§ Debate on the Amendment moved by Lord Strachie to the Motion: That the Bill be now read 2a—namely, to leave out all the words after "That" for the purpose of inserting the following Resolution: "This House refuses to assent to a partial and lop-sided repeal of the Agriculture Act, 1920."—resumed (according to Order).
§ THE EARL OF SELBORNE
My Lords, at the end of our discussion last night we listened to a very powerful attack by the noble Viscount, Lord Milner, upon the policy of the Government as embodied in this Bill for repealing the Corn Production Act, which was passed by Parliament only a few weeks ago. I wish to associate myself with all that he said in that connection. I cannot think of any more discreditable episode in the life of the Government than to have deliberately asked Parliament to adopt a permanent policy in agriculture in one month; 168 to press it through all the stages in both Houses of Parliament; to ask landowners, farmers, and labourers to make sacrifices for the sake of a national policy; and then, within less than a year, to come down to Parliament and ask for the repeal of the more important part of the Act. I do not suppose the whole annals of Parliamentary history contain a parallel case, and I do not envy the feelings of my noble friend on the Woolsack or other members of the Government who have had to come down to Parliament to sponsor this repudiation of a policy which was deliberately adopted on national grounds.
I do not think that we ought to forget how very scurvy is the treatment which the Government have meted out to all classes connected with agriculture. This House represents very largely the agricultural landowners of Great Britain. The Government deliberately asked them to make certain definite sacrifices; to agree to interference between them and their tenants, and to other changes in the existing law and customs of agriculture for the sake of a national policy and for the national welfare; and your Lordships' House agreed to all those things. Now, the Government come and ask you to agree to the repeal of part of this Act, but not of that Part which specially concerns the relations of landlord and tenant. I think this House will be very long-suffering if it does not speak its mind pretty plainly to the representatives Of the Government on this matter.
Look at the position of the farmers. Their patriotism was appealed to; they were asked to agree to Government interference in the conduct of their industry, to the permanent establishment of wages boards for the sake of a national agricultural policy, and they agreed. Then, without any consultation with them—and it makes no difference to my argument that I quite admit that many of the farmers rather prefer the change, the repeal of the Act—without any consultation with them of any sort or kind (and I will refer to that question again presently) the Government announced to Parliament a change of policy. The third class, the labourers, have at least as great a grievance as the landowners, because to them the establishment of the wages board was a matter of great consequence. Yet the Government, although they had asked them in their turn to accept this national policy in all 169 its stages, suddenly and without any previous consultation with them told them that the wages board on which such great stress was laid was abolished.
But worse remains. For the first time in the history of England, we found a Government saying:"Agriculture is more important than any other industry in the country. It stands in a more special relation to our national defence and to our national system of economy than any other industry. Therefore, we ask Parliament to adopt for the first time a national agricultural policy." Now the whole of that is scrapped. The Government offer nothing whatever in its place, and, for good or ill, once more every landowner and every farmer is thrown exclusively on his own responsibility. He is no longer told to think of what is best for the nation; he is encouraged to think only of what is best for himself.
I am one of those who deplore the repeal of the Corn Production Act. I know that is not the opinion of all those whom I address, but in the light of my previous statements on this subject, my confession will surprise no noble Lord. I deplore it because I foresee the consequences. Within less than a generation a vast area of land in England will have gone down from plough to grass—a vast area! Not tens of thousands, not scores or hundreds of thousands of acres, but millions of acres will have gone down to grass, and I deplore that with all my heart, because it means a still further decrease in the rural population. I regard that as a great economic, social and political evil. When I look forward to the possibility that some day this country may again be at war, I know, from my experience at the Board of Admiralty and at the Ministry of Agriculture, that this disappearance of the plough land of England may mean a great additional danger to England in the time of her greatest emergency. Those are the reasons why I deplore the repeal of these Acts.
What is the excuse for the repeal? It is because it is suddenly found that the burden of taxation which will be laid on the taxpayers of this country is far greater than had been anticipated. I am not here to say that you can maintain an agricultural policy, any more than a naval policy, without regard to its cost. If it is true that the guarantees have been fixed 170 at a price which would entail the payment of vast sums to farmers from the taxpayers in this time of almost national bankruptcy, then I do not wonder that the Government pause. I will venture to say presently what they ought to have done, instead of what they did. But I do not think it would be right for this House to forget how it came about that the guarantees were fixed at a figure which has made this catastrophe possible. When the original proposal was made for guarantees a Committee was appointed by Mr. Asquith, over which I had the honour to preside. It was a very strong Committee, which nobody could say was not completely representative of agriculture in all its branches. It fixed the guarantees with very great care, at a very moderate figure. But circumstances changed, and it became necessary to reconsider the figure. Values had altogether changed, and, as I say, it became necessary to reconsider the figure.
What did the Government do? It was at a moment when really they seemed to have had an attack of what I may call political insanity. It was the moment when they appointed the notorious Coal Commission. Your Lordships will remember how that Commission was constituted—ex-representatives of the owners, ex-representatives of the miners, and Mr. Justice Sankey in the chair, with one or two economists and theorists added. The whole country knows what it has had to pay as the consequence of the appointment of that most ridiculous and absurd Commission. Perhaps some of your Lordships have forgotten that is exactly what the Government did in the case of agriculture. The only question was what revision was necessary for the rates of guarantee. What body did the Government employ in order to advise them in that matter? I am not going to give your Lordships absolutely precise figures, because I have not them with me, but what I am stating is substantially and literally true. The Government appointed twelve farmers, twelve representatives of the Labour Party, two or three economists, and an accountant as chairman—a less fit body to decide on this question it would be impossible to imagine. There was hardly an impartial person on the Committee at all, and there was no representative of the landowners. And what happened? The representatives of Labour on that Commission employed their time exclusively in trying to make out a case for land nationalisation, and it 171 was left to the farmers to fix their own figure of the guarantees.
Although they were perfectly honourable men, naturally, being representatives of the farming industry, what they were thinking of was to be quite sure that the guarantees they fixed should be large enough to cover their conditions. In the final vote all the Labour representatives voted one side, all the farmers another, and one economist voted with the farmers, and therefore, by a single vote, the recommendation was made to the Government for the changed guarantee which has brought the whole system to grief and ruin. The Government accepted the recommendation with that authority behind it, and Lord Lee, who was then Minister of Agriculture, found this Commission so preposterous that he rapidly dissolved it before it could do any further mischief. That is how the Government find themselves in the position of having to come down and make this extremely discreditable exhibition.
I will go back to what the Government ought to have done when it became necessary to change the scale of guarantees. Obviously, the matter should have been referred to a very small body of impartial experts with no personal interest in the matter. That would not have involved theories of nationalisation or the responsibility of a National Farmers' Union to its members. Although I do not think the guarantee for wheat was much too high, it was a little too high, but I am sure the guarantee for oats was much too high, and it was that guarantee which brought the whole system to grief. In the first instance oats were included mainly because of Ireland, and then Ireland was excluded altogether from the provisions of the Corn Production Act, so that it is rather an Irish transaction that we have before us.
What the Government ought to have done when they found themselves in this condition was to have summoned the National Agricultural Council of England and Wales. The Government had constituted the National Agricultural Council for England and Wales a statutory body. It was a body completely representative of the agricultural interests. It is, therefore, almost incredible that that body to this day has, never been consulted in this matter at all. It was set up expressly in order that the Minister of 172 Agriculture might have a body thoroughly representative of agriculture to consult when needed, yet that body was not consulted, and never has been consulted. What the Government might have done, instead of reversing the whole of their policy, was to have called that body together and laid the whole situation before them, saying: "The guarantees have been fixed at a price which the country cannot afford, and we ask for your advice. We ask you to allow us to change the standard of the guarantees, or tell us if you prefer some other policy." Agriculture would then at any rate have had a hearing, and we should not have been put in this position, nor would the Government have been put in the position into which they have chosen to place themselves.
I come now to the Bill itself. I have very few observations to make, except in respect of Clause 4. In regard to the subvention to agriculture in Clause 3, I am glad that there is power to give scholarships and maintenance to the promising children of agricultural labourers. The purpose of Clause 4 is to encourage the establishment of voluntary conciliation committees to deal with wages and hours of labour, and, in certain circumstances, to give a statutory binding force to the recommendations of those committees. I think that the agricultural labourers of England deserve a very great measure of sympathy from your Lordships' House. Before the war, in many districts, they were underpaid; that is to say, their wages had not risen as quickly as they ought to have done with the then increasing prosperity of agriculture; but at the present moment they are, in my judgment, in a far better position than they were before the war. I know that that is not the view of the Labour Party. The Labour Party is very fond of saying that if you take the statistics of the Board of Trade, the cost of living has risen (say) 120 per cent., but if you take the wages of the agricultural labourer they have not risen 120 per cent., and therefore the agricultural labourer is worse off than he was before the war. That certainly is not my experience.
I may claim, as many of your Lordships may claim, to know pretty intimately the agricultural labourer, and judged by all the standards of expenditure which we apply to ourselves or any other social unit, I 173 say definitely that in my county—for which alone I speak—the agricultural labourer is substantially better off than he was before the war. The reason why the calculation of the Labour Party is unsound is that the figures of the Board of Trade include a whole list of articles of consumption which the agricultural labourer does not buy at all, but grows for himself in his garden. In nine cases out of ten he has a garden. If an agricultural labourer has not a garden, then I admit his position is not improved in comparison with what it was before the war; but in my county I am happy to say such a thing is almost unknown as an agricultural labourer without a garden, and a good garden. Therefore, whereas the cost of the garden to him has increased only a very little, he has not had to buy garden stuff at the increased prices in the shops, and that is why the position of the agricultural labourer is undoubtedly improved. I should regard it as a great national misfortune if his position deteriorated again to what it was before the war.
It is because I believe that the machinery of this Bill, as it has come out from another place, is necessary to maintain his position that I support this part of the Bill, and I will briefly tell your Lordships why. I am convinced, speaking for the parts of England that I know, and they are only in the South, that if good conciliation committees are formed, as they will be formed, the recommendations they will make will be sound, wise and just recommendations; but unless they have the sanction of law behind them, there are a great many employers of agricultural labour who will not observe the rates laid down and who will do their best, being themselves (many of them) poor men, to get the agricultural labourer to work for as low wages as they possibly can. The result will be not only unmerited hardship to the individual labourers, but discord and strife in the industry, because, of course, the Labour Party would at once throw the whole of their strength into the districts affected to try to promote strife. Even those who are doing their best to pay fair wages would suffer, and the whole industry in a county might be reduced to discord and chaos. If there is just; this element of compulsion behind it, brought in, as I will show your Lordships, under cry careful safeguards, then I believe, speaking for my county, we shall have a wholly peaceful industry.
174 It is only right and just that we should remember that in all these years of difficulty, all through the war and since the war, the agricultural labourer has played the game. No class of labourer worked better than he did through the war. I do not say there were no strikes. There were some strikes here and there, but there were no strikes on any large scale, and during the war and since the war the agricultural labourer has set ark example which it would be indeed happy for this country if other branches of labour had followed. That is why I say the agricultural labourer is entitled to the whole of our sympathy in this matter.
Now this Bill avoids the mistake of the Agricultural Wages Board. I see my noble friend who, as Sir Ailwyn Fellowes, was Chairman of the Agricultural Wages Board, has taken his seat to-day, and I am sure I only voice the feeling of all your Lordships when we give him here a very hearty welcome. We know what a very ripe experience he will bring to our discussions in all public matters; especially those affecting agriculture. He was the first Chairman of the Board, and although I do not think all the decisions of that Board have been happy, yet I do think that that Board under his guidance brought the country through a very difficult and critical time. But, if he will allow me to say so in his presence, the great mistake that that Board made was that it depressed and diminished the influence of the county and local boards, and concentrated all authority and power in the Central Board. That is exactly what I think ought not to have been done. I think that the Central Board should only have acted and intervened on very rare occasions, and that the settling of the rates should have been made a county matter.
It is just because this Bill reverses the proceedings that have hitherto obtained that I so heartily support it. It gives every facility for the creation of county boards, or more than one board in a county, and it eliminates the Central Board altogether. Each county and each locality is to be left free, as I understand, to form its own conciliation committee. This is riot the moment to go in detail into that question, but having formed a committee in which the employers and the employed will be equally represented, then a recommendation has to be accepted unanimously by that board. I say "unani- 175 mously," because the employers will have only one vote and the employed will have only one vote. No doubt they will, in separate compartments, consider what that vote shall be, and there may well be division when the employed and the employers are considering the question for themselves, but when the committee acts as a committee then a decision, to be effective, must be a unanimous decision. That is the first safeguard. Once that decision is reached then there has to be a unanimous decision to ask the Minister to give the effect of the Statute to that decision, and I maintain that with the ultimate possibility of compulsion lurking in the background, there will probably be very seldom occasion to use it, because those who would like to reject the decisions of the county board, and to pay such wages as they choose, will know that in the long run their efforts must be defeated.
Only one question remains, and that is whether the provisions in the Bill are sufficiently wide to make the employment of the aged and infirm labourer an easy matter under rates less than those recommended as the minimum rate for an able-bodied labourer by the conciliation committee. Another defect of the working of the wages board was that it certainly was not a very simple matter to get a special rate, recommended by a district committee, allowed for a man who could not expect to command the full rate. I think the kindest thing we can do to the old and infirm labourer, who has a great claim on the sympathy of this House, is to make it easy for him to make his own arrangement with his employer, and that that arrangement should be liable to be upset only when there has been a clear abuse and when, under cover of a provision meant only for the infirm, the feeble, or the aged, an unscrupulous employer has used it in the moment of greatest stress to force an inadequate wage on an able-bodied labourer with a family. I do not say that it is easy to find words exactly to meet these conditions, but I think your Lordships will do well to explore these clauses carefully with a view of seeing whether that cage is properly met.
I am afraid it will not be possible for me to vote with Lord Strachie. Although I have ventured to express freely my opinion of the conduct of the Government and the policy of repudiating the Corn Production Act, yet I do not think any 176 useful purpose would be served at this moment in joining with the noble Lord in an Amendment which can only render chaos worse confused.
§ THE MARQUESS OF LINCOLNSHIRE
My Lords, the noble Earl, in an able 'and exhaustive speech, has deplored the action of the Government. I cannot agree with him. I rejoice at it. I was never more pleased than when I heard the news. Some of us gave the Bill two years to run; it has been exploded in six months, and I cannot say how much we rejoice. Although Part I of the Bill is scrapped, there is one portion which we regret, and that is that relating to the wages boards. I do not wish to say more about that question, because we can safely leave it to the labourers themselves, who are well organised now and able to take care of themselves at the next General Election, which we understand is not very far distant.
I am not going to take up the time of the House by quotations from Ministerial speeches or by trying to prove any inconsistency in any human being. What I should like to be allowed to do is to congratulate very sincerely the noble Earl who introduced the Bill on the skilful way he performed a somewhat delicate and difficult, but not uncongenial, task. I also offer my respectful thanks, as a ratepayer and taxpayer, to the Government for having saved us millions and millions of pounds by scrapping Part I of the Bill. I wish the Government had gone a little further, and that when they went out "cherry-biting" they had done it at once. As they have got rid of Part I, it is a thousand pities that they have not got rid of Part II as well, which your Lordships know was supposed to give security of tenure. Under the Bill as originally introduced, any man who removed a tenant for capricious reasons had to refund to him four years' gross rent. That went by the board. If it had not, I do not suppose the Second Reading would have been carried in your Lordships' House. Then we had a flat rate. The flat rate is one year's rent, and if von pay one year's rent to any tenant you can get rid of that tenant for any earthly reason whatever. I say without fear of contradiction that the flat rate, regarded as a sort of security of tenure, puts a premium on notice to quit and standardises and legalises capricious evictions for all time. This fiat rate has brought some very 177 Serious consequences in its train, to which, for a moment, I ask permission to call your attention.
We all know that the only estates in England on which there really was security of tenure, is what are called Crown lands; State lands. I was surprised by seeing an advertisement that a large portion of these Crown lands, the property of the station, was to be offered for sale. There are two questions I want to ask. The first is, of these lands are sold, what is going to be done with the money? Is it to be invested in real security, or is it to be handed over to a Government Department? In the latter case it will disappear in an incredibly short time. We all know that the Government have destroyed the credit of the nation; flooded the country with paper money; debased the coinage of the Realm; and now they are selling the Crown lands. There will be nothing left except to dispose of, or pawn the Crown jewels.
I have in my hand a preliminary announcement by Daniel Smith, Oakley and Garrard, by order of His Majesty's Commissioners of Woods and Forests. The woods and forests were transferred in 1906 or 1907 to the Ministry of Agriculture,.who are now responsible for the administration of those lands. I should like to know, and it is important we should know, who is responsible for this new departure. I know that my noble friend, the Earl of Ancaster, has nothing to do with it, because when I mentioned it to him he said: "Oh, good gracious me! You have discovered another mare's nest. Of course, the lands that are going to be sold are the 27,000 acres or so that the local authorities have had to buy and that are now thrown on the market, with grass-grown streets and half-made sewers, and so on, but there is no intention at all of selling the lands of the Crown." Then I had the opportunity of speaking to the Minister of Agriculture. He was very cautious and said "Oh, well, I shall have to look into this." He would not say so, but he gave me to understand that he was somewhat ignorant of what was going on, and that he had nothing to do with it.
Therefore, it conies to this: that this policy must have been initiated—I hope your Lordships will pardon me for using Latin—consule Planco, in the old days when Lord Lee held the reins of office as Minister of Agriculture. I wrote to Lord 178 Lee and told him that I was going to bring this matter forward. I had the pleasure of seeing him yesterday, and begged him, if he could spare a few moments, to be in his place when this important matter was brought before the House. He said "Good gracious, no! I cannot be in the House of Lords; I shall not be there; have nothing to do with it; I have other very important business to perform." Naturally, he is not in his place, and we are now exactly in the position in which we always find ourselves. The House of Lords are discussing a very important matter without the presence of a single Cabinet Minister.
It is either one thing or the other. If this policy was adopted during the time of Lord Lee's management, it was either done with his knowledge and his sanction, or without his knowledge and sanction. If it was done with his knowledge, it was bad; and if it was done without his sanction and his knowledge, then the thing was a great deal worse. The lands that are going to be sold by His Majesty's Government, the Crown lands, are: in Bedfordshire, the Stagsden estate of 3,360 acres and fourteen farms; in Huntingdonshire, the Staughton estate of 1,060 acres and. three farms; in Oxfordshire, the Wychwood estate, of 2,535 acres and six farms. As regards the last-mentioned estate, I should like to call your attention to what is said in the Country Life. On this estate was a hunting box which, it is said, is recalled by the "King John Oak." In 1160 the Palace was enlarged, and there are stone panels inscribed with the ciphers "H.E." (Henry II and Eleanor of Guienne). This farm is part of the estate now for sale under the order of the Office of Woods and Forests.
There is one other estate, at Egham, in Surrey, the Whitehall, Manor, and Hythe farms, of 619 acres, which make 26 Crown land farms, cottages, small holdings and so on, making 7,374 acres out of a total which, if my memory serves me aright, is something like 70,000 acres; that is, one-tenth. On this Manor farm there is the famous field of Runnymede. On the particulars given in the advertisement, Runnymede is Lot 8. It is thus described—On the Manor Farm is Runnymede. The Armies of King John and the Confederate Barons encamped here for the signing of Magna Charts, on June 15. 1215.179 Your ancestors, my Lords, on that historical field, saved the Crown and the liberties of England. And now we are face to face with the fact that this field, which is so famous in history, is to be put up for sale, and will be knocked down under the hammer by the direction—I believe I am perfectly right in saying so—and certainly under the jurisdiction, of Lord Lee, who is one of the last of the Georgian Barons. This may be supposed by sonic to be something to laugh at, but I say that it is a very serious matter, and one which cannot be dropped. Serious attention must be given to it.
I have only one further word to say. Great measures have always been associated with the names of great men. The Franchise Act of 1832 will always be remembered as"Lord Grey's Reform Bill," and when people in their cottages, after the day's toil, think and talk of the Godsend of cheap food and Free Trade, they now bless, and they always will bless, the name of Sir Robert Peel. We all remember those glowing words of Lord Rosebery in his"Pitt":—There remains at Holmwood an ancient, memorable oak, stretched under which Wilberforce and Pitt resolved on their campaign against the horrors of the slave trade, which gave honour to the one and immortality to the other.The same thing has happened in our own time. Two great statesmen last year conceived a great scheme for the regeneration of England. They were going to make England self-supporting as regards food, and thereby make us immune from the attacks of submarines, or"U-boats "; and, in consequence, England would remain invincible, and in her proper place as a queen amongst the nations. And how was this to be done I It was amongst other small details—details of a few millions—to be done by a small twopenny-halfpenny food tax of £11,500,000 on oats. These two statesmen forced what will be known as the great "Porridge Bill'' of 1920 through a complacent House of Commons, and through a somewhat reluctant and hostile House of Lords.
But alas! in six months the bubble burst, and this great measure for the salvation of England went up in smoke—a measure upon which Lord Lee and the Prime Minister of England had staked their political reputations, and with which their names must be, and always will be, imperishably connected. The desire to 180 obtain immortality has always fired the noblest minds. In this Lord Lee has been most singularly unlucky. He has been translated to what a schoolmaster who was made a bishop would probably call"a higher sphere of usefulness "; but immortality has slipped from his grasp. Had he only been fortunate enough to have been permitted to retain his old portfolio, by this time lie would easily have secured it, and he would have brought his stormy and somewhat chequered career to a bright and triumphant conclusion.
§ LORD CLINTON
My Lords, the noble Marquess has entertained your Lordships with an exceedingly interesting speech, but one cannot help thinking, having seen him standing at the box, or rather in the rostrum, for the last twenty minutes, that he has not been very successful in his new role of auctioneer. He endeavoured for at least twenty minutes to sell your Lordships the whole of the Crown lands, and I do not think he was successful in eliciting a single bid.
With regard to the measure itself, I am not particularly concerned with what has been described as the moral aspect of the question, whether a Government is ever entitled, whatever may be the financial condition of the country, to fail to implement its promises. It is, of course, having a serious effect upon all those engaged in agriculture. The farmer himself feels that he is being exploited by the Government. He goes back to the days of the war, when he was prevented by food control from obtaining a full price for his grain. He knows that he had to pay higher wages, based not so much upon a price to which he was cut down but a price which the country had to pay in other quarters; and now, in a time of dire necessity, when the great usefulness of the farmer to the country has been apparently for the moment forgotten, he is again forced to accept a reduction of the monetary assistance from the Government, which the noble Earl below me has estimated at not less than £100,000,000.
I am much more concerned with another side of this question, and that is the knowledge that in the repeal of the Corn Production Acts the Government have entirely scrapped the only agricultural policy which the country possesses and I think it is a matter which we ought to 181 press very firmly indeed upon the Government, that having taken away that only policy, it is their business to put something in its place. Part I of the Act really gives something definite for the industry, founded upon that very valuable Report of Lord Selborne's Committee, which did provide for increased production and better cultivation in the interests of the whole country, and we were certainly told by the Prime Minister that after the passing of this particular Act it would be impossible for the country to go back to the former had condition of the agricultural industry. In doing away with Part I they have scrapped the whole of what may be called agricultural policy, but kept Part. II, which deals merely with the relations between landlord and tenant; and there again, the landlord has the real right to complain. I note with great pleasure the views of the noble Marquess opposite on the matter. It is quite certain that under the Act certain advantages were given to the whole industry, of which landlords are a very large part, but now nothing is left to them, except certain transfers of money, which belongs to them, into the pockets of their own tenants.
The fact that this Bill does away with policy, and keeps merely these very small matters, is typical of everything that we have seen during the last generation. If von look back upon the Acts dealing with land you will find that they were nearly till directed towards the settlement of some real or fancied, too often some supposed, political grievance existing between two or more parties in the industry, and that scarcely any attempt has been made to deal with agriculture as a whole. I therefore press upon the Government that they should take a larger view of one of the greatest of our industries. I think, as your Lordships well know, and as was very clearly pointed out by Lord Milner last night, agriculture at the moment is in a condition which is exceedingly critical. Unless the crop of this year threshes out a great deal better than any of us have any right to expect, I am certain that there is no acre of spring corn which can be expected, even with the assistance of minimum prices, to pay anything like the expense of cultivation. We see stock going at less than half-price, and cattle are not bringing in as much as we paid for them in the spring.
If that goes on, how is it possible for the farmer to balance his expenditure by 182 his income? He is hit, like all of us, by the heavy exactions of the State. He is hit almost worse than any other class of the community, to some extent in the matter of Income Tax but to a much larger extent in rates. I do not think there is any class which has to pay anything like what he has to pay in proportion to his income. That is one point on which the Government ought to make very serious efforts to equalise the burden which now falls upon agriculture, and unless that and other equally important steps are taken the farmer certainly will be forced to a condition in which he must make every possible economy, and it is almost certain that one of those economics will be in the direction of wages. The agricultural labourer will be forced to accept a wage below the cost of reasonable living, or will be faced with unemployment.
I believe the greater danger for the agricultural labourer to-day is not under-payment, but under-employment. We have had very bad times before. We have seen much lower prices, but we have never seen such high cost. The position, bad as it was then, was much better, I believe, than it is to-day, because at that time, a generation ago, there was still some money in the industry. Landlords were in a position to help, and they did help, the industry through that very difficult time, but it must be recollected that the Income Tax then was only fourpence, or, at one time, sixpence in the £. Now, the whole power of the landlord to assist has gone. Statements of account of agricultural expense, fully certified, have been published within the last few months, and it is clear that after paying the ordinary compulsory outgoings of an estate there is really nothing left to an owner with which to pay the other expenses which are not compulsory but are incidental to management. Certainly, there is nothing left to assist tenants in case of an emergency of this kind. I fear very much that there may be a disaster approaching, perhaps greater than any of us at this moment can have any idea of. And for that reason I ask the Government, and the Ministry of Agriculture in particular, not to think that their duties and responsibilities are satisfied by merely destroying an Act of Parliament, but that their responsibility goes further and that it is necessary for them to substitute something in its place.
There is one word I have to say in regard to the Bill itself. I really think that the 183 clauses of this Bill are insignificant in comparison with the much greater question of policy. But Clause 4, as has already been remarked by previous speakers, is probably the main feature of the Bill, and there is a great deal in it which is left to the imagination, or left, possibly, to the Ministry of Agriculture to regulate. We want to know a good deal more about the constitution of these conciliation boards. Who are to set them up in the first place? They probably will not set themselves up, and there should be somebody to do it. I understand it is suggested by the Ministry of Agriculture that the Farmers' Union, who will be the lineal descendants of those representatives of employers who are now on the district wages boards, will do so. But I do not think that that will be necessarily satisfactory to employers in general, because there are a very large number of classes of people who are not members of that Union, and for whom that Union is unable to speak.
The main importance of this clause lies not only in the setting up of these conciliation boards, but—perhaps most important of all—in giving them some compulsory powers. I understand the Government are satisfied that the Farmers' Union is prepared to accept the measure as it stands, but I am certain that they will not find that that is the case, as regards, I think, the bulk of the farmers in the country. Very large numbers of farmers —all with whom I have had anything to do—accepted the repeal of the Act not unwillingly, because they believed that they had got rid of wages boards. That was what made them favour repeal, and I know that they will suffer the most grievous disappointment when they find that these conciliation boards are being set up, with a somewhat unwholesome resemblance to the wages boards which they disliked, and particularly when they find that in the later stages of the progress of the Bill through another place, power was given to enforce the decisions of these conciliation boards.
Personally, I take a rather different view, because I agree with the setting up of these conciliation boards. With a great deal of reluctance, I agree with the necessity of having some power behind them to enforce their decision, because I do not think it is possible that those boards will really ever be able to function 184 unless they have that power behind them. Agriculture, as your Lordships know so well, is in a very different position from any other industry. It is very scattered. The units of labour are isolated, and they are very small. They are only partially organised, and there is no really representative body in the rural districts, either of the employers or of the employed. The employed are probably better organised on the whole, with their two unions, than anybody else. But if you have a body like the National Farmers' Union, representing employers, upon these boards, without any power behind them, I am perfectly confident that their decisions, although they may be absolutely sound, will not be accepted, and they will not have any binding effect on the remainder of the farmers in the locality. You will find in every case farmers breaking away, and almost vying with one another to see who can give the lowest rate of wages to the labourer.
It has been the pleasant duty of this House to do whatever it could for the assistance of the agricultural labourer. The circumstances of the times will make anything like free bargaining exceedingly difficult to carry out. We are in a transition stage. Labourers have been accustomed to a higher rate of wages, told in numbers of shillings, than they have ever dreamed of. They have been given somewhat suddenly lesser hours of labour, and other better conditions. Now, with the somewhat gloomy view I take—and I think correctly—of what the agricultural future is going to be, it is obvious that those wages must come down to a considerable degree. It seems to me of vast importance to have some recognised body which will have a steadying influence, rather than that we should have what would be really a chaos of free bargaining, in which we should destroy for a very long time that good will which has existed between the employer and the labourer in the agricultural industry, and which it is of enormous importance to every one of us to retain. Those are the reasons, generally, why I believe that if we agree to conciliation boards, as I think we are bound to agree, then it almost follows that we must give them some power to make their decisions binding. There are some other small points, which are really Committee points, with which I do not think I need trouble your Lordships.
THE EARL OF KIMBERLEY
My Lords, I think the noble Lord who has just sat down takes a much too gloomy view of what is going to occur. Naturally, when you suddenly upset an Act that has only been passed about six months ago it causes rather a shudder. I said in this House that in less than two years, no matter what Government was in power, Part I of the Act would go. It has gone in six months. I rejoice that it has gone, because I do not desire the agricultural labourer, neither do If desire myself as a landlord, to live on the charity of the taxpayers of this island—for that is what it really conies to, and nothing else. However you argue, that is the real position—that you get so much from the other taxpayers to help you out.
Lord Harris said in December the truest thing that was ever said—that you cannot legislate for agriculture. Look at this year. Look at this great drought which has afflicted all Europe. It has thrown all ordinary agriculture entirely hors de combat. Look at the case of those who own hundreds of thousands of grass-fed bullocks this year. They will never see their money back, and most of them will lose on their bullocks. I know of one man who had 1,200. He bought at the end of October last, and a good many of them were put out at so much a week to be brought on, while he brought on smile himself. He is a very particular man, a very businesslike man, and he has his bullocks valued every year in the first week in April. These bullocks, at the end of October, averaged £40 apiece. In the first week in April, when the slump was just coming, they were valued at £50. He sold 300 three weeks ago, and was glad to get rid of them for £45 apiece. I have not seen him since, and I do not know what he is going to do with the others. Those bullocks are in the Midlands. That was a tremendous blow to him, and it is something against which he could not provide. It was the result of this tremendous drought. There has never been such a drought since 1868. I remember that year very well because I was twenty and it was my first year at Cambridge. Not a spot of rain fell there from April until the middle of June. Afterwards, when I went to London and then to Norfolk the herbage was as yellow and as dried up as it is now. My father and I then went to the Continent and it was not until after our return early in September that rain 186 fell. It looks very much as though the same sort of thing will happen this year. There were no roots or any green stuff, though things were cheaper.
My noble friend said that the labourers were better off now than they were before the war. I have gone very carefully into the matter and I doubt very much whether thay are much better off. The prices thay pay are still very high. The ordinary agricultural labourer in my county gets 46s. a week. The only thing which has not gone up is the rent of his cottage. This Bill mentions a rent of £7 17s. 6d. Nobody that I know of in the county of Norfolk—my noble friend, Lord Ailwyn, would agree with me if he were present—has ever paid more than £5 a year. The Government have been trying to build cottages and how they are going to let them I do not know. It is said that the cost of living has fallen. For what does the labourer pay less now than he did last year? It may be a reel of cotton or a pair of boots; but he does not eat boots and his wife does not cat cotton. The main articles of food are still dear, and I maintain that you will never see a great reduction in the price of labour in this country until bread is sold at its pre-war price of 5d. or 6d. per 4 lb. loaf and meat can be seen hanging in the butcher's shop at 8s. a stone. Then will be the time to talk about the reduced cost of living. I am sorry that the Central Board has gone. It was in force during a very difficult period, when the price of labour had to be increased, gradually. I should like to see it still in existence in order to put the price of labour down gradually. It must go down, but it must go down gradually. It is impossible that it should go down suddenly, as some farmers seem to think.
In regard to the price of meat, I fattened bullocks at my place last year and sold them to the local butchers. In August, September and October, when I finished them, I got £5 5s. a cwt. live weight and the price of sirloins and ribs was 2s. per lb. I know that because I bought some to send to friends of mine whom I wanted to see that my meat was good. On looking at some meat tickets a fortnight ago I found that I was paying exactly the same price for sirloins—2s. a lb.—although the butchers were buying my beasts at a live weight of £3 15s. or £4 a cwt. if they were small and about £3 10s.
187 if they were big. That is the sort of thing that is going on. It is the small shopkeepers who sell their goods at such inordinately high prices. I hate control. I agree we are passing through a very terrible time. We passed through such a time in the eighties, and I believe we can get through it again.
I do not fear in the least that there will be any real disagreement between the agricultural labourers and those who employ them, but I see one difficulty that was mentioned by the noble Earl. It is the great difficulty in regard to the older men. It is a very hard thing to have to decide that a man is no longer capable of doing the work he has been doing. As one grows older one feels that one cannot do what one did some years ago. I am nearly 73 and I know I cannot do the same amount of physical exercise as when I was sixty. But farmers like to hang on to the old men, and when you have a lot of men working it is like a convoy of ships—the oldest and slowest ship sets the pace of the convoy. We have no money now, but I believe the most sensible thing that could have been done long ago would have been to have had old age pensions on a graduated scale; that men should begin at sixty and be paid on a small scale and as they got older the amount should get bigger and they should be allowed to work at less money. That, I believe, is what will come eventually. I should not like to think that those old men were all going to be discharged.
It is natural that our small farmers should like to employ men for less money, and no doubt their farms would gradually go down until there was barely a living for the labourer and the farmer to be got from the farm. If a man works eight hours a day it is all he can do. I should deprecate any attempt by the new councils to make a man work more than nine hours a day—I say without fear of contradiction that my men all work eight hours a day. I put them on to the eight hours when the railwaymen got it, and I challenge anybody to come and see them working. I get more work out of my men and horses in eight hours than other people get out of men and horses working nine hours a day. During the ninth hour they get slower and slower.
I am unable to support my noble friend in his Motion. I hope the conciliation boards will turn out well. At the present moment we hear a great deal about the 188 National Farmers' Union. So far as I can understand, a great number of the members of that Union have bought their own land and are landlords, as you and I are. If conciliation boards are set up there ought to be a certain number of tenant farmers on them, a certain number of what I would call large landowners, possibly those who are farming a certain portion of their own land themselves either for amusement or by way of a hobby, and there ought to be representatives of the class of men who have bought their own farms. In the case of a big county it is not wise to attempt to do the work by means of one conciliation hoard, because on one side of the county the land will be very different in all probability from that on the other side, so that two boards will be necessary. With a little judgment and tact you will find the boards will work extremely well. What farmers, landowners, and agricultural labourers wish for most of all is to be left alone to work out their own salvation. They are Britishers, and I believe that agriculture will go on just as well without a great deal of legislation.
§ LORD BLEDISLOE
My Lords, I am sure you will have welcomed, as I welcomed, the refreshing breeze of optimism which has just come to us from the Norfolk broads, after listening to the speeches—and very earnest speeches they were—of Lord Milner on the one hand, and Lord Clinton on the other. I am sure the speech which Lord Kimberley has just delivered must do much to cheer those of us who are in some doubt as to the future of the agricultural industry. There is one factor which I am sure must have struck all those who have listened to this debate, and that is the expression of an obviously genuine interest on the part of your Lordships' House in the agricultural labourer.
In view of the somewhat vacillating and constantly changing policy of His Majesty's Government, one is rather tempted on such an occasion as this, to chaff one's old Parliamentary colleagues who, as successors in the position of Minister of Agriculture, although still members of His Majesty's Cabinet, find it necessary to eat all the words which they uttered with such force and solemnity only some eight months ago. The position of the noble Earl opposite, if I may venture to say so, is one almost of comedy, because a more strenuous oppon- 189 ent of the first Agriculture Bill than he was it is difficult to imagine, and almost immediately, as the result of his most incisive attacks, he was asked by the head of His Majesty's Government to carry out the Bill of which he had expressed so hearty a detestation. His obvious pleasure at the scrapping of the whole Government policy must be quite delightful for your Lordships to witness. But one cannot help sympathising with the position of the noble Viscount, Lord Milner, who spoke with deep and obvious sincerity, and with a tenacity of faith in a policy of which he was, in fact, the founder. Whether the policy is right or wrong one cannot help feeling that lie is entitled to our sincere sympathy at seeing that policy so rapidly, placed upon the scrap heap.
The noble Viscount, like Lord Clinton, has spoken with great anxiety about the present position and future outlook of the agricultural industry. I, for my part, do not feel so hopeless upon this subject. There are three factors which I am bound to say fill me with considerable hope. The first is that there is growing up a genuine and increasing interest on the part of every section of the agricultural community in agricultural research, experiment, and education, and I most warmly welcome that clause in this Bill which makes a very substantial grant towards the advancement and development of research, experiment and education. In the second place, it is very heartening to find that both at Oxford and at Cambridge Universities there is a large and increasing number of present and prospective landowners studying agriculture for their University degree, obviously with the intention of becoming the leaders of the industry, and the actual practical exponents of the art in their own particular districts. I cannot imagine anything more calculated to bring renewed prosperity to the chief of our British industries than to see landowners once more taking their proper place as managing directors of the great industry which is carried on upon their estates, after they have obtained practical knowledge of the industry as a result of study and experience.
The last factor which cheers me is this. After all, we depend in the last resort upon the votes of a preponderantly urban electorate that displays on agricultural topics an extraordinary ignorance and prejudice, and it is cheering to find a very 190 large and increasing number of citizens of our large cities keen and enthusiastic allotment holders. I hope we shall do all in our power to encourage and develop the allotment movement and thereby assist the urban population to become conscious of the importance of land cultivation and development, and to have a real sympathy with the farmers and gardeners throughout this country.
I fear that a great mistake which was made in the original policy was to include oats with wheat amongst the subjects of guarantee. Lord Selborne has mentioned the fact that Irish pressure was responsible to some extent for the inclusion of oats. I rather think that the canny Scot also had something to do with it. But however that may be, if it were not for oats the bill which the public would be called upon to pay in honouring this guarantee would not, in fact, be a serious one, and the policy might, with confidence and ease in my judgment, be maintained. I am rather surprised that no member of the House of Commons has thought it worth while—and this is, in this respect, a Money Bill—to recast the Bill with a view to cutting out oats in the future, leaving only wheat, which is, in the last resort, the staff of life. All other cereals follow wheat as a matter of economics. I am surprised, therefore, that no one has moved to leave out oats altogether, and allow wheat to stand alone for the purpose of a guarantee in future. As a matter of fact, we have been almost self-contained in the matter of our oat-supply during the last twelve months. As it has turned out there has been no real necessity for creating a special inducement to farmers to increase largely the production of oats.
At the moment I cannot conceive what is going to induce farmers to sow wheat this autumn. The price of overseas wheat of comparable quality seems likely, during t he next six months, not to exceed something like an average of 75s. or 76s. a quarter, and it is difficult to see how British farmers, with the wage standard at anything like its present level, can produce similar wheat at less than about 84s. a quarter. That is not any very great inducement to farmers to continue wheat growing, upon which the Government has in the past laid so much stress. It is sometimes forgotten that the object of the original Government policy, and of the Agriculture Act, was, if possible, to make the United Kingdom 191 more self-contained in the matter of her food supply, and happy in the possession of a contented and prosperous rural community. The whole thing seems to have been whittled down to a battle of sectional interests. The Government have not sufficiently explained what they are going to do to maintain the food supply of this country in view of the possible risks which attend a serious war such as that through which we have passed.
Lord Clinton has drawn attention to the fact that the present Bill is the negation of an agricultural policy. For my part I see one thing worse than no policy at all, and that is a constantly vacillating agricultural policy which strikes a blow at the confidence and security of agricultural capital, and is bound to result in an ever-decreasing area of arable land, and the condition of tumble-down grass to which Lord Milner referred. I think I am right in saying that it is proposed by one noble Lord to move some Amendment with regard to the reinstatement, to sonic extent, of the powers in respect of cultivation which at present are vested in the county agricultural committees. I very much regret that those powers of supervising and controlling cultivation are altogether abandoned in this Bill, because it is quite clear that under the old practice landowners were far too indulgent to the tenants upon their estates, with the result that far less food was grown for the benefit of the nation than ought to be grown, and is grown in most competing agricultural countries. I would venture to hope, if an Amendment is proposed to the effect that there should still be a supervision of land in order to protect it against foulness and to ensure its proper cleanliness, that your Lordships will support that Amendment.
The Agriculture Act was described by the Minister of Agriculture in this House, and by Sir Arthur Griffith-Boscawen on many platforms throughout the country, and I think by the Prime Minister also, as a well-balanced measure which, while no doubt putting burdens upon the various sections of the agricultural community, would, on the whole, be an advantage to agricultural interests, and would undoubtedly benefit the nation. Whether this Bill is lopsided or not—to repeat the somewhat unusual Parliamentary expression which we find in the Amendment we are now considering—it occurs to me that if the whole 192 of Part II is to be retained, the measure ceases to be the well-balanced measure which we were led to believe it was intended to be. There is one section of Part II of the Agriculture Act which I venture to hope will, if it can be brought within the title of the Bill, receive some consideration at your Lordships' hands. That is Section 15, which, your Lordships will remember, leaves power to the Ministry of Agriculture to draft Regulations under which tenants who have sufficient money in their pockets can carry out some large improvements at their landlord's expense, which he has ultimately, of course, to defray. But surely, if landlords are not going to have the protection, which they had under the Agriculture Act, of having their land kept in a clean state and up to a high standard of productive capacity, it is unfair in these days, when they are very much impoverished, that they should have the burden of Section 15 of the Agriculture Act imposed upon them.
As regards the workers' wage, I am sure that all noble Lords who live in mining areas would deprecate very much the sudden decontrol so far as agricultural labourers' wages are concerned, which would result from the scrapping altogether of the whole of the Corn Production Acts. The whole question is: How are you going to let the agricultural labourer down gently, without any serious damage to him, and his family, in order to ensure a fair standard of living? In this connection, I think we ought to bear in mind that if the labourers' wages are inadequate, or in danger of becoming so, during the next few years, it is the direct result of the crushing burdens of rates and taxes which are imposed upon the farming community and are largely levied for maintaining an inflated bureaucracy and promoting expensive schemes in distant parts of the world. I do not hesitate to say, although it is very difficult to make any accurate calculation, that the inflation of the bureaucracy and the uneconomic activities by which it seeks to justify its existence, probably mean something like 5s. less per week to the unfortunate agricultural labourer.
But low-paid labour, as has been repeatedly stated in this House, is not really cheap labour. I may remind your Lordships that on many estates prior to the war landowners strenuously resisted attempts on the part of local farmers to fix a low wage standard for their agri- 193 cultural workers. It cannot be denied, at any rate in the South of England, that it is the landowners rather than the farmers who have done their best to see that labourers are not unfairly treated in this respect, and I venture to hope, if I may be allowed without presumption to say so, that we all shall, in our respective districts, watch carefully the interests of the agricultural labourer in order to see that so far as in us lies we shall not allow him to revert to anything like the unfortunate and pathetic condition in which he was before the war.
But when we come to consider Clause 4 as a means of doing justice as between the fanning employer and his workmen, surely it is not an unfair criticism to say that the scheme which it contemplates is even more rigid and more complicated than that which it replaces. It seems to be a somewhat illogical blend of voluntaryism and compulsion. That may be necessary. My noble friend, Lord Selborne, seems to think it is, and I ant not prepared, with my experience of the South and West of England, at this stage to differ altogether from him. It is noticeable, however, that only the National Farmers' Union—although that organisation is not actually mentioned in the Bill—and the two Workers' Unions, have any say in the composition of these conciliation committees. That is the way in which it has been interpreted in the House of Commons. If it was possible for the Central Landowners' Association, or any other body representing landowners, to have a say in the composition of these committees, all the better, and if your Lordships imagine that that is what the Bill intends, let us put in an Amendment to make it perfectly clear that it is so.
I may remind you that something like one-fourth of the rural employers in this country are not tenant farmers at all, but are landowners, and they employ, a large amount of labour not merely on home and other farms, but also in their woods and otherwise upon their estates. When you conic; to examine the actual composition of the National Farmers' Union, I am informed that not much more than half of the larger farmers in the country belong to the Union, and if you include the small holders—that is, the occupiers of holdings of less than 50 acres—not even one-third of the agricultural holdings are occupied by members of the National Farmers' Union. If that is so, it is unfair to say 194 that the National Farmers' Union representatives are necessarily representative of the farming community.
The great fault that I find with the scheme set up by Clause 4 is that you have equal numbers of employers on one side of the table and of workers on the other, without any necessity for them to appoint an independent chairman. They must vote solidly as classes. And this is the most extraordinary thing of all: if any member expresses views other than that which his machine dictates, he can be, and in my judgment, will be, immediately replaced by someone of more extreme sectional views. That is to say, although you are seeking to promote conciliation and a conciliatory spirit between one class and the other, if any member of that conciliation committee expresses a view which is not in exact accord with the views of the organisation that sends him there, that organisation has the power, at, once, without any delay, to replace him by some one else who is prepared to toe the line. Surely that is not conciliation. I cannot conceive anything more calculated to promote class consciousness and class warfare. I hope we shall improve upon that system. I am quite certain that the machine will not function under those conditions and that there will be in many counties an absolute impasse from the start.
It will be the duty of the Minister—I do not envy him—to confirm the rate which is made by these conciliation committees. The rate which was arrived at by the present district wages committees, and which will be arrived at by these conciliation committees, is almost necessarily a compromise between two conflicting views. What is going to happen? Surely the wild men on either side will bring pressure, probably intolerable pressure, to bear on the Minister in order to get him to accept their views. I think the Minister ought to be protected against the exercise of political pressure of that sort, and I understand an Amendment will be put down to the effect that the Minister shall not confirm, or decline to confirm, any rate suggested by a local committee until after consultation with the county agricultural committee of the area in which the rate is proposed. I think the wheels will work more easily if some such system is adopted.
I imagine your Lordships are all in favour of the abandonment of every form of Government control over agriculture, 195 but, unfortunately, the Bill stereotypes the legal minimum wage instead of aiming at its gradual abolition. As long as this is stereotyped so long will some measure of Government control be imposed on the industry. There is another factor which is likely to cause some embarrassment to the agricultural community. The committees may function in some counties, but not in others. You may have a legal minimum wage set up in one county, and in the adjoining county no legal minimum wage at all. Is that going to be fair to employers in those counties in which the legal minimum wage has been proposed and is in operation? Surely, it means that in counties where the parties have not come together there will be a lower wage in operation and that agriculture will be carried on at a lower cost. It may be said that in those circumstances there is bound to be a strike in those districts and that, as a result of a strike, the committees will be set up, or the workmen receive fair wages. But we do not want a social convulsion before we can arrive at a decent standard wage to be paid to our agricultural workers. That is hound to be the result if you have this scheme in operation in some counties and no scheme at all in others. Surely a uniform minimum wage should be accompanied by a compulsory obligation to form these committees in all counties.
I believe we are going to be told that a bargain has been struck between the various trade unions, or sectional interests, which it is not right or proper for us to disturb. I hope your Lordships will resist the contention, so often made by Ministers, and particularly by the Government representatives of agriculture in this House, that you are here simply to register an arrangement of an ultra-Parliamentary character which has been made outside these doors. If that is our function then the sooner this Chamber ceases to exist the better. But if we are, with the knowledge and experience which your Lordships will admit we possess on agricultural conditions and districts, really to use our best judgment, as we ought to be allowed to do, we should not be unduly influenced by the argument that because a bargain has been arrived at it is our business to register it.
§ LORD DYNEVOR
My Lords, I hope your Lordships will give this Bill a Second Reading. It repeals Part I of last year's Act and other Acts. I think we wasted a 196 good deal of time last December, and I remember that I suggested to the Government then that they would find considerable difficulty in meeting the guarantees under the Bill. With such heavy taxation it was clear that the country would not go on paying year after year large sums of money to the agricultural industry. Within a short period huge Supplementary Estimates have been introduced in another place, and the sooner we reduce taxation and expenditure the better. I believe the amount that is going to be paid this year to growers of wheat and oats is something like £19,000,000. That represents 5d. in the Income Tax, as I understand that a penny in the brings in about £4,000,000.
I do not see in the least why agriculture should be subsidised more than any other industry. The railway subsidy has gone; the coal subsidy has gone; and the bread subsidy has gone. We must remember that with the abolition of subsidies Government control departs. The country has had a bitter, if not a good, lesson of the meaning of Government control. Why should agriculture be specially subsidised. In my part of the country, owing to climatic reasons, we cannot grow corn, except to a very small extent. We live on dairy farming, fattening of cattle, and sheep farming. We have never had a subsidy, and we have never asked for it. I know that the ostensible reason for the subsidy put forward last December was that we must take precautions to secure our food supply in case of war. If we really are to begin taking precautions now for the next war in which we may take part surely we cannot stop at subsidising agriculture. There are many other industries which must be subsidised. I will mention one, but one which will no doubt play a prominent part in the next, war—aeroplanes and airships.
As regards the abolition of the wages boards, I believe this part of the Bill is a compromise, and taking it all round it is as good a compromise as we might expect. Considerable freedom and latitude is allowed to the conciliation committees to decide what the wages shall be. I think it was a mistake to have had a flat rate for large districts of the country, as the cost of production varies so. Under this Bill small areas will be chosen and they will be able to set up their own conciliation committees and come to an agreement over wages. I hope the employers, at the first, will not attempt to 197 make any large cut in wages. If they do, we shall find ourselves confronted with the same difficulty as in the coal industry at the beginning of the year.
There are one or two Amendments which I wish to move when we reach the Committee stage, and to which I hope your Lordships will agree. I should like to ask my noble friend, Lord Strachie—I am sorry to see that he is not in his place at the moment—if lie has really quite realised the meaning of his Amendment. It imposes a charge on the taxpayer. This Bill is taking away the charge on the taxpayer; if you refuse to assent to this Bill, that charge will be re-imposed, and I do not know what another place will say at your Lordships putting a tax on the taxpayer. I sincerely hope that the House will give this Bill a Second Reading.
THE MARQUESS OF CREWE
My Lords, the noble Earl who represents the Ministry of Agriculture with such capacity has borne, as I think, with great good-humour, and not, perhaps, entirely without satisfaction, the comments that have been made upon the remarkable change in the policy of the Government since the Agriculture Act so recently became law. It clearly has not been one of the Government measures which have worn very well, and its partial repeal has met with a remarkable and an interesting variety of criticism Irma different parts of your Lordships' House. We were all, I think, impressed yesterday by the speech, at once so powerful and so ingenious, with which Lord Milner defended the system, for which he was, indeed, himself largely responsible, of permanently subsidising corn-growing in this country on national grounds. Both he and Lord Selborne naturally view with the deepest regret the complete reversal of that policy.
I do not pretend to be surprised at its reversal, because, in my judgment, it never could have been permanent, for more reasons then one in the first place, it represented an attempt to grow on a large scale crops which were in many cases not suited to the soil in which they were grown, and which, therefore, were grown unwillingly by those who farmed the land. There are few of us, I think, at all interested in farming, who have not during the past few years viewed almost with horror some of the land on which it has been attempted to grow wheat. As the noble 198 Lord who spoke last said, there are many parts of the United Kingdom in which it is impossible to grow corn at all, except on a very small scale, and therefore nature was waging a perpetual fight against this artificial system. Nevertheless, if the mind of the people had been concentrated on the necessity of growing corn on a large scale, even where it was obviously, from the farming point of view, not the proper crop to grow, the system could have been maintained. But many of us felt from the first that the people of this country would not, as a body, maintain that determination. The time was certain to come—it has come far sooner, no doubt, than His Majesty's Government expected—when there would be a revolt against the expenditure of large sums of money by way of subsidy.
I think it is by no means unfair to say that the real origin of this sudden repeal is not so much the actual financial condition of the country as the inception of what has been known as the "anti-waste campaign." But whatever the reason may be, it is the fact that His Majesty's Government are not prepared to face the obloquy which might be caused by a large payment, continued year after year, for the growing of wheat, and, as two of my noble friends have pointed out with great truth and force, even more for the growing on a large scale of oats. That was bound to happen sooner or later. It is impossible to suppose that sooner or later sonar Ministry would not have been faced by the position in which those who supplied them with political information would have come and said: "Our men will not stand this much longer; members for the urban constituencies all say that their seats will tremble in the balance unless something is done to remove this charge." Unless, therefore, the Government, whatever it might be, to whom those statements were made, were prepared to go down with the sinking ship, which is not, perhaps, the habit of Governments, the subsidy was certain sooner or later to be abandoned. That does not, I think, make the way in which it has been done less of a misfortune, because the extreme rapidity of movement with which this change had been accomplished has had a most unsettling effect on the very large part of the farming community, who resent the manner in which they have been treated.
I entirely agree with my noble friend, Lord Bledisloe, that Clause 3 of the Bill 199 which provides funds for agricultural development, is altogether admirable in itself, and may in some degree be regarded by the agricultural community as a set-off to the withdrawal of the subsidy, although it by no means follows that every individual who suffers by the one will be entirely consoled by the other. Then, as to Clause 4, to which strong objection has been taken by some speakers, although it has received the approval of others, Lord Bledisloe, to my mind, stated most accurately its purport when he said that it was an attempt to combine the voluntary and compulsory systems. He was not prepared altogether to dismiss it on that ground, because it is, of course, conceivable that some such combination might have its uses.
But I confess that in looking at the clause I do not altogether follow the manner in which it is intended to work. I do not exactly apprehend what part the Minister is expected to play in the drama. It is his function to ratify agreements arrived at by the conciliation committees, and also, apparently, to fix the period of time during which they are to remain valid, but it does not appear that in the event of a failure to agree he has any power of interference at all. I take it that he only prescribes when he is called in, and at a later stage, supposing any question arises of a change in the rate of wages, it appears that again, unless the committee are able to agree upon a lower, or conceivably in the future a higher, rate, nothing can be done. The rate which has been fixed in the first instance will continue to operate unless an agreement is reached, and that agreement has to be reached in the circumstances which Lord Bledisloe described, namely, that the voting is taken en bloc, and obviously it may be possible for the more extreme members of one of the parties to hold up, so to speak, all their colleagues, and prevent an agreement being reached.
That seems to involve the possibility of a very inconvenient and even disastrous deadlock, and I cannot help wondering whether the existence of the Minister as a party to the transaction, without apparently any powers except that of suggesting the date from which and the period for which the agreement shall operate, may not work in the direction of making disputes and deadlocks somewhat more likely. I cannot help feeling that unless there is to be some real court of appeal, which can reach a decision in the event of failure to agree, 200 it would be better to chance it, if I may use the expression, and leave the parties to agree as best they can. I think I understand the reasons why the intervention of the Department has been inserted in this clause, but as it is worded I confess I do not look forward with any great satisfaction to the probability of its working smoothly. On the whole and merely as a personal opinion, I should prefer to leave the parties to settle between themselves the actual rates of wages to be earned by different classes of labourers, but in order to make it clear that we do not desire, and in fact would most strongly disapprove of, the possible action of individual farmers who might treat their employees badly, I should be quite disposed to support the fixing of a national minimum, which would not in any way profess to be a standard wage, as so many fixed minima for various causes have been, but a real minimum from which the voluntary committees could work upwards. That is a mere suggestion, but I should like to see it considered in the absence of further proof than I have yet received that this proposal in Clause 4 is one which will, in fact, work well.
My noble friend, Lord Strachie, has moved the Amendment in the terms of which you are aware. I think he will very probably conclude, from what he has heard said in the debate, that his desire to get rid of the Bill altogether would not meet with the concurrence of the majority of your Lordships' House, apart from the fact, which the noble Lord has just stated, that the rejection of the Bill would undoubtedly throw a charge upon the public Exchequer. A good many Amendments have been indicated, in the course of the various speeches which we have heard, and I think it is evident that, if the Bill receives a Second Reading, in the Committee stage it will receive much of the close attention which no doubt it deserves. Of course, I have no possible desire to dictate the course of action to my noble friend, but I think he may be disposed to agree that it is not the desire of the House altogether to reject the Bill on the Second Reading.
§ THE PARLIAMENTARY SECRETARY OF THE MINISTRY OF AGRICULTURE AND FISHERIES (THE EARL OF ANCASTER)
My Lords, I think perhaps I should, at the conclusion of this debate, say one or two words in respect of some of 201 the questions and criticisms that I have heard during its progress. First of all, I may be permitted to refer to the noble Lord whose Amendment, as I said in my opening remarks, practically amounts to a Motion for the rejection of the Bill. There is one thing which I should like to make clear on that subject. The noble Lord gave a great many quotations from speeches which I delivered on the Second Reading of the Agriculture Bill of last session, when, as he and other noble Lords are perfectly well aware, I spoke absolutely against the Bill. I did not believe in the Bill and I have never made any pretence that I ever held any other opinion.
Though I admit that in Part II of this Act, which is not going to be repealed, there are certain provisions of which undoubtedly all landlords do not approve, I do say that a great deal of Part II was largely moulded by your Lordships only seven or eight months ago. That applies to the question of arbitration for rent, the question of what rent should be paid for capricious eviction, the question of improvements and repairs to houses and other things on farms, all of which were to a great extent moulded by your Lordships when the Bill was passing through the Committee and Report stages here. It is perfectly open to your Lordships to vote for the repeal of Part II, which, of course, would have the effect of killing the Bill which I have introduced. You have a perfect right to change your minds, just as the Government have changed their minds in proposing the repeal of Part I, but you should remember that Part II was largely put into its present shape by your Lordships.
The noble Lord, Lord Bledisloe, in his speech at one time said he was very pleased that control was going, and yet at another he seemed to regret it. He seemed to think it was a disastrous thing for landlords that there would no longer be executive committees to see that their tenants were cultivating the land properly. It is true that after control goes there will not be executive committees to see whether tenants are cultivating the land properly. That will now be the duty of the landlord and his agent, as it was in the past. The landlord will not in the least be a sufferer, as the noble Lord seemed to think, for, if his tenant is farming the land badly, the landlord will have a perfect right—and indeed ought—to turn his tenant out. What is more, Owing to Part II, when he 202 turns his tenant out for bad farming, he will not pay him a penny for compensation. I cannot see, therefore, why Lord Bledisloe should regret that change. Lord Bledisloe knows perfectly well how his farmers ought to farm, and if he sees them fanning badly he will be able to get rid of them.
I now come to the question of conciliation committees. The noble Lord tried to make out that because the Government had introduced this principle of conciliation committees they had made the Bill unfair and lop-sided. But I really do not think that can be sustained. He spoke throughout of these committees as if they were the old agricultural wages boards. They are nothing of the sort. I think there is a great amount of misconception among noble Lords on that matter.
§ THE EARL OF ANCASTER
I will come to that. It is perfectly true that this clause, Clause 4, has been largely amended in another place.
§ THE EARL OF ANCASTER
It has been very considerably altered, but it is not the old wages board, or anything like it. I will not enter upon the question fully now, because we shall be in Committee on the Bill to-morrow. To begin with, there is this one important difference, that the appointed members disappear altogether. The only people who remain are the representatives of the employers and the employed, who will meet together. I will, however, add this fact, which I have no doubt gave rise to the idea. Between the time when this Bill becomes law and October 1, when the Corn Production Act, and consequently the wages boards, come to an end, there is only a very short interval—probably an interval of one month. The Minister felt that that interval afforded a very short time for setting up these conciliation committees all over the country. He therefore put into the Bill the proviso which says that the old members of the wages boards, with the exception of the appointed members, shall be the conciliation committees for two years, or until such time as other conciliation committees are set up. That has, perhaps, given rise to the idea that these new conciliation com- 203 mittees are the same thing as the old wages boards, which is not the fact.
What is to happen in the first instance? There will have to be a practically unanimous vote before any agreement can be arrived at, because the employers will have one vote and the workmen will have one vote. The noble Marquess the Leader of the Opposition dealt with this subject and seemed to have a very tender feeling for the Minister of Agriculture, and was afraid that, by putting himself into the clause, he was making a hornet's nest for himself. I believe the reason why the Minister for Agriculture was put in and has to give his sanction to the agreements is because, when such an agreement is arrived at, the Minister wants to know whether it is arrived at by people who really represent employers and employed. Otherwise, I suppose it would be perfectly possible for any three or four employers and any three or four workmen to come together and say they had reached an agreement, when they represented nobody but themselves.
That is the only reason why the Minister is dragged into the clause and I think the explanation answers a great many of the objections advanced by Lord Bledisloe and Lord Clinton. They both seemed very suspicious that there is only to be one lot of employers represented—namely, the people who belong to the Farmers' Union. I think that will be so in the first instance, and I do not think you could well get out of it, for the reason that at present the Farmers' Union is the only body of employers who have really got a trade union or organisation. Therefore, at the present moment they are solely represented on the old wages boards. If the same people are to continue on the new conciliation committees naturally the persons in question will continue to be members. But the moment the new conciliation committees are set up, if the noble Lords, Lord Bledisloe and Lord Clinton, show that they represent a considerable number of employers of labour in their respective districts and join with other employers of labour in those districts in forming a conciliation committee to meet the labourers employed in those districts, there is nothing to prevent them doing so, and as long as the Minister of Agriculture considers that they represent any body of employers he would give legal sanction to the decisions they reach. I will not labour this question further at the moment, but I thought I ought to 204 mention it because the noble Lord, Lord Strachie, appears to hold in his Motion that the old wages boards are to be maintained and that the conciliation committees will have very similar functions.
When a decision has been arrived at between the employers and employed on a conciliation committee it is perfectly true that those who do not follow the ruling will be made to pay, but there is this difference. Under the old wages boards if a person paid wages, or employed people improperly, against the rules and regulations laid down by the boards, in addition to having to make good the wages he was also fined, I think, £20 for each offence and £l a day for the whole period during which he did not pay proper wages. That provision disappears under the present Bill, and there will be no fine. If there is a conciliation committee in a district and certain wages are agreed upon, any employer who does not pay those wages will be made to pay the back wages, but he will not be fined as at present is the case.
There is only one other subject to which I think I ought to refer. It was mentioned by the noble Earl, Lord Selborne. He appears still to think that though His Majesty's Government have been forced, most unfortunately, owing to financial straits, to introduce this Bill to alter their policy they ought to have consulted the Agricultural Council before taking such a step. The noble Earl is not in his place, and as I occupy such a very subordinate post I hardly like to lay down a rule as to what it is proper for the Government to do in a case of this sort. But if a Government is going to decide to alter a great policy and to make what undoubtedly is a very great sacrifice by going back, for financial reasons, on the policy they had laid down a few weeks before it is surely for the Cabinet and the Cabinet alone to make the decision.
Is it really practical politics to suggest that before the Government decided to introduce this Repeal Bill the Minister of Agriculture should have called together the Agricultural Council, consisting, I believe, of more than one hundred members, and gone to those members and said: "The country is in severe financial straits and we must economise. We want to repeal the Agriculture Act which was passed last year and to abolish guaranteed prices and the Wages Boards. What do 205 you say about it?" The suggestion is, I suppose, that the Agricultural Council should then debate the question as to whether the Act should be repealed or not. That would become public property in the space of a few minutes, and in the course of a few hours or days public meetings would be held all over the country either in favour of repeal or against it, before the Cabinet had even arrived at a decision. In a matter of this sort I really do not think it can be urged that any Ministry could have acted in any other way than by the Cabinet first of all settling the question, and when the Cabinet had settled it, letting their policy be known as soon as possible. That they did. After all, in any big question of this sort it must be for the Cabinet to decide; it cannot be for the Agricultural Council to decide.
I do not think there is any other point to winch I need specially refer. Lord Clinton, Lord Bledisloe, and other noble Lords alluded to the terrible strain under which agriculture is suffering at the present time owing to excessive taxation. I am certain that other industries of the country are also groaning under the same burden, and I believe that this policy of stopping subsidies and beginning to allow industries to stand on their own feet will be the first step towards relieving them of the heavy burden of taxation. If I may say Co in my private capacity, I do not think there can be any better way of relieving an industry than that of lifting the terrible burdens under which they suffer at the present time.
§ On Question, Amendment negatived; Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.