§ 4.20 p.m.
§ Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.
§ THE JOINT PARLIAMENTARY SECRETARY, MINISTRY OF AGRICULTURE AND FISHERIES (THE EARL OF HUNTINGDON)
My Lords, the Bill which now before the House is a comparatively short Bill, but in the opinion of the Government, it is a very important one. I should like your Lordships to consider it as part of the general policy of agriculture which was announced by the noble Viscount, the Leader of the House, on December 15, 1945. What this Bill mainly does is to make permanent the system of wage regulation in agriculture which is now being carried on under Defence Regulations which expire on December 31, 1947. In other words, it gives statutory authority for the transfer permanently to the Agricultural Wages Boards in England and in Scotland of the major powers which were conferred on county wages committees by the Agricultural Wages (Regulation) Act of 1924, in the case of England and Wales, and the corresponding Act of 1937 in the case of Scotland Henceforth, if this Bill is passed, the Agricultural Wages Boards will have the duty and power of fixing minimum wages for agricultural workers and of deciding various other matters which are set out in the Bill.
The regulation of wages is an exceedingly difficult matter. In the years before the last war the level of wages, on the whole, was extremely unsatisfactory from the point of view of the agricultural worker. Now, however, I think everyone is more or less agreed that labour must be attracted to agriculture; this is vital to our national life. One of the most important factors in securing labour for the land, of course, is a fair and decent wage for the agricultural worker. His Majesty's Government think that by far the most satisfactory way to achieve this is for the Central Wages Boards to be responsible for this task. This system has worked very well during the last few years and has removed a lot of anomalies and difficulties which arose before that time, such as different wages in different counties, even though the counties were adjacent to each other. In spite of the transference of 843 the major powers, many responsibilities and duties will still be left to the county wages committees, who in many cases will act more or less as agents or as liaison between the Wages Boards and the farmers and workers. I am very glad to say that the proposals contained in this Bill have been agreed in principle with the representatives of the National Farmers' Union and with the Unions representing agricultural workers in England and Scotland. This points to a growing confidence in the machinery of wage-fixing, and I hope that these principles will also have the support of your Lordships.
Now I turn to the Bill itself. Clause 1 transfers wage-fixing powers to the Agricultural Wages Boards in England and Scotland. Under Clause 2 it is also proposed to transfer to the Boards the task—hitherto imposed on committees—of defining overtime and those benefits and advantages, such as the occupation of a cottage or the supply of milk, which may be taken into account as part payment of wages. As these matters are obviously a part of the wage system, it is entirely proper that the Boards, instead of the committees, should deal with them in future.
It is also proposed to repeal the English Act of 1940 and the corresponding provisions of the Scottish Act of the same year. The English Act enabled the Board to fix a national minimum wage to serve as a guide to the county committees. The Acts of 1924 and 1937, and the amending Acts of 1940, each sought to define in some degree the circumstances that wages committees and the Boards should take into account in reaching their decisions. As will be seen from Clause 1, subsection (2), it is proposed to repeal subsection (4) of Section 2 of the principal Act, which is now regarded as somewhat out of date in that it may be thought to suggest that agricultural wages ought to occupy a low place in the general list. There is one point here which I would like to mention. The repeal of the Acts of 1940 will remove the specific requirements upon the Wages Boards to consider "general economic conditions, and the conditions of the agricultural industry" and will leave them free to consider all relevant factors. That, I think, is the main point.
A third point is that at present, in certain respects, the powers of Agricultural Wages Boards and committees are more 844 restricted than those of the wages councils under the Wages Councils Act of 1945. For example, the power to make directions about holidays with pay is limited in two ways. The length of the holiday that can be given is limited to one week in the year, and provision cannot be made for more than three days to be taken consecutively. This also is to be changed, and it is now proposed to give the Boards the same freedom as the wages councils. It is also desirable that the Boards should have the greatest possible latitude to provide, if necessary, for special circumstances, such as absence from work due to various causes. The powers of the Boards are widened by this Bill to cover such matters as these by the provisions of subsection (3) of Clause 1, and of the First Schedule.
There are various other points in this Bill, but I think they are mostly Committee points and will no doubt be raised on the Committee stage, so I shall pass on; but if there are any questions I will do my best to reply to them. Finally, I should like to say that His Majesty's Government have been extremely gratified by the general support which has so far been given to this Bill. I think that all sides thoroughly realize the necessity for the machinery of wage regulation in agriculture, and that this can best be carried out by central bodies having this duty. I hope, therefore, that this measure will prove to be non-controversial, and that your Lordships will give it a universal welcome in this House. I beg to move that the Bill be read a second time.
§ Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(The Earl of Huntingdon.)
§ 4.26 p.m.
§ EARL DE LA WARR
My Lords, the noble Earl has laid the main provisions of this Bill before us very briefly and extremely clearly. I should like, also quite briefly, to express the general agreement of noble Lords on this side of the House with the main provisions of this Bill. It really carries on the existing machinery, or what has been the existing machinery since the Act of 1940, followed by the Defence Regulations of, I think, 1942. There are only one or two comments I would like to make, and one is on Clause 2, which deals with the question of benefits. I hope that the Board are really going to take seriously these powers under Clause 2. It is most important, 845 now that wages have reached the point they have, that the question of what is a fair price for the cottages and for other benefits should be laid down. It is very unfair on landlords. None of us who is letting a cottage at two or three shillings a week, and feels the rent should go up to five shillings, likes to 'be the only one to put it up. Wages are laid down centrally, and it is essential that the whole question should be dealt with centrally.
Another point I would like to mention is in connection with Clause 3: Provisions as to learners. As I read this clause, in future any of us who takes a pupil on our farm will have to get a certificate from the agricultural committee, first informing them of all the conditions of employment. I find myself saying: "Oh dear, just another certificate!" Is this really necessary? So far as I can see, all it will mean is that we shall not bother about pupils, or else that we shall not bother about certificates; and the noble Earl's Department will be in the market—as I gather are most other Government Departments—for a plentiful supply of "snoopers" to come round and catch us. Those are the only comments I make on this Bill, and I hope that it has a speedy passage.
THE EARL OF GAINSBOROUGH
My Lords, I would just like to say, on behalf of the noble Lords on these Benches, that we also welcome this Bill, though there may be some points in which we shall be interested on the Committee stage.
§ 4.29 p.m.
§ LORD QUIBELL
My Lords, I could not let this opportunity pass without saying how much I welcome this Bill. I am of the opinion that it is far more important to pay agricultural workers a good living wage than it is to extend the privileges for pupils and for technical training. In this industry, as in many industries, we ought to get the idea into our heads that, so far as the average working man or the country is concerned, it is no disgrace to go home in dirty overalls with dirty hands. It seems to me that people in country districts, as well as in urban districts, all want their children to have education, but always with a view to avoiding industries such as coal, agriculture or builder's work, and to escape the real manual work that finally has to be done if we are to win 846 through. Every industry, including agriculture, is short of workers. The building trade is far more short of bricklayers' labourers than it is of bricklayers. I welcome this Bill if it is going to put a bottom into agricultural wages and guarantee workers a good standard rate of wage. With regard to Clause 4, there has been some slight controversy about the principle of payments by results.
§ LORD QUIBELL
I know a little about it. The Government are embodying the principle in this Bill. They are making it part and parcel of the Bill, and under Clause 4, it is the duty of the committees to fix payment by results. When there is a scarcity of agricultural labour in the countryside I think it is a good thing if encouragement can be given to a man to lay two hedges instead of one, and to have payment by results. So far as this Bill, and this clause in particular, is concerned, I heartily welcome it and hope that it will be a great success.
§ On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.