HC Deb 28 March 1923 vol 162 cc661-73

I would like to call the attention of the Government to the agricultural strike which has unhappily broken out in Norfolk, and I fear has also begun in other counties. We may be at the opening of a very momentous crisis, and a very great disaster, and anyone who speaks on this subject in this House must do so with the highest sense of responsibility for the possible effect of his words. It would be unfitting for this House to remain silent on the opening of such a big event as an agricultural strike of this magnitude, but the fact that the Government has taken action in regard to it brings it normally into the purview of this Debate. We have on these benches refrained from alluding to the subject so long as there was a chance of settlement, but that chance unfortunately disappeared with the notices that were issued on Monday morning, and our only aim must be, from whatever quarter of the House we speak, to contribute, if possible, something to an early settlement, and a settlement on just lines.

The Minister of Agriculture sent down to Norwich some ten days ago his well-known representative Captain Devlin, who proceeded to bring the parties together, and he did so in a perfectly impartial manner. My complaint is that it was too impartial. The Board of Agriculture, to put it plainly, in a dispute such as this, where right is so clearly in the demand for a standard wage, ought not to have been impartial, and the precedent which it seems to me was the right one to follow was the precedent arising from the well-known work of Lord Askwith, who on so many occasions, which are familiar to the public, went down to various localities and on behalf of the Government used his influence with one side or the other, not merely as the bringer together of the parties, but as giving sound advice which took effect, and, in my judgment, it would have been very appropriate if the representative of the Ministry of Agriculture had been given instructions to act somewhat on those lines.

The agricultural labourers in the low-paid counties set the standard of wages virtually for the whole country, and the danger now is that of a formidable attack on this lowest class of wage-earners. When the Government of this country accepted the principle of the Trade Boards Act it adopted what Mr. Churchill called "the idea of the national minimum," and by the Trade Boards Act it was laid down that it is not in accord with the principles of government in this country that any trade shall be sweated. When you have a trade which, by the admission of the Minister of Agriculture himself, is worse paid than before the War, and was called before the War, for instance, by the right hon. Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George), a sweated trade, then to look on at the destruction of a decent standard of life is to abandon the tradition set by the Trade Boards Act. The Government did bring the parties together, but they did not advise against the latest of several cuts which were proposed by the Farmers' Union. It seems to mo and my friends that they ought to have taken up an attitude in favour of a decent standard, because unquestionably agriculture in these counties is a sweated trade.

I have mentioned that the Minister-lately admitted that the wage in several counties was lower than the pre-Wale wage. It has been talked about as a 25s. wage, but in fact the farm labourer-in Norfolk has not been earning 25s., but 24s. The price of goods which the, labourers buy in the villages is much higher than the index figure shows. Therefore the comparison with pre-War wage is really much less favourable than has often been suggested in this House. An illustration of the extraordinary straits to which the labourers are driven is to hand in the action of the boards of-guardians. One or two hoards in my. constituency have given relief to Families, and not exceptionally large families, on the ground that the children were manifestly suffering in a high degree. They -decided to give 5s. or 4s. value in kind. The Minister of Health has told them to stop, but the fact that, in spite of that, they have risked the danger of surcharge and continued to grant this relief, is proof that you have here cases in which some such intervention, as Sir George Askwith frequently used to represent, should have been employed by the Minister of Agriculture.

Compared with the wages lately proposed by the Farmers' Union of 5½d. an hour, you have roadmen in many counties earning 10½., and in many counties where there is even less good land you have 6½d. per hour paid to farm labourers. You have here an attempt to bring down the wages to something far below the recognised standard of living. We remember the fight for the dockers' tanner 34 years ago. You have in Norfolk now an attempt to get the wage below the tanner. I think I have said enough to show that there was good ground, at all events, for something very different from impartiality on the part of the Minister of Agriculture in sending down his representative. To reinforce the need of partial and not impartial intervention, may I quote from a letter of a labourer known to me. He says: We have six children whose ages are from 13 years to 13 months. We pay in rent 3s. Pd. We have 5s. 8d., out of which I have to pay for tea, sugar, margarine, oil, soap, and various other small articles for daily use. Our daily food is bread, margarine, and potatoes. We have not been able to purchase a piece of meat for months. Our baby is allowed milk daily by the guardians on the doctor's certificate. The rest of us cannot have milk for any purpose whatever. To bring home the need for Governmental partiality, may I quote a member of the board of guardians in this particular district, a member very well known in this House, Mr. George Edwards. Speaking to his own board of guardians the other day, he explained that the guardians must run the risk of being surcharged and of having to pay the surcharge themselves, and he added: "One poor fellow brought me his wife's budget, in applying to the guardians. There was not a penny for meat all through the week, and the only things outside food were a tin of black lead and some matches. That man's wife had not a penny for meat, coal or rent, and the children wanted shoes." That is the state of things which the Board of Agriculture and the Minister of Labour have to face.

It is a case for doing something, and not merely for looking on with folded hands. We are faced with the dire position of the farmers in very large areas, and we are practical people. We have to ask, would arable farming be given up if wages were in any degree higher than this terribly low level? The argument is that the wages must be reduced below 6d. an hour. On the question of Government action, I want to suggest that this is a ease for utilizing the Industrial Courts Act machinery. That Act gives power, if both parties consent, to refer the matter to an Industrial Court for settlement. Did the Minister of Agriculture try to obtain the consent of the parties to such arbitration?

There is another part of the Act which provides for what, I think, is still more wanted in this case, and that is inquiry. In Part II of the Act it is laid down that the Minister may inquire into the causes and circumstances of the dispute. That would surely cover the question of the ability of the farmers to pay a rather higher wage. That is the point which we have to consider. Will ploughing stop? Will rotation farming stop over any considerable area, if a living wage were paid on those farms? We all sympathise with the very great difficulties of the farmer in these days, but I think it would be a great reinforcement to the farmers themselves and to their case if the evidence with regard to their inability were much more final and conclusive than it is. The evidence is very incomplete. As the evidence is so incomplete, inquiry is what we want before we allow such a formidable attack to be made on the standard of living. When there is evidence of a rather contrary kind in some respects, it reinforces the need for inquiry under the Industrial Courts Act. Everyone knows that when farms are vacant, although we are told that they cannot support even the starvation wage which is paid now, farmers almost tumble over each other to take them.

I know of one property in my constituency where the landlord himself approached the farmers and said, "I do not want you to pay a low and disgraceful wage. That means that your rent will be somewhat lower." He reduced the rent by a not very large percentage, and the farmers all agreed that the situation was adequately relieved. I know another very large property where the farmers, hearing of the other case, went to the agent. The agent said," You can take the farms or leave them, but I am not going to reduce the rent, because I can let the farms with the greatest of ease, and not to run to grass, but as rotation farms." He said further, "I will not require of you a year's notice, but will take six months, if you like. I can let the farms to-morrow." Either way it shows that in average and typical arable country, at least in Norfolk, there is not land which, if the wage were slightly higher, would go derelict because farmers world cease to plough. There are quite a number of properties on which the farmers, more or less instigated by their landlords, as I think they ought to be, are paying a higher wage, even 30s. I do not know that it is proper to speak of the Royal properties at this moment, but there are many other properties in Norfolk on which no less than 30s. a week is being paid to the labourers, and there is no talk of the farmers finding it impossible to go on.

The main trouble arises from the fact that so many farmers bought their land, and have been very unfortunate in their speculations. That is true, and one has the greatest sympathy for them. Indeed, they are not to blame. The late Government is to blame, and unfortunately cannot be made to discharge its obligation to them. But that is not a legitimate ground for fining the labourer. There may have been very bad speculations made, but we are now dealing with the question of whether farmers would carry on if the wage were somewhat higher. The farmers are not at all unanimous that it is necessary to cut the limit of endurance lower. I see to-day in the "Eastern Daily Press" a letter from a farmer, who very wisely refrains from giving his name, in which he argues that the Farmers' Union has made a huge mistake. He says, is it worth raising all this bother about Is. a week, which is not a big enough matter to get attention from the public and the Government, nor is it important enough to make a difference between paying or not paying.

It is a very satisfactory fact, again, that when farmers' estates conic to light through the probate of their wills, it is to be noticed that they are very large estates, the owners of which have done extremely well in recent times, and whose heirs are carrying on, many of them not proposing any reduction in the wage. We all know that farmers, most happily, have arrived at a much higher style of living in recent times, and it is only natural that the labourers should point to the fact that that style of living is not showing any marked diminution in this bankrupt period. Before the War, when this question was debated in the low-paid counties, and the wage was gradually got up from 12s. to 13s., and afterwards to 15s., we always heard that land would be driven out of cultivation because of the extra 1s. a week. Altogether, I believe that, if the Minister of Agriculture would use the procedure of an Inquiry, it would greatly fortify the just case of those farmers who cannot carry on at present charges, and it would show whether there ought not to be an intervention in favour of a decent wage. If the land would really go out of cultivation, then the Government ought to act, and why not adopt reforms, and announce reforms, which would give the farmers confidence enough to go on? I should be out of order, however, in going into legislative reform. In the mere sphere of action there are other methods which might be adopted. The Trade Boards Act might be applied to an industry, which properly belongs to its scope if any industry does. I have given two feasible methods, I think, and I trust that, in order to avoid a prolonged strike, the Minister may decide to utilise one or other of those methods. To watch with folded hands while agriculture languishes seems to me the opposite to patriotism, and to be sanctioning a campaign, which is really a campaign against the wage of all workers, because all workers in towns are dragged down, to some extent, by the low wages of the low-paid counties. It is to the interest of all that a standard should be kept up in the most conspicuously underpaid class of labour, and to stand by and allow, by inference, and more or less to encourage, a campaign to cut wages in that way seems to me almost to betray the civilisation of this country.

10.0 P.M.


I want to associate myself with my hon. Friend in his expression of the view that this House ought not to adjourn for the Easter Recess without an expression of opinion with regard to the points involved in the dispute now taking place in Norfolk. I want also to associate myself with him in his appeal to the Minister of Agriculture to utilise every means at his disposal to put into operation such powers as he has, not only to deal with the dispute which is now taking place in Norfolk, but also with regard to arresting the general rapid fall of the labourer's wage in all parts of the country. I want to enlarge a little on the criticism which my hon. Friend made with regard to the existing machinery which is supposed to be in operation, through the Ministry of Agriculture, to protect the agricultural labourers in the matter of wages. I want, first of all, to recall to the House what are the facts of the case. Hon. Members will recollect that, owing to the conditions which prevailed after the outbreak of war, the agricultural labourer was able, through those special conditions, and after generations of servitude and grinding poverty, to be lifted from an average of 15s. a week, paid in pre-War days, to 45s. paid in 1919 and 1920. The House will remember that that came about in connection with the Wages Boards set up under the Corn Production Act. In 1921 the Corn Production Act was repealed, and with the repeal of the Corn Production Act the Wages Boards were also repealed; but, in place of the Wages Boards, the Government set up what are now known as Conciliation Committees. These Conciliation Committees are supposed to have taken the place of the Wages Boards. Now what are the facts of the case They are these. Some 63 Committees were created after the repeal of the Corn Production Act. As a matter of fact, these Committees corresponded almost entirely with the District, Wages Boards which prevailed under the Corn Production Act. These Conciliation Committees are empowered to enter into voluntary agree- ments; that is to say, if the farmers, on the one hand, and the labourers, on the other, can agree to a rate of wages for that district, they are empowered, under the conciliation machinery, to enter into such agreement.

As a matter of fact, there is nothing in the Conciliation Act which makes these agreements compulsory. It is quite true that agreements may be registered providing both parties are agreeable. If the agreement is registered, then it is obligatory on every employer in the district where the Committee has jurisdiction, but, to show the weakness of the machinery, I may mention that 152 agreements have been made since 1921, but only 11 have been registered. As a matter of fact, at the present time, although 152 separate agreements have been entered into, only 16 are in operation. Perhaps you may think it strange that there are 152 agreements in 63 separate districts, but, the explanation is quite simple. The weakness and incompleteness of the machinery is emphasised by the fact that many of these agreements are only put into existence for two and three months, some for as many as six months. Taking the counties of Bedfordshire and Lincolnshire, the agreement is dated 1st May, 1921, and runs till 6th October of the same year. In the case of Berkshire an agreement entered into on the 26th of July terminates on the 3rd September the same year. It is a farce. The whole machinery is perfectly useless. The consequence is that wages are falling and confidence is being destroyed in every part of the country. I want to associate myself with what my hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Mr. N. Buxton) has said in appealing to the Minister for Agriculture to utilise other powers and either to make these conciliation committees compulsory in their decisions, registering their decisions by law, and making them binding upon every employer in the area, or if he cannot do that, let him ultilise the Trade Boards. I recall that an hon. Member, who is not in his place to-night, a week or two ago, speaking on the question of agriculture, asked how was it possible to pay better wages in an industry which could not afford better wages. My hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk has referred to the common experience with regard to the comparatively well-to-do-farmer and the ease with which farms which became vacant were disposed of and let. I want to remind the Minister for Agriculture that if the farmer cannot afford it and is at rock bottom at the present time, there is at least a margin in the rent which goes to the landlord. The average rent of agricultural land is anywhere between 20s. and 30s. per acre. I think it would be quite within the mark to say that 30s. is the average for arable land in the County of Norfolk. I invite the Minister for Agriculture to go and inquire, and he will find this to be the fact, that for every man employed on these farms, £1 a week per man goes to the landlord who owns the land. We on these benches say there is no sort of justice in the landowner receiving this rent when men, women, and children are asked to live on starvation wages. I hope the Minister will receive what we have said with sympathy, and adopt some means of arresting the decay which is now taking place.

The MINISTER of AGRICULTURE (Sir Robert Sanders)

I speak under the sense of considerable embarrassment. I have been in the House a good many years, and I have never yet been called to order from the Chair, and I do not want to break my record. If I dealt with a good deal of the matter I might deal with on this, which is really a very large subject, I am afraid I should be entirely out of order. With regard to the matters dealt with, they could all involve legislation. I cannot put down rent.


May I ask the right hon. Gentleman if the application of Trade Boards Act to agriculture would involve legislation?


But the hon. Member was speaking of rents, and that is what I am referring to. To do anything like that would involve legislation, and therefore I cannot deal with any question such as that. All I can deal with is the administration of my Department with regard to this dispute. A point which was made in the Debate was that the representative of my Department, who went down in connection with this dispute, was too impartial. Really, I think that for a man who goes down in connection with a trade dispute that is the highest flattery he could possibly receive. He cer- tainly tried to use his influence with both sides. This is spoken of as a dispute about wages. As far as I can see, it is mainly a dispute about hours. The representative of my Department who went down there tried to use his influence with both sides to endeavour to get them to accommodate one another. On the farmers' side he did get them to make various proposals. They altered their original proposals from time to time, and they did make proposals to try to reach a settlement. On the other side there never was any alteration in the proposal at all. It may have been right, it may have been wrong, but the concessions offered were entirely on one side. There was every hope that the two sides were coming to an agreement. There is a remarkable letter in the "Times" to-day from the Bishop of Norwich, stating what happened last Saturday. The distressing feature about what happened last Saturday was this, that as the conference was drawing to a close the suggestion was made on the part of the labourers' representatives, that no alteration should be made for the next three months, and before the two sides parted all agreed that there should be a truce pending the farmers' meeting on Monday, when the farmers were going to consider this proposal. The next thing that happened was that on the same night Mr. Walker was reported to have made a speech at a remote little town in North Norfolk, in which he said: On Monday there is not a man or boy back to the farms until a fair settlement is reached. That may be right or wrong, but it is not a truce, and with the two sides already agreed that there should be a truce, it seems hardly a square deal to go straight away and make an announcement of that sort. Various suggestions have been made as to what my Department can do. An hon. Member said that it might have offered some sort of arbitration. It has done so. An offer of arbitration was made on Monday. I telegraphed to both sides to suggest that they should agree to the appointment of an impartial arbitrator. This offer came to the farmers who were meeting at the time, and had just received the statement that the men were already called out, and they declined the offer.


Was that truce between I the Agricultural Labourers' Union on the one side and the representatives of the farmers on the other, or was it between a section of the men and representatives of the farmers?


It was between the two parties who were conferring in the Bishop's Palace.


Not the Agricultural Labourers' Union?


Yes, it was. Mr. Edwards was there. I have offered arbitration and it has been declined—[HON. MEMBERS: "By the farmers! "]— by the farmers, and I have had no reply from the labourers. The only other suggestion put forward was that under the Industrial Disputes Act I should advise the Minister of Labour to institute an inquiry. How long would such an inquiry take? The inquiry suggested by the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Mr. Noel Buxton) is to go into the whole subject of whether the individual farmers in Norfolk can or can not afford to pay a certain rate of wages. I do not know exactly what powers the Minister of Labour has to order the production of bank books, Income Tax returns, and the hundred and one different documents necessary to arrive at a conclusion on that question, but assuming he has All these powers, how long is it going to take? [An HON. MEMBER: "Twenty years! "] I am rather more sanguine. I think possibly it might be accomplished in six or nine months if the gentleman appointed to hold the inquiry worked very hard, but I hope this matter will be settled a very long time before that. The advices which come to me show that after all they are only fighting about a question of two hours a week and that question should be capable of solution in less than six or nine months. To talk of instituting a great big inquiry of this sort, to settle a point of whether the working week should be two hours more or two hours less, really seems to me to be playing with the question. If anything that I can institute, or any step that I can take, is likely to be of use—any step for which I have legal powers—I shall certainly take it. I am advised that at the present moment there is nothing that I can usefully do. I shall most certainly watch the state of things as carefully as I can, and if there is any moment at which the intervention of my Department is likely to be useful, I shall certainly seize that moment and try to do what I can to bring about a settlement of the dispute.


Is it not a fact that the increased hours will have the effect of reducing wages below 6d. an hour, and is not that where the wages question does come in?


May I draw the attention of the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Agriculture to the difference that exists between the county of Norfolk and the county of Durham'? With that in view, I am wondering whether Mr. Walker could have done any other thing than he did on Monday last. If we take Durham and compare it with Norfolk, we find that in the former county we are paying labourers 32s. 6d. a week for a 52-hours week. Is there not there foundation enough for my right hon. Friend to have an inquiry, that would last one or two days, as to why the conditions obtaining in Durham cannot obtain in Norfolk? Let it be remembered that the rent for farms in Durham is rather higher than the rent for farms in Norfolk, and if that comparison were inquired into, and the conditions obtaining in the two counties, surely it could be done in quite a short time, so as to get these people back to work for the benefit of the country. What will happen if something is not done? The ratepayers of a very poor county will have to bear a very heavy additional burden, and I think that ought to be taken into account, but the question of food is even more important. All these children are going without proper food, as has been pointed out by one of the hon. Members for Norfolk, and surely something more than sending a mere telegram ought to be done by the Minister of Agriculture in this very serious matter. Let him go himself, or send somebody else. I have had long experience in disputes. I know that letters do not settle disputes, and let me remind the right hon. Gentleman that telegrams are even worse.


I have had a man down there the whole time.


If the right hon. Gentleman will get into personal touch with these people and inquire why Norfolk pays such low wages as compared with the wages paid in the North of England, where there are terrible conditions for agriculture and the rents of farms are higher, I think he will do well. The matter is one which is crying out for his active interference, in my opinion.