent at all. I do not want to protest unduly at this time, but I deprecate approaching this question without having in the first instance proper, true, and reliable statistics. I have heard again and again references to foreign countries, but they all of them fail when you come to look into the real truth. The Chancellor of the Exchequer referred to Belgium and France with regard to the conditions of the agricultural labourer. It is not only lower wages, but in Belgium—I do not know whether the noble Lord has had the advantage of going there, which some of us have had—you will find that the housing conditions are infinitely worse than they are in this country. In a large number of cases the housing conditions there are the same as they were here 100 years ago—that is to say, the man, in addition to getting this extremely low wage, merely has a box in the cow-byre, or a box in the horse-byre, where he sleeps under no better conditions than the animals. This condition of affairs we would not tolerate in this country for a moment.
Whatever else has to be taken as the foundation of a policy in this great question we ought to congratulate ourselves on the fact that agriculture is better carried on and agricultural labour better paid in this country than in any other fairly comparable European country at the present moment. If you take the test of produce per man employed, which I think is a proper test, there is a far higher 969 produce per man employed in this country in agriculture than in any Continental country. That is a very important matter for consideration, because in the long run the amount of production by the agricultural labourer is the basis of his wages; and if you find, as you do, that in this country he produces more per man than in any other European country, that does not show that the conditions are unsatisfactory, but it shows on the whole that the conditions here are much more satisfactory than they are in any other country of Europe at the present moment.
Let me come to the question of the suggested remedy for one moment. In my opinion the real form of remedy is to be found in the growth of public opinion. I believe that the real form of remedy is being found at the present time. If you go through all the statistics—I have been through them all, and no doubt the noble Lord has them in a more official form—you will find that there has been an advance in agriculture since 1907 of a more marked kind and greater in proportion to the sums involved than in other industries over the same period of time. The noble Lord took the year 1900, and calculated up to the present moment. The calculations I took were from 1907, because up to 1907 you have the official figures and beyond that date you have no official figures at all.
The official figures were given by the Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade in an answer in the House of Commons. The general increase in agricultural wages since 1907 is three per cent.
§ LORD PARMOOR
I do not, of course, doubt that in any sense, but I have seen the most carefully prepared statistics, not, as the noble Lord said, on the mere cash value but on total payments. The statistics that I have got, collected from every county, do not give the same results as those given by the noble Lord. But I do not wish to discuss that further at the present time. There are cases in the 970 northern counties, in Northumberland for instance, where the wages earned by the agricultural labourer and his family come to as much as £250 a year, and that in a county where the grass cultivation is growing and the arable cultivation is going back. It appears to me that, having regard to these economic considerations, we should get a solution. But I protest on behalf of farmers, agricultural labourers, and land owners against the introduction of a Government official, who knows nothing very often of the real conditions. That, to my mind, is the real way of creating friction and trouble.
I am not certain that I quite followed the suggestion of the noble Marquess. He dealt with two matters—the minimum wage matter and the Conciliation Board. Now, if by Conciliation Board he means nothing more than a friendly meeting of the parties interested, I have no fault to find with his suggestion. But if by Conciliation Board he really means a Wages Board, if he means introducing an outside authority in order to settle matters which ought to be settled between the farmer, the landowner, and the labourer—that is, the parties interested in the agricultural industry—then I cannot agree with the remedy he suggests. I think that a Wages Board introduced into the agricultural districts would be a source of friction and trouble, and would introduce uneconomic matters which could not fail in their ultimate result to affect the greatest of all industries in this country, the industry of agriculture. So far as the minimum wage is concerned, I would rather have that principle if any at all. This is a matter that I have discussed a good deal in my own agricultural society. I do not want a minimum wage, but I do not agree as to all the difficulties attached to the minimum wage. I think you can deal with the question of infirm people and old people, as the noble Lord said. Of course, they have to be dealt with. There could be no greater hardship than driving out a man from his cottage and village because he was not able to turn out the amount a younger man could. I do not think any one would agree with a principle of that kind.
I think it is possible to get something in the way of a more level rate of wage in the direction which the noble Lord indicated—a minimum wage—rather than by a Wages Board. But I am against both of those 971 principles. The agricultural industry in this country as between owner, labourer, and farmer has done wonderfully well up to the present time. There has been goodwill, a spirit of co-operation, and a spirit of helping one another. But we have suffered from another matter which to my mind is much more important. We have suffered in the country because the raw material of our industry—that is, our agricultural land—has been over-rated and over-taxed. In the case of my own farm—if I may be allowed to give that illustration—I calculated that the rates and taxes were more in the aggregate than a quarter of what was being paid for labour. If you consider what that means you will see why in some cases it is extraordinarily difficult to maintain the rate of wages at the present time. If you really want a remedy, it is not in the direction which I understand the Chancellor of the Exchequer seeks—that is, putting further taxation and further burdens upon the land in this country. It is by diminishing those burdens, taking them off this great agricultural industry, so that the minimum wage, or whatever we ought to call it, may be as large as the efficiency of the labourer and the conditions of his labour can allow it to be. But I deprecate interference. I hope, on the other hand, that we shall go on as before with these undue burdens and undue taxes taken off our shoulders. This is a most important question, but we were asked to discuss it, which must be my excuse for speaking so long to your Lordships.
THE EARL OF MALMESBURY
My Lords, I ask your Lordships' indulgence for a very short time, as many of the remarks I had intended to make have been made in a much better way by the noble Lord who has just sat down. I am sure, in the first place, that we are very grateful to the noble Marquess for raising this question, not only because of the intimate knowledge which he is able to bring to bear upon the subject, but because—and I am sure that noble Lords opposite, no matter how much they may differ from the noble Marquess upon other things, will agree with me in this—nobody is more sincere than he is in a desire to improve the conditions of the working classes generally. I confess that a condition precedent to a fair discussion on this important subject should be the laying aside of all partisan feeling and political animus. It is absolutely impossible to discuss the question of agriculture if you 972 introduce into it the element of politics. So strongly do I feel on that subject that during the autumn I undertook, possibly rather boldly, to address a series of non-political meetings on the agricultural question. I did so by invitation, and perhaps I may be allowed to tell noble Lords opposite that at two of those meetings the chair was taken by prominent members of the Liberal Party. What was the result of those discussions? The result was that I was able to carry very easily a resolution recommending an impartial and judicial inquiry into the whole agricultural question generally.
Now, my Lords, if there is a large number of the rank and file of both Parties willing to meet together and discuss these knotty problems, what is to prevent the leaders of the two great political Parties from meeting on the same terms to discuss a subject of such vital interest to the country and themselves as this question of agricultural wages? As the noble Lord who has just sat down said, and as Lord Lucas also said, this question is inseparable from the whole agricultural question generally. The moment you begin to touch one part of the agricultural question you will see how extremely difficult it is to deal with, because sooner or later you get up against the other interests which you must not cease to recognise. There is one thing which I think is not sufficiently recognised, and that is this. You can never compare the wages and conditions of the agricultural labourer with the wages and conditions of workers in the great industrial centres. First of all, the wages of the latter are very much higher; so is the cost of living, and so are the profits which their employers are making. What we really have to keep ourselves to is this question—Is the agricultural labourer receiving enough for the work which he does?
It is a platitude to say that there are three interests involved—the landlord, the farmer, and the labourer. It is not material to the case to discuss the landlord except in passing. I am sure the landlord in most cases receives very little more in the shape of rent than a moderate rate of interest on the capital which he has expended on the farm. Then we come to the farmer. During the past few years there is no doubt that the farmer has been having a very good time of it, and I am sure none 973 of us, at any rate nobody in your Lordships' House, grudges him the extremely good time which he has been having. He has passed through many bad years, and it is perfectly right that he should reap the harvest at last. At the same time, if any class has been benefited by the increase in agriculture it has not been the landlord. We are told that it has not been the labourer. Then it must be the farmer. We are not able to tell, through lack of statistics, what the farmer earns. Lord Lucas referred to the fact that we should be able to reduce our labour bill by labour-saving machinery, and in that way be able to pay the labourers retained on the land a higher rate of wages. I agree that that may be so. But nobody would deplore more than the noble Lord himself the reduction in the number of those employed on the land, because, after all, one of the most important assets to a nation is that it should have an agricultural class, large in numbers, happy, healthy, and prosperous. Perhaps I might be allowed to remark in passing, when the noble Lord talks of the low-wage districts and when he and others deplore the conditions of the working classes in the country districts to-day, that between 60 and 70 per cent. of the Metropolitan Police—who are some of the finest men in the world—come from the agricultural districts; that the finest men in the towns, and the finest recruits we get for the Army come from the agricultural districts. That is surely a strong argument against the suggestion as to the agricultural class being badly fed and badly housed.
The difficulty in dealing with the agricultural labourer is undoubtedly this, that he does not belong to a stereotyped class of worker, like the miners or the Lancashire cotton hands. You cannot lay down one rule of life for him in the same way as can be done for those employed in large industrial areas where conditions are very much the same. I have visited many of those industrial areas, and every time I come back from them I see the vast difference between the workers there and the workers in the agricultural districts. Not only this, but you will find a very divergent difference between the various classes of agricultural labourers and also in respect to the conditions under which they are employed. The noble Lord who has just sat down alluded to the varying conditions 974 in the different parts of the country. I have in my hand a little paper issued by the Rural League. I will not trouble the House with quotations from it, but it is worthy of the notice of the noble Lord opposite. It gives the varying conditions and the rates of wages for the different parts of England. I know the North of England a little as well as the South, and so far as I can see the higher wages which are given in the North of England are in many cases taken up by a higher rent and the higher cost of living generally. It is not strictly true, therefore, to say that where the wages are higher the condition of the labourer is more prosperous. It entirely depends upon the other conditions surrounding—
THE EARL OF MALMESBURY
There are districts where, though the wages are undoubtedly higher than in other districts, the cost of living is higher. Therefore the actual amount the labourers have in the more highly paid but more expensive districts is really not as much as is left to those who live in the lower paid districts.
THE EARL OF MALMESBURY
Food principally. The noble Lord knows that in the Report which was published the other day it is stated that the cost of living varies in various parts of the country and in some districts in close proximity. As a matter of fact, it varies probably more than either the noble Lord or I had any idea. Again, rent varies very much. Then we come to the important factor which was alluded to by the noble Lord who has just sat down—namely, the force of sentiment in the life of the agricultural worker, a force which I believe is almost absent from the men working in industrial centres. The older men are kept on out of kindness, and occupy cottages when the farmers and others would wish to have in those cottages the younger men who have just married and settled down and could put in many years work on the farms. Then we come to emigration, I am delighted to think that the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, should so fully recognise the deplorable condition of the 975 country owing to the over-emigration which has taken place, and I am quite certain it is the duty of both sides of your Lordships' House to do all that is possible to reduce the number of those annually leaving our shores.
There is one point which I do not think has been made enough of—it was only mentioned cursorily—but which is the real trouble of the whole agricultural question, namely, that it has been exploited to the advantage of nearly every other trade and industry in this country. The agricultural trade has been relegated to the background of political activities until it has suddenly come to be dealt with by those who, generally speaking, are not competent to deal with it. The land as a property, the workers as a body of men, and the farmers as a class have been relegated to the background while other classes have received more than their fair share of attention in Parliament. Take education. One of the greatest causes for the depreciation of agriculture and the agricultural labourer has been our method of education. What place does practical agricultural education play in the curriculum of our schools, compared with other subjects most of which unfit the country child for after life? I venture to think that if some scheme were devised by His Majesty's Government whereby agriculture should form a larger and a more important part in the education of the child to-day you would find a greater efficiency in the labourer of to-morrow. Greater profits would accrue to the farmer, and thereby, I sincerely believe, the status and outlook of the agricultural labourer would be very materially raised.
What, then, is the sum total of the few remarks which I have ventured to make? There are many remedies suggested. One which I think the noble Lord opposite will recognise as a real remedy is an extended system of co-operation. In fact, I dare say Lord Lucas knows himself many of those who suggest that large estates should be run upon a co-operative basis, by which landlord, tenant, and labourer should share the profits pro rata. But there is one thing before we come to that happy Millennium—if indeed it be a Millennium. I am convinced that you will never arrive at a settlement of the agricultural question, whether it be land tenure, ownership, or the question of wages, until we have had a full public and impartial Inquiry into all 976 the points at issue. I know the objection to this. It will be said that you will have a Committee or Inquiry which will sit at long intervals, and which, at some date when its very existence has been almost forgotten, will make a Report. Because it is alleged that such has been the course in the past, is there any reason why the same course should be repeated?
In conclusion, my Lords, I would merely say this. Subjects of agricultural interest cannot be taken piecemeal. You cannot take labourers' wages or those other knotty and thorny points which are frequently debated on public platforms without considering them all together. And I am certain that public opinion is coming to recognise that more things could be settled by a statesmanlike decision between both Parties than by the warmth of partisan spirit upon a public platform. Therefore whatever steps His Majesty's Government may have in view, whatever steps they consider may make for the regeneration of agriculture, I venture to hope that they will consult those who may differ from them in politics; and I feel certain that those interested, whether they represent landlords, farmers, or labourers, will be only too glad to come forward and help in an impartial Inquiry into this subject.
§ THE MARQUESS OF LANSDOWNE
My Lords, we have certainly no reason to complain of the tone and tenor of the speech made by the noble Lord on the Front Government Bench. We noticed with satisfaction that he frankly admitted the immense difficulty of the subject which we are discussing, and he let fall one or two observations which certainly suggested to my mind that His Majesty's Government intended to deal with the matter at any rate with a certain amount of caution. I think the noble Lord's Party loyalty carried him rather far when he went on to tell us that the speeches delivered in the country by the Chancellor of the Exchequer had been specially designed with the object of eliciting such proposals as were made by my noble friend. Those of Mr. Lloyd George's speeches which I have had an opportunity of reading seem to me calculated to produce precisely the opposite effect. But in this House we have fortunately to deal with the noble Lord and not with the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and we may tell him with absolute sincerity that we very much prefer his 977 style and methods to the more truculent style and methods of his distinguished colleague.
There is another matter upon which we may perhaps congratulate ourselves. I think this discussion has revealed the fact that there is at any rate a considerable amount of agreement between both sides of the House as to the existence of the grievance which my noble friend has unfolded to us this evening. There is no doubt a difference as to its extent. There is probably a difference as to the appropriate remedy. But that there is a grievance we on this Bench certainly do not for a moment deny. I think there is also a certain amount of agreement as to the causes which have led to what we recognise as the insufficiency of the agricultural wage in many parts of England. There are two or three causes which I think interact upon one another. There is, in the first place, this fact, upon which I think the noble Lord touched. It is admittedly the competition of the towns which sends up agricultural wages in some parts of England; but we all know that there are some areas so remote that they are not affected by that competition. Then, again, within those areas one cannot help noticing what I think one may perhaps describe as the immobility of agricultural labour. The old-fashioned villager—I say old fashioned, because I think there is a good deal of change coming over our village population—the old-fashioned villager does not know much about the world outside the limits of his own village, and he has a sort of hereditary habit of clinging to the place which has been his home, and probably the home of his forefathers before him.
Then comes the other and to my mind perhaps the most important cause of all, which is that whether the man stays in his own village or endeavours to move off to some other place he is met wherever he goes with the housing difficulty, the difficulty of obtaining a house to live in. I am glad the noble Lord put in the forefront of his argument the close connection between the housing question and the wages question. I would almost go as far as to say that if you could solve the housing question you would very nearly have solved the wages question. The noble Lord put it rather the other way. He said the shortage of houses is due to the lowness of the wages; but he altogether forgot 978 another factor which contributes to the shortage of houses. Has he failed to notice the effect of the Land Taxes upon housebuilding in this country? He said during the course of his speech that in the view of his colleagues there was a deficiency of 120,000 houses to be made up; but has he not been informed that the drop in the building of houses which took place in the years following the passage of the Finance Act of 1910 left a hiatus which I do not believe that the whole of the 120,000 cottages, if they were built to-morrow, would be sufficient to fill up?
I was reminded when I listened to the noble Lord of an extremely interesting Report which has been lately issued by the Board of Agriculture upon the question of migration from rural districts. The Report mentions the acuteness of the housing problem as one of the causes, and adds that the prevailing discontent which has led to this movement of the labour population is due, not so much to lowness of wages as to lack of outlook. That, I think, is a very important proposition, and one which the noble Lord perhaps rather left out of account. The Minister whom he represents in this House is certainly aware of the fact. He made a speech, I think in the month of December, in which he dealt—and dealt, I thought, in a very temperate spirit—with this question; and what he most insisted upon was the need of giving the agricultural labourer what he called "an alternative on the land." I gather that what Mr. Runciman meant by that was that the labourer should be given either an opportunity of emerging from the ranks of labour and becoming something more advanced in the rural hierarchy than a mere labourer, or that if he remained a labourer he should have the opportunity of supplementing his earnings by the produce of either a garden or an allotment of sufficient size. Mr. Runciman gave a remarkable estimate of the value of such an arrangement. He said he had been told that a garden of one-eighth of an acre was considered by people who knew what they were talking about as equivalent to something between 1s. and 2s. a week wages. He also said that out of the produce of one acre of land a man would be very nearly able to keep himself for a whole year. Well, those are very sanguine figures. I hope they are true, but they seem to me to be 979 quite on the sanguine side. At the same time the idea is a perfectly sound one, and I quite recognise with the Minister the immense importance of giving to the agricultural labourers in this country an opportunity either of becoming small farmers and perhaps afterwards large farmers, or at any rate of obtaining access to the land while they still remain in the category of labourers. That they should have an outlook of this sort is not less important than that they should be adequately paid.
I should like, if I may, to say one word here in regard to what I believe to be a rather common and a rather mischievous fallacy, which is that at present the labourer has no opportunity—no outlook, as they say—of this kind. May I, if the House will bear with me, mention the facts as I am familiar with them in the case of an estate with which I have long been connected. Upon that estate there are altogether 89 tenants. Of these only 24 are the sons or grandsons of farmers or belong to what I might call the farming class. No fewer than 31 are men who have begun life as labourers; 10 more are sons of labourers, 19 are artisans or ex-artisans. I mentioned these facts to a noble friend of mine—I will not give his name because he has not authorised me to give it—and he supplied me with the figures of his estate, a much larger concern than that to which I referred a moment ago. Upon his estate there are altogether 150 tenants. Of these only 54 belong to the hereditary farming class; 58 are ex-labourers; 12 are the sons of labourers; and 15 are artisans or ex-artisans. I do not know whether those two estates are exceptional, but if the facts as they present themselves in these two cases bear any correspondence with the facts generally throughout the country it does show that a good deal of nonsense is being talked about agricultural labour being what is called a mere blind-alley employment with no future in front of it and with no prospect of advancement in life.
But be that as it may, the wage problem certainly remains. Now what can we do to deal with that in those cases where wages are admittedly too low? We are always ready to invoke the State on these occasions. I am afraid I am somewhat old-fashioned in my views as to the practice of constantly appealing to the 980 assistance of the State. I have an idea that it does a great deal to deteriorate the moral fibre of the people of this country. But those are old-fashioned views. I rather think they are shared by my noble friend on the Back Bench, but I do not think they are shared by a great many people; and we have at any rate left far behind the days when it is sufficient to appeal to the soundness of the principle of non-intervention. But I do venture to say this, that when we propose to call in the intervention of the State we ought at any rate to make quite sure that the intervention of the State is necessary; we ought to make quite sure that it will be effectual; and we ought to make quite sure that on the balance the amount of good which it will do will exceed the amount of harm which it may do.
As to the need of State intervention in this case I think there are many reasons for proceeding cautiously. To begin with, it will not be disputed that the position of the agricultural labourer to-day is infinitely better than it has been in the past. The noble Lord who represents the Board of Agriculture drew a very gloomy picture of the case. He said that when we were suggesting that the farmer should increase his wages we were asking him to do something which he had never been known in history to have done. I would like the noble Lord to look up a remarkable speech made in the House of Commons by the then President of the Board of Trade, Mr. Buxton, who is now a member of this House. I notice, by the way, that these Liberal gentlemen of very moderate opinions have a tendency to disappear from the fighting line and to become Colonial Governors. But that is in passing. Well, Mr. Buxton compared the three last decades, and he laid it down with the utmost confidence that as compared with the condition of things twenty years ago there was an enormous improvement in the position of the agricultural labourer. Then he said, comparing it with ten years ago, that there was less improvement, and he dwelt upon the point which was taken by Lord Lucas—the effect upon the labourers' position of the rise of prices. But Mr. Buxton had this to say about it. He said that the increase in the cost of living was not very serious and was much exaggerated. I believe that that is the case if you come to analyse the figures and see what are the commodities in which the rise in price has 981 taken place. At any rate the late colleague of the noble Lord, Mr. Buxton, said with great confidence that there was a real material improvement in the general condition of the working classes. There is another authority that I might have cited. I mean the high authority of Mr. Little, whose Report made in the year 1907 the noble Lord has probably read. If he has not I advise Mm to read it. He will find a great deal of extremely sensible and sound material in its pages. At any rate I take it upon myself to say that the general position of the agricultural labourer at this moment, far from being as a general rule a desperate position, is an extremely hopeful one. There are, of course, we all know, cases where the man and the members of his family have bad health, or where the family is very large. You will find almost everywhere cases of that kind on the poverty line, or perhaps even on the wrong side of the poverty line; and I think it is the existence of those exceptional cases that has very often produced the impression that the amount of destitution amongst the labourers is greater than it really is. At any rate the tactical position of the labourer at this moment is, I should be inclined to say, stronger than it has ever been within the memory of the oldest man in this House.
Then when we invoke the aid of the State to solve this wages question do we sufficiently realise the stupendous difficulty of the task which we are going to impose upon the State? Let us consider for one moment what the transaction is which takes place when one man employs another. One man has labour to sell, the other desires to buy it; unless the buyer can get the quantity of labour and the kind of labour which he requires, and unless he can get it upon terms which will suit him, he will not buy the labour at all. You cannot get away from that. You may lay down by Act of Parliament what the standard rate of wages should be, but you cannot compel one man to employ another at that wage. If a Government authority is to step in and to make the bargain for the two parties and to make it on business lines and with any prospect of its being taken advantage of, the State must use for the basis of its calculation, first, the amount of work which the man can perform, and, secondly, the market value of that work to the employer. If you go wrong upon either of 982 those points one of two things will happen. The man will not be employed in spite of your rules, or you may bring the whole of the industry to a standstill by imposing upon it a burden which it cannot carry. It seems to me to follow, as my noble friend behind me has said, that in all these cases the bed-rock upon which you have to work is a piecework basis. The second thing that follows is that your standard wage must be a daily wage and not a weekly wage or a monthly wage or a yearly wage; because obviously the employer will only employ the man if there is work to be done and if the man is there to do it.
In some cases, as the noble Lord told us, the thing is now done and done with a certain amount of success. He said, You have your sweated industries where wages are fixed under Act of Parliament; why not do it for agriculture? Surely the noble Lord, who is a practical agriculturist, must know the fundamental difference between work on a farm and work in a mill or in a factory. In the case of the sweated industries there is this characteristic, that there is absolute uniformity in regard to the commodities which are produced and in regard to the conditions under which they are produced. People who have to make garments or toys or paper boxes have to produce one paper box which will be absolutely the same as another paper box, or one garment which will be absolutely the same as another garment. But when you get into the domain of agriculture you find yourself face to face with literally infinite variety—infinite variety as between man and man; infinite variety, not only as between farm and farm but as between field and field, as between acre and acre, and even as between week and week and day and day. I want the noble Marquess who is going to follow me to tell me how he and his friends propose to draw up a Statute and to create an authority capable of adjusting matters of this infinite variety to the never-ending irregularities which characterise the operations of agriculture. I venture to say that whether that tribunal is manned by angels from Heaven or by commissioners from Whitehall they will find the task one which they will be absolutely unable to perform to their own satisfaction or to any one else's.
Then let us for a moment assume that these difficulties have been overcome. Let 983 us suppose that we have got our Act of Parliament and our Wages Court. Is not there something to be said as to the effects which an arrangement of this kind is likely to produce upon the industry of agriculture and upon the persons who are concerned in it? The proposal is that there should be an ideal rate of wages based upon the amount necessary to support a man and his family—a family of certain size—under certain conditions laid down by the State, and evidently intended to be considerably superior to the conditions with which we are familiar. How would such an arrangement work in practise? In the first place, we gather from the noble Lord that it would only apply to efficient labourers; the inefficient or the less efficient men would not get the advantage of it. Very well. To begin with, that leaves out in the cold the whole of those hard cases to which I referred a moment ago. The most tragical cases of all probably would get little or no relief at all. But there is more in it than that. Is it not perfectly well known that in any industry a sudden and considerable rise of wages may have the effect, not only of dislocating the industry, but really of bringing it to a standstill? The noble Lord must be aware that there are a great many coal mines, for example, which are kept going, if not at a loss, at any rate with no profit simply in order that they may not be closed down. I have seen it said that a rise of ten per cent. in the wages of cotton operatives would close half the mills in Lancashire. That is a very serious outlook.
I know what the official answer to that suggestion is. I have heard it made from the Front Bench opposite. The answer is that the case of agriculture is quite different, because in the case of agriculture you have the landlord's rent to fall back upon. The noble Lord nods his head to that. I will come to that in a moment. But I hope he has not failed to observe that in the second volume of the Land Report which has just appeared we find the suggestion that there is to be a minimum wage established by the State for all low-paid earners. There is no landlord's rent to fall back upon in that case. I think if the noble Lord and his friends do not take care they will find that they will put such a handicap upon a good many British industries that very serious questions will be asked as to whether business can be carried on under 984 those conditions much longer in a country where free imports are permitted from other States in which conditions of the kind are not enforced. I grant that in the case of agriculture you can come down upon the landlord's rent. We are quite aware, because the Chancellor of the Exchequer has told us so, that if there is not fairplay enough to go round the landlord is to be served last. The Lord Chancellor has left the Woolsack. I should have rather liked to ask his opinion as to the equity of that principle as a matter of distributive justice.
But let us see what would happen. The amount of deduction from the rent will, of course, depend entirely upon the proportion which the farmer's wages bill bears to the rent which he pays his landlord. There are some cases where the wages bill is comparatively small; there are others where it is very large indeed. In a case where the wages bill, let us say, is equal to the rent, the matter might not be so serious; but I understand that there are cases where the wages bill is two or three times the rent. Then what will happen? The answer is given in the Land Report. There is an admirable table in which are worked out the effects of charging the increase of wages upon the rent as affecting a list of selected farms. There are some farms where the result would not be so very considerable; but there is one farm I notice in which the charge upon the rent would be over 100 per cent.—that is to say, there would be not only no rent left but from some source or another there would be something more to be found. The idea is, I understand, that the burden shall be shared between landlord and tenant, and if there is to be a burden it is quite right that it should be shared; but long before we have got to that point you will have both parties combining to cut down the labour bill. That seems to me perfectly obvious. It is a law in agriculture that the higher the wages the smaller is the number of men employed upon the land. I think the noble Lord will not contradict me when I say that. Therefore the first thing will be to cut down the labour bill. That will mean, I am afraid, a "tuning up" of the men who are kept, the most efficient men, and the dismissal of all those who are less efficient. I do not see what else can happen. That is not an unmixed advantage to the labouring classes. What will the result be? It will be that more 985 land will be laid down to grass. I think the noble Lord admitted that himself. Now from the point of view of fox-hunters you cannot have too much grass, but from the point of view of the agriculturist I think we have too much already. In the decade 1901 to 1911, 1,000,000 acres were laid down to grass; in the year 1912, 277,000 acres were laid down to grass. I should be sorry to see that process continued indefinitely. I am inclined to think, on the contrary, that we ought to give all the encouragement we can to the agriculturists who believe that more wheat can be grown in this country and who are setting themselves to work to solve that problem. Anything like a hurried compulsory raising of wages to the kind of point contemplated in this Report would certainly put an end once and for all to any chance of improvement in that direction.
There is another by-product of a compulsory minimum wage fixed at a high point. I think it will have the effect of introducing a system of short hirings, with which in many parts of England we are not at present familiar. We are familiar with it in the North. The noble Lord probably knows what is meant by the bothy system in Scotland; the farmer hires his man for the season in the market and he lodges him in a building, which is described in Mr. Little's Report as a barrack, on the farm. I confess I very much prefer the old-fashioned cottage in which a man and his father, and grandfather before him very likely, have lived, with local ties in the shape of allotments and gardens. I think that is a better arrangement than this system of men who are hired in the market place, who are lodged in a barrack, and who are turned adrift when the farmer no longer has occasion for their services. I mention all these things because they seem to me the kind of possibilities which should be present to our minds when we are asked to commit ourselves to a new policy such as that which His Majesty's Government apparently favour.
I hope the noble Lord will not think that what I am saying is merely the grumbling of a hide-bound landlord. We all of us recognise that changes have to come, and we are ready to face them; but we do very earnestly plead that you will not rush us 986 without sufficient consideration into changes which may be disastrous to agriculture as an industry and which may bring untold suffering upon many of the humblest people who are connected with it. I do not, however, suggest that there is nothing to be done. On the contrary, I should like to see something done and I should like to see something done soon, and that is why I think my noble friend's proposal deserves consideration. But I agree with my noble friend Lord Malmesbury when he says that we want to know a good deal more about the facts before we plunge into these enterprises. Pray let me make it clear to your Lordships that I am not suggesting a Royal Commission which might sit for five years and produce two or three hundredweight of Blue-books. On the contrary, I deprecate anything like a dilatory investigation. But I do not see why you should not have at once local inquiries carried on simultaneously very much as you had local inquiries carried out in the year 1907. There are many questions about which we want to know more, and as to which we cannot, with all respect to the laborious efforts of the compilers of the Land Report, accept the evidence of that Report as being entirely beyond suspicion.
The kind of questions I have in my mind are these. We want to know in these low-paid districts a little more as to what the men are actually getting. We want to know a little more about payments in kind. There is a great, and I think natural, suspicion of payments in kind. They seem to savour of the truck system. But in some cases I believe payments in kind are not in fact objectionable. There is the same kind of suspicion of the tied-house system. I do not like the tied-house system, but in some cases a farmer will not take a farm unless you give him the cottages which are absolutely indispensable for him for his cow-men and others. Then there is the question of holidays and daily hours about which I know the men feel very strongly indeed; and I have an idea that the task of coming to their assistance in the matter of hours is a less difficult task than that of coming to their assistance in the matter of fixing a compulsory wage upon scientific principles.
Then, my Lords, I come to my noble friend's suggestion, which I was glad to notice the noble Lord opposite did not 987 receive unkindly. My noble friend made it quite clear, to me at any rate, that what he contemplated was legislation, but legislation under which there might be localised efforts to bring employers and employed together, to set up what might be regarded with the consent of all concerned as a reasonable wage between man and man, but without going the length of compelling the parties to adopt that wage. I am under the impression that an investigation of this kind would very often disclose a far from unreasonable spirit in those concerned. The labourers would, of course, welcome the chance of laying their case before a sympathetic tribunal. The farmers in some cases might be suspicious, but I think it is in evidence that a good many of them are deterred from helping their men because they do not like to break away from their brother farmers. At any rate, I think the farmers would meet such a proposal in a not unreasonable frame of mind. As for the landlords, I have already said that if there is a sacrifice to be made they are ready to bear their share of it, just as they have borne their share of even heavier sacrifices in past years.
As to the precise form which this machinery of conciliation might take, that is a matter for consideration and discussion. There are many ways that suggest themselves. You might have your Commissioners from Whitehall. I am inclined to think that upon the whole the Commissioner from Whitehall—the promoted private secretary—is regarded with a good deal of suspicion in the rural districts. You might have local Wages Boards. You might have committees appointed by the county councils. That seems to me to be worth considering, although I note the apparently incurable dislike which a Liberal Government has developed of all these popularly elected local authorities. But I hope that the noble Marquess will not tell us that all this will be no good unless you mix it up with compulsion. The Liberal love of coercion is something extraordinary. At any rate, even if we cannot move them from that affection, may we not ask them to try conciliation first? and then if it fails we can talk about something more drastic.
I should like to read to your Lordships one passage from the Report of the Industrial Council—Sir George Askwith's 988 Council—in the year 1913 upon conciliation. This is what is there said:—The extent to which some form of conciliatory machinery exists in connection with the various industries of this country is a marked feature of the industrial life of the community, and the success which has attended the operations of the various voluntary boards of conciliation and arbitration points to the desirability of the continued maintenance of this form of adjusting trade disputes. The basis of these conciliation boards and joint committees is mutual consent, and their value in the past has depended upon the loyal acceptance, on the part of the constituents on both sides, of the decisions arrived at in accordance with the procedure of the boards. This acceptance is purely voluntary, depending solely upon the sense of moral obligation. So far as has been shown by the evidence which we have heard, loyal acceptance of the decisions of the conciliation boards has been the rule in all the trades concerned, and it would appear inexpedient to attempt to substitute for these voluntary forms of machinery some alternative method based upon principles other than that of mutual consent.Well, my Lords, if conciliation has answered and is answering us well in the case of other trades, why on earth should it be a failure in the case of agriculture? I must say I regard that as a very strong piece of evidence in support of my noble friend's proposal.
One more argument in favour of that proposal. You could try my noble friend's plan at once. There is no reason why you should not before the end of this session pass a short Bill which would set up local authorities of this kind. If you are going in for a larger scheme with compulsion behind it, how long do you think it will take you to frame your Statute, get it through both Houses of Parliament, and set it in operation? I can only renew an appeal which I have made before in this House, the appeal that we might deal with these agricultural questions in which we are all interested in a manner calculated to drag them out of the vortex of Party politics. We have not been much encouraged by the reception of overtures which we have made to you upon a previous occasion. Mr. Runciman, in the speech to which I have already referred, expressed a hope that His Majesty's Government might have the co-operation of leading landowners in the development of the schemes which he was explaining. I remember throwing out in this House the idea that we might combine to discuss, and if possible to deaf with, the housing problem. We got no encouragement. Our Bills which we pro- 989 duced were not only turned down but they were turned down with the not very courteous suggestion that they had been framed with the object of enriching the landlord class, as if any member of the landlord class, or of any other class had ever enriched himself by building cottages in the country.
My Lords, what have the Government achieved? Months have gone by. We might amongst us have got those 120,000 cottages built, or at any rate stood in a fair way of building them by this time. How many have been built? Not one. All the Government have got is the gap which I said at the beginning of my speech they have themselves created by their policy of unproductive land taxation. Noble Lords opposite snubbed us when we proposed co-operation in the matter of housing. At any rate, the noble Lord has not snubbed us this evening when we proposed that we should make an endeavour to deal with the wages question. I hope that means that a more charitable and forbearing spirit is developing in the minds of Ministers. Unless such a spirit does develop itself, I am afraid that the agricultural labourer will have to wait for a considerable time for the house which we all want to put over his head and for the better wage which we all want to put in his pocket.
THE LORD PRIVY SEAL AND SECRETARY OF STATE FOR INDIA (THE MARQUESS OF CREWE)
My Lords, I am sorry to rise at so late an hour. It is, I am afraid, often the fate of the Leaders on both sides of this House, like a much more distinguished person than either of us can claim to be, to be thinking of convincing when other Lords are thinking of dining. Fortunately, however, my noble friend behind me (Lord Lucas) has gone so fully into the various circumstances connected with this subject that all I need do is to deal, if I can, with some points which have been raised since my noble friend spoke. The first point of which much has been made is the alleged need for an inquiry of a more formal and different character from that which has taken place into this subject. We had to wait until the noble Marquess who has just sat down spoke before we knew precisely what kind of inquiry it was that noble Lords opposite desired to see instituted, because I was not quite 990 clear until then whether what was asked for was a purely statistical inquiry—whether it was that the figures in this somewhat abused book were not taken by noble Lords as being authentic, although as a matter of fact the great bulk of the figures there are founded upon an official basis; or whether the kind of inquiry that was demanded, as I rather gathered from the noble Earl, Lord Malmesbury, was a kind of social inquiry in fact which would cover the whole ground in relation to the agricultural labourers in this country. What the noble Marquess, I understand, desires is a kind of short and sharp inquiry which will by some means or other—although I do not know how it can be done to satisfy the noble Marquess without the obtaining of a great deal of evidence—satisfy him and his friends on. the precise figures of the earnings of labourers in different parts of the country and the conditions under which that money is earned.
I confess, in regard to the very interesting speech of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Parmoor, who is not at present in the House, that I do not think it was possible to be greatly impressed by the comparisons which he made between the condition of agricultural labourers in this country and that of those in some parts of the Continent of Europe—parts of France and Belgium, and parts, I think, of Holland—in which the landlord and tenant system exists where farms are large and labourers are employed. It would be a long and difficult business to compare the exact reasons which may make the lot of the English agricultural labourer in some respects more enviable than that of the labourers in those countries; and even if his lot is so much more enviable it does not seem to me to entirely decide this particular question we are discussing any more than if we were to agree, as we might, that the lot of the Indian cultivator as a class is less comfortable in respect of housing and food, indeed in all respects, than that of the agricultural labourer in this country.
§ THE MARQUESS OF LANSDOWNE
I think my noble friend Lord Parmoor referred to Belgium because Belgium had been held up by the Chancellor of the Exchequer as the model we might justly imitate.
THE MARQUESS OF CREWE
I had not forgotten that point. I think the noble Marquess will find that the comparison of the Chancellor of the Exchequer went further than the mere comparison between the condition of the agricultural labourer employed on the farm. It also had relation to his opportunities of obtaining further interest in the land of the kind which the noble Marquess, in the very important figures he gave us, told us, as I am glad is the case, is by no means always denied to the labourer in this country. Then the noble Marquess touched upon the question of housing which, as has been said, is so closely connected with this question of wages. It seemed to me that he was a little beside the mark in ascribing the want of cottages as to any extent due to, or accentuated by, the provisions of the Finance Act of 1910. The Land Taxes, whatever their burden may be—and when we are always told they produce nothing their impoverishing effect upon landlords cannot be very severe—in no ordinary case apply to the kind of land on which people are in the habit of putting up pairs of cottages for agricultural labourers. It can only be in a very few districts that Land Value Duty can be charged upon the sites of such cottages, and I confess I do not see the close connection between the two things which the noble Marquess assumed was the case.
Then as regards the possible remedies. The noble Marquess with great power, if he will permit me to say so, mentioned the particular difficulties and objections to the application of the principle of a minimum wage to the agricultural industry. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Parmoor, did not altogether scout the idea of a minimum wage, in which he somewhat differed from the noble Marquess who introduced this subject. He dislikes the phrase "a minimum wage," but would like to see, as I understand, the wages in the poorly paid districts raised on the average.
§ THE MARQUESS OF SALISBURY
I dislike the phrase "minimum wage" because I do not want to see labourers' earnings merely raised to a minimum wage. I want to see them raised to a reasonable wage.
THE MARQUESS OF CREWE
I quite understand the noble Marquess's point of 992 view. Those who desire to see the introduction of the principle of a minimum wage would say that what is important is that no labourer should be obliged to work for a wage which is a starvation wage and falls even below the low average of some districts. Lord Lansdowne pointed out the difficulties of the application of the system to the particular industry, and he stated what was quite true—that as regards some trades, those trades to which the principle was first applied, the conditions are far simpler than those which exist in the case of agriculture. But in spite of the complicated conditions of agriculture—and, as we know, they are enormously complicated, because agriculture is almost the only industry that supplies some kind of work for every type of person, young and old, sound and crippled, of every possible variety—in spite of those difficulties you could hardly find greater complications than you do to the application of the principle to the coal mining industry. I happen to know something of the coal mining industry in three districts, which are all three different from each other in the complications which exist, and which, as recent events have shown to those who read the newspapers, can hardly be exaggerated. So the agricultural case is no more difficult than the mining case.
But, as my noble friend behind me stated, we have not attempted to formulate the precise plan under which some form of the fixing of a minimum wage could take place. I think it is safe to say that the vastly differing local considerations must be taken into account. There must be machinery for taking them into account when the tribunal, whatever it may be, by which the wage is to be fixed is to come into being. But Lord Salisbury and the noble Marquess who leads the Opposition both think that it is at any rate premature, and possibly in any case unwise, to attempt any form of compulsory statement of wages until conciliation has been tried in the first instance. I think we should all agree that if these arrangements can be come to without compulsion it would be infinitely preferable. Nobody, in spite of the noble Marquess having twitted us with our fondness of compulsion, enjoys introducing compulsion into an industrial business of this kind, although in some cases we may consider it to be necessary. The adoption of the principle of the Land Act of 1881 in Ireland for the fixing of rent is not one 993 which any of us thought was attractive in itself, but in the circumstances in Ireland as they then were we did not see how that form of compulsion could be avoided. And I may remind noble Lords opposite that it was the existence of that system of rent fixing by a public authority which made possible the adoption of the principle of land purchase which we have stuck to, as indeed we have, as the ultimate solution of the Irish land question. The point is therefore, Would you be able to effect your object, that of the general raising of low wages, without some compulsory machinery? The noble Marquess, I understand, favours compulsion to this extent, that he would have an Act of Parliament by which the different parties to the dispute, farmers and labourers, possibly also landowners, but I am not certain—
THE MARQUESS OF CREWE
Yes. That the different parties, with perhaps an impartial chairman, should be turned into a room and made to sit down, their heads so to speak rubbed together, with an injunction that they are to settle upon a fair wage for the particular district; and the noble Marquess confides in the prospect, which was also entertained by Lord Parmoor, that the pressure of public opinion would be sufficiently strong to compel the farmers, or employers of any kind, in that particular district to apply that wage in ordinary cases. Well, my Lords, it might happen in some cases, but I confess I greatly doubt whether in this particular industry public opinion could be brought to bear as a rule in the way in which both the noble Marquesses hope. It seems to me that they have given the answer themselves to their own question, for this reason. Both noble Marquesses dwelt on the immense complication and the endless differences between one kind of soil and another kind of soil; the capacity of one labourer and the capacity of another labourer; all those points which make it, as we all agree, difficult to fix a minimum wage. But will not the result of the recognition of those difficulties be simply this, that any farmer who for some reason or other prefers to go on paying a lower wage will have some admirable excuse to offer to public opinion, which is pressing 994 him, for paying rather less than the wage fixed by this loosely-organised tribunal as a kind of standard wage for the district? He will say, "It is all very well for Mr. So-and-So, whose farm is close to the village and is better land than mine, to pay his labourers, who, to take them altogether, are younger and stronger than mine, the wage which has been recommended. My land is poor; half my labourers are a rather inefficient lot of people; I shall therefore continue to pay the lower scale which I have been paying hitherto." I confess that my knowledge of the countryside does not lead me to believe that a man of that kind would be in any sense scouted, or in the mildest form boycotted, by his neighbours for his refusal to pay what the other farmers did.
THE MARQUESS OF CREWE
Well, would they? That is precisely what I doubt. He would not be the only objector in the district you may be sure. What would happen would be, I venture to think, that the effect of the naming of such a standard, unless it was a very low standard indeed, would be that it would only be paid by a few of the most prosperous, possibly the most generously-minded or freest-handed, farmers in the district, and that there would be various rates paid just as at present according to some extent to the character of the farmer, and to some extent also, no doubt, to the character of his farm. As a matter of fact, I fear that the introduction of this system would have but a very slight effect in bringing about the object we have at heart.
The real difficulty surely is this, and this, I think, is the answer to the noble Marquess, Lord Lansdowne, when he quoted the words of Sir George Askwith on the question of conciliation and its advantages. Sir George Askwith was speaking of conciliation as opposed to an industrial conflict, conciliation as opposed to a strike. Well, ex hypothesi, we have all agreed that labourers cannot strike, and therefore they do not enter into a conciliatory talk of this kind on anything like even terms. They are subject to be locked out, not as a mass, but as individuals, but they cannot strike. 995 If they leave they have practically nowhere to go. You may be sure that they will not be employed in the immediate neighbourhood if they leave with a bad name. Therefore I am afraid that the initial conditions necessary for a conciliatory talk of this kind—namely, that the two parties should be on even terms and stand on the same solid ground—do not exist in that case; and if anything is to be done we shall find that it is necessary to have recourse to some form of compulsion, although at this moment I do not profess to tell the House what form we shall adopt.
But this I certainly can say, that I cordially welcome the statement of noble Lords opposite that we ought, in a matter of this kind, to consult different varieties of public opinion so far as we can. I think that we have shown, as my noble friend behind me has said, that we are desirous 996 in this matter to obtain all the best opinions we can. Although for the reasons I have stated I do not believe myself that the remedy which Lord Salisbury has brought forward to-night would prove to be an efficacious remedy—and it certainly is never wise to introduce a public remedy for an admitted evil unless you firmly believe that it would be to a certain extent efficacious—I am grateful to the noble Marquess for having brought it forward, and I fully admit that, like all seriously planned schemes for dealing with this intensely difficult subject, the condition of the agricultural labourer, whether as regards his wages, or his housing, or his employment, it demands careful and serious consideration, and that, I can assure the noble Marquess, it will receive.
§ House adjourned at ten minutes before Eight o'clock, till To-morrow, half-past Ten o'clock.