HC Deb 05 March 1923 vol 161 cc194-204

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Colonel Leslie Wilson.]


I want to draw the attention of the House, and also of the hon. Gentleman representing the Ministry of Health, to a matter of which I gave private notice a day, or two ago. I am not sure whether this matter has been dealt with by the Minister of Health or the Minister of Agriculture. It relates to the milk supply of Bradford, and possibly other large towns in the West Riding of Yorkshire. For nearly 30 years we in Bradford have operated certain regulations governing the sanitation, lighting, cubic space and cleansing of cowsheds. While those regulations are not ideal, they are the most drastic we could devise under the powers given to us, and by their operation most of the unhealthy cows within the city area have been located and their numbers reduced to vanishing point, to the considerable advantage of the milk supply of the city. Unfortunately, we have to get 40 per cent. of our milk from outside the city boundaries where such conditions do not operate. We have in the city two thoroughly qualified milk inspectors, one of them being a veterinary surgeon. The result of their work has been that when samples of milk are taken no more than 0.1 per cent. has been found to be tubercular. But of the samples taken from the other 40 per cent. of our supply which comes from outside the city boundaries, invariably from 5 to 10 per cent. are tubercular.

The West Riding authority itself has no veterinary inspectors of milk, and the little urban district councils governing the area of our 40 per cent. supply have only inspectors on part time, and frequently indeed not at all. In those agricultural areas inspection has become more or less a complete farce, and we in the large towns suffer in consequence of the quality of the milk obtained from these rural areas. Moreover, the town farmers inside Bradford and other large towns have to toe the line much more strictly than the farmers in the agricultural areas. The urban district councils are dominated by uninstructed farmers who regard regulations governing milk supplies as nuisances to themselves, The inspectors are discouraged from performing the work adequately, and if there is an inspector in those areas who does his work conscientiously he will not long keep his job. That is a very serious matter for Bradford and other large towns.

11.0 P.M.

The Milk and Dairies Act of 1915 might have helped us in the matter, but, unfortunately, it has been suspended. I do not know why. The 1922 Act, on the other hand, does not touch the evil with which I am dealing, because while it licenses the pure milk retailer, it also licenses the dirty milk for poorer people. Under the Diseases of Animals Acts, 1894 to 1911, there was promulgated in June, 1914, a tuberculosis Order. That Order was good in its provisions, but, unhappily, it has been mysteriously withdrawn. Under that Order, if a cow were tubercular or had a chronic cough or disease of the udder, the case had to be reported to the police in the area, and there was power to stop the supply of milk which might be coming from there, and the authority were empowered to examine the cow and order its slaughter if it were necessary, and in addition to compensate the owner under the agreed scale. In consequence of that the farmer had no particular grievance in the matter, and the poisoning of the public was prevented. The local authority paid over to the farmers the money under the scale, and the Government on its part, reimbursed the local authority a portion of that figure.

To-day the Bradford Corporation have received from the Minister of Agriculture a letter pointing out that the total cost under the Order was about £80,000 per annum from the Imperial Exchequer and probably about twice that amount from local funds, and that., as a consequence of that cost, the Ministry could not see their way to the re-enforcement of the Order. Surely the figure of £80,000 cannot be accounted a very extravagant amount, especially in view of the protection from poisonous milk which the operation of the Order afforded to the people. We ask for the reinstatement of the Order. What has happened since its withdrawal? Our inspector in his work finds a tubercular cow. He stops the milk supply from that cow and has the animal segregated The owner, faced with a loss and knowing that no compensation will be paid, if he is alive to the powers which he now possesses, proceeds to sell the animal to a dealer. The dealer, engaged in not too scrupulous a work, disposes of the animal outside the city boundary and our inspector completely loses sight of it. There is every reason to suppose that the animal goes to swell the milk herds in districts where they are not so particular, and the poison is spread in the same way again. In the last three years, 1920, 1921 and 1922, in the City of Bradford our inspectors have had to stand by whilst 86 per cent. of all the cows found to be tubercular have passed out of their control into the hands of dealers, and the danger to the public of Bradford thereby continues quite unnecessarily. If the 1914 Order had still been in operation all this danger would have been stopped, and the work of protection would have continued instead of having been hampered by the absence of the Order. I hope that the Minister of Agriculture will take measures for the re-imposition of this beneficent Order.


There is the question of agricultural wages, which we have not yet considered, but which, it seems to me, is so serious as to be almost desperate. It is very difficult to obtain information as to the 'actual rate of wages paid to agricultural labourers in the various counties at present. The right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Agriculture, in answer to a question put by me, said, as far as he could ascertain the wage paid under the orders of the National Farmers' Union to the agricultural labourers in Somerset at present is 30s. He must know, as all farmers know, that the wage fixed by the National Farmers' Union does not, as a matter of fact, represent the wage usually paid in the county. We have recently had some information in the daily papers as to the course of wages in two or three counties in England. In to-day's paper it is stated that the executive committee of the National Farmers' Union in Norfolk has decreed that instead of a 25s. wage for 50 hours, or 6d. per hour, the wage shall be 24s. 9d. for 54 hours, or 5½. per hour. I asked a question recently about a strike in Bedfordshire and Cambridgeshire where the wage had been reduced from 24s. for 48 hours to 21s. 6d. for 51 hours. In Somerset the official wage is 30s., but as all farmers in Somerset know, 25s. is very generally paid. It is difficult to produce evidence, because of the reluctance of the labourers to give evidence for fear of losing their positions. I have heard of cases running down from 25s. to one case of 20s. per week. That case deserves consideration, because it was publicly mentioned at a meeting by the organiser of the Labourers' Union. He described bow a man had fallen behind the plough and how the farmer took him in a cart to the union hospital. There he was found to be suffering from nothing but starvation. He was put into the union hospital to be fed up in order that he might be able to go back to work. The organiser made inquiries and found that the man had a wife and four children whom he was supposed to keep on 20s. a week. The man himself could not afford to eat anything before going to work in the morning; his first meal was at midday when he had bread and cheese, and he had some bread and lard in the evening when he was finished. That was the total nourishment he got.

These facts seem to require investigation. It is a scandalous thing that any man should be called upon to work for 20s. per week with prices as they are at present. The Minister of Agriculture, in answer to another question of mine, said that the cost of living is now about 80 per cent. above that of 1914. A 30s. rate in Somerset represents about 50 per cent. advance. If 30s. represents a 50 per. cent. advance, men who are drawing only 25s. are only receiving 25 per cent. advance over the 1914 cost of living, while the actual advance in that cost is 80 per cent. That shows the standard of comfort on 25s. per week must have gone down materially as compared with the pre-War standard. These facts also seem to indicate a tendency towards a rapid fall in wages and an increase in the hours of labour. Both features are equally objectionable. The cause appears to be the failure of collective bargaining. It is known that there has been a serious fall in the numbers of the agricultural unions during the past year. In my own parish the branch has closed down entirely, and all round branches are weakening. The men have no strength in their union to stand up against the union of the farmers in the conciliation committees, and the labourers themselves are not strong enough to stand up against the individual farmers. It comes to this—that there is no question of bargaining at all, but of dictation by the employer who is in a stronger position than the employed. That dictation is fortified, in the first place, by the fear of unemployment on the part of the man. Land is rapidly going into grass. In my immediate neighbourhood there are scores of acres being put down to grass, and permanent hands are being dismissed. We have heard to-day that there are 131,000 casual labourers who are a pool from which labour can be drawn, so that the fear of the permanent man is a very real fear and has a very real basis to it. He has also the fear of losing his home. There is the system of tied cottages, and, if he be dismissed, he is liable to lose his cottage. If it were fair bargaining, there would be nothing to say, but this is bargaining with all the power on one side and all the weakness on the other.

It is difficult to suggest a remedy. We have certain promises, which doubtless will mature, to improve the position of the farmer generally and so enable him to pay a higher wage, but in my opinion it requires more than that; and, if the farmers would agree to it, the right way appears to me to be to make the decision of the Conciliation Committee registerable by law, so that it would prevail not only in the Farmers' Union, but among all the farmers in the counties to which it applied. That seems to me to be the smallest measure of satisfaction that can be given to agricultural labour in this matter. The question is one very near to my heart, and I am certain that hon. Members will feel that it is a matter to which we must pay attention.


During the week-end up in Scotland my attention has been called to the fact that the farmers are presently ploughing stocks of potatoes into the land for manure purposes, for the reason that the potato crop has been so successful that there is an over-supply— [An HON. MEMBER: "Dumping!"]—and they cannot command a price in the market that would pay even the cost of transport to the market. That seems a most extraordinary thing that, on the one hand, we have a complaint that the agricultural industry cannot pay the workers on the land a wage, and, on the other hand, a complaint that their work is so productive that a price cannot be obtained for the goods that are produced, and an agricultural labourer has to feed on bread and lard while good wholesome potatoes are being ploughed into the land as manure. That seems to me to be an extraordinary state of chaos in our national economy, and I want to ask the Minister of Agriculture if he has any information as to whether this oversupply of potatoes is general throughout the whole country, or whether it is limited to a particular locality, and whether this practice of destroying the surplus is being generally resorted to by farmers; further, whether the Ministry of Agriculture have given any consideration to devising some national scheme. Earlier in the evening a right hon. Gentleman referred to the work of Joseph. I think it was Joseph or Moses who, in somewhat similar circumstances, collected a huge supply of grain for equitable distribution amongst the community, and I would suggest that perhaps the Ministry of Agriculture, if potatoes are being destroyed at the present time, might consider the possibility of devising some scheme of collecting these surplus potatoes, allowing the farmers something to cover their cost of producing these potatoes, and getting the potatoes into the hands of the people who are at the present time starving.


I regret that I cannot support all that has been said by the two hon. Members who have preceded me, but I can support strongly the object which I believe both of them have in view, namely, the betterment of the condition of those who are working in the industry of agriculture. I cannot support the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Hope Simpson) when he said that the bulk of the farmers are not abiding loyally by the agreements which have been made and come so between the Farmers' Union and the Workers' Union.


I did not intend to convey that impression for a moment, The majority of farmers do not belong to the Farmers' Union, and are not bound by the agreements of the Farmers' Union.


I think the majority of farmers do. At any rate, if they do not, they ought to belong to the Farmers' Union, because I am a strong believer in union both for the worker and for the employer, and that is why I make that remark. But I do say that those who are members of the Farmers' Union, by a very large majority—in fact, the cases are very rare where it is not so—do abide most loyally by the decisions which have been come to by the Conciliation Committee. Unfortunately, the industry itself is in such a deplorable condition that the wage that is being paid by those farmers is certainly not an economic one. I could support the hon. Member when he appeals to the Minister, and mentions the great necessity there is for some speedy relief being given to the industry as a whole which would undoubtedly enable the farmers then to give a better wage, which they desire to do, to those people who are working for them. He has referred to the question of registration. What is the good, or the practical use, of registering a wage which an industry cannot pay? If some proposal can be brought forward to register an economic price for the article which the man and employer are producing, then we can talk about registration; but not until that time, because the effect of registration would only be that it would decrease the amount of labour employed upon the land—a disastrous thing for the country as a whole. I hope the Minister will give this matter his very serious consideration, and that the main point will be that he and those responsible with him will not consider what medicine is suitable for the patient so long until the patient has died.

The MINISTER of AGRICULTURE (Sir Robert Sanders)

I must apologise to the hon. Member for Central Bradford (Mr. Leach) who opened this discussion, as I only received notice of the matter this afternoon. It was not owing to his fault; but he gave notice to another Department, and it only came on to me this afternoon, so that I have not received long enough notice to be able to go thoroughly into this matter of the Order of 1914, to which he referred. That Order had a short trial. It was only in force for about six weeks, and then it dropped owing to the War. It gave to local authorities, as the hon. Member said, power to slaughter, but they had to pay compensation, of which the Board of Agriculture undertook to refund three-quarters. As the hon. Member has stated, the reason —the only reason, I believe—why that Order is not now in force is the financial reason. The Government were not prepared to find the sum that would be necessary in order that they might perform their portion of the payment necessitated by the Order, and we have no indication that the local authorities would be able to find the whole of that money upon their own account. The hon. Member dealt in some measure with the special circumstances in Bradford. I am sorry I am not acquainted with those special circumstances, but if there is anything special about them which the hon. Member can bring to my notice, I shall be very happy to look into them.

I come to the next question. First of all, with regard to what was said by the hon. Member for Bridgeton (Mr. Stephen) as to the over-supply of potatoes. The hon. Member wanted to know if over supply was general? It is general. I believe it is even greater in Lincolnshire than in Scotland. The hon. Member suggests that I should play the part of Joseph. It was Joseph and not Moses! I am afraid the potatoes, whether in Lincolnshire or Lanarkshire, are not so easy to store for long periods as was the corn in Egypt. That is a physical difficulty which prevents me, however much I should like to do it, from playing the part of Joseph in this instance.


Is it not a fact that the main cause of the surplus of potatoes is the very large number of foreign potatoes dumped into this country?


Is it not also because the charges of railways, which are under private control, are so excessive, and also because the railways give a preferential tariff to foreign importations?


Is not the real reason the fact that the people have no money to buy either foreign or home-grown potatoes?


However that may be, Dutch potatoes were sent over here at a very low rate. But the primary cause of the glut in potatoes is that undoubtedly we had such a very bountiful crop in England.


And you have the people starving with a glut. That is private enterprise!


Owing to the bountiful crop of potatoes in this country, the price came down very low and potatoes hardly paid the cost of carriage. In regard to the wage question—and I am glad my hon. Friend referred to it—let me say that the average wage, taking the country throughout at the present time—and I only want to state facts, and not to make any comment upon them—the average wage, so far as we can ascertain, is 27s. 9d. The increase on the pre-War wage is 54 per cent. The increase in the cost of living is 77 per cent., so it is, undoubtedly, the fact that the agricultural labourer's wage is lower in proportion than it was before the War. The present means that we have for regulating the wages are the conciliation committees that were established by the Agricultural Act of a little over a year ago. They number 63 in England and Wales. Up to last autumn they were working pretty well. Arrangements were come to by 46 of the 63 committees. Up to the present time only 16 of the committees have effected arrangements, and six of these are due to expire at the end of April. What is happening now in most cases is that, when the National Farmers' Union have laid down that rate of wages for a county, that rate laid down is generally paid. In most cases the men's representatives refuse to accept that rate or to bargain on that basis. I have reason to believe that one of their reasons is that, although that rate may be laid down by the National Farmers' Union, there are a certain number of farmers in the district who, in spite of it being laid down by the Union, will continue to pay a higher rate for a time; and there has been a fear on the part of the men's representatives that if they entered into an agreement on the basis of those wages paid by the farmers, some of them would be getting, not a higher, but a lower wage. No doubt that does happen in a certain number of cases, but such cases tend to get fewer as time goes on, and although a man may pay a higher rate for a hit, when he finds his neighbours paying a. lower rate he will come down to the same level. Cases occur in many counties where individuals pay a lower rate than the National Farmers' Union has laid down, and in the absence of a general agreement which might be effected, but is not being effected by the conciliation committees, such cases are likely to get more numerous. I believe that for the conciliation committees to come to an agreement in the majority of cases instead of as at present a very small minority would be in the interest both of employers and employed, and both of the farmers and the workmen. I am only too anxious to get the conciliation committees to function again. One difficulty one has to deal with is the want of elasticity in the powers of both sides. The Farmers' Union say what they think the wage should be. The Labourers' Union say what they think the wage should be and then representatives if they come in at all come into the Conciliation Committee not as plenipotentiaries but with their hands tied on both sides. When you have these cast-iron terms arranged beforehand agreement is very difficult if not absolutely impossible. I believe if we can get these conciliation committees to function it will be a good thing all round. That is what I am trying to do.

I am considering now addressing a communication to the members of these committees, suggesting the terms on which they might meet. I thank the hon. Member opposite for the suggestion he has made as to registering agreements. I will certainly consider that, but I am not sure how far it would tend to promote more agreements. I am not sure it might not tend to promote less agreement. I think it is quite possible that although one side might attach great importance to registering, the other side might be less willing to come to an agreement if it knew that that agreement were going to be registered. I will certainly take these considerations into account, and I hope what has been said to-night may be helpful in making things a little better in what is one of the very greatest and very saddest of the difficulties that agriculture has to deal with at the present moment.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-nine Minutes after Eleven of the Clock.