§ Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.
§ LORD PARMOOR:
My Lords, the subject matter of this Bill, of which I now propose the Second Reading, has been before your Lordships already earlier in the Session, and was rather fully discussed on that occasion. It was brought forward on a Question asked by the noble Marquess, the Marquess of Lincolnshire, and the noble Lord, Lord Bledisloe. I think it has always been recognised, and I certainly recognise, that agriculture is a question in which your Lordships have special interest and of which you have special knowledge. From the discussion to which I have referred and from other discussions in this House we may, I think, gather one or two points of principle with which I will deal before I proceed to the terms of the Bill itself.
I think that all of your Lordships have been agreed, and it has been stated more than once in this House, that, having regard to the great national importance of the industry of agriculture it is very important to obtain, if we can, such a measure of agreement upon our agricultural policy as will lead to the probability of that policy being continuous. We have suffered in agriculture from a 227 policy being adopted by one Party or by one Government, and then changed when a new Party or a new Government came into power. If a continuous policy could be suggested it would be a great advantage, and that, I know, is the view which your Lordships have entertained and expressed on more than one occasion.
In this context I should like to quote again—it has been quoted more than once —the opinion of Lord Ernle, when he was Mr. Prothero, upon this question of agricultural wages. I quote it because I think it is the shortest way of expressing the view of the Government, and the same view is really expressed in the Bill which is now before your Lordships. When the Corn Production Bill was being discussed in another place, Mr. Prothero, as he then was, used these words: —I do not think it is a satisfactory way to treat the minimum wage to say it is part of a bargain between the State and the agriculturists, and I should prefer to put it on higher and more national grounds. It is absolutely necessary for the national welfare that agricultural wages should be raised.That was the view expressed by Lord Ernle in 1917, and I will quote, in passing, a passage in the present Bill which is intended to carry out precisely the same idea.
Your Lordships will find it in subsection (4) of Clause 2, which says: —In fixing minimum rates a committee shall, so far as practicable, secure for able-bodied men such wages as in the opinion of the committee are adequate to promote efficiency and to enable a man in an ordinary case to maintain himself and his family in accordance with such standard of comfort as may be reasonable in relation to the nature of his occupation.I do not think there will be any difference of opinion that that test is the proper test to apply in dealing with questions like that of minimum wages.
It is important at the outset to make clear that a measure of agreement, which is so valuable in matters of national concern, such as the agricultural industry, has been obtained in the terms of the Bill, and I may say at once that in my view the Government are pledged not to alter the Bill to any material extent whatever. That was the pledge entered into by the Minister for Agriculture in another place, and I implement it entirely. So far as the Government are concerned with it they have no right what- 228 ever, after the undertakings given in another place, to alter in any material sense the principles of the Bill as they stand. That is the attitude I must adopt throughout, and unless I adopted it we should be open to the charge of having given an undertaking and not honour ably attempted to abide by it.
After the introduction of the Bill in another place, and during the Committee stage, there were very marked differences of opinion as to the form in which it was desired that legislation on this important subject should take place. I do not want to go into matters of controversy, which appear to me now to be matters of past history, but in order to make clear what happened in another place, and in order to make clear what is the attitude of the Government, I want to read one or two passages with reference to the arrangement which was made when this question was before Standing Committee B. on July 24 of this year. After the Committee met Captain Fitzroy made a statement to this effect: I will read the material parts of it because I think we must keep it in mind in discussing this Bill, although, of course, this House is absolutely free to take its own course. No one would dispute that.
The hon. member said:As a rather old Member of Parliament, however, I have evermore become convinced that Bills which have in them great controversial issues are seldom passed satisfactorily into law without some form of a compromise.Then he went on to say what, in his view, was the compromise:—After a considerable amount of discussion, and many conferences, we did come to what we thought was a very reasonable amount of agreement. I, and of course, I am sure, those who sit with me on this side of the Committee, put absolutely implicit trust in any undertaking that the Minister makes. We are quite convinced if he gives an undertaking, he is absolutely sure, to the best of his ability, to carry it out. I was unfortunately not able to be present at yesterday's proceedings, but I gather from the OFFICIAL REPORT, which I have just been able to study for a few moments, that there seemed some amount of doubt over a Division which took place … I should like just to state what was the nature of the compromise at which we arrived, and what it was we were both prepared to do. Those of us on this side of the Committee gave an undertaking that if the various conditions which were arrived at were adhered to we would give every possible facility to the Minister to carry his Bill through the House 229 without any delay whatsoever. We are prepared to carry out that undertaking, if the Minister is able to assure us that he, on his part, can carry out the undertaking that he gave. The undertaking which the Minister gave was that he would oppose the insertion in the Bill of a minimum wage being set up by the Central Wages Board, and—he will correct me if I am wrong—that carried with it an undertaking that a minimum wage in the form of a figure would not be inserted in the Bill. A further undertaking he gave us was that he would resist all efforts of his followers, so far as he could control them, to modify the form of the Bill when it came up on Report ‥‥ I would respectfully ask the Minster if he can give us an assurance that he is able to carry out the undertaking that he gave.Then the Minister of Agriculture said:I think that the hon. and gallant Member has exactly stated what was agreed between us. We arrived at that agreement, naturally, with some pain and reluctance on our part "—And Captain Fitzroy observed: "And on ours.'' The Minister continued:‥but we decided that there must, of course, be give and take; and the general ground of agreement was embodied in the form that the hon. and gallant Member has mentioned. He will correct me if I am wrong, but he did not mention the further item which the right hon. gentleman the Member for Ripon mentioned yesterday, in regard to their using their best endeavours to help the passage of the Bill on the part of the Conservative Party in another place.Of course no undertaking beyond that could have been given. Then Captain Fitzroy said:I did not mention that because I did not think it was necessary.It seems to me that we have an absolute undertaking, certainly on the Minister's part, which prevents me from making any concession which would be inconsistent with the statement made by Captain Fitzroy, and I am bound to say, as representative of the Government in this House, that I shall be bound to resist to the utmost of my power any suggested Amendment which can possibly interfere with that undertaking.
The real question, as your Lordships know, in this matter is as to the power of the local committees, as compared with the power of the Central Board in London. As the Bill stands, that critical point has been adjusted and decided in the compromise to which I have referred. The initiative power, and the greater part of the power, is to be bestowed upon the local committees. As regards their 230 constitution I shall have a word or two to say by and by. If I might express my own opinion, I think that is the right way to proceed in a Bill of this sort. At any rate in the first instance, you should settle these matters locally, if you can, because the conditions of agriculture differ so much in different parts of the country that if you attempt to have one general system, or one general minimum wage, it might very well have the effect of being uneconomic in some parts of the country, and of reducing the wages paid at the present time in other parts. I believe that if you were to consult agriculturists you would find that, by a very large majority, all classes of agriculturists would prefer matters of this kind to be settled in the locality, if it can possibly be done.
At the same time, everyone recognises that if you do not get success in the locality you must have some system of appeal or reference to an agricultural wages board in London. For instance, the Central Landowners' Association made a statement which was referred to in the last debate in this House, and on that occasion they stated that they thought that the reference should be to local representative bodies where both parties will have confidence in their representatives and substantial justice may be anticipated from them. At the present time the mere principle of conciliation has not succeeded. That really is no criticism of the Bill as it stands, for what we want to do is to make the local authorities effective, and to give them powers which will not in the majority of cases, as we anticipate, necessitate the interference of the Central Wages Board at all.
Your Lordships will see, if you look at the terms of the Bill, how that general principle has been carried out. Clause 1 deals with the establishment of agricultural wages committees, that is, the local bodies, and of an Agricultural Wages Board, and the way in which those committees and that Board are constituted will be found in the First Schedule of the Bill. The local committees will contain representatives in equal numbers of employers and agricultural workers, and the chairman will be chosen from outside, being a person who does not represent either interest. As regards the Agricultural Wages Board, you have the same 231 principle of representation, but you have a certain infusion of members appointed by the Minister, and you also have a special arrangement as regards the chairman and vice-chairman. I do not think it has ever been suggested that, assuming the principles underlying the Bill, there is any objection to the way in which it is proposed that either the committees or the Board should be constituted for this purpose.
The duties and powers of the agricultural wages committees with respect to the minimum rate of wages are set forth in Clause 2. In one sense there is no minimum rate of wages; that is to say that, according to the undertaking given, no figure is named in the Bill. There is no suggestion that one minimum wage, settled at headquarters, should extend to the agricultural industry at large. In accordance with the arrangement made, the principle is that each committee, having regard to the conditions of the locality, should consider the question of a minimum wage in that locality, subject, in certain cases, to an appeal to the Central Wages Board in London. Then there is another matter in which I think noble Lords have always been interested. There is a provision to cover the case of infirm and old people, who may be employed on special terms. I am certain that any one who is cognisant of the conditions of agricultural life will feel the extreme necessity of making a provision of that kind, in order that old and infirm people may not be turned out of work, although, owing to economic causes, it may be impossible to pay them the minimum wage. That is in Clause 2 (3), where it is said that the Act is not to be applicable in respect of workers who are "so affected by any physical injury or mental deficiency or any infirmity due to age or to any other cause" as to be incapable of earning the minimum wage. I have always thought that it was one of the tragedies of country life that old people should be turned off because they had lost the power of doing their due share of work. Everyone has always endeavoured to maintain them as long as possible, under every conceivable condition, and the Bill enables an arrangement to be made by which those men may be retained, without necessarily receiving the minimum wage.
232 Another matter to which I wish to call attention is the form in which the Central Wages Board comes in if there is a failure on the part of the agricultural wages committee to act. That is dealt with in Clause 5. The conditions under which the matter will be referred to the Agricultural Wages Board in London are these. There is first this condition, that the agricultural wages committee—(a) do not, within two months after the committee tire established and a chairman is appointed, fix and notify to the Agricultural Wages Board a minimum rate of wages which they are required to fix under this Act;That is to say, if they do not within two months perform the duties which the Act places upon them then the matter stands referred to the Agricultural Wages Board. The second condition is in the next paragraph—If an agricultural wages committeefail to fix and notify to the Agricultural Wages Board a minimum rate of wages in substitution for any such rate as aforesaid which, by cancellation or otherwise, has ceased to operate;That is to say, if they have done something which has made an existing minimum rate cease to operate, or has caused it to be cancelled, they must notify the fact to the Central Wages Board.
The third condition is contained in this paragraph: If the wages committeeby a resolution of the representative members of the committee request the Agricultural Wages Board to fix, cancel, or vary a minimum rate of wages.then the Agricultural Wages Board comes in again. I want your Lordships to appreciate that before that power can come into operation a resolution must be passed by all the representative members, of both sides, who, in that way, will express their desire in the particular case to have the matter settled by the Agricultural Wages Board in London.
Clause 6 does not give the Minister the power of fixing wages at all, but gives him a power of referring the matter back to the local committee if he thinks it desirable. It reads as follows:—The Minister may direct an agricultural wages committee to reconsider any minimum rate which has been fixed by them, and thereupon the committee shall reconsider the same and notify to the Minister the result of their reconsideration.233 I hope I have made it quite clear that I cannot depart, and it would not be honourable to attempt to depart, from the arrangement which was come to between the Minister of Agriculture and the Conservative and other interests in another place, which I have already read to your Lordships.
The only other matter to which I should like to refer is the Motion which stands on the Paper in the name of the noble Viscount, Lord Long, to postpone the further stages till the autumn. It will be for the noble Viscount himself to consider whether it is necessary to move it or not, but I urge him not to do so. I do that not from any want of consideration for his great knowledge of these matters, because probably no one knows more about them than he does. If the Bill had not been on an arranged basis I can understand that there would be strong reasons for pressing that Motion. But surely, as conditions now stand, and in view of the fact that the main terms of this Bill have been arranged, there can be no reason why the further stages of the Bill should not be proceeded with now. I believe that the discussions in Committee will be, and must be, on a limited scale. I am perfectly sure that every one in this House who has the slightest interest in agriculture must be cognisant of all the relative conditions and arguments.
Of course, a common complaint can be made about Bills coming to this House so late in the Session. I believe that will always be the case so long as our present system remains of putting Finance before legislative measures. No Bill has ever come to this House during the period of some years now that I have been a member of it, to which that form of objection could not have been taken. I am afraid it is almost a common form objection. But when you have a Bill which, as I say, is practically settled, not only do I see no reason for postponing it, but I hope that your Lordships will pass it, that it will come into operation, and that steps will be taken immediately by the Ministry of Agriculture to make it effective. Under the form of what is really a common agreement, it is very satisfactory, to my mind at any rate, that one of the first steps in our agricultural policy may be accepted by your Lordships and put into operation with the good will of all those 234 interested in the great industry of agriculture. I beg to move that the Bill be now read a second time.
§ Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.— (Lord Parmoor.)
§ THE EARL OF SELBORNE:
My Lords, I think the speech which has been made by my noble friend the Lord President is rather a peculiar one. He did not tell us how vast has been the change in this Bill since it was first introduced into another place.
§ THE EARL OF SELBORNE:
This is a different Bill to that which was introduced in the House of Commons. I make no secret of my view that the Bill, as introduced, would have been most disastrous in its effects on agriculture. Its real title ought to have been: "An Act for turning the arable land of England into grass as soon as possible." That is what the real title of that Bill should have been. What is it that it purported to do? It really gave power to the Minister of Agriculture sitting in Whitehall, either directly or through a Central Wages Board, to settle the wages of every agricultural labourer in England and Wales. That was going to be done, or my noble friend opposite must pardon me if my friends and I think it was going to be done, through a Party and by a Party that is fatally warped in its view of agricultural conditions by its attachment to an urban industrial programme. The only effect of the Bill, as introduced, must have been to produce something like a panic among farmers. Every man who could possibly abandon his arable operations and turn his land into grass, would have done so, and where the land could not profitably be turned into grass it would have been allowed to become derelict.
I think I shall not be trespassing upon your Lordships' time too long if I try to bring you back to the real root of this matter. Arable farming, corn-growing, speaking in the large, does not pay at the present moment. Therefore farmers will cease to grow corn, because if they continue to grow corn they will go into the Bankruptcy Court. The result of their ceasing to grow corn must be to throw the great majority of the acres now under the plough either into 235 grass or into rubbish. There are palliatives, and I would not for one moment ignore them or underrate their importance. Arable land can be used for stock farming and for dairy farming, and, of course, there is always market gardening, fruit farming and the other subordinate branches of agriculture. Some of the land now devoted to corn may be saved for the plough by one or other of those palliatives. But, speaking broadly, if corn ceases to pay, the vast majority of the acres now under corn must pass from the régime of the plough into grass or into rubbish. That means a further diminution in the agricultural population. It means a still greater lessening of the already too small proportion which the agricultural population bears to the industrial. I think the dwindling of the agricultural population is the greatest tragedy that is happening in this country. The agricultural population can only be kept at its present figure, or increased, by keeping the land under the plough. That is really the root of the whole problem, and that is why I regarded as so fatal the Bill as it was introduced. I felt sure, and I am perfectly certain of the accuracy of my belief, that the Bill would have turned out of the plough many hundreds of thousands of acres that are now under the plough.
The Bill has been immensely improved by reducing to a very great extent the powers of the Minister and the powers of the Central Wages Board, and by really giving authority in this matter to the county wages committees. I will not go over the ground which has been covered by the Lord President, but I do not want to conceal from your Lordships that, in my opinion, the Minister is still left with too much power. Let us consider the matter. Under this Bill the Minister himself will appoint two members to each county committee. In some cases he may also appoint the chairman if there is a failure of agreement among the other members of the committee. He will appoint the secretaries of all the county committees, and he will appoint all the officers who work under those county committees in investigating complaints and seeing that the Act is enforced. He will appoint all the members of the Central Wages Board and under Clause 6, to which the Lord President alluded, ho has power to 236 direct the reconsideration of the rates fixed by a county committee. It is true that he has not the power to enforce a change; but when your Lordships consider that two members and possibly the chairman of each committee will have been appointed by the Minister himself, it is clear that a request to reconsider is directed by him to a body in which he already has a strong personal foothold. Therefore, I am by no means inclined to underrate the importance of Clause 6.
In my humble judgment, the Bill, though so greatly improved, still leaves too much power in the hands of the Minister. According to my view, the only real method of satisfactorily settling these, rural questions (because they are rural questions.) must lie in the agreement of a local committee, the members of which are really cognisant of the conditions of agriculture and of country life in the district concerned, a knowledge that never can be imparted to the members of a central board and certainly not to a Minister sitting in Whitehall. There is a Motion, to which the Lord President has referred, by my noble friend Lord Long of Wraxall, to defer the consideration of Amendments till after the House reassembles in October. I think my noble friend is perfectly within his right in making such a suggestion, and I think this House would be abundantly within its right in asking for more time to consider the Bill and the Amendments in it, if it had not been reduced, as I think I can show, to a very simple Bill. As the Bill was originally introduced it was a complicated Bill, but I venture to suggest that the points that remain for discussion, and the points on which amendments can be usefully moved, are now few and simple in their nature, and I do suggest, notwithstanding the great authority of my noble friend, that there is time in the remaining days of this part of the Session to deal with the Committee stage of the Bill.
I think we must ask ourselves: How will this Bill work? If it is really worked by the county committees—and I welcome the schedule where practically every county has a separate committee, with the exception of a few of the small Welsh counties and counties like Rutland—I think it may do good. I certainly do not think it can do any harm. It may do 237 good, but if, unfortunately, the working of the Bill should prove differently to the hope of those who have made this arrangement in the House of Commons, and if it really should turn out that owing to disagreement or other causes the Central Wages Board is brought in and the control of the Minister tends to increase, then I am sure the result will be as I stated the result of the first Bill would have been, a further conversion of our too attenuated acres of arable into grass.
Why is it that I distrust a Minister— and I do not mind saying to my noble friend opposite, a Labour Minister—in this matter at Whitehall and a Central Wages Board? It is because, most unfortunately, as I think, when the Labour Party deals with these matters at headquarters they almost always appoint to deal with them gentlemen who have never themselves been agricultural labourers, who know nothing, or very little, about agriculture, who, perhaps, never have even lived much in the country, and who regard agricultural questions not really from the point of view of agriculture, but from the point of view of the Party to which they belong. The unfortunate industry of agriculture is harnessed by the Labour Party to the chariot wheels of an industrial and urban population, and to a Party whose main policy is founded not on the interests of the rural but of the urban and industrial population. That is why I say that I profoundly distrust the operations of any central organisation, the Labour members of which will not be in any sense agriculturists or countrymen.
Indeed, that explains the attitude of the National Farmers' Union, who have suggested, and I think with great justice, that this proposal to deal with wages by means of wages committees or wages boards ought to have been accompanied with something in the nature of support or subsidy. I think that is quite true, because I believe—I have said this before, and I state it again—that there really are only two possible policies for agriculture. One is the policy of which my noble friend Lord Lincolnshire is an advocate, of Free Trade and laissez faire, and the other is the policy in one form or another of the Corn Production Act. The great misfortune of the Free Trade and 238 laissez faire policy is that the Liberal Party, while always adopting it ostensibly, never have really carried it out in fact, because, while proclaiming that as their policy, they have always threatened agriculture with all kinds of harassing legislation, and have continuously increased the taxation of agriculture, with the result that it is no longer a question of a fair field and no favour.
If noble Lords will turn to the report of the tribunal on agriculture, just published, they will see how immensely greater are the burdens borne by agriculture in this country than they are in the lands of most of our competitors, and they will also see that in those lands, where agriculture is not so heavily burdened, there is almost invariably some measure of State assistance or support. Therefore, it is under the most peculiarly difficult circumstances that agriculture has to operate in this country. If I am right, then it follows that it is not possible for any Party—it does not matter whether it is the Conservative Party with its resolutions which come to nothing, or the Liberal Party with its curious ideas of laissez faire, or the Labour Party with its ideas of land nationalisation—it does not matter which of those policies prevails, or which of those Parties is in power, it is not possible to force up the rate of agricultural wages without doing something to support the industry to enable it to keep the land in cultivation. The only effect, apart from that, as I commenced by saying, is to drive more and more land away from the plough, continually to decrease the number of agricultural labourers employed, and generally to heighten that disproportion, which I think is so dangerous and so unfortunate, between the agricultural and the industrial populations.
It is a very interesting fact that the Government themselves appear to me to be tending rather in that direction. I make no apology for alluding to the leaflet that has played so large a part in the Lincolnshire by-election — a leaflet in which it has been definitely stated, I understand, though I have not seen the leaflet, that it was part of the policy of the Government now in power to give a subsidy in some form to the farmer. I see that the Prime Minister was ques- 239 tioned on Wednesday on this matter by a relative of my own. And what did the Prime Minister say? He said:The Independent Labour Party, which is a section of the Labour Party, has been working for some time at the problem of stabilising agricultural prices, and has made some proposals on the subject, but they have not yet been officially adopted by the Labour Party, though the Party is much interested in the matter.I think I can even add to the information that the Prime Minister gave to the House of Commons on that subject. I believe the very proposal that has been put forward in Lincolnshire was worked out by an agricultural committee of the Independent Labour Party of which, unless I have been inaccurately informed, the Prime Minister was a member, though I believe that was before he came into office as Prime Minister.
I believe this particular policy has the honour of having the Prime Minister as one of its sponsors. What is that policy? It is a very remarkable policy and worth mentioning in connection with this Bill. The first point is land nationalisation, all the land in England and Wales to be managed and farmed by one Minister sitting in Whitehall, assisted by county committees. Of course, there is to be a wages board, but the Committee that framed this policy know perfectly well that agriculture cannot produce the wages which they desire the Board to settle for the agricultural labourer, and, therefore, there is to be another Minister, I suppose at the Board of Trade, to whom is to be entrusted the sole power of importing all wheat and meat. No private trader is to be allowed to import wheat or meat. The Minister at the Board of Trade is to make an intelligent anticipation of what he thinks the course of agriculture in the world will be during the next five or six years and he is to fix prices in England for wheat and meat which will give the farmer a fair profit. That is a most grandiose scheme, but I think it will bring complete disaster to agriculture, absolutely destroy the industry and do a great deal of harm in the land besides.
But the interest of it is this: that it is dawning on this Government and the Party it represents that it is quite impossible to force up wages without doing something to support the farmer; and it is on that fact that I want to lay stress.
240 I believe absolutely that there is no alternative except the two I have mentioned—the alternative of leaving agriculture entirely alone, or of some such policy as was embraced in the Corn Production Act. I thought it was worth while drawing your Lordships' attention to the very remarkable development that has taken place during the last few days in Lincolnshire and to the Prime Minister's reply to a Question, but as this Bill has now come down from another place I certainly am not going to oppose the Second Reading.
§ THE MARQUESS OF LINCOLNSHIRE:
My Lords, I have listened with the greatest possible attention to the speech delivered by the Lord President. It was exactly the speech one expected. It was the speech of a kind-hearted and generous man, and one well known and respected in the county in which he lives, but it was the speech, I am afraid I must say, of a disappointed man. He told us that an agreement had been obtained on the subject of this Bill and I at once asked myself this question: With whom? He went on to say that the Government have no right to alter the Bill. They have given an undertaking not to do so, and having given that undertaking they mean to stick to their pledge. Those were his words, more or less. Then he proceeded to tell us with whom the agreement had been made, and it seems that Captain Fitzroy, for the Conservative and Unionist Party, so far as Captain Fitzroy could control them—those were very wise words—had entered into the agreement to which the Lord President referred. I take it, therefore, it means that the Government will resolutely oppose a minimum wage.
§ THE MARQUESS OF LINCOLNSHIRE:
I beg your pardon, that is perfectly right— a fixed minimum wage. I think I had better say at once that the policy of the Liberal Party is in favour of a minimum wage. By that we stand, by that we fall. Let me tell your Lordships why I am entitled to say this. The National Liberal Federation this year met at Brighton. There were delegates from all parts of the country and an agricultural resolution was proposed by Sir Harry Verney. I happen to be, and have been for more 241 years than I care to remember, President of the Home Counties and Eastern Counties Liberal Federations, which represent some sixteen or seventeen counties, and I was allowed to say a word on the question. I asked that great meeting whether I was justified in saying that the policy of the Liberal Party for the agricultural labourer is a minimum wage of not less than 30s. a week, a working day of eight hours, the inspection and limitation of tied cottages, and the Sandringham Saturday half-holiday which was started in Norfolk on the Sandringham Estate. There was at once a roar of consent and approbation which really could have been heard at Beachy Head. Therefore, I am perfectly justified in saying that this is the Liberal policy as regards the agricultural labourer, and by it we stand or fall. I was not surprised that the Lord President made no allusion whatever to any compact, or compromise, or agreement of any sort or description, with the Party to which I have the honour to belong.
One word on the subject of the Bill. For good or evil a Labour Government is in power at the present moment. When they came into office everybody wished them well, everybody said that they would give them a fair chance, and I think that both sides of the House have loyally carried out that pledge. But at the same time, while they held out many hopes and aspirations with which I am in entire sympathy, none of us ever hoped or expected any instantaneous realisation of idealistic improbabilities. We had no ideas of that sort, but at the same time we had a hope, and I think we had a right to expect, that this Labour Government, when it came in, would at once do that which so many of us had at heart, and would make an effort to relieve the terrible condition of the agricultural labourer in England. I dare say the Lord President will remember that I took the liberty of asking him a Question earlier in the year, when the Government had settled down in their stride, as to what they meant to do for the agricultural labourer, and whether they would set up wages boards and a minimum wage.
§ THE MARQUESS OF LINCOLNSHIRE:
I beg your pardon; that is my fault. The noble Lord corrected me with that kindness and that courtesy which are his great distinguishing characteristics. He spoke to me as if I were a wayward child, and addressed me like a kind parent. He asked me what was the use of forcing an open door—that was the phrase that he used. He said: " Do you not know that Mr. Ramsay McDonald, the Prime Minister, has expressed his intention of doing so?" I may say in the strictest confidence that I had not the smallest conception that he had done so; but that is neither here nor there. What the noble Lord said to me really amounted in effect to this: "Do not be tiresome; it will all come right if you only wait and see." I quite agree that we had not long to wait, and I congratulate the Government on fulfilling their pledge so soon. We had not long to wait before seeing that the promise was not a very wholehearted one, and that the Bill which was introduced by the Government, though it brought in county wages boards and a Central Wages Board, with powers to act in the event of the county wages boards not doing their duty, yet it failed in the one particular respect in which all the agricultural labourers in England hoped that something would be done—those labourers who are in what they call the starvation wages zone—it failed to provide the minimum wage, fixed and enforceable by law, of not less than 30s. a week.
There was one thing about the agricultural labourers which the noble Lord omitted to say, and which none of the Labour members have mentioned in either House, and that was the obligation which we were under, and the gratitude which we owe, to the agricultural labourers for the splendid way in which they came forward during the time of the war. I do not mean to say for one moment that the agricultural labourers did any better than anybody else. That is impossible. No one could have done better than everybody in the Kingdom did. But I do say that, in the county in which I live, every agricultural able-bodied man went to fight for liberty and honour, to fight for his country, in which he had no stake whatever —for very few of these agricultural labourers own even a flower pot of land— to fight for his own home, which at that 243 time, before the war, meant a more or less good cottage out of which he was liable to be turned at six days' notice if he went counter to his landlord or if he stopped working for a, tenant farmer. I do not say that this was done in every case, but he was under that liability.
What, in the view of all those who are best qualified to speak, was the thing that kept these men's hearts up in the squalor and filth and slime of the trenches for the four years during which England fought, and after which England won? What was it that kept up the courage of these men? They did not want to be called heroes, nor did they want heroic legislation. That which kept, their spirits up was the hope that when they came back, though they did not expect a new heaven and a new earth, they would find a new England, new conditions, and a new land which they hoped to be allowed to help to fashion and to share. What happened when they did come back? They marched through London in khaki, flags waved, bells rang and mobs cheered. They were given a certain amount of money for their services, and they went back to their wretched villages under the same conditions as, or worse conditions than, they had known before the war. In every village all over England we find tributes to the heroic dead who died for their country. In every village the wreaths are put up day after day by loving hands and loving hearts to the men who fell in the war. But what, I ask the House, has been done for these men who, in England's need, went to fight for her?
There were two gleams of hope. There was the Coalition Government. Every creed and every class was collected to govern the country and to make everything all right. The Coalition Government said to them: "We will make this country a land fit for heroes to live in," and they brought in a Bill in which they promised them 45s. a week, guaranteed by the Government, for life. They went so far as to say that if any atrocious individual in days to come cried to do away with that wage it would take them four years before the Bill could be got rid of. What happened? They were promised 45s. a week. There were other conditions, of course,— onerous conditions which, if carried out, would have cost the country anything 244 from £40,000,000 to £80,000,000 a year. In consequence, that Act of Parliament was repealed.
I want to call attention to this point, upon which the Lord President himself laid stress, that Lord Ernie, when he brought in this legislation providing a minimum fixed wage, expressly denied that there was any intention of linking the two things together, of giving money to the farmer and, as a consequence, raising the labourer's wage. That has been pointed out over and over again. It was, I think, a very wise proviso, because if a man tries to ride two horses at once he naturally comes to grief in the effort. The thing is to do one thing at a time, and it was distinctly understood that the minimum fixed wage was in no way dependent upon any other provision that might appear in the Bill. The 45s. a week—the women said of it: " It is too good to be true; we cannot believe it"—was done away with in six months. The noble Lord who brought in the Bill was raised to the estate, title, dignity and honour of a Viscount, and was raised also to the position of First Lord of the Admiralty. The farmers, who were not in the Bill, were given a sop of £18,000,000, and what was done for the wretched labourer? Nothing whatever. I will not say that they were thrown to the wolves, but they were thrown back on their own resources, to the terribly inexorable law of supply and demand. They were thrown over and betrayed, and not one sixpence or even copper was given to them in return.
These poor things had another chance. The Coalition Government fell and the leaders thereof, and I suppose no leaders, terrestrial or celestial, ever fell so far. Then in came a Conservative Government, with the good wishes of everybody. They were told that if they kept things going for the next few years they would have the good will and blessing of everybody. What happened? A snap Election took place and Mr. Baldwin, whose great stock in trade is his honesty—I am sure he means to stand by his word and make his followers do so, too—went to the country and told the labourers that if they voted for him they should have a minimum wage of 30s. Of course, there was the other side of the question and the farmers were told: If you cultivate the land—it does not matter what you put in, whether geraniums or lilies of the valley—you shall 245 have £1 per acre, if you will consent to give 30s. per week to the agricultural labourers. But north of the Tweed the farmers not only give 30s. but a great deal more, and the result would be that if he paid 30s. a week a man would get the whole of his rent in addition to three quarters of his rates, which, as your Lordships know, are already paid by the industrial population who came under so much censure and criticism this afternoon.
"Once bit twice shy." The agricultural labourers did not vote for the Conservatives, and the Labour Government came in, and for the third time of asking this Wages Bill gave the agricultural labourers another gleam of hope. I am not going to take up the time of the House arguing about the details of the Bill. We all know that the power of the Central Board to fix wages has been taken away, and by taking that away the making of a fixed minimum wage was made imperative. The moment you take away the power of the Central Board to fix a proper living wage, and the moment you leave the wretched agricultural labourer to local conditions— I make no charge against anybody, but the moment you do that, then it becomes absolutely necessary to have a fixed minimum wage. That is what the labourers in Norfolk and Suffolk and parts of Oxfordshire hoped for, and that is what they have not got.
I do not know whether Lord Olivier will wind up the debate on behalf of the Government. He was the permanent Secretary of the Board of Agriculture, and he knows the ins and outs of the office as well as anybody. He is also a distinguished member of the Fabian Society, and a member of the Labour party, and the Labour party has made it a great plank in their platform, in the same way as have the Conservatives and the Liberals, that there should be a fixed minimum wage. How, then, will the noble Lord, if he speaks, explain this volte face? How will he be able to explain the position of the Labour party at this present moment, seeing that we have been told by the Leader of this House that the Government are going to stand by their undertakings in the House of Commons, and are going to break their promise to the farm labourers, and vote against a minimum wage? I leave it to 246 him to explain, and I shall listen with great wonder and interest to his remarks.
I am afraid I have trespassed too long upon the time of the House, but there is nobody here to speak for the agricultural labourers. I only wish that my powers were greater, but I have done the best I can. I would ask: What are the chief objections to a 30s minimum wage for the whole country? What objection can there be? No reason has been given in this House, and the only reason I believe is that it is generally supposed that in some parts of this country farmers cannot pay it.
§ THE MARQUESS OF LINCOLNSHIRE:
The noble Viscount, Lord Long, says "Hear, hear!" Is that really the case Farmers can and do pay 30s. in districts where there is a demand for industrial labour, and in many parts of Yorkshire and Lancashire 30s. is being paid on land which is no better and produces no more than the average Oxfordshire, Norfolk and Wiltshire land. If that be the case then the plea that the farmer cannot pay30s goes by the board. It is also said that if you enforce this wage we shall lose all our tenants. Lose our tenants? Why, the demand for farms is so great in this country that if you have a farm vacant you get ten or twenty applications for it at once. The Lord President of the Council some time ago told us himself that he had a farm on the top of the Chiltern Hills, and he had had fifty applications for it. Well, in Norfolk there is a relative of my own who has a farm two miles from a prosperous market town. He is twenty miles from Norwich, and five miles from Cromer, and my relative has had fifty-three applications for that farm. And so it is all over England. The idea that any man in his senses would throw up a farm unless he was obliged is absurd. If he does, there will be ten or fifteen people ready to jump into his shoes, and perhaps make a very much better fight than he would himself.
Mr. Noel Buxton, the Minister of Agriculture, made a statement in the House of Commons which I think has been received by the whole country with horror and dismay. This is a statement made by a Minister of the Crown on his 247 own responsibility, and backed up by the whole of the Government. He said that, with a wage of 25s. a week, when you had taken out enough for the rent, for clothes, for insurance, and for the other necessaries and decencies of life, there remained about 15s. to pay for food, and, if the labourer had a wife and five children— and Norfolk men are very affectionate husbands, and the wives very good wives, and they have very large families—that worked out at ¾ d. a meal. I was born in the third year of that terrible decade which was called the "hungry forties." I remember the awful position of England at that time. I was held up as a child by my mother at Grimsthorpe Castle, my grandfather's house in Lincolnshire, and shown the fires. There was a fire at Ednam, a fire at Bourne, and ricks blazing somewhere else. One looked upon them like Brock's fireworks in the days of good Queen Victoria. We do not want those terrible days back again, but I do not believe that in all the history of the hungry forties any such awful statement was made in either House of Parliament as that a man with a wife and five children was so miserably paid that all they had to depend upon was ¾ d. a head for each meal.
How are some steps to be taken to remove this great evil? Your Lordships can do it at once. You can support the Amendment, which I hope to move in your Lordships' House on Monday, to secure the agricultural labourers a minimum wage of 30s. By that Amendment .you will bring back a gleam of hope and confidence to men who are almost in a state of despair. Is it too much to hope that the House of Lords, which before the war was supposed to own one-third of the land of England, will rise to the occasion and put an end to this abominable state of things? If it will vote for a minimum wage of 30s. all over the country, it will put a stop to a state of things which is not only a disgrace and a scandal to our common civilisation and Christianity, but almost a crime as well.
§ VISCOUNT LONG OF WRAXALL:
My Lords, I believe it will be convenient if I state at an early stage, very briefly, what is the course that I contemplate following in regard to the Amendment which stands in my name, to postpone the further stages of the Bill till the 248 autumn. I do not propose to follow the noble Marquis in the very interesting speech to which we have just listened. He did not name the Minister responsible for the wonderful Bill he referred to, but he said he went to the House of Lords. I do not recognise him; however, I dare say he exists. I have considerable experience of agricultural labourers. I know them personally extremely well, and have talked things over with them in their own homes. They have no hesitation in talking frankly and openly to me, and the stories I hear of agricultural labourers being afraid to talk to men of a better class I believe to be absolute rubbish. It is entirely contrary to my experience.
The noble Marquess suggests that we ought to pass his Amendment for a compulsory wage of 30s. I am not prepared to vote for that or anything like it, and for this reason. I am acting for what I believe to be the interests of the agricultural labourers themselves. Nobody wants to see them receive lower wages than they are getting in most parts of the country. Where those men are who are receiving only £1 a week I do not know. After a search one man was found in Wiltshire, but his employer was very soon brought to his senses and fell in with the general practice. But I say it is in the interests of the farmers not to fall in with this proposal. A great many farmers, men in whom I have the greatest confidence, upright and able men with plenty of capital, have told me that they really cannot afford to continue paying their full rate of wages to all their men, and that if they have to pay more than they are paying now, which in many cases is 27s. a week, what they will be compelled to do will be to cut off some of their labour altogether, and employ fewer men. You will benefit a certain number of men by increasing their wages 3s, per week, but you will punish others very heavily indeed. I know that many members of the Farmers' Union take the same view. Therefore I cannot follow the noble Marquess's argument that it is in the interests of the labourers that this should be done.
When the noble Marquess says to us, in reproving terms, that we ought not to be afraid of this and that we could let our farms again quite easily, he appears to misunderstand entirely the ground upon 249 which many of us rest our arguments. We are not thinking of our own rents. We are not thinking that it will not be easy to re-let our farms. I am happy to say that I have very few changes of tenants. Most of us know that to-day we can do as the noble Marquess has told us and as the Lord President told us the other day—if a farm becomes vacant we can let it again very easily, and as often as we want to do so, at an increased rent. That is perfectly true.
But I was surprised that the noble Marquess used that argument because, although we have always been strongly opposed in politics, as much opposed as I imagine two men can possibly be, yet he has always shown a spirit and adopted an attitude in his public life, especially in all his relations with agriculture, which would indicate that he is a humane man animated by the highest principles and anxious to live on the best of terms with his neighbours and the community generally. Therefore, when he suggests that although my tenants might say to me: "We cannot pay this rent, it is impossible", I should either say to them: " You must pay it or go," or run the rent up and take the chance of their having to give in; may I say that has not been my practice and I am not going to start it now? I certainly should not go to my tenants voluntarily and say to them: " I am going to fix for you what wages you should pay to your labourers." The suggestion that we should have a wage fixed by Parliament for the whole of the country is one that I shall vigorously oppose whenever it is made. I have, unfortunately, a rather severe attack of asthma and it is not easy for me to speak. As a result, your Lordships will be relieved of any prolonged remarks from me; but I apologise for my unfortunate delivery.
The Bill as originally introduced into the House of Commons was, in my judgment, a mad measure. I cannot conceive what were the intentions of the Government, and whether they really thought that they were going to do any good to agriculture. It is evident from the most casual study of the Bill that it could not have done anything of the kind, and further evidence is to be found in the attitude which the Government assumed in Committee and in the House of Commons, and by the drastic changes they have made in it. I admit that the new 250 Bill is a very much better one. The improvements in it have been considerable. I think we owe a great debt to those members of the House of Commons who did the extremely hard work that was necessary in order to effect these changes in the Bill. I think we owe a debt to the Government for having accepted those alterations. But they come to us and make the somewhat ignominious announcement that whatever we like to do or say, whatever our views are: " There is the Bill, you can talk as much as you like; it is our ultimatum."
They justify it, I admit, on very high grounds. They say: "We received fair treatment from the Conservative minority on the Committee stage and they have played fair. We have made them a promise and we must keep it." That is a very high line to take. I must not be regarded as suspicious of the Government or as seeking to discredit their actions if I say that in the course of a very long Parliamentary career, during which I have often had charge of a Bill for the Government or of the opposition to it on behalf of the Opposition, I have become very familiar with that most convenient declaration:—"We have come to an agreement with the other side and we cannot consider any alterations. It has to go to the House of Lords and to come back."
I placed my Motion on the Paper not because I wanted to destroy the Bill. I object to the Bill. Had I been a member of the Government it would not have been brought in. Had it been brought in I should have gone out; I would not have been responsible for it at all. But that is not the case. I have nothing to do with the Government. I know that my own Party in another place and, I believe, by far the larger number of them here are in favour of some measure of the kind, and nothing would induce me to run counter to their views, basing my action solely on my own opinion and the fact that I hold views which differ from theirs. I placed my Motion on the Paper because I was in hopes that it would be acceptable even to the strongest supporters of the Bill, and that it would surround our proceedings in your Lordships' House with some appearance of decency.
I think this is a scandalous proceeding. This Bill is brought up from the House 251 of Commons after having occupied weeks and weeks of time there and having been the subject of much contention and numerous articles in the newspapers. You bring it up to the House of Lords which you have not yet abolished, and you say: "There is the Bill, you have to take it, and not only have you to take it without making any alteration practically "—which is what is being said today—" but you have to give it a Second Reading between one o'clock and four, in the space of about two hours and three quarters" (because there is a Royal Commission at 3.45) "and we are going away next week." We know that certain Ministers have made their plane for going away and that those plans cannot very well be upset because others depend upon them. It is in the space of these two or three days that we are to finish this Bill.
Supposing the House of Lords decline to accept the view of the Government and put in some Amendments of their own. What is the use of doing it if the Government in the House of Commons and the House of Commons itself say: "We came to a bargain with the Conservative representatives in Committee. We played fair. We played our part honourably and honestly. We have made this agreement and we are not going to depart from it." If when we say: "But we are not going to depart from it when we are urged to go further in a Conservative direction; you must do the same and play your part," you say to us: "Very well, if you stick to your guns, we will stick not to our guns but to those which are put into our hands by the House of Commons," I think that is treating the House of Lords in a really scandalous fashion.
I am bound to say that I could not see what harm would be done by postponing this Bill until the meeting of Parliament in October. There need be no material delay. You can, if you like—it is quite easy—have a special meeting of the county council for the purpose of the election or nomination of the authority, and you can get it all done in plenty of time to start in the new year. That really is all that is necessary. I am not going to trouble your Lordships by an examination of the Bill. I know others will do that. I only want to say that a Bill which contains power to set up a central 252 authority in London to deal with agricultural wages is striking a blow at our agriculture from which it will not recover. I am not exaggerating. I know what is thought of these things by the class to which I belong, and I know perfectly well that the agricultural labourers, whatever they may be in the noble Marquess's county, in my own county, and in the counties where I have made myself acquainted with them, are extremely intelligent people; they know their job perfectly well; and hundreds of them have told me that the worst thing that can be done is to take power out of the hands of those who find the capital and find the work, and give it entirely into the hands of a central department.
I have been at the Ministry of Agriculture myself. I think it was a better Department in the days of the late Lord Chaplin and myself and others. Politics were then rigidly excluded from our policy. We took no note of politics at all, but concentrated all our attention and all our energies first and foremost on keeping the country free of animal diseases. When I gave up the office in 1900 the country was absolutely clear of disease, with the exception of swine fever. Now what have you got? You have farmers and others in every part of the country terrified at what is going to happen, and not knowing from one day to another whether they will not have disease in their neighbourhood. My belief is that this is due to the fact that the Ministry of Agriculture has given more time to political moves like this than to the prevention of disease. This is not a Bill for the benefit of agriculture. This is a Bill to lead agricultural labourers to say: "These are our friends; we must all vote for them: we will get something else." This is not a Bill for the benefit of agriculture. It cannot be said too often that you cannot benefit agriculture by benefiting one class of agriculturists alone. You must include the man who owns the land, the man who cultivates it—when they are two different people—and the working man. Here you are putting the farmer on a different plane altogether from that on which you put the labourers, and you will do immense harm to our greatest industry.
I apologise for my unfortunate physical weakness, and I am very grateful to your Lordships for letting me speak as I have 253 done. I have only now to say that, as appears to me now, it would not be agreeable to anybody on this side of the House, or anywhere else, that I should move my Motion. I have no intention of moving it, for I do not think I can carry it, and it would be only wasting your Lordships' time. So far as I can judge from the conversations I have had with noble Lords, and from what I have heard in debate, there would not be the remotest prospect of anybody supporting me. I listened with delight and satisfaction to the admirable speech, if I may venture to say so, made by Lord Selborne. He is one of our greatest living authorities on matters connected with agriculture. He has devoted an immense amount of time to considering the question on a wide basis, and I think his views were probably the right ones. I shall not do anything which is likely to interfere with the policy which would be favoured by the noble Marquess as representing Lord Curzon, and Lord Selborne, who has spoken on behalf of the Front Opposition Bench to-day.
That does not mean that I have altered my views. It does not mean that I do not thoroughly dislike this Bill. I resent the suggestion made from time to time that we who are opposed to a Central Wages Board or a Minister being put over us are objecting to it because of our own interest, because it is our own pocket that is concerned. Nothing of the kind. We are just as ready to make our sacrifices as those agriculturists who call themselves Liberals, and just as ready as those who call themselves Labour. Thank God, there arc not many agricultural labourers who are Labour. In my part of the world they support Liberals. I do not mind them doing that so much, though I do not like it, but if they will not support the Conservatives well, I say, let them stick to the Liberals and not be led away by this will-of-the-wisp. These gentlemen are holding out a light that will lead these poor beggars into the morass, where they will leave them to get out as best they can. It is because I think it will do more mischief than good that I oppose this Bill. I placed my Motion on the Paper hoping that at all events it would be of some use in our debate, and I have 254 ventured to tell your Lordships what, in all probability, is the course that I shall take.
§ LORD STRACHIE:
My Lords, I think that whatever our feelings are regarding the establishment of wages boards this is not the time to take any objection to them. I should like to remind your Lordships that wages boards came to stay from the very moment that the Coalition Government established them under the Corn Production Act. It is true that they also abolished them when they repealed that Act, but that does not in any way interfere with my argument, which is that when you have once adopted a principle—a principle which I think is a right one—you must go on with it. Therefore I think this House, like the other House, will accept this Bill unanimously as a matter of principle. There is no doubt that the wages paid in some agricultural districts are not sufficient to keep body and soul together under certain conditions, and it is certainly necessary to deal with this matter.
I do not, however, like the way in which it was dealt with as this Bill was introduced into the House of Commons. When the Bill was introduced, what was its main underlying principle? It was to give absolute power to the Minister. It is true that local committees were to be set up in the various counties who were supposed to fix the rate of wages in their particular areas according to local conditions, but there was another clause in a later part of the Bill which would have enabled the Minister, if he thought fit, entirely to override the decisions of the Committees. Clause 6 now states that the Minister may, in certain circumstances, direct an agricultural wages committee to reconsider a minimum rate, and to notify him of the result of their reconsideration. In the original Bill for all practical purposes it was left to the discretion of the Minister to control the wages of the whole of the country, and to vary and alter them as he thought fit, regardless of any considerations whatever. There was the danger that that power would be used by a Minister for political and Party purposes.
I entirely agree with the noble Viscount that so far as possible, agricultural matters should be kept entirely outside Party politics, and when I was in another 255 place I always attempted to keep myself free from political considerations in dealing with agricultural topics. Now what is the position? It is true that this Bill has been considerably altered in another place since it was first introduced and that what the Lord President calls a compromise has been arrived at. The compromise really only comes to this, that there should be no minimum wage inserted in the Bill. It seems to me that in his statement Captain Fitzroy laid the greatest emphasis on the point that there should be no minimum wage, and that that was the real object in making this compromise. I think that Captain Fitzroy and his friends are too much frightened by the minimum wage. A minimum wage was fixed in the Corn Production Act, with the consent of the Conservative Party, and I cannot see any reason why they should be afraid of it. I should not be afraid of seeing a minimum wage fixed, and in my opinion it would give greater satisfaction to agricultural labourers than any other provision in the Bill.
It is true that under this compromise the Agricultural Wages Board will non now be able to order local committees about, but the Minister of Agriculture has very cleverly accomplished much the same thing. Under the Bill as it stands now the Minister has power to appoint, on his own initiative, two members to sit on local committees with the same power of voting as any other member. This means that they will have great power when it comes to a question of appointing the chairman. Under the original Bill there was to be an independent chairman appointed by the employers and the workers, with the proper provision that if the workers and employers did not come to any decision as to the chairman the Minister should appoint. Naturally, someone would have to appoint a chairman, and the mere fact that the Minister would have to appoint the independent chairman would have only made it imperative on the local people to come to some decision themselves. I am sure they would have felt that it was better they should appoint locally than for someone to be appointed from Whitehall.
That is not altered really under the present Bill, because the two appointed members will have equal powers with 256 other members in the election of a chairman. That is to say, for all practical purposes, if there is any difference between the representatives of the farmers and the labourers on these local committees, they will have a casting vote as regards the appointment of the chairman. And it will be the case in all other matters that come up for decision before a local wage committee; these two appointed members will have absolute power to say what the wages shall be, whether they shall be high or low. Therefore, I am perfectly justified in saying that by a side wind, and very cleverly, the Minister of Agriculture has accomplished his purpose. I do not blame him for doing so. He has got the better of those who thought they had got the better of him.
Let me refer to the question raised in Clause 6. I think it is a very doubtful clause indeed. It says:The Minister may direct any agricultural wages committee to reconsider any minimum rate which has been fixed by them, and thereupon the committee shall reconsider the same and notify to the Minister the result of their reconsideration.What does that mean? It means that by sending down an instruction to the two appointed members that the Minister does not like the decision of a local committee, they will have to consider it. Supposing the two appointed members do not carry out the view of the Minister of Agriculture, all he has to do, when their term of office expires, is to scrap them and put in someone else who will carry out his wishes more effectually. Then we have the old story with which your Lordships are now very familiar with reference to Regulations lying on the Table of both Houses of Parliament. The same thing happens in this Bill. The provision is of no effect as regards your Lordships' House, and I am sure your Lordships will insist that a similar Amendment is made in this Bill as was made in the London Traffic Bill and the Housing Bill, giving equal power to your Lordships' House with the House of Commons to cancel and make void any Regulations of which you do not approve.
There is a curious arrangement in Clause 9 by which the Minister may appoint a secretary for each agricultural wages committee. The secretary is not to be appointed by the local committee itself; he is to be appointed by the 257 Minister, and without any consideration of the wishes of local committees. I have no doubt I shall be told by the Government that the Minister will always consider the wishes of the local committee. But that is not the point. These are important committees representing great counties, and sitting in order to regulate wages and other matters, and surely each body should be trusted and have the power of appointing its own secretary. He should not be nominated by the Minister sitting in Whitehall. Then the officers who are to be appointed to look after various matters and to be of assistance to agricultural labourers, to see that justice is done to them, are also to be appointed by the Minister. Local committees, apparently, are to have nothing whatever to do with these officers. I am certain that Mr. Buxton, the present Minister of Agriculture, will be perfectly fair and just, but when we are making Acts of Parliament we are not to think of the particular Minister at the head of the Department at the moment. We have to think of what may happen in the future, and make it quite clear that there is no chance of any "jobs" being done. It must be remembered that the Minister of Agriculture will have £70,000 a year placed at his disposal for the pay of these officials and various boards. He will, therefore, have great patronage in his hands.
There is also a very curious provision in the First Schedule. It is to the effect that by a Regulation of the Minister these committees shall either be nominated or elected. I think we may fairly ask the Lord President to give us some indication as to what is in the mind of the Government; whether they mean them to be nominated by the Minister in Whitehall, or whether they mean them to be elected, and if so, in what manner and under what franchise? It is perfectly clear that too much is left by this Bill to the Minister himself and to Regulations. I admit that if your Lordships accept a proposal to amend the provisions with regard to Regulations under this Bill lying on the Table of this House, then this House will have control over them. It seems to me that we ought to have some explanation as to the way in which the Government intend to put these Regulations into force, and an Amendment of that sort would in no way be a breach of the agreement 258 which has been arrived at. I think we should have some definite statement from the Government as to how they mean to carry out these Regulations, and whether these various wages committees are to be nominated or elected.
I regret very much that the Government have taken up the position that they are obliged to resist all Amendments, however much they may improve the Bill from the point of view of your Lordships or from the national point of view, and that the Conservative Party in another place have pledged themselves to support the Government against any such Amendments.
§ LORD DYNEVOR:
My Lords, I do not wish to delay your Lordships for more than a very few seconds. I look upon this Bill as a compromise, and I think it should be accepted. If this Bill is lost there, will, without a doubt, be another Bill which, in all probability, will cause a long and bitter political fight. It is now for the employers and the employees to work this Bill to the very best advantage. As the Bill is a compromise, I do not intend to move any Amendment in Committee, nor do I wish now to delay your Lordships any further by entering into-any criticism of the Bill.
§ LORD BANBURY OF SOUTHAM:
My Lords, I agree very much with a great deal that the noble Lord, Lord Strachie, has said and with a great deal that I understand the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, to have said, but I go a good deal further than they do. I believe that this is a bad Bill. I believe that it will not do any good whatever to the agricultural labourer, and that it ought to be rejected. Consider for a few moments what the position is. Only two years ago the Coalition Government, which had a Wages Board, abolished that Wages Board, and only last November the then Conservative Government, though it did not institute a Wages Board, made a condition that if a farmer cultivated a certain amount of arable land he would receive £l an acre if he gave his labourers 30s. a week. All that has gone. And why? Because, as my noble friend Lord Long has said, this is an electioneering Bill, intended to catch votes in the country, and because a certain number of so-called Conservatives are afraid to face 259 their electorate unless they are able to say that they have taken something out of the pockets of a small class and put it into the pockets of a large number of voters.
Is there any other industry in the country—take the steel industry, or the cotton industry, or the shipbuilding industry, or the building industry, or any other industry of the country—in which there is a Wages Board which is compulsory on the masters and not on the men? In the building industry, are the master builders obliged to give to an official who comes round in the middle of their business any particulars that he chooses to demand when he asks questions regarding the money that they pay, and are they subjected to a fine not exceeding £20 and three months' imprisonment in addition if they fail to do so? I do not know whether the noble Lord, Lord Strachie, noticed that under this Bill an official of the Central Board may go to a farmer, who might be at work on the hay or corn harvest, and demand from him all sorts of particulars, order him to produce his books and his accounts and make him go away from his work and back to his house to produce all these particulars. It may be a fine day in the middle of a wet summer, so that the farmer may lose a considerable portion of the crops which he would obtain if he were allowed to superintend his work. If the farmer does not consent he is liable to a fine not exceeding £20 and, in addition, to a term of imprisonment not exceeding three months. The noble Lord says that he is not going to accept any Amendments, but surely he is not going to insist upon a provision of that sort.
The building trade is a sheltered trade which is not open to any competition, but agriculture is the greatest single industry in the country, and is open to more competition from abroad than any other industry. In Denmark and in Holland is there any legislation of this sort? Is there any in India, or in Canada, or in America? How on earth are farmers going to meet foreign competition if they are handicapped by legislation of this sort? Take the railways, which are to a certain extent a sheltered industry. They have been guaranteed by Parliament a sufficient sum to pay the interest which they were paying before the war, and, in addition, a sufficient sum to pay 5percent. 260 on any new money that they may raise. They have their Wages Board, but it is not compulsory on either party, and there are no penalty clauses. If the men do not choose to observe an agreement that has been reached by the Wages Board they do not observe it. As a matter of fact they struck only the other day. Nor is there any obligation upon the railway companies to observe the agreement. But in this case, while there is no obligation whatever upon the agricultural labourer to carry out the agreement, an obligation is placed upon the farmer, coupled with very severe penalties. A more one-sided arrangement I do not think it would be possible to imagine.
Now let me deal for a few moments with the Bill. Take subsection (3) of Clause 1. It is there enacted that a Minister may, if he thinks right, amalgamate two or more counties. I do not know what the word "more" means. It might mean seven, eight, nine or ten counties, and the only safeguard is that this cannot be done without the consent of the counties. But the noble Lord, Lord Strachie, has pointed out that two independent members are to be appointed, and these independent members will hold the balance. If the Minister tells the independent members of, say, seven or eight counties that he wishes to insist upon an amalgamation scheme, it will be done. Then the Bill will establish that which I believe the Labour people have always desired—an identical wage over a large number of counties. They apparently forget that climate, soil and conditions of farming vary in nearly every county in England. I should like to confirm the view of the noble Lord, Lord Strachie, that the three or four members of the Conservative Party who came to this agreement have been got round. They have been absolutely taken in and deceived. They are under the impression that they have done away with the Central Wages Board. They have done nothing of the kind. They allow the Central Wages Board to remain in the Bill, they give it power to spend £70,000 a year, and they allow the Minister to have complete control of everything through the two members, and possibly the chairman, whom he puts on.
Now let me draw your Lordship's attention to Clause 5, because owing to the extraordinary hurry which has taken 261 place I believe I am right in saying that a very considerable number of your Lordships are under the impression, which has been culled from the newspapers, that this is all right; that the Conservatives have achieved a victory, and you need not trouble any more. As a matter of fact, the Conservative Party have been heavily defeated by Lord Parmoor and his friends. Look at Clause 5. It says that if an agricultural wages committee does not within two months function, then the Central Wages Board comes in and can function. Now the rules and Regulations are to be made by the Minister, and a quorum will be fixed by the Minister. Presuming there are six representatives of the employers and six representatives of the men, and two independent members, and presuming the Minister fixes a quorum at eight, and tells the two independent members to see that the quorum is not made, then the Central Wages Board comes in and fixes the wages, and does everything. The Minister can do exactly what he likes under this Bill, and the so-called compromise is not worth a snap of the finger.
Lord Strachie called attention to Clause 6, which says that the Minister may direct an agricultural wages committee to reconsider any minimum rate which has been fixed by them. Let us see what will take place. Presuming a wages committee has fixed a certain rate of wage, and has informed the Minister or the Central Wages Board, the Minister may send it back and say that ho does not agree with it. At the same time, he tells the two independent members, whom he has appointed, to see to it that there is an alteration made; and let us presume, for the sake of argument, that those two independent members show a little independence—which I think is extremely unlikely—and refuse to alter the wages. What will the trade union say? They will say to the men: "Here, your committee have refused to obey the order of the Minister and increase the wages. Do not pay any attention to the wages they have fixed, but strike for a higher wage." That is human nature, and I do not know that I should blame them; but it is one of the things which is certain to happen under this clause. Why should the Minister interfere between employer and employed? I am not surprised that the noble and learned Lord yawns, because I am certain that in his own mind 262 he agrees with every single word I am uttering, and knows that he has no argument to meet mine.
Then there comes Clause 9, under which the Minister may appoint a secretary for the Agricultural Wages Board, and a secretary for each agricultural wages committee, and may have two independent members appointed by him, and also may have a chairman appointed by him. Therefore, it is an absolute certainty that the Minister will have control of all these committees. The Minister may, in addition, appoint an officer who may enter at all reasonable times and demand, either from the worker or the employer, all sorts of information; that is to say, he is to go round and endeavour to stir up strife, and the more strife he stirs up the more chance he has of being called a diligent officer and being advanced in office. If any person refuses to produce any document, or give any information, which any such officer lawfully requires him to produce or give, he shall be liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding £20, or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding three months, or to both fine and imprisonment. Yet we are supposed to live in a free country. The noble and learned Lord I know was, and so far as I know is, an agriculturist, and yet he is prepared to support this provision. I should love to see him fined £10 and sent to prison for six weeks for not giving the information which, under his own Bill, he insists that other unfortunate people shall give.
Only a few more words and I have done. The First Schedule lays down, as I have already said, that there are two members to be appointed by the Minister, and that the chairman, unless he is appointed within two months, shall also be appointed by the Minister. I propose in Committee to move that the two independent members shall be appointed by the county council, though I do not very much care whether it be the county council or some other body independent of the Minister. We have too much of the Minister nowadays, not only in this Bill but in every Bill. The Minister always appears. The tyranny of the minister is, or may be, greater than the tyranny of any king in the old days. I have always objected to being tyrannised over, whether by king or minister, but if I have got to be tyrannised over I prefer to be tyrannised 263 over by a king rather than by a minister. Are we to understand that the noble and learned Lord is going to refuse to accept an Amendment of the sort I have indicated? I presume he is, and on that I should like to say one or two words with reference to the supposed agreement.
During the last few years, when I had the honour of a seat in the House of Commons, there was a practice which was entirely novel, of two or three members going to see the Government which happened to be in power and making arrangements without consultation with the vast number of members in that House, and then saying: This is a compromise with which you have to agree. I do not agree with the remarks of Captain Fitzroy, which the noble Lord read a short time ago. I think it is a great mistake, and that if members of the House of Commons had studied the Bill, instead of taking for granted what Mr. E. Wood and Captain Fitzroy told them, they would not have taken the course they did. At any rate, I do not think they would have done so if I had continued to be a member of the House of Commons.
I should like to say one word with regard to the independent members. I have no faith whatever in these independent members. I have had experience of boards with independent members upon them. I have had experience of the Railway Conciliation Board, with an independent Chairman. On the first Board the Chairman was appointed by the Speaker, the Lord Chancellor and the Lord Chief Justice. What was the result? Whenever he gave a decision contrary to the men they refused to accept it, and within four years of the appointment of this first Conciliation Board there was a strike. Mr. Lloyd George surrendered, as he always did surrender, and then things went on for two or three years, when there was a statement made by the men that they would not put up with this form of Conciliation Board any longer, and they would not have an independent Chairman of that sort. The war came, and the matter was postponed until after the war. Now there has been a Conciliation Board set up with independent members on it. They have agreed to a little reduction that was asked for, though only an infinitesimal amount, but the men, though they had signed and agreed to the 264 reduction, refused to accept it, and went on strike. Is that an episode which is likely to show that the independent members on these committees will have an easy time, or that they are likely to be of any use? They will be appointed by the Minister, and if they do not do as the Minister tells them they can be withdrawn.
This is the first departure on what is going to be, I am afraid, a very far-reaching change in this country. You cannot stop at agriculture. If you pass this Bill you will have to do something of the same sort in every other kind of industry. The Bill is not brought forward because anybody believes in it, least of all the Conservatives in the House of Commons, but because it is thought that if there is a General Election it may be rather awkward to have it said that they voted against a Bill which might possibly do something for the agricultural labourer, who is a larger electoral force than the farmer. If we are going to do as the Liberal Party, have done— which accounts for the Liberal Party's downfall—that is to say, to concede everything under pressure, not because it is thought right but because there are a larger number of people asking for it than the people who will be injured by it, the Conservative Party will share the fate of the Liberal Party. I should like to warn those members of the Conservative Party who -call themselves Tory Democrats or Social Reformers that for every shilling that they are willing to take out of the pockets of the few to put into the pockets of the many, the Party of the Lord President of the Council will immediately offer half a crown and they will do no good whatever for themselves, for they are going on a downward plane which will ruin this country and the Conservative Party.
§ On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.