HC Deb 23 February 1915 vol 70 cc232-44

Whereupon Mr. SPEAKER, pursuant to the Order of the House of 3rd February, proposed the Question, "That this House do now adjourn."


I wish to bring forward a matter which I think of very considerable importance and one that is likely to achieve even greater importance in the future. I refer to the danger of eviction of soldiers' wives owing to the scarcity of rural cottages. I do not want to make this an opportunity for developing any attack against farmers or landowners. I dare say they think they have a responsibility in regard to conditions of rural housing, but we are face to face with an immediate problem, and it would be much more practical, in my opinion, and more advantageous, that we should confine ourselves to the more immediate question. I cannot believe that farmers can take any joy in evicting from their homes the wives and children of men who have now joined the Colours and who are now in some cases fighting in the trenches in France. But there is this economic factor: Undoubtedly in rural districts there is a great lack of cottage accommodation, and the farmer desires a new labourer to take the place of the labourer who has joined the Colours, and so the wife and children remain, perhaps, in the one available cottage, and the farmer's difficulty is this: He may find it almost impossible to get the farm work done unless the new labourer is found housing accommodation, and, in order to do that, he may have to act at the expense of the woman and children of the man who has gone to the front. I wish to bring the general question before the House by reading an extract from the "Daily Chronicle" of Monday, 15th February. Giving a report of the meeting of the Shrewsbury and District Branch of the Farmers' Union, it is stated that— The Farmers' Union on Saturday discussed recruiting and other matters affecting the labour supply. Several farmers asked what they were to do with the wives in cottages on the farms when the husband had joined the Army. The President: If the farmer wants the cottage for another workman the wife of the man who has gone to the War must find another house. A Member: But can we force these wives to turn out? The President: Oh, yes! And in the end it was agreed that legal opinion should be taken as to the powers of the farmers in this matter of ejectment. Perhaps I might bring the matter before the House by citing one or two individual cases that have occurred. I have the case of a wagoner on a farm at Cod-mersham who joined the Army. The farmer applied for an ejectment order. The woman, with seven young children, told the magistrate she could find no other house, and was given twenty-one days in which to clear out. The farmer offered to remove her furniture free of charge, but as the woman had no place to go to, that offer was not of much account. There is the case mentioned in the newspapers of Mrs. Atwood, whose husband is fighting in France. She opened and shut the gates at Goddington Park, the residence of Mr. G. Ashley Dodd, a J.P. and landowner. What was stated in the newspapers was that the lady was not quite satisfied with the way in which the gates were opened and shut. The woman was evicted, her furniture stored in a neighbour's house, and she and the children had to tramp into Ashford.

A case occurred at Castle Bromwich, in Warwickshire. The wife was of a former-Guardsman who, when the War broke out, re-enlisted in the Dorsets. He was getting 17s. a week as an agricultural labourer. An eviction order was obtained. Ejectment proceedings were also taken against Frederick Tysoe, a labourer, now fighting in France, in respect of a cottage at Havershain. I will read the following report from the "Bucks Standard" of 13th February:— Mrs. Tysoe, a young woman, who wept bi[...]terly, said she had three little children, and her family would be shortly increased. She could not get any Voltage. Where am I to go?' she asked the magistrates pitifully. My husband is now in the trenches.' An order was issued against her and she was ordered to clear out within twenty-eight days. Among the magistrates on the bench were three colonels, and this woman has actually six brothers serving with His Majesty's Forces. I take last of all, the case of a labourer, William West, who took proceedings at Dorchester for wrongful eviction under the Courts (Emergency Powers) Act. He had enlisted, and also with him a son nineteen years' old. The mother remained in the house with a daughter of seventeen, a boy of fourteen, a boy of eight, a girl of three, and a baby of fourteen months' old. She was evicted from her home. The husband took proceedings and appeared in court in khaki dress. Counsel for the defendant said, "I quite know that it is a most admirable thing that you are going to fight for us, and of course we appreciate it." The man was not quite satisfied with the appreciation, and he brought the case and was awarded £15 damages, for wrongful eviction, by the County Court.

Since the War began, special legislation on this matter has been passed by the House of Commons. The Courts (Emergency Powers) Act, 1914, appears to vest very wide powers of discretion in the hands of local magistrates, and is intended to serve that end. The trouble is that a good deal of doubt and uncertainty appears to exist among the farmers as to their powers, and much more among the wives of the soldiers who, in many eases, are entirely ignorant of what their legal rights are. Therefore, I think something must be done in that direction; but even if they are able to stand on their legal rights, that does not meet the case. The other economic difficulty remains. It is estimated that in the rural districts there is a shortage of cottages of something like 120,000—if you include those not fit for habitation. At any rate, there ought to be an additional 10 per cent. of cottages built. The problem is becoming all the more acute, because farmers want men to take the place of those who have gone to the front. A remedy would be for the Government to take in hand this question of rural houses. I believe, presently, there will be—and even now there is—available a considerable amount of labour from the building industry, and I think it is for the Government, in conjunction with the local authorities, to see that the problem is tackled and mitigated. That is going to meet the case in the future and not at this minute, and I believe the difficulty is going to become greater as work increases on the farms in the course of the next few months.

I think the Government should investigate the matter, and that before any woman is evicted from her home, there ought to be the very closest investigation, and that no farmer ought to be allowed to turn out a woman and children merely to suit his own convenience, or because he is not ready to put himself out in some other way. Our responsibility does not rest there if for reasons of getting the farm-work done the woman has to leave the house. The woman is the wife, and the children are the children, of a man fighting with the Colours, and therefore, I submit that another cottage ought to be found for her, that the rent should not be more, and the accommodation not less, than she had, and that there should be free removal from one to the other. That is the very least we can do. We are very proud of the fact that we have held out hospitality to Belgian refugees, and surely we are not going to do less for British women than what we have done for Belgian refugees. These are the main points, and I will say this: That I am quite sure the point will appeal to every Member of this House irrespective of party. It is that, as we have asked men to go and fight for our homes, the least we can do is to see that their dependants are not rendered homeless.


I think the House will be grateful to the hon. Member in that he has brought before them this very important question. He was good enough to give me notice of the question of one particular case of Mrs. Tysoe. It happens to be in my Constituency, and I have had an opportunity of investigating the case rather carefully. I will first put before the House the particulars of the case which I think is a good one, and then one or two other considerations. The hon. Member has told us that this was the case of a woman with three little girls, one only six. Her husband enlists, goes to France and fights, and while he is away his wife is turned out of a cottage, has nowhere to go, and is left stranded. I think the first impression everyone in this House will feel is that there is something horrible in that state of affairs, and one thinks that it ought not to be possible. Now I will put the other side. You have a patriotic farmer. I venture to suggest to this House that farmers are as patriotic as any other class of the community.

I will put it in this way, and this is taken from a definite farm which I have investigated. You have a man who is perhaps a milk farmer. He loses his milker at the beginning of the War. I am not at all sure that from his point of view it would not be better to give up milking and take to fattening stock, and perhaps make a large profit. But I believe it is the attitude of the farmer to go on and help to provide the milk supply of this country. It is a very difficult thing to give up milking and afterwards to take it up again, and I venture to think that the fanner who goes on milking in spite of difficulties does a very patriotic duty to his country. With this farmer, a farm of 200 acres, the increase in cost has been nearly 1½d. per gallon. In spite of that, up to within a fortnight ago, the price of milk in London had not been raised, in spite of the increased cost of producing it. The farmer goes on milking and thinks it is his duty to go on. Cows have to be milked and he has no one to do it. I would point out the extreme difficulty of getting labour to-day. He may find a married man at a distance who says he will milk on condition that he gets a house for his wife and family. The farmer's only option is to turn out the wife of the man who has gone to fight and to put in the milker in order that the cows may be milked. That is a particular definite case, but I venture to say that there are one or two general considerations, of which the first and most important would be this: The farmer ought to be very slow to do anything of this kind. It ought to be the very last resort. He ought to try very possible means to get labour and to carry on the work before resorting to the horrible expedient of turning out the wife and children because the husband and father is away at the front; and I suggest it is the duty of the farmer, before he resorts to this last expedient, to consult the local Labour Exchange. I know that there is a feeling of distrust among farmers as to Labour Exchanges. I do not altogether wonder. The Labour Exchanges have not attempted to take up agricultural labour because the agricultural labourer never registers at the Labour Exchange, and farmers therefore have never found any use for it in ordinary circumstances and, I dare say, never will But these are not ordinary circumstances; these are circumstances in which the fanner must have his cows milked and must find labour. He is not able to find labour himself, and I think that the least we can ask him to do is that he should at any rate appeal to the Labour Exchange to find out if it cannot meet his demand in this emergency. I would suggest, for instance, that instead of having turned out the woman with a view to getting a married man into the cottage, the Labour Exchange might have been able to find a single man, who could have lodged somewhere in the village and thus have avoided the necessity of turning out the woman and her children. I would suggest again with regard to milking, why would it not be possible in an emergency of this kind to find a woman who would be willing to milk the cow and lodge in the cottage, without having the wife and family turned out before this last expedient is resorted to?

It seems to me that it is the duty of the farmer to consult his Labour Exchange to see whether something of the kind cannot be done. Having consulted his Labour Exchange and having failed, and having come to this case, which I think will be rare, which should be rare, and which I believe public opinion will make rare, and having found perhaps one or two cases in which there seems no way of getting any worker on the farm without turning out the women and children from the cottages, I would just mention this consideration, that of course the woman with the three children—take the case which my hon. Friend put before the House—is getting a separation allowance. In this particular case the wages of the man were 16s. and the cottage, and this woman is now getting 20s.; so that she is actually better off by 4s. and does not have the man to feed. In addition there is this consideration with regard to my hon. Friend's suggestion that some help ought to be given in moving. I think that the course which he put before the House of the farmer offering to move the furniture is one which I hope farmers generally will adopt. It is not a great deal to ask a farmer to lend his cart and a man to cart the furniture of the woman from one house to another. The question remains where is the woman to go to? The true remedy is to build houses. But, as my hon. Friend has reminded us, it is not possible to build houses for this immediate emergency. It is the solution for the future. I am hoping this evening to get suggestions. A suggestion of my own was to consult the secretary of the Soldiers' and Sailors' Association. It is an extremely well-organised association, and I think I am right in saying since the War began it has a representative in practically every single parish throughout England and Wales. The secretary of the Association assures me that these cases, which he agreed would be extremely rare, are cases which the committee would be likely to view with extreme sympathy and which they would even perhaps be willing to see through in order that the hardship might be lessened as far as possible. But I submit that this is not a case for criticism. This is a case in which advice is wanted. Certainly the Board of Agriculture are anxious for any hints that may help to solve what is going to become, I think, a burning question, and may help us to deal with cases which every Member of the House must regret.


I am quite sure that every Member of the House sympathises fully with all the people who have been treated in the way described by the hon. Member (Mr. Anderson). Nobody can complain of the very moderate way in which he stated his case and the fairness with which he looked at the case for the farmers and others. Everyone of us would condemn anyone who took this action without having had resort to every conceivable method of dealing with the situation other than by eviction. I rather deprecate quoting speeches out of newspapers which may not give very accurate accounts. In reference to the Farmers' Union which was mentioned by the hon. Gentleman, I think it a pity to quote from speeches which are described in the newspapers in rather a vague way. I rather thought that the hon. Gentleman accused the president of this particular union of having advised farmers to evict their men. As far as I can see the president was answering what I conceive to be was a legal point, and I hope that no accusation will be made against him of having deliberately advised farmers to take this course.


I did not say that he advised, but that by the tone of his remarks he rather lent encouragement to the idea. He did not urge it, but he rather gave it his sanction.


The gentleman in question, I think, probably did not. I thought that the question which the hon. Gentleman asked a few days ago actually said that he advised them to turn these people out. The difficulty this moment is very considerably increased in country districts because nearly every cottage has been taken for Belgian refugees or various other people. In a case I know of, where eviction has been threatened, but I hope is not being carried out, the farmer certainly took a great deal of trouble to try to find another cottage, and he did succeed in getting a landowner to let him have another cottage for the woman whom he intended to turn out. Unfortunately the woman happens to be suffering from physical disability and the cottage was one with a large number of steps, which was quite unsuitable for her, but that appears to be the only cottage available in the district. The real root of the whole question is the great want of additional cottages in rural districts. I do not want to be controversial, but that is a question which we have tried to bring before the House for a great many years, and in which we were supported by hon. Gentlemen on the other side below the Gangway. I was sorry to hear the hon. Gentleman opposite relegate that solution of the question to some remote future.


Not altogether.


I should be very glad if there was some chance of an attempt being made to begin solving the question now. He was perfectly correct in saying that we could not deal with the immediate distress at this moment, but this distress is likely to become greater as time goes on, and if we are to grow a great deal more wheat in this country and employ more labour the question becomes more urgent and the sooner we begin to solve it the better. The other suggestion I consider to be an excellent one: that is that the Soldiers' and Sailors' Association should take up the matter. I hope that the hon. Member will press that in the proper quarter. His friends the Government are able to exercise a certain amount of influence with the Soldiers' and Sailors' Association, and I would suggest that not only should they take every step to try to find suitable-places for these women to go to if they have to leave, but that they should also-pay for the cost of the removal. I do not see why that should not come under the charges which they can defray. It would not amount to very much. As the right hon. Gentleman said, these people have got the allowance, and they can pay the rent, and practically there is very little but the cost of removal to bear. So I do hope that he will turn his attention, first of all to using his influence with the Soldiers' and Sailors' Association, and next to considering whether it is not possible to make a beginning, even if it is only in a small way, in dealing with the real root of the evil, and that is the need of more cottages in rural districts.


Nobody can take exception to the speeches to which we have listened dealing with this very important and very difficult matter. I went down to speak at a recruiting meeting last Friday. In the neighbourhood in which this meeting was held one of these cases had cropped up. A man came to me before the meeting to ask me to mention this case at the meeting. Obviously to mention a case like this at a recruiting meeting would have a very disastrous effect upon recruiting, and from that point of view I think that every effort should be made to case the situation. Whether it is by the Government undertaking the expense of the removal of these people or asking the Soldiers' and Sailors' Association to get it done, the expense being refunded afterwards, something ought to be done in that direction. With; regard to the use of Labour Exchanges, it should be pretty obvious to those of us who are familiar with industrial wages and conditions that it is going to be a very difficult thing for farmers to obtain labour through the Labour Exchanges at anything like the wages which farmers have been accustomed to give. It is obvious that in circumstances such as exist to-day it would be very difficult, if not impossible, for farmers to fill the positions of these men who have left by getting men to work at the wages of those who have left the service of the farmer to serve in the Army. Therefore, it seems to me that if the farmer can be persuaded to see the thing from a new aspect, and to show some little consideration along that line, there might be less difficulty than there is in the matter.

I quite agree that there is a considerable amount of difficulty in finding accommodation for whoever the farmer might be able to obtain to perform the labour of men who have joined the Army. But it should be remembered that this House has put a very large number of people in this country to a great deal of trouble by billeting people upon them, and it does seem to me that quite a simple way out of the difficulty might be found if the farmer were to consider that after all the Government have taken power into their hands to billet officers and men upon people who may have a fairly good house, some of whom probably would not care to have persons billeted upon them, yet, and that as thousands of our people are taking officers and men into their homes and giving them every accommodation, surely the fanner might look at the case from that point of view and see whether he could not billet in his own house the labour which he might be able to obtain! Many farmers have pretty large houses, and I do not think it would be a matter of very great difficulty to find some little accommodation in exceptional circumstances like these for any extra labour which he might have to employ, and in this way get over the difficulty and avoid the eviction of these people. The particular union with which I am connected has already had to fight some of these cases in Court. It is distasteful to the union, and I am sure also to the farmers, to do these things, but what can one do in the circumstances? Where a woman is left with a considerable family when her husband has joined the Army, and it is almost impossible to find accommodation for the woman and the family who have been left behind, it seems to me that there might be a little bit more consideration on the part of the farmer in the matter of billeting upon himself the labour which he may be able to obtain. I am sure that that would solve many of the difficulties to which reference has been made.


I would suggest one way of getting over the difficulty which everybody agrees ought to be got over, if it is possible to do so. The difficulty is that there are no labourers' cottages attached to the farm in which to accommodate the new labourers, because the cottages which are at present attached to the farm are already full of labourers. The difficulty, therefore, is to find new cottages. The suggestion is that in proper cases, such as mentioned by the hon. Member for the Attercliffe Division, facilities should be given for putting up huts. I would ask is there a real case made out that where there is no possibility of finding labour or any accommodation for a woman with five or six children, such as mentioned by the hon. Gentleman, the Board of Agriculture should communicate with the landowner, or whoever he may be, in charge of the land, with the object of putting up such huts.


We thought of this expedient, but the difficulty is where are we to get the labour to put up the houses?


There will probably be a certain amount of labour in a considerable country side; carpenters and brick-layers are not employed, and there is very little building.


There are no unemployed, practically, for this work.


In my part of the country there are a great many who are not employed, and as there is very little building going on they would be glad to have the chance of such work. Another point to which I desire to call attention is, that a great many of the building by-laws at the present time make it extremely difficult and expensive to put up cottages. Speaking as a small landowner myself, I should be rejoiced to be able to put up new cottages if only the financial part of it could be managed on reasonable, terms. Other landlords are in the same position, and we do not want any profit. Speaking for myself, I want no profit. I think very little would be required for putting proper houses on the land, and I am sure that every facility would be given by landowners for doing that. The by-laws are very stringent in many places, and they add largely to the cost of erecting suitable cottages in rural districts. I would suggest that during the emergency with which we are now face to face, those by-laws might be relaxed, so that we might be able to import from Norway or elsewhere ready-made cottages for a comparatively small sum, £50 or £60, and for that price you would get a wooden house, better made than any that could be put up for £150 or £155. With the relaxation of these stringent by-laws fairer accommodation could be provided in the rural districts. It is a business which will have to be tackled, and ought to be tackled, even if there were no war at all. As to billeting, I do not think there is any possibility of it. The difficulty has always been—certainly in my part of the country—that they have not got the cottages, and that the cottages which do exist are too small to afford accommodation for billeting; in fact, I do not understand how you could possibly have billeting in most of the rural districts. One way to deal with this question is to make it easy to put up fresh accommodation, and most landlords will be only too glad to give facilities.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Five minutes after Seven o'clock.