HC Deb 04 March 1915 vol 70 cc997-1046

Order for Second Reading read.

Motion made and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a second time."


I rise for the purpose of taking what is rather an unusual course, that is of raising once more the question of the shortage of labour in agricultural districts in this country, which was discussed at some length only a few nights ago. I do so because I am absolutely convinced of the extreme urgency of facilities being given for the purpose of making really effective arrangements for sowing the spring crops of all descriptions in this country before it is too late. The two chief sources of obtaining further labour which may be profitably considered are, first, the labour of women in agricultural pursuits, and especially in dairying and all the processes connected with it; and, secondly, boy labour to be obtained with the aid and assent of the education authorities of this country. I make no apology to the House for raising this question again, because, with all respect to the two Ministers who took part in the Debate on that occasion, their speeches seemed to me to be wholly unsatisfactory. An observation that I made earlier in the Debate, I think, applied very properly to the speeches of both those right hon. Gentlemen. It was that for anything we could gather from their speeches, they wholly ignored the great struggle in which all of us are engaged at the present time, and in regard to which it has always seemed to me that the largest possible provision of food grown in our country at a time like this is a factor of the very utmost and gravest possible importance.

This is the 4th March. How much time have we got for the work before us? That is a very grave consideration. It is a matter, of course, for agricultural experts to decide, but all the experience I have had for a great number of years—I have sown a vast number of spring crops and other articles of that description—has always taught me that the earlier you can get these crops in the better the results you obtain. I think everybody would agree, if they had the doing of it, they would like their spring crops in by the end of March if possible, and certainly not later than the beginning of April. If this work is not done, and not done properly, within the time, we shall certainly see another shortage of a more serious description than the shortage of labour in agricultural districts, namely, a shortage in the production of food in our own country, which is of the most vital importance. Tomorrow is 5th March. Nearly a week has been lost already since this question was raised in the House of Commons, and time is going on. Nothing at present has been done. I do not say steps have not been taken to try to bring it about, but no effective agricultural labour has been added to the stock available up to the present time. Day by day is going by, and it becomes more urgent every moment.

Why are we cornered every time in the way that we are? I will tell the House why I think it is. I asked a question of the representative of the Board of Agriculture in this House a week ago across the Table while I was speaking, and I repeated it in the form of a question a few days afterwards. I asked him whether the Consultative Committee appointed by the Board of Agriculture in August last had made any Report or Reports to His Majesty's Government, and, if so, would they lay them upon the Table? What was his reply? When I came to ask the question he said:— The Board received a formal Report, dated the 24th August, from their Consultative Committee. This Report was marked 'Private and confidential. For the information of the Board of Agriculture only, and not for publication.' In these circumstances I am unable to comply with the right hon. Gentleman's request. What were we to understand? What was the only inference we could draw from that reply? That the Report was not to be published by the wish of the Committee. That is the only inference I was able to draw, but the exact opposite is the case, as I have since learned. The Chairman of the Committee has thought it right, and I am very grateful to him, to give me a copy of a letter he has addressed to Lord Lucas, the President of the Board of Agriculture, together with his reply. What Sir Ailwyn Fellowes says is this:— I have just read Sir Harry Verney's reply last night in the House of Commons to Mr. Chaplin's question. Let me at once say that our Report on wheat supply was marked 'Private and confidential' for the Board, as we did not wish anything to leak out until the Board had considered it. It was sent to them on the 24th August, and they have had many months to consider it since then. The letter proceeds: We fully expected, however, that, whether the Board agreed or not with our view, they would, in fairness to the Committee, have let the public know what had been suggested by them. I understand that there is to be a Debate in the House to-morrow, and as it is perfectly impossible to get the Committee together at such short notice, I feel I am expressing their wishes that our Report on the wheat supply, the memorandum on labour and the Report on sugar beet, should be laid on the Table of the House of Commons. Now I come from that to Lord Lucas' reply. What he says is this:— Lord Lucas has asked me to say that in his opinion the publication of the Consultative Committee's Report on wheat supplies, which would inevitably lead to a full Debate on the subject in Parliament, would be against the public interest at the present time. I observe that Lord Lucas raises no objection whatever to the other two Reports on labour and sugar beet being published, and therefore I presume that we shall shortly have them laid upon the Table. His only objection is to the Report on wheat? Why, I cannot imagine, because all the world knows exactly the position with regard to wheat, and though it may be in the interests of the Board of Agriculture, under its present management, that this Report should not be published, I cannot conceive how the public interest is to be damaged by the publication of any Report on this question of the present position of the wheat supply. However, as that is the opinion of the Noble Lord, my mouth will be absolutely closed, and I shall not have a word more to say on that subject, although it is possible I may say something with regard to the two other Reports. I have been informed by a communication this morning of the Report on sugar beet, and a draft letter has been sent to me on the subject of labour which is of the greatest importance at the present moment. I want to turn for a moment to a statement made by the representative of the Board of Agriculture the other night in this House. He said:— The right hon. Gentleman (referring to me) has asked me what we were doing as regards certain prominent agriculturists. What I asked him was about his own Consultative Committee, and I did not ask him about any other prominent agriculturists. He continued:— Of course, the question of labour is one of the most important. We consulted the hon. Member for the Wilton Division (Mr. Charles Bathurst) as President of the Chamber of Agriculture and Mr. Colin Campbell as President of the Farmers' Union, and with the co-operation of these two gentlemen, who represent the vast majority of the farming community, we decided that we ought to call upon the farmers to furnish a proof of this shortage in connection with the Labour Exchanges. I thought it was a very curious decision when I heard it, for this reason: that six weeks or more ago the Board of Agriculture had sent a communication to the Central Chamber of Agriculture in these words:— The Board are satisfied that the shortage of farm labour has become very serious indeed in certain districts, if not throughout the country generally.… It has become so generally since then. And the time has arrived when farmers must take concerted action to deal with the situation if they are to carry on their business with profit to themselves and in the interests of the nation. I thought it my duty to communicate with these two Gentlemen, one of whom sits on this side of the House and the other is a Lincolnshire farmer whom I have known for many years. I telegraphed to the hon. Member for Wilton, and said we should be having another Debate on this question, but evidently my notice was too short, and only half an hour ago I got a telegram from him saying:— Sorry I cannot come. Make any use whatever you please of my communication. Verney's statement incorrect. All I stated was willingness of Central and Associated Chambers to co-operate in formation of county committees on initiative of Labour Exchanges to consider local demands and possible supply. Not a word said at interview by President or Verney about requiring— 4.0 P.M.

I ought to say that the words used by him were, "We ought to call upon the farmers," but, as I was telegraphing, I used the one word "requiring," which I thought had exactly the same meaning as "calling upon"— requiring farmers to furnish proof of shortage. Strongly advocate employment of suitable boys under supervision of education authority, failing suitable adult labour. Myself advocated this originally in question to Prime Minister last August. I remember the occasion, though I dare say the Prime Minister with the vast multitude of his occupations does not remember it, and, as far as I remember, the Prime Minister gave either an absolute or a qualified promise that the question of boy labour would be entertained by the Government. That is a matter which can easily be referred to, but, thinking that the hon. Member was going to be here, himself till after I had left home, I did not bring that particular quotation with me. I was so convinced that the House would be interested to hear what the chairman of the Farmers' Union says on the subject that I have had typed copies made of some abstracts of the letter which tie wrote to me. In writing to him, I asked him to give his opinion generally on the situation of the shortage of labour, and I put some specific questions in addition. This is his reply:— (1) There is a shortage of labour in every agricultural district I know. It is short now in a time that is not a busy one. When seeding time and harvest comes on the supply will be still shorter. In soma districts the shortage is acute now. It is not a question of price. I do not think that anywhere there is a surplus of useful (not good) agricultural labour. The casual town labour, male and female, is of comparatively little value on a farm, at any price. Anybody who is acquainted with the subject will agree with that statement. (2) I am strongly of opinion that under the circumstances boy labour should be used if the parents concur. The need of it is urgent. (3) In my opinion the use of boy labour should not be postponed a single day. I look at the matter from two points of view: 1, the farmer, as a trade; 2, the national point of view, in that especially at a time of national crisis like this the utmost possible quantity of food should be grown for the national need.… I do not suppose that there is anyone who will dispute that statement. From the farmer's point of view only, he must put up with any loss and inconvenience the same as any other trader; but, from a national point of view, if the Government lay great stress on the production of food, and I have no means of knowing how great this need is—. I may say that we know, from the statement of the hon. Baronet representing the Board of Agriculture the other night, what they think about it, because he said that the policy at the back of the Government, which had always to be remembered and which we all must adopt, was that the land must be cultivated and that the cows must be milked. Then Mr. Campbell, the chairman of the Farmers' Union, goes on to say:— Then, in that case, they are bound to supply us by any possible means with a sufficiency of skilled labour, and to put no obstacles in the way of getting it, and country boys are skilled. If this labour is not speedily forthcoming, less than the normal quantity will be grown, let alone an abnormal quantity. I always wish to be strictly fair in any quotation that I make on any subject, and therefore I must trouble the House with one other from the same gentleman. He says:— Whether it will to any appreciable extent make the shortage good I am unable to express an opinion, but I shall give my thorough support to the Government scheme of getting labour from the towns, male and female, Belgian refugees, and Irish. When I read that, seeing that my correspondent had already heartily condemned labour from the towns as useless at any price, I thought to myself that it was a touching illustration of the confidence which he reposed in His Majesty's Government generally and in the Board of Agriculture in particular, and which I am bount to say at the present time, so far as the Board of Agriculture is concerned, with all due respect to the hon. Baronet opposite, I do not altogether share. I need not trouble the House with any further quotations from this gentleman, who, I think, has made the case which I ventured to submit to the House the other night even stronger than it was before. I must ask the House to remember that the two men whom I have quoted are the two witnesses brought forward and cited on his own behalf by the hon. Member opposite who represents the Board of Agriculture. I do not think that I need discuss the hon. Member's other expedients at any length to-night, although I had not the opportunity of doing so on the night that he spoke, because I had spoken before him. In my humble opinion, with the exception of women, there is no other source of labour which he recommended which can be depended upon in an urgent and immediate crisis like this. He spoke of Belgian, Danish and Dutch labour, all of which he thought might be employed in helping the sowing of spring corn. How does he suppose that the work is to be happily conducted when the employer cannot speak a word of the language of those whom he is employing or get anyone to interpret it, and when those whom he is employing cannot speak a word or make any explanation whatever in English? It does seem to me that to look to that kind of labour as a hopeful expedient in an urgent and immediate crisis is really a singularly futile proposal.

There was another expedient. They were to get the boys from the reformatory schools. They may get them from the reformatory schools, but what use are they as compared with the boys living in their own villages under their own thumbs, and known to them all? Those expedients—I do not think I have omitted any expedient that was suggested by the hon. Member—hold out no hope whatever of success. Look at it from another point of view. The labour of which he spoke has got to be imported into the country. How are you going to provide for their habitation? What is their position in that case compared with the boys for whose labour we ask? All these boys are on the spot. They are all living in houses in the village, and in nine cases out of ten any boy that was employed at the present moment in helping to get the spring crops into the ground would be serving in all probability under his own father on the same farm and living in a house where he has been living all his life. No preparation of any sort or kind for their housing would be required. I will not deal now with the other Reports submitted to the President by the Consultative Committee, except to say that they strongly enforce the view which I have submitted to the House with regard to boy labour.

The question of sugar beet is one which I think may well wait for another occasion, although greater temptation to make some observations to a Free Trade Government like those who sit opposite to me to-night I do not think that I underwent in the whole course of my life. I recognise the position in which we are all placed, and I do not want to do anything whatever to embarrass the Government in the position of extreme national difficulty in which they are placed, and in which, if I may venture to say so, strong party man as I am, I think, on the whole, they have done much to deserve well of the nation. In the few observations which I have made I have only given expression to the convictions which I hold most deeply on this subject. Because of those conditions I have thought it was my duty, if I could obtain the opportunity, to put the matter once more before the House before the Adjournment in the hope that some concession may yet be made to us on the subject of boy labour, which, in the opinion of those who represent, according to the hon. Member, the vast majority of the farming community in this country, is entertained and desired with a conviction as strong as mine. There is not a shadow of difference among them, and they are the people who really ought to know what is needed.

I think I ought to have read something more which fell from Mr. Colin Campbell. He dealt with the wages of agricultural labourers, and he said most distinctly that there was no comparison with the towns. These labourers were quite as well if not better off in that respect. On the whole, taking all things into consideration, agricultural labour was better paid than town labour, as wages were raised very considerably some time ago, and quite recently they had gone up a second time. As far as I am concerned, I have absolutely nothing either to gain or to lose, except from a national point of view, whatever may be the decision of the House on this question. But I do consider it to be of such real and vital importance, constituting so great and practical a difficulty at the present time, that I have put my opinion as clearly as I can in public, before Parliament, and I have also taken another and perhaps very unusual course—for which I make no apology—I have approached some of the leading Members of this Government privately on this subject. I need not say I have received from them a kindness and courtesy which I shall never forget, whether my suggestions are accepted or not. All this I have done because of the knowledge and experience gained by upwards of fifty years' thought and study, fortune and misfortune combined, in connection with this interest. These are the deliberate and profound convictions I entertain. We are in a moment of great crisis with regard to the production of spring food for the service of this country, and if the opportunity is lost now it may never again recur.


The right hon. Gentleman apologised to the House for raising this subject again. I hope he will not think it impertinent of me if I say there is not a Member, in whatever part of the House he sits, who is not rejoiced when the right hon. Gentleman is good enough to address the Horse. Neither do I think any apology is needed, because, from the point of view of the Board of Agriculture, there could certainly be no subject which we consider more important than this question of providing about to carry on the work of the farm. The right hon. Gentleman will allow me, for one or two minutes, to deal with a point of great importance at the moment—the question of the Agricultural Consultative Committee. The right hon. Gentleman asked me a question the other day with regard to publishing the Report of that Committee, and I gave him an answer which I ask him to believe was given in all good faith. It was to the effect that the Report was private and confidential, and was not for publication. Until Sir Ailwyn Fellowes addressed a letter to my Noble Friend Lord Lucas, we had not the smallest idea that the Consultative Committee wished the Report to be published. But it is clear from that letter that they have no objection to its publication, and I would remind the House that that answer I gave in the House was drafted before we became aware of that fact. I do not wish to seem to exaggerate, but I think hon. Members will realise that, in this time of war, there are subjects of extreme delicacy and importance on which agriculture has a bearing, and the Agricultural Consultative Committee has enabled my Noble Friend Lord Lucas to put forward, with the utmost authority, the opinion of the agricultural world on particular questions.

On questions which come up for discussion in the Cabinet, we can put forward, with the whole authority of agricultural opinion behind my Noble Friend, the views of this very expert Agricultural Consultative Committee. Perhaps I may be allowed to give an instance. If the question should come under consideration of the slaughter of animals, with a view to preventing the slaughter of immature stock, my Noble Friend would, through the Committee, secure the best expert agricultural opinion in this country on the effect of any proposed order. If these Reports were published, the raison d'être of the Consultative Committee is quite gone, and it would become merely a Committee—a most valuable one—of the Central Chamber of Agriculture. What we ask of this Committee, which has for six months assisted us very materially, is that they should give us their expert opinion, in order that we may be helped to come to a decision on particular questions. This they have done, and are still doing, most loyally and ungrudgingly, and with the utmost readiness, and their advice has been of the greatest value. If anything I have said should seem to depreciate the splendid work done by the Committee, I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that that is the very last thing the Board of Agriculture wish to do. We recognise the splendid help which has been given in these matters, and I am privileged to thank the Committee publicly for what they have done. I hope they will find it possible to continue their help during this time of War.

One word with regard to the question of labour. I ventured to put, at extreme length, a few days ago, my own views on this subject. I cannot help thinking there is much less difference between the right hon. Gentleman and myself than would appear to be the case. We both start from the same standpoint. The work on the farm must be done. We must get really effective labour to do it, and we must not let pass any possibility of getting such labour. The only difference between us is whether the labour the right hon. Gentleman suggests is more effective than the labour I suggest, because if, in the opinion of the House, or of the Board of Agriculture, one form of labour is more effective than another that settles the point, and there is no other consideration involved. We are not the Board of Education or a Women's Suffrage Society. All we have to consider is, how best to get the work on the farms done. The Board of Agriculture does not think the boy labour is effective. It may be, and, of course, it is better than nothing, but the question is, what is the most effective form of labour?




Yes, available labour. I venture again to put this point, that the great difficulty of the Board of Agriculture in dealing with this matter of labour is to find out what is the demand. It is easy for people to come down and say there is a shortage of agricultural labour. Of course there is, but is it possible to find out on what particular farm it is wanted; whether two or three men are wanted on one farm, or ten on another. Therefore we think it is essential, in the first place, to get at the demand. I would like to give one instance. It was the case of a farmer in a very large way. He came to the Board and told us that ten of his men had enlisted, and ten others had been notified that they would have to join the Colours, and, as a result, he would be literally left with two men and two boys to cultivate his land. They could not do it, and the land would have to go out of cultivation. Nothing could be more serious than that, and, therefore, the Board took upon itself to make minute inquiries into this case. It was found that, whereas ten men had been notified, in fact only one had gone, and in the case of the ten enlisted, Belgians had taken their place, so that the work of the farm was going on as usual.


Was it a grass farm or arable?


It was a mixed farm. We thought it was our duty to get at the demand, and the only way, so far as we knew, to do that, was to ask the farmers to meet the Labour Exchange. The right hon. Gentleman has quoted my statement that the hon. Member for the Wilton Division (Mr. C. Bathurst) and Mr. Colin Campbell have co-operated with us. Mr. Colin Campbell issued a letter to the National Farmers' Union, in which he says clearly that the farmers individually cannot do this, and probably the Labour Exchanges are the bodies most likely to be able to go into the matter. The hon. Member for the Wilton Division, in his capacity as President of the Chamber of Agriculture, has written, strongly urging the chamber to accept the invitation of the Government to help the Labour Exchanges in this matter. Thus both these gentlemen have co-operated with us in trying to find out exactly what is the demand for labour. The right hon. Gentleman has said, and very properly so, "Here we have been a week, a precious week has gone by, and what have you done?" The right hon. Gentleman knows how difficult it is to do anything in a week, but I will tell him what we have done. The Labour Exchanges have always been considered rather useless in regard to agriculture, but my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade has furnished me with some figures showing what a Labour Exchange can do in an emergency. In a period of four weeks last year—up to 11th September—there were found, through the Labour Exchange—apart from hop-pickers and other similar labour—1,038 men absolutely for work on the farm. In that period of four weeks the Labour Exchange was able to put on farms 1,038 men who would not have been put there otherwise. Let me give another instance showing how the Labour Exchange has helped in this matter. In the present year the Bedford Exchange has been able to do something. Six farmers applied to it. Of course it is impossible to find labour if the farmers do not apply. These six farmers to whom I am referring have actually engaged through the Exchange seven men who are still working on their farms.

Yesterday, in consequence of our Debate on the policy we have taken up, I venture to repeat, in co-operation with the hon. Member for Wilton and Mr. Colin Campbell, a meeting was held of one branch of the National Farmers' Union, and a representative of the Labour Exchange has reported to us, by telegraph, what happened. He informs us that the branch sent one of its members from the meeting to inquire about the class of labour reported to be available through the Exchange, and on his return that member reported it was quite true there was a considerable number of men available, many of them, judging from the particulars supplied, being good, experienced men. If other branches would do as this particular branch has done, and if farmers would engage labour through the Labour Exchange, it will be possible in a certain number of cases to find efficient men to take the place of the labour that has gone. It seems to us there is no way in which farmers can tap this sort of labour except through the Labour Exchange. I do not wish to address the House at any length again upon the expedients we have proposed. I will ask the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Wimbledon one question. We approach this matter from rather different points of view, but what is the real difference between us? He thinks that boy labour on a farm is a good thing. He thinks that it is a good thing for a boy of twelve or thirteen to work on a farm. I do not.


No, the whole of my plea is for the use of boy labour at the present moment, which is a crisis of very great urgency. I say that not a single moment ought to be lost in this matter. I am the last person in the world who wants to interfere with the education of boys on ordinary occasions, but when we are confronted with statements such as I have read to the House, statements to the effect that unless boy labour is allowed there will be a great falling off in the production of food, then I say everything else ought to give way to it.


Then may I put it this way: The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Wimbledon thinks that if you can get boy labour on a farm it will be effective.


It is the best thing we can get now.


That is where opinions differ. There is a prominent Member of this House, an agriculturist, who told me the other day that, in his opinion, boy labour was only a nuisance. He did not think boy labour on a farm a very good thing. [An HON. MEMBER: "Who was it?"] I will tell the hon. Gentleman afterwards, but that at any rate is the opinion of some people. We have only one object in this House, and that is to get the work on the farm done. My feeling is, that boy labour will not help in the cultivation of spring wheat to the which the right hon. Gentleman refers.


Not spring wheat only.


Whatever may be the particular work which the right hon. Gentleman wishes done, I believe it is possible to get it better done than it can be done by a boy twelve or thirteen years of age. It is because it is our object, just as much as it is the right hon. Gentleman's object, to get effective labour to work on the farms, that we venture to put forward these suggestions, and say that boy labour should be the last and not the first expedient to be adopted.


I listened with a good deal of interest to the hon. Baronet's reply to my right hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Mr. Chaplin). It is quite true that this is the second occasion upon which this question has been debated in the course of a few days, but the question has not been satisfactorily debated or exhausted, and, what is more, no real means of meeting this very serious difficulty was suggested either by the President of the Board of Education or by the Under-Secretary for the Board of Agriculture when the question was debated on a previous occasion. I am very glad indeed that it should be raised again now, because of all the branches of carrying on the War in which this country is engaged, there is no branch which could possibly be more important than the feeding of the civil population, and the proportion of food that can be grown in this country is one of the most urgent branches of that question. The reason why it is more important than any other is so obvious to hon. Members that, it is hardly worth mentioning, but every quarter of wheat or quarter of barley and feeding-stuff, every single pig actually in this country is safe here and available for our own use, no matter what contingencies may arise in the War.

I am convinced that my right hon. Friend (Mr. Chaplin) has rendered a public service in bringing this matter in his very pleasant manner before the notice of the House. The hon. Baronet said he limited himself to considering what was the class of labour that was most effective, and as soon as he had settled that he had settled the whole question. In that one statement we see perfectly clearly that the Board of Agriculture do not realise the urgency of the matter. I would put it in this way: Considering the immense proportion of our agricultural population that is serving in the Army, and in other ways occupied with matters relating to the War, what we have to consider is not only what is the most effective form of labour, but what is the amount of labour of all kinds that can be rendered available for this purpose, and not what is the most effective form of labour that may be able to be found, perhaps, in a few months' time. You may be able to import some, as my right hon. Friend said, from other countries. Various suggestions were made, but every one of them was less immediately available than the very class of labour which we are asking should be utilised. It is perfectly obvious that the boy labour in the country is not only the most immediately available, but is among the most effective forms of labour that we have. May I read to the House one very short extract of what occurred at a meeting of agriculturists held only the other day? At the Central and Associated Chambers of Agriculture only last week there was a debate on this matter, and one member, Mr. T. Latham, said:— In Berkshire he knew of farms which were being worked by the farmers themselves. All the men had left, and the horses never went out. A large number of cows were being sold for beef, and dairies were threatened with extinction. Unless something was done at once, hundreds of cows in Berkshire would be done away with. Farmers had gone boldly to the front and had done their best to supply the War Office with labour, and now that they were suffering in consequence it behoved the chambers to appeal to the War Office and Board of Agriculture to assist them. He was employing schoolboys, with the consent of the local education authority; they were very useful and loved the work. We heard statements made in the Debate the other day which would lead one to suppose it was intended to introduce a species of slavery. Whatever the opinion of hon. Members may be about the employment of boys, the opinion of the boys is that it is far from slavery. If you ask the average country boy, his opinion would be that he would infinitely prefer the work to being stuck on a bench in school. The hon. Baronet made the suggestion, and it is still part of his programme, that meetings should be called to be attended by farmers, who will lay before the meeting their actual labour needs. There, again, I ask the House to note the very leisurely proceeding the Board of Agriculture propose to take. They do not realise, and did not show that they realised in the Debate the other night by a single sentence in a speech, the urgency and importance of this matter.

With regard to what the hon. Baronet said as to the Report of the Consultative Committee. I readily accept his statement that it was marked "Private and confidential," and that he had never imagined that it would be intended for anybody but the Board of Agriculture; but I do say it is a somewhat unsatisfactory position. I quite understood what the hon. Baronet said about the Consultative Committee being intended only to advise the Cabinet. If that is all their duty, it is not very satisfactory to the House, to the country, and particularly to the farming interest, to feel that they are to have no access to this body of expert opinion, and that they are to have no means whatever of knowing whether or not the course the Cabinet are pursuing in this matter of the production of wheat and other foodstuffs is settled in accordance with the most expert agricultural opinion in the country. I would call the attention of the House to the fact that in regard to this very great responsibility, one among many great responsibilities the Government have taken upon themselves, they are keeping, I will not say suppressing, but keeping for their own private information and not to be communicated to farmers, opinion which might conceivably be of enormous value in solving the problem of how we can grow more food. They are keeping all this information entirely to themselves.

With regard to the question which really formed the basis of these Debates—the question put by the hon. Member for Wilton on the 28th August last—I mention it now because the Prime Minister is present and the question was addressed to him—there is no doubt that the answer he returned gave great satisfaction to the country. It showed that the Government intended, with regard to boy labour, to do something more than maintain a benevolent neutrality, and that they were going to do what they could to render it available. When the President of the Board of Education referred to this matter the other day he said it had been misunderstood and almost misstated, and that it was intended only to apply to the emergency of the last harvest, but had been held to be generally applicable. I ask the Prime Minister to consider how that is regarded by farmers. On 28th August last the number of their labourers who had joined the Forces must have been comparatively limited, certainly nothing approaching the number that will now be passing from the farms and are not available for agricultural labour. They naturally say, "At the time you had not got our labourers the head of the Government, the Prime Minister, gave us every reason to believe that he would do everything in his power to assist us in the matter of boy labour to replace the labourers who enlisted."

The PRIME MINISTER (Mr. Asquith)

What did I say?


I agree it would be preferable to read the exact words. The hon. Member for the Wilton Division (Mr. C. Bathurst) asked the Prime Minister— if he is aware that a large number of farmers are ready and anxious to facilitate the enlistment after harvest of the younger men in their employ if they could have the temporary services of boys between eleven and fourteen years of age to assist them in the necessary farm operations during the autumn and winter in order to secure the sowing of next year's wheat and other necessary farm crops; and whether, under the exceptional circumstances, the Government will suspend such provisions of the Educacion Acts, or will enable boys over eleven years of age in purely agricultural districts to furnish such assistance subject to the approval and supervision of the local education authority? The Prime Minister: I will bear in mind the hon. Member's suggestion. It would appear that the matter is well within the discretion of the local authorities, who have already had their attention called to it by the Board of Education. Mr. Bathurst: Are we to understand that if the local authorities took such action they would not meet with the disapproval of the Board of Education? The Prime Minister: Yes, Sir."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 28th August, 1914, col. 274, Vol. LXVI.] I quite agree that the hon. Member's question was limited in its scope. That is not my point. I ask hon. Members opposite, who take such an interest in trying to cut off this, as I think, effective source of labour in the present emergency, to consider the question from this point of view: At the time the question was asked it may have been urgent. It was, and that is no doubt the reason why the hon. Member asked it. If it was urgent then, when a few thousand agricultural labourers had joined the Colours, is it not infinitely more urgent and pressing now after seven months of war, when we see other months of war stretching out indefinitely before us, and when probably a million instead of a hundred thousand will have enlisted, or at least ten times the number which was then available for this purpose? It is very natural that there should be a feeling that there should be no holding back. If the matter was urgent then, and if they received a sympathetic reply then, and if at the present time we ask the Prime Minister afresh whether the Board of Education would now assist so far as they can and not hinder the application of this boy labour, that they should say, "Certainly, if it was urgent on the 28th August, it is more urgent now, and it will have our sympathetic consideration."

Another argument that was put forward in the Debate the other evening was that there would be plenty of labour available for farms if only the farmers were willing to pay wages which were high enough. That view is probably held to a considerable extent. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] I would ask hon. Members to consider that what we are dealing with is a shortage of labour, not an in-strike or a determination on the part of a certain number of people not to do a full day's work because they are not satisfied with the wages. Neither is it a question of merely inducing people to go back to their work by offering some advance in wages. I could understand their attitude more if that were the problem with which we were dealing. But it is not. You could not render more labour available in this emergency if the labourers were paid several shillings a week more, or if their wages were increased by 50 per cent. Undoubtedly the wages question does closely touch the problem in another way. A very large number of agricultural labourers in our Southern counties, or men who would otherwise be agricultural labourers, are engaged, probably necessarily engaged, in rendering the camps more or less habitable by the military, and are doing work for which they are not fully qualified, such as carpenters' work and the like.

But I know of my own knowledge that a very considerable number of agricultural labourers have been attracted by these high wages. I make hon. Members opposite a present of it. I know it is so, but what are these wages? I know a case where an agricultural labourer is at present earning over £3 a week. Will hon. Members suggest that farmers are to compete with that rate of remuneration? What price do they imagine agricultural produce would have to be sold at if wages of, say, three or four times what they are at present were suddenly paid in the middle of this emergency? You would only make confusion worse confounded. I am all in favour, as of course we all are, of such arrangements being made as shall enable farmers to pay the highest possible rate of wages, but I know perfectly well that a mere increase in wages would not produce more labourers and would not meet the problem at all.

Then there is the question of the employment of women, which the hon. Baronet (Sir H. Verney) put as either first or second among the sources of available supply. We were asked to consider how retrograde we were in Wiltshire because we only employed 1.23 per cent. of our agricultural labour in the form of women, and how advanced they were in Northumberland where the percentage was about 40. That was suggested, I think, by the hon. Baronet. But does he really put before the House the suggestion that in this emergency it is probable that we could entirely alter the whole processes of agriculture which have grown up in generations past and suddenly employ any such percentage in the Southern counties as is employed in the North? I quite agree with an hon. Friend of mine who suggested that these ladies who take extreme views on the suffrage question might be very usefully employed if they were to go round the country and point out to the women that they have a patriotic duty to perform, and that it would be a very good thing in this emergency if they tucked up their skirts and performed every agricultural function which it was possible for women to do. But it does not meet the problem of spring sowing or anything of that kind at all. In the dairies, undoubtedly, there is a good deal more room, although it will not be the kind of work which in the past women have been in the habit of doing in dairies when they were on a very much smaller scale and before the great milk trade of London commenced. I do not think the hon. Baronet opposite has studied what has been said at all these various meetings which have taken place in various parts of the country—the National Farmers' Union, and meetings of agricultural associations. I have not made any special study of the subject, but I am inundated with evidence, which is open and available to every Member in the House and everybody within the country who takes any interest in it. They know perfectly well that it is so. May I read what took place on 4th January at a National Farmers' meeting at Swindon. A member said:— With regard to boy labour, in respect of which the suggestion had been made that the educational authorities should relax their rules under the special circumstances and allow boys to be employed at an earlier age, he had four boys just over twelve years of age to keep going a dairy of sixty cows, and if those boys were kept at school he would have to sell at least half the herd. That is only one of many cases. Really, when the suggestion is made that the Labour Exchanges will solve the whole difficulty, is it quite fair to the House to put that contention forward? A question was asked on 1st March by the hon. Member, Mr. Fell. He asked:— If there are any figures available in the Labour Exchange offices showing the total number of agricultural labourers on their books seeking similar occupation at the present time? That, so far as the spring emergency is concerned, is the problem. It is no use telling us how many town dwellers there are, because that is not the present problem at all. It is the number of agricultural labourers on their books seeking similar employment at present. The Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade replied:— The total number of agricultural workers registered at the Labour Exchanges as desiring agricultural work for the week ending Friday, 19th February, was 559 (434 being men and 125 women). In answer to a supplementary question, the right hon. Gentleman said:— I can get details for the hon. Member if he gives me notice."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 1st March, 1915, col. 540.] The hon. Member (Mr. Fell) said, "These are the whole?" and the answer was "Yes." So I think there is no question that these, figures had already been gone into and were being taken as correct figures supplied by the Labour Exchanges. When we consider the number of the agricultural population, even in a single county, the Labour Exchanges over the whole of the country have not got on their books agriculturists seeking employment in anything like sufficient numbers to supply even the requirements of a single moderate sized county in the South. Therefore I hope the President of the Board of Education will show more appreciation of the urgency of the question than he did the other night, and will realise that however important attendances may be and the different rules which have been laid down, they really do not apply to an emergency like the present.


I do not profess, although I have represented an agricultural constituency for nearly thirty years, to have any expert knowledge of my own with regard to these matters. But, in spite of other preoccupations, I have come down, first and foremost, out of respect to the right hon. Gentleman who introduced the subject, whom we all regard not only as one of the old Parliamentary guard, but almost the foremost living veteran in ranks which are being thinned by misfortune and death, but also, as we all recognise, as one of the first authorities in regard to agricultural matters. I know that when questions of this kind are brought forward the right hon. Gentleman looks at them, as we all ought to do, not from a party, but solely from a national point of view. This is really a very difficult question, and one which we ought to approach with absolutely open and unbiassed minds, collecting, as far as we can, all available information and expert knowledge. The hon. Member (Mr. Peto) quoted an answer which I gave to a question as far back as 28th August, and which, as is not always the case, seems to me, after six months, a fairly accurate and unobjectionable answer. In answer to an appeal from the hon. Member (Mr. C. Bathurst), that the Government would suspend such provisions of the Education Acts as would enable boys over eleven years of age in purely agricultural districts to furnish assistance, I said:— The matter is well within the discretion of the local authorities, who have already had their attention called to it by the Board of Educatiou."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 28th August, 1914, col. 274, Vol. LXVI.] In reply to a supplementary question by the same hon. Member, who asked if the House was to understand that if the local authorities took such action they would not meet with the disapproval of the Board of Education, I replied immediately, "Yes." The President of the Board of Education, speaking six months later, on 25th February last, said, in strict compliance with what I had indicated, that our policy has been, and still is, to give as much discretion as possible to local education authorities in emergencies of this kind. That is a comparatively unimportant point. But how does the matter actually stand?

The principle on which we ought to proceed, and about which there is no difference of opinion in any quarter of the House, as laid down more than once by the representative of the Board of Agriculture, is this: In this great national emergency when the agricultural population, like the town population, has responded loyally and generously to the appeal which was made, special difficulties arise in connection with the procuring of an adequate supply of labour for the land, and the governing principles which ought to guide us is that work for the farmers sowing spring wheat is work which in the national interests ought and must be done. There is no difference of opinion as to the urgency and necessity of that primary demand. The only question is as to expediency, and ways and means as to how that demand can best be met. Various expedients can be and have been suggested. My hon. Friend, not for the first time, has pointed out that a liberal and elastic use, on the part of the farmers, of the machinery provided by the Labour Exchanges might be and ought to be effective for the purpose, and I myself think, on such evidence as has come to me, that where that machinery has been put into operation a very considerable response has followed, and I will not say the whole shortage, but a substantial part of it in particular cases has been supplied.

Then, again, there is the question, and it is one which does not apply merely in regard to agriculture but in regard to every other interest of the country, whether or not in the conditions of special emergency in which we find ourselves it might not be possible to have a larger recourse to woman labour. In the part of the Kingdom which I represent, the Lowlands of Scotland, woman labour is very largely employed on the farms. It is as high in some counties as 40 per cent. I am not sure that in my own county of Fife it does not approach nearly the same figure. As you go further south the percentage dwindles and dwindles until it is as low as 1 per cent.—in fact, it is a negligible quantity altogether. Northumberland has a high record in this respect, but the further south we go—I am not trying to make invidious distinctions between different parts of the country—owing to variations largely due to local conditions, local traditions, customs and so forth, there is no doubt about the fact that the employment of female labour in agriculture diminishes and dwindles almost to the vanishing point. I cannot help thinking that in an emergency such as that with which we are at present confronted it would be very desirable if We could reinforce the ranks of agricultural labour and fill the gaps which have been left by the men who have gone to the front by a larger employment of female labour. I believe that is the opinion of agriculturists in all parts of the country. These are two possible means of dealing temporarily at any rate with a special emergency.

5.0 P.M.

Then I come to the question which has been raised by the right hon. Gentleman of the employment of boy labour. I do not think we ought to be bound in a great national emergency like this by any pedantic regard for rules and conventions and usages which have prevailed, and rightly prevailed, when circumstances were normal. Therefore I was far from indicating in the answer I gave so far back as the month of August any such regard. I was speaking for myself, and needless to say the President of the Board of Education was particularly interested in this matter. I do not think we ought to rule out any special demand, as beyond the pale of political or statesmanlike consideration, for the employment of boy labour. It is a question of degree and of relative expediency as to the extent to which we ought to resort to one or other of these means in the way of supplying our needs. We have received returns from two-thirds of the counties of England and Wales, and these returns deal with the period between 1st September of last year and 3rd January of the present year, and they show that in these county areas, which embrace two-thirds of the counties, 1,152 boys and 42 girls have been allowed to leave school, making a total of 1,194, for agricultural employment. Of the boys, 34 are between 11 and 12, 763 between 12 and 13, and 354 between 13 and 14. All the girls are between 13 and 14.


Can the right hon. Gentleman tell us whether there has been a contravention of the by-laws?


I have stated what has been done, and, although the figures, when you consider the magnitude of the area involved, and the extent of the work to be done on the farms, do not seem large, they do show that there has been substantial recourse to child labour—not, I am glad to say, to any great extent between the ages of thirteen and fourteen. We must all regret this for two reasons. We should all regret, if the circumstances were not exceptional, the removal of these children from school so early. In the first place, it causes a gap in their educational course at a time when it is desirable that they should have the advantage of the whole curriculum and school life. In the next place—and here I speak with more diffidence from want of special and expert knowledge—I think it is at least doubtful whether this class of labour is efficient for the main purpose which the right hon. Gentleman has indicated. It is better than nothing.


It is the best they can get.


The right hon. Gentleman makes a wise qualification. It is the best they can get, but not the best they would like. If they could get anything else they would take it. I do not think the right hon. Gentleman wishes to go further than that. I think myself that the withdrawal of children from school for employment in this way is to be regretted—if the need could be met by the unemployed who are at the disposition of the Labour Exchanges. I do not think anybody will differ from that. If child labour is to be resorted to, I think it ought to be resorted to in a national emergency, subject to the conditions clearly laid down by my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Education a week or two ago. I will only name two or three of them. The first is that the local authorities should see that every effort is made for the wages to be reasonable before they entertain the idea of relieving children from school attendance. That is a very important condition; but it is not very easy to secure the observance of it. The next condition is that there is no other form of labour practically or immediately available for the work. The last condition is that the employment should be of a light character, suited to the capacity of the child, and that it should be clearly understood that it is not to extend beyond the emergency with which we are for the time being, or shall be during the continuance of the War, confronted. If these conditions are observed—and I think they are fundamental and absolutely essential—I may repeat what I said six months ago, that the Government are not going to interpose on the discretion of the local educational authorities anything in the nature of a veto. They know the local conditions, they are responsible to the ratepayers, and they are in touch with the parents of the children; but subject to these limitations they ought to have a more or less elastic discretion. I should be very sorry if the idea were to go forth that there is going to be anything like a large resort to child labour in agriculture. It is an emergency thing, an exceptional thing, a thing which ought to be circumscribed in every possible way, and ought never to be resorted to unless the local authorities are satisfied that neither by the operation of the Labour Exchanges, nor by the increased employment of female labour, the gap cannot be made good. I think if we arrive at something like a general agreement on these lines, the discussion which the right, hon. Gentleman has initiated will not have been thrown away.


I think that, in the first place, we have to thank the Prime Minister, not only for his speech, but for his presence here this afternoon. We all realise that the pressure upon him and the demand upon his time at the present moment is enormous. The right hon. Gentleman has generously given up a portion of his time to listen to a Debate of this character. I am convinced, I may say for myself and for my right hon. Friend and those whom he represents in the agricultural interest, that they are prepared to accept to the full, not only the conditions which the Prime Minister laid down as those under which alone child labour may be available for agriculture, but they are prepared to accept the description which he himself gave of the only way in which this labour ought to be availed of for agriculture, or any other form of employment. The Prime Minister laid stress upon the fact that this ought not to be regarded as a permanent change in the life and upbringing of the boys. Neither my right hon. Friend, nor those who have supported him in the House or outside, would contemplate with anything but the utmost aversion any suggestion which would be likely to lead to the taking of boys away from school at a tender age and putting them on the land being a permanent arrangement. It is only because we are confronted with an exceptional state of things in connection with the great pressure arising out of the War that this change is proposed.

May I say a word as to what fell from the Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Agriculture? I may say that it never occurred to one of us to charge him with any misrepresentation of facts, or with any intention to deceive the Members of this House, or anybody else. We quite understand that when he made the statement which has been referred to he was speaking of the need of farmers for labour. I think we see how it was that he came to use a particular word when referring to my hon. Friend the Member for the Wilton Division (Mr. Charles Bathurst) and the Chairman of the Farmers' Union. I say without hesitation that there is no suggestion that the hon. Gentleman was guilty of bad faith or anything of that kind. I must say that I think he ought not to have used the word "co-operation" in that connection. The use of that word leads to the impression that there is something more than assistance given by subordinates to the policy laid down by their superiors. The impression conveyed by his language was that the Board of Agriculture in the steps they were taking had the entire approval and co-operation of my hon. Friend. That is not so. The language used by the hon. Baronet does not prove that, and the letters of the hon. Member for the Wilton Division which my right hon. Friend read, and the letter from Mr. Campbell, make it perfectly clear that what they did was to give the best assistance in their power to the Board of Agriculture. If the Board of Agriculture adopted their policy—


I am very anxious that this point should be made clear. The hon. Member for the Wilton Division wrote a letter to the branches of the Chamber of Agriculture in which he said that they would probably receive a letter from the Board of Agriculture on the subject of obtaining labour through the Labour Exchanges. He strongly urged the branches of the Chamber of Agriculture to accept that suggestion. After the letter was written he did nothing but consult the hon. Member.


That really does not alter the case. I am not charging the hon. Baronet with bad faith. I am asking him to realise that the statement does not go far. It shows that my hon. Friend the Member for the Wilton Division and others gave their best assistance to the Board of Agriculture, but it is not fair to represent them as co-operating, which means that the policy has been adopted as the result of consultation with them. It is not so. The language which the hon. Baronet has read does not lead to anything of the kind. What it does lead to is that they have put their case and, a policy having been adopted, they do their best to give effect to it. That is what the hon. Member for Wilton makes clear in his telegram, and what Mr. Campbell makes perfectly clear in his letter. I do not want to carry the thing any further. I only want to make clear that the Board of Agriculture are attributing to my hon. Friends a little more than they ought to do in the present circumstances of the case. When the hon. Baronet told us just now that the Board of Agriculture thought that their first duty was to inquire as to whether there was any shortage of labour, I was shocked. It was my privilege to preside over the Board of Agriculture for five years, and it must have greatly changed from the institution with which I was familiar if it is necessary to-day in present circumstances to have any inquiry at all as to the existence of shortage of labour in agriculture. They might as well almost have proposed to have an inquiry as to whether there is a war going on at the present time. Of course, there has been a shortage of labour and everybody has known it. It was apparent the moment war broke out. The moment that you began recruiting, and that, to the eternal credit of the agricultural districts, the response from those districts was most satisfactory, shortage of labour became an inevitable consequence.


I am extremely sorry to interrupt the right hon. Gentleman. I believe that he wishes to co-operate. This is what I want to put to him. We know that there is a shortage of labour, and we reckon it at 10 or 12 per cent. It is our business to find people who will take the place of those who have gone away. I do not think that we can do so, unless the farmers will tell us the individual farms on which there is a shortage and the men whose places it is required to fill.


That is not what the hon. Baronet said, but if that is the case you will have no co-operation from me. If the Board of Agriculture is going to set itself up as the authority to ascertain on what farms labour is wanted, and what labour they want, then that is a task which no Board of Agriculture could possibly perform. It means inevitable delay. It is not the duty of the Board of Agriculture. They have no machinery for the purpose. It is not their business in any way whatever. Certainly, in that respect, they will get no co-operation either from me or from anybody else who is connected with agriculture. That is certainly not what I understood. I understood that the Board of Agriculture thought it was their duty to ascertain whether there was a shortage. That is not the case. I now understand that the object is to ascertain in what particular cases there is a shortage, and what it is that the farmers want. All they want is what we have got from the Prime Minister in that powerful sentence in which he declared, on behalf of the Government, that they had no intention of being bound by conditions which are essential in ordinary times, but which at a time like this must for the moment be set aside. Beyond that we do not want to carry it at all.

The hon. Baronet laid great stress on Labour Exchanges. He produced some figures to show what Labour Exchanges are doing. They were paltry things when compared with the demand which exists in the country, and the urgency of the need. The position of the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Education is an exceptional one. It is his business to think much more of the educational aspect of these questions than of agriculture, industry, trade or any other matter. It is only at a moment like this that he can allow judgment to be at all affected by these other considerations. But this does not exactly apply to the Board of Agriculture. The Board of Agriculture was created because under the old system there was no Minister in this House whose business it was to keep constantly in view the actual needs of agriculture, and to take care that its case was fought out not only here but in the Cabinet.

The hon. Baronet told us that these Labour Exchanges ought to be regarded by us with a favourable eye. I do not know how much experience he has had. I have had a great deal during the last six months. I have been sitting, as he knows, on one of the Government Committees. I have heard a great deal about Labour Exchanges. I have come into direct contact with the work which they are doing. I have not heard anything against them. On the contrary they are doing admirable work, but in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred they are not going to offer any material assistance in the provision of agricultural labour, and if we rely upon them we shall be relying upon a broken reed. All that we really want is what I think we have got to-day, and that is, the assurance of the Government that they will not put obstacles in the way of the employment of boy labour where it is necessary. I heard with the greatest delight the statement of the Prime Minister with regard to female labour. It is perfectly true, as he told us, that the further you go South the more women labour decreases. I have never been able to understand it.

I live in a dairy district myself, and the greater part of dairy work, milking and feeding cows, and attendance in the dairy, is all work of the cleanest and healthiest possible kind, and in every respect suitable for women, and it was entirely done by women when I was a young man. I cannot for the life of me understand why that system was given up. This is an opportunity to revive it, and I am thankful to have the good word, and the blessing of the Prime Minister upon the work upon which some of us are engaged, when we are making efforts to revive, women labour, and I hope that we shall succeed. Then I come to boy labour. The hon. Baronet referred to a distinguished agriculturist, a Member of this House, who has said that, in his opinion, boy labour was a nuisance. The hon. Baronet did not convey any information as to what this authority is. All I can say is, that I suppose boys vary as between different parts of the country, as they certainly do as between each other, because if a boy is carefully selected and properly supervised, he is a very valuable addition for certain kinds of labour. For instance you are urging the agricultural industry to increase the production of corn. To do that you must plough up land and you must harrow it. For a great deal of the land of the country which will produce the best wheat, you must have more than one person to work the plough. If you are going to use a man to do a boy's work, that is to say the leading of the horse, you will require two men instead of a man and a boy, and you are going to attempt something which will be impossible, because you cannot get the men.

There is much work for which boys are eminently suitable and which they can do very well, and if yon want to meet the demand that wheat should be cultivated on a great deal of land which is now growing other things, you will render this labour available. On behalf of my right hon. Friend, and with his entire consent, may I say that we do not for a moment suggest that boy labour can replace man labour. We do not suggest that it ought to be adopted as a permanent system, but solely as a temporary expedient to meet an immediate and great difficulty. We accept entirely the Prime Minister's view that the matter of wages should be dealt with satisfactorily, and we are in favour of some system of supervision, whether by the local education authority or by some other local authority we do not care. We quite agree that it opens up possibilities of abuse, and we are quite certain that there ought to be some local authority to intervene between the boy and those who might abuse his labour, even at a time like this, subject to any limitations you like, we do not very much care what they are.

Above all, we do not want to suggest, as the hon. Baronet suggested in the earlier part of his speech—I think entirely by inadvertence—that we are in favour of the employment of boy labour as a matter of course, on farms, under the age of fourteen. We never made the suggestion. The policy with regard to education has been for years a common policy. Both parties have amended the education law, and both parties have passed successive Acts of Parliament with the co-operation of the other side, whichever Government was in power, and the education policy is now the common policy of the country, and not the property of any particular party. We have no desire whatever to interfere with it, or take the boys back to the old conditions of this country which we and hon. Gentlemen opposite think were thoroughly bad for them. All that we want is that, subject to every reasonable precaution, they shall, at this moment of great emergency in the history of the country, be allowed to be employed on farms where they are required, and we are very grateful to the Prime Minister, not only for having attended this Debate to-day but for those very valuable words which, I believe, will go very far indeed towards removing the difficulty.


I heard the remarks of the Prime Minister. My recollection of them is not quite in accordance with the recollection of the right hon. Gentleman who has just sat down, except in a very limited degree. The Prime Minister assented, as I expect everyone in this House will assent, to the general proposition that in an acute emergency where the labour of boys is absolutely essential, all parties will agree to its temporary employment. But what the right hon. Gentleman did not quote in his reference to the Prime Minister's statement was the right hon. Gentleman's insistence upon the limitation which he quoted from the speech of the right hon. Gentleman the Minister for Education.


I beg pardon. The hon. Gentleman must not misrepresent me. I said explicitly, speaking for my hon. Friend who opened this Debate and for myself and my party, that we accept with out question all the limitations mentioned by the Prime Minister.


I am very glad to have that reinforced statement from the right hon. Gentleman. The limitations, therefore, to which the right hon. Gentleman assents are limitations which are very vital to the matter, and such limitations, properly applied, will have the effect, in my view, of securing the acceptance of the suggestion by the representative in this House of the Board of Agriculture. I welcome his statement, as much as I welcome that of the Prime Minister, for it was suggested to us that through the means of the Board of Agriculture it would be possible to find for farms labour other than that of boys. One of the limitations of the President of the Board of Education is the limitation that no other labour is available. The representative of the Board of Agriculture in this House has shown us clearly that other labour is available, and I trust that the utmost limits of that resource will be enforced before there is any drawing upon the labour of boys. I support all that has been said by the right hon. Gentleman opposite, if that be the policy of his party, in this matter of the school age of children.

Unfortunately the hon. Member for Devizes, who spoke earlier in this Debate, has gone a little in the other direction in this matter. If he spoke in any way as representative of his party, the lowering of the age rather than the raising of it was really the goal of his hopes. I am rather suspicious of this insistence on the necessity of boy labour as being a continuance of the policy voiced in this House to secure by legislation a lower age, differentiating it, in the case of agricultural districts, as against the age which obtains in towns. In the towns people are more engaged in Government work for the War than are the country districts; yet the towns, I believe, have provided a greater percentage of recruits than the agricultural districts, and there has been none of that insistence on the employment of boys to come to their relief in the matter of contracts that has been experienced in agricultural districts. Hence my suspicion that this is just a continuation of the policy, which, comes down to us from prewar time, to get boys and girls in agricultural districts away from the beneficent influences of the school earlier than would be the case if they were living in towns.

I, from my own experience and inside knowledge, accept what the Prime Minister said. The retention of boys and girls in school between twelve and fourteen years of age is most important. The Prime Minister is absolutely correct when he says that those are the years which are most effective. It is then that one is able to do most with boys and girls under the influence of their teacher. The policy of the Board of Education has been very much criticised in this connection. My own feeling is that what was said in August last probably conveyed a wrong impression to the local education authorities in rural districts. I think that they regarded what was intended as merely a temporary expedient as something which was to obtain during the whole period of the War. When the question was raised again this afternoon, it is quite clear that the statement which was made last year had reference merely to the time of winter, and I believe was intended, in the main, to wink at the difficulty of the harvest period. The local education authorities up and down the country have read more into that statement than was meant, and, in my view, have misunderstood the policy of the Board of Education in this matter of an undue extension of child labour in rural districts. The policy of the Board, so far as I have been able to ascertain it in recent communications to local authorities, appears to be very adequately stated in a Departmental letter which was sent to the Derbyshire education committee, and I should like to read an extract from it. It reinforces what the Prime Minister so well insisted upon, that the limitation shall be so circumscribed as to prevent any attempt to widen the extent of the employment of boys and girls. This is part of the letter from the Board to the secretary of the Derbyshire education committee:— The only reason alleged for an alteration in the By-laws is that there exists 'in some places a dearth of farm labour, and that the services of boys of twelve would be very useful.' It appears to the Board that this is a proposition that might have been and probably was true on many occasions before the War, and it does not appear to afford any sufficient justification for the proposal to interrupt the education of children at the age of twelve, who have not even passed the Fifth standard. Before deciding not to enforce attendance in a particular case, the Board consider that the authorities should satisfy themselves that there is a pressing need in the public interests of agricultural labour, that that need cannot be supplied, either by utilising the services of children who are already exempt from school attendance, or by employing adult labour, and that the child selected for employment is a child who can be permitted to leave school with the least possible prejudice to his educational interests. Personally, I am glad that the Board sent such a letter. It is a very good answer to what is urged, not so openly in this House as outside, on behalf of the farmers. Let me take a report of the meeting of the Oxfordshire education committee. There a gentleman, speaking in the farming interests, advocated practically the setting aside of the attendance by-laws. When it was pointed out to him what that involved, that it meant, possibly, the securing of children for farmers at the age of nine or ten years, this gentleman, I believe in the interests of the farming community, actually said he was prepared to take boys of ten years of age, at which age they could "lead a horse as well as a man." There you get at the heart of the demand, but I trust that resistance to it will be continued, and that we shall have applied the limitation expressed in the speech of the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board, and reiterated by the Prime Minister, that you must exhaust all sources of labour supply before you attempt in any way to call upon the labour of children. I now come to the Staffordshire education committee, and in that particular case there was a suggested relaxation of the by-laws. That, I believe, was again proposed by a representative of the farming community, and it had the support of Lord Lichfield, who said, "They were Britons before educationists." I see nothing contradictory in the terms.

I am bound to say that I am an educationist because I am a Briton, and I believe that the future welfare of our country is dependent upon the moral and physical well-being of the children at present in the schools. I regret very much that the suggestion made by the chairman of the Staffordshire education committee (the Reverend Prebendary C. Dunkley) was not acted upon. He opposed the movement for getting children out of school earlier, and he called the attention of the committee to this important fact, that none of the places between Birmingham and Wolverhampton had made a similar request—places full of Government orders, except Darlaston, where they were making nuts and bolts; yet it had been brought forward in the interests of the farming community. He said, "The nation's first care was the care of the child." In the work of reconstruction which will follow this War the House realises, I trust, that our hopes must be fixed upon the children at present in the schools if we are ever to compete successfully, industrially, commercially or educationally with our enemy, with whom we are now engaged in war. I wish Lord Charnwood's advice had been followed by this education committee. His words were:— The ast sacrifice we should make, until it was clearly necessary, was the sacrifice of the future strength of this country, in the welfare, efficiency and capacity for public service of the rising generation. Hon. and right hon. Members of this House would be well employed in reading the introduction to the Report of the Board of Education's chief medical officer, Sir George Newman, who, in an admirable introductory comment, insisted upon the importance of doing everything we can to preserve the interests of the rising generation, as on the rising generation we must depend for the reconstruction of the State after the ravages of the present War. I find, on referring to what local authorities are doing, that in places where agricultural wages are high the demand for child labour is low. That experience has been referred to and quoted on the Front Bench. When you go to Scotland there is scarcely any demand for getting children out of the schools in this time of emergency. One hardly hears of a single request North of the Tweed for children of school years to do work on the farm. In Northumberland, a county I know well, they are in the same happy position. In all the Northern counties, in the main, where wages are higher than in the Southern counties, they are not making this demand for child labour.

The hon. Member for Devizes (Mr. Peto) seemed to me to give the whole case away. He knows former agricultural labourers who are getting £3 a week, and asks if farmers can be expected to compete with that wage. No, they cannot in the present position; but I would say this to the hon. Member, that if the wage were considerably less than that in some of the Southern agricultural counties, I doubt whether there would be a demand for child labour at all, because the men would prefer to stay in their employment in those districts. The country that has done most in recruiting is Scotland, and, subject to correction, I doubt whether the agricultural counties in Scotland can be excelled in the percentage of population recruited for the War. My point is that if the agricultural labourers are drawn into other work at a wage of £3, which must seem to them to be wealth almost beyond the dreams of avarice, they cannot be expected to starve on the land on 14s. a week. But in my view the agricultural labourer would much sooner stay on the land at a considerably less wage than £3 a week if he could live in the circle in which he has been accustomed to move, and amid his home surroundings, rather than go away to some town even for those high wages. In the main it is a question of wages, and I believe the source of supply of proper labour is not exhausted. Therefore I look with grave suspicion on what seems to be the gathering volume of pressure for exploiting child labour in the interests of the farming community.


The hon. Gentleman who has just sat down has tried to argue that agriculturists are seeking to exploit child labour. As an old agriculturist, and as one who, for the last few months, has turned his ploughshare into a sword, I will meet him on that point. I absolutely deny that is the fact, and I do not think he can bring forward anything which would prove it to be the fact. Why the agriculturists at the present moment want boy labourers to come and help them on their farm is because to-day we are in the midst of an international crisis. They want the most effective form of labour that is available, as was put by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Wimbledon, and echoed from the Front Bench on the Government side. That is all they want. There are one or two reasons why they are asking for boy labourers to-day. In my own district we want them, and want them badly. It is an arable district. The counties where labourers are highly paid are the Northern counties of this country. There you will find that the farm is chiefly grass and pasture; the district from which I come is chiefly arable. It was said from the opposite side by the hon. Gentleman who represents the Board of Agriculture that eight hon. Gentlemen in this House had stated that these boys were a nuisance. That complaint must have come from a district where grass is the prevailing farm. I maintain that on the arable land we want the boys, and want them badly. To-day we are asking the farmers to do all that they can to provide us with the largest amount of food.

At this moment in my own district we are a month behind with our farming work. Land that at this time of year in other years has been sown, to-day is not even ploughed, and in many parts is covered with water. We have not got the men and we have not got the horses, and we do not know when we are going to put that land under wheat or other corn. That is why we want boys to come and help the men to carry out this work. If you put in the corn late you do not get the crop, and if you do not get the crop you do not get the yield of corn for feeding the people. Every year the Board of Agriculture is trying to tell us how to grow two blades of grass where one grew before and the Parliamentary Secretary to the Board has used those words time after time. If that be so, give us a helping hand now in this crisis. We do not believe in bringing the boys from school till they are sufficiently educated in the ordinary course of events. That can be safeguarded. The safeguards have been put, and clearly put, by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Wimbledon (Mr. Chaplin) this afternoon, and sympathetically received by the Prime Minister. In to-day's "Times" there is rather a remarkable letter, which is signed by T. C. Fry, from the Deanery of Lincoln. If this gentleman is the Dean, and I suppose he is, I think that he has rather hit the nail on the head when he says:— (1) The boys should be selected boys. (2) That they be volunteers. (3) That they be half-timers in work, whether at school, or resting when off work. (4) That the very heavy work be scheduled and excluded. All those points could be taken up by the local authority, and, as the Prime Minister put it, the wage should also be defined. In my own county of Shropshire we have put it in that way, and we have declared that no boy is to work more than eight hours per day, and his meals to be taken out of that. I think that that is moving in the right direction, but for hon. Gentlemen opposite to get up and say that we are exploiting farming in this way is, I think, rather carrying it in another direction. There is one other point, and it is this: We have been told that if we go to the Labour Exchanges and ask for men we can have them. Do those who make that assertion think of this question, that one of the greatest difficulties in the farming community at the present moment is the housing question? The houses that are usually filled with the men who work on the farms are occupied to-day, and rightly so, by the dependants of those who are fighting for this country. Is there a man in this House who will get up and say that he wants them to go out of those houses so that the labourers may come from the Labour Exchanges and be put into them?

I think the House will, therefore, agree with me that the difficulty of going to the Labour Exchange, and of finding men suitable to work on the farm is a grave difficulty and one that is not going to be easily got over. We want to put that clearly before the House to-day. We think if we guard these boys and these girls by useful by-laws from the local authority, and if we utilise them, as we only ask to utilise them, through the period of this crisis, that we are not doing more than we ask to do, and that we are doing this, namely, our best as farmers to grow food for the people of this country as we ought to do. I contend that on those farms where arable laud is now not ploughed and not sown, as it ought to be, that those boys would be of the greatest use and very far from being a nuisance, and if we could have them we should be doing something to lower the cost of the food of the people. That is what we want to do, and that is why we are asking for this boy labour to-day. It is not for the reason that has been hinted at, but not definitely stated, namely, that we are exploiting children from school for the sake of putting money into the farmers' pockets. It is not for that reason. It is for the reasons I have advanced that I desired to address the House and to refute the statements made by hon. Gentlemen opposite.


Anyone who has listened to this Debate on boy labour will, I think, have acquired a novel view of human nature, since, according to some of the speakers, there never was such a paragon as this boy of twelve. In the course of the Debate we were informed that he is to take the place of men and horses, that he is to do milking at four o'clock in the morning, and that he can do work that no town hand can do. I hope for their own sakes that the boys do not read these Debates. If they do, the next generation will be a swollen-headed generation. Why I rise is not so much to resume the Debate on boy labour, which we had the other night, as to add my appeal to the Government to the appeals which have come chiefly from the other side to take action and to find some solution of this problem.

The danger I think that we have before us is that we shall simply drift into the use of boy labour, however little we may like it. I desire to repeat three suggestions I made the other afternoon to the Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Agriculture. The first was that they should organise local committees to examine this question in the districts, and that they should not be content simply to wait till the farmers go to the Labour Exchanges and then discover that there is no labour. I agree with those Members who have suggested that that is not the real solution of the difficulty, and I think if we are to avoid boy labour we must actively pursue a policy of finding some other solution. The other suggestion is that the Government should appeal to other classes. I pointed out on the previous occasion that there were, according to the Census of 1911, over 200,000 persons between the ages of fourteen and eighteen not in employment. Those numbers are far more than any that can be needed to supply the deficiency in agricultural labour, and though they are not the class from which agricultural labour is usually drawn, I feel certain that they would respond very heartily to a call of the Government to meet a national emergency if they were asked to go and do six months' work in the fields. This source of persons of from fourteen to eighteen years of age seems to me to be a very good well from which to draw the water we need.

The third point is the desirability of attempting to continue the educational influence exercised over those boys when they go into farm work. The Dean of Lincoln has been quoted as suggesting that there should be a kind of half-time. Cannot the local education committees be encouraged to organise something of that kind if possible? An agriculturist has suggested to me that one of the chief disadvantages of boy labour is that when you put boys on the land at an early age you thoroughly sicken them of agriculture by the time they come to the age of seventeen and they go naturally to the towns. I venture to think that that is a sound argument, and that if you give them too much of this work in the earlier years they are bound to be thoroughly bored with it when they get older. The method of limiting hours, mentioned by the last hon. Member who spoke, is obviously an excellent method, and one which I trust will be copied elsewhere. The danger in this case is that, we shall simply drift into lax administration, as we have already drifted into breaches of the law, and I do there fore ask the Government to proceed actively to find other sources of supply which will avoid those evils.

6.0 P.M.


I think that Members of this House, wherever they sit, must be glad that this topic has come up for discussion, because there is hardly any administrative duty cast upon the local authorities which is more delicate or more difficult than the duty east upon them with reference to boy labour in agricultural districts. We are here not only in this period of truce as regards controversies, but we are here also in the mood of gravity I which is placed upon us by the circumstances of this great War. While the discussion to-day has had great difficulty in avoiding references to strong feeling on one side or the other, that is really, I think, a proof of the difficulty and of the pressing character of this question. We know that this question of boy labour goes back in this country to old time, when it was a very important element in the working of farms, and we know, on the other hand, how the cause of education is one which has moved at the slowest rate of progress. I am speaking now as a member of a local education authority which discussed this question last week, and in the discussion developed more heat than I have ever known them to do, except, of course, on questions of religion. The discussion was not concluded; we have yet to come to our final decision. I do not claim to be a leader of agricultural opinion, nor am I a special representative of the working classes in the sense that hon. Members below the Gangway claim to be; but I am in the extremely unpleasant position of an administrator who has to deal with this question at the moment, while knowing that the more one keeps one's balance, the more unpopular one is certain to be with both sides.

I suggest that this is one of those cases which largely depend upon the precision and carefulness of the regulations laid down by the local authority. I hope I shall not be misunderstood or thought to be dealing with the matter frivolously if I compare it with the sale of poisons. Everybody knows that the sale of poisons is not only necessary, but desirable, under strict regulations. But everybody also knows that if there were no regulations, ill-advised persons would do themselves and their neighbours very much harm. So it is with this question. I was discussing the matter with an hon. and learned Member on the other side of the House, and I wondered whether some such regulations as I will outline would commend themselves to the Board of Education, and possibly to practical administrators. I am speaking of practical local administrators, as in this case the administration is done locally. All the Board of Education can do is to advise—a most important duty, but a far easier one than that of carrying out the advice given. The by-laws should not be relaxed except under certain conditions. The first is that the demand for labour by any particular farmer or occupier of land is due to the fact that the labourer has gone from that farm to serve his country. We want to connect closely this most exceptional remedy with the exceptional case of the man who has left his work to serve his country, and not to use it in cases where a shortage of labour has arisen through other causes. If you do so use it, you will certainly make it easier for boy labour to be used too extensively, too indefinitely, and for too long a time.

The second condition is that any person asking for boy labour shall be able to prove that he is paying for adult labour a really fair and adequate wage. There are circumstances and facts known to all Members in the direction of increased agricultural profits, and also of increased agricultural expenses, but no one can doubt that the rate of wage, at any rate in the Midlands and the South of England, ought to be higher now than it has been in recent years. The third condition is that the Labour Exchanges shall be honestly used by the employer. I quite agree with the weighty criticism of the hon. Member opposite (Mr. Stanier) in regard to the question of housing in parishes somewhat remote from great centres. That is a quite legitimate point. But there are hundreds of parishes where labour could temporarily be derived from the Labour Exchanges, if only care and trouble were taken to use them. That care and trouble had been taken should be a condition precedent to allowing boy labour. In the same way the district committees who would be concerned in allowing any relaxation should be satisfied that the labour of neither old men nor women was available for the particular work to be done. Some of us would suggest that the consent of the parents should be indispensable. Lastly, I suggest that any child who was allowed to leave school for this purpose should only be permitted to do so for a month at a time, so that the matter would come up for consideration, not formally but actually, at the end of every month.

I agree that here and there, though not in nearly so many cases as is often said, for the purposes of spring growing, and also later on for harvest, there may be ground for some relaxation of the by-laws where all these conditions are fulfilled. I hope the House will not think that I have wasted its time in mentioning these conditions which in practice some of us are trying to get adopted, taking the view, which I think the House generally takes, that this is the last expedient to be used, and that it is most unfortunate that it should have to be used, but that in a time of crisis every expedient, even the last and most undesirable, must not be absolutely excluded, provided you confine it to the moment and take precautions against its repetition or continuance.

Colonel YATE

The hon. Baronet (Sir H. Verney) gave it as his opinion that boy labour on farms was not effective. I would like to ask him whether he has ever studied the agricultural system of Norway. Norway is a great agricultural country, divided up into small farms under peasant proprietorship. There, so effective is boy labour, and so absolutely important is it considered by the parents that the boys should have early education in agricultural pursuits, that in the summer time, while agricultural operations are going on, the schools are closed entirely. The other day I listened with the utmost astonishment to the Debate on this question, when hon. Members opposite argued for hours the petty question whether boys of twelve or thirteen should leave school a month or two before or after passing standard five. They were apparently oblivious of the fact that we are absolutely fighting for our existence. No one seemed to have the slightest idea that an accident to our Armies or those of our Allies might lead up to circumstances which would make an invasion of this country possible, when every school might be swept out of existence, just as they have been in Belgium. No one seemed to think for an instant that if an accident happened to our Navy, through storms or air craft or other means, there might be no food for our children, let alone schools. It is in these circumstances we are wasting two days arguing whether a child shall leave school a month or two sooner than he, otherwise would. I welcome very cordially the statement of the Prime Minister, but I honestly confess that if I had been the Minister for Education I would not have tried to shuffle the question off on to the local education committees, but I would have issued instructions to let the boys go months and months ago.


I have no sympathy whatever with the point of view of the hon. and gallant Gentleman opposite (Colonel Yate). It is because we are at war that we desire especially to consider a question so vital to the future interests of the nation. I agree very strongly with the opinion expressed by the Noble Lord the Member for Hitchin (Lord Robert Cecil) to the effect that to accept any proposal made, because the country was in a state of war, without subjecting it to careful consideration, was really to follow a policy almost insane. I believe, very strongly, that if the local authorities in the districts affected follow the constructive suggestions made by the Secretary to the Board of Education and the Secretary to the Board of Agriculture, and reaffirmed by the Prime Minister to-day, the employment of boys under fourteen will not be necessary. I want the House to consider whether there is not another class of labour which can be used, if it be found that the services of school boys are absolutely essential. I would put this proposal to the right hon. Gentleman opposite (Mr. Long), who spoke very earnestly on the subject a little while ago. In the agricultural districts with which he is especially concerned there are not only elementary but secondary schools. There would be much less objection, in case of a sudden and real emergency, to taking for a limited time boys from the secondary schools. I would ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he is willing for that experiment to be tried in districts where boys at secondary schools are available.


If we were discussing this question in the abstract, with a view to preparing for the condition of things in which we now find ourselves. I should be quite prepared to assent to the suggestion. But I would impress on the hon. Gentleman that it is no time for experiment. The need is urgent. You cannot postpone it for three weeks or a month. I do not think that the demand for boys from elementary schools would be very large, nor do I think it would affect the secondary schools to any considerable number. But it is not a moment for experiments. If you are going to meet the difficulty you must meet it at once.


I am much obliged to the right hon. Gentleman for his courteous interruption. In reply I would say that it is no more an experiment in the case of secondary schools than in the case of elementary schools. It is an experiment in either case.


I used the hon. Members own phrase.


In either case it is an experiment, and there would be no more delay in regard to the secondary schools than in regard to the elementary schools. If you go to the elementary schools, you take boys from eleven to thirteen or fourteen, years of age, when not only their education, but their physique is immature, and real physical harm may be done by some of the forms of labour to which they may be put. If you go to the secondary schools, you take boys roughly from fourteen to sixteen or seventeen years of age. Their education is much more advanced, it will suffer no vital interruption, and their physique is of a much higher stamp. Having heard the views of the right hon. Gentleman—for which I am very grateful—I hope the Under-Secretary for the Education Department in his reply will let us have some guidance on this point. May I also make this appeal to the Education Department? It is quite obvious now that the local authorities have been given some discretion in this matter. The conditions may or may not be fulfilled, but a certain discretion has been given. I want to ask the Education Department whether they will safeguard the interests of the boys by making certain very reasonable stipulations. I think the Board of Education ought to know exactly what boys are being withdrawn from the schools the numbers and the districts. We ought to have full details of the boys. I think that the Education Department should never allow boys who are under a statutory obligation to attend school to be withdrawn without making an examination into the case.

I would remind the House—and also the right hon. Gentleman opposite—that under the existing law of the land, the Employment of Children Act, 1903, a boy of eleven years of age may to-day be taken for the purpose of agriculture, or any other form of employment, in the early morning, at mid-day, in the afternoon, and in the evening. He may work under the law to-day at the age of eleven, and he may work a considerable number of hours in agriculture, as well as having to attend school; therefore if you want to take him altogether it means that the boy of eleven is going to be worked very long hours indeed—hours as long as an adult. I think that a medical inspection should be insisted upon by the Board of Education. For my own part I look forward with the utmost misgiving to any extension or any weakening of the existing law respecting the employment of school children. I am one of those who believe that already, both in the agricultural and industrial districts, we are taking a very heavy toll by employing children out of school hours, and insisting as well upon their attendance at school. I am one of those—and if mine be the only voice raised in this House it shall be raised!—that believes that no necessity has arisen for the employment of school children, having regard to those other sources of labour which have been so frequently referred to and have not yet been tried. I sincerely trust it will yet be found possible to avoid employing any children below the age of fourteen.


I think we may congratulate ourselves on this Debate. It seems to have enabled us to reach a considerable measure of agreement between both sides of the House. Perhaps the figures quoted by the Prime Minister have not received that attention which they might have done. We have heard in the course of this Debate—and the same thing was heard the other day—that my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Education had been unduly lax in his dealings with the local education authorities. I think—without exact quotation—that is what my hon. Friend the Member for Salford thinks. I will deal with him in a moment. On the other hand, we have been blamed because we have been unduly severe. The average man might perhaps fairly consider that we have steered a fair, medium, reasonable course. The facts are that between 1st September and 31st January, 1,152 boys, in two-thirds of the counties of England, were liberated from school for work on farms. I might remind my hon. Friend the Member for Salford that there are in his own borough of Salford, working out of school hours—children who attend school and are engaged in industrial work—more children than we have released in the whole of these agricultural counties since September.


The children who are working in the borough of Salford and I deplore it as much as my hon. Friend—are not released from school. They have to work their full school hours; therefore the cases are not at all parallel.


Yes, that is the tragedy of the whole situation! But I am trying to retain some sense of proportion in this matter, and I suggest that my right hon. Friend and the Department he represents cannot, at all events fairly, be accused of undue laxity if that is the total number released since September. We know that in many industrial districts little progress in this matter has been made, and there is wholesale employment of children who are attending school. My hon. Friend the Member for one of the Divisions of Shropshire spoke of the urgent need for the employment of boys in Shropshire. Here, again, we have had in the course of this Debate a good many statements, but I am afraid we have not had very much evidence. It would have been better perhaps if we had had more evidence. Of course I admit the difficulty of obtaining evidence, and the Board of Education is in an exceptional position in that respect. As a matter of fact, in the county of Shropshire, since 1st September to 31st January, there have been released for employment on farms only twelve boys. Hon. Members have perhaps received an exaggerated impression of what is the demand for boy labour. I find it difficult to think that during these five months there should not have been more than twelve exemptions from attendance at school if the demand for labour in the counties had been as insistent as hon. Members represent.


Those figures may be quite true; but I do not think the hon. Gentleman realises that in many parts of the country the demand for exceptional labour has not been made, because of the impression that the use of the boys would not be allowed.


I do not wish to be unfair to the hon. Member who represents the Division of Shropshire, and I am sure the right hon. Gentleman will believe me in that; but correspondence with the Board of Education has been going on very actively for several months. Although it has only just now come up in the House, it has been constantly before us as a Board. Perhaps I may have exaggerated the logical inferences to be drawn from the figures. Nevertheless, one cannot but be to some extent surprised that there has not been more than those exemptions if the demand really was so great as some Members think. I know, of course, that there has been heavy recruiting. I do not know what it is like in Shropshire. Still I think on the whole there have been statements made without evidence on both sides of the House which are not borne out on examination, both as to the laxity suggested on the one side and the undue severity on the other. We must all welcome the fact that the right hon. Gentleman the Member for the Strand Division (Mr. Long) associated himself with the Prime Minister in accepting on behalf of his Friends the general conditions which the Prime Minister laid down as precedent to the liberation of boys from schools to work on farms I sincerely hope that local education authorities throughout the country will take note of what the right hon. Gentleman has said. May I remind the House, without quoting the exact words, what is the general sense of the conditions suggested by my right hon. Friend—

  1. (1) That every effort should be made in the locality for wages to be raised before they entertain the idea of a lowing the children to leave the schools to work on farms;
  2. (2) That the employment of the boys should only be given in exceptional cases, and after it has been ascertained 1042 that other labour, is not available;
  3. (3) That there should be no general relaxation of the by-laws;
  4. (4) That the employment to be given is of a light character, suitable to the capacity of the child; and
  5. (5) That it should only be given in a definite emergency, and for a limited period.
I think this Debate has been very useful, seeing that we have reached an agreement in general as to these conditions. I myself as in part responsible for what happens at the Board of Education, and also being one of those, happily like many, brought up on a farm, have been interested by an examination of the evidence tendered in these Debates as to what boys should really do on farms. The hon. Member for Devizes seemed to suggest that boys should do a very great deal. I examined his speech the other day to see exactly what he had said. He went into the matter in great detail. What he suggested that boys could do resolved itself into this: They could help to lead the horses; they could help to attend to the cows and in various operations connected with milking. I am quite sure the right hon. Gentleman the Member for the Strand Division, as a practical agriculturist, will agree with me that it is not at all a sound thing to suggest that a man who is making his living at dairy-farming will be very ready to have untrained interference with good cows.


I did not suggest it.


I know; it was the hon. Member for Devizes. A practical agriculturist, making part of his living through keeping cows, would hesitate, I think, to turn boys on to cows that were yielding well. The more time, within reason, given to the milking of cows the better for the supply. Another suggestion is that boys will be suitable for scaring crows. In certain parts of the country it is very important that that should be done. They could also, it was suggested, help in various other jobs. Some of these may be men's work. It is true that the employment of some boys might liberate the men; still, that would not amount to much, even on a good-sized farm.

The point I wish to make here is that the number of boys that can be fairly employed on boys' work on a good-sized farm is distinctly limited. Under our existing by-laws there are provisions in the agricultural districts for the exemption, under certain conditions, of boys who have passed certain standards. Those seem to me to have been rather lost sight of by one or two speakers. The right hon. Gentleman opposite referred to them. Perhaps I may remind hon. Members that the release of these boys, so far as we have cognisance of it, is not an illegal operation at all. It is the duty of the local education authorities, put upon them by Statute, to administer the law, and they also have to administer the by-laws, which are a part of the law.

I am not saying—far from it—that it is desirable that a child should work on a farm; but I say that under the existing law it is not illegal, if a child has passed a given standard, for the local authority to release him, and the Board of Education has no locus standi in the matter. The local Authority is carrying out the law, and it is for the House of Commons to alter the law. Neither the Board of Education nor the local education authority can alter the law. So long as the local education authority acts fairly, and with due regard to its responsibility within the by-laws, the Board of Education has no power in the matter. Any action taken by the local education authority against the child not attending school is not dealt with by the Board of Education at all; it is dealt with by the local magistrates. It is for the local magistrates to say whether the law has been infringed or not. But what I am trying to make out is this—first, that the number of boys who could fairly be employed, even on a large farm, is distinctly limited; next, that a considerable number of boys within the proper provisions of the existing law do receive exemption certificates when they have passed certain standards, and so on. And I suggest that the number of boys properly exempt will go very far to supply any legitimate demand for boy labour on farms, and there is no reason to suggest, and I am certain the Board of Education will not suggest, until all these other conditions have been thoroughly explored, anything outside the present law.

The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Wimbledon (Mr. Chaplin) referred to the character of the education which he seemed to think was given in our country schools, and suggested that the children wanted to play the piano and read Shakespeare. I do not see why they should not but I do not think it is a common inclination of theirs. Then he went on to say that what we want is more technical education. The ages of attendance at school in our country districts has been gradually lengthening, I am glad to say, and one of the reasons for that is that the subjects taught in our country schools are becoming more and more applicable to the local life—that is to say, we are doing a great deal more to encourage practical subjects in country schools, and the House may be interested to get these figures. There were 17,000 boys in 1906—seven attending gardening classes in rural districts; in 1912 the number was 57,000. That increase was effected because parents were glad for their children to attend schools to a later age, as they were receiving this kind of instruction.

There is one other consideration which I am sure we ought to bear in mind. If the child is away from school a month or so it makes a difference, and I think every practical teacher will tell you that if children are released for six months or so when they come back to school the maintenance of discipline becomes much more difficult. Children who have been away from school for some weeks or months earning a few shillings rather fancy themselves grown up when they come back and it is much more difficult to get them again into the ordinary habits of school discipline. It is a minor matter, I agree but still it has to be borne in mind. I am glad the right hon. Gentleman opposite and his Friends have very distinctly stated that they do not associate themselves in any way with the desire to curtail the length of school life, but rather they wish to see it extended. What we deplore, I think, generally, is that children leave school far too soon. We should not think the education of our own children was anything like complete at the age of twelve. As a matter of fact, I do not think these children begin to learn much until considerably after the age of twelve. I am only too glad that the right hon. Gentleman and his Friends associate themselves will, us in desiring to prolong school life.


I do not want any misapprehension on this subject. We associated ourselves with the statement of the Prime Minister, but I must guard myself against being associated with any pronouncement, of the new education policy by the hon. Gentleman.


Not the new education policy. I said, staying at school as long as possible. If we could get them to stay till fourteen it would be a great advance. At all events, the right hon. Gentleman will welcome that if it can be done. The effect of labour upon the physique of children is, I think, a matter to be taken into consideration very much just now. As a matter of fact, the children who go out to work on farms whilst they are at school very often get far too little sleep, and if the boy has to get up early in the morning to attend to horses, lambing, or milking cows or something of that kind, he will not get as much sleep as he ought to get.


I do not think it was proposed that these boys should do this. We proposed definitely that the hours should be restricted and that the hours should be short. We did not ask them to get up fit four or five in the morning and feed horses.


I am only saying that the illustrations given were that the boys would be employed in attending to horses, lambing and milking cows. To deal with horses you must get up very early in the morning, or otherwise it is not much use. I am only putting the considerations, which I am sure justify making this the last expedient of all, and one of the considerations is the influence upon the children's physique. I suggest that the evidence before us shows that too little importance may be attached to this subject. I have evidence here of boys of school age in Surrey, their weights and heights being recorded and the hours of sleep taken. It is a very interesting record. It seems that the boys who averaged between seven and eight hours' sleep were 54½ inches high and 71 pounds in weight; that the boys of the same average age who had ten to eleven hours' sleep were 57 inches high and 83 pounds in weight. There were 28 per cent. of errand boys, 14 per cent. of milk boys, and 11 per cent. of horse boys who showed more or less signs of spinal curvature. That is to say, the occupations of boys of this age is very soon reflected in their physique. I am sure that is another good reason why we should adhere to the policy set out, namely, that this is the very last thing we should look to for supplying labour on farms. The Board fully recognise—we all recognise—that the land has got to be tilled, and what the national emergency is. We do not know how long the War is to go on, and I think this is a time, when there is so much waste of adult life, that we should be especially prudent and especially careful in preserving the vigour of our children.

Colonel YATE

Will the hon. Gentleman circulate copies of the Prime Minister's statement to all the local education authorities?