HC Deb 02 May 1923 vol 163 cc1385-91

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to establish wages boards in the agricultural industry for the fixing of minimum rates of wages; and for other purposes in connection therewith. This Bill is in all essentials the same proposal as that with which the House and the country are familiar from experience in connection with the Corn Production Act. There are only two points on which the present proposal of the Labour party differs. The first is that we divide the authority into separate authorities for England and Wales; and the second is that we name no minimum money figure in the Bill. In the recent Agriculture Debate there was talk about an objection to a flat rate, but, as we are not proposing a flat rate, I hope hon. Members opposite will feel that their objection has been removed.

There is, as everyone knows, an overwhelming case for the regulation of wages in agriculture. It is impossible in 10 minutes to enumerate the arguments, but, fortunately, the House, during the last six weeks, has had certain opportunities for debating the pros and cons of agricultural wage regulations.

Everyone said during the War that the Wages Board in agriculture worked very well. They not only said it was a good thing in order to get work done, but they also said that it was a just thing. If a sense of justice was aroused in the public conscience in those days, surely we are not going to admit that that sense of justice is dead.

There is one exception, perhaps, to the general principle of the method of board regulation of agricultural wages. The hon. Member for the Wells Division of Somerset (Mr. Bruford) said the other day that the men on his farm would do better, and would get better pay, without a board. I may, perhaps, then, call this Bill a Bill for levelling up the neighbours of the hon. Member for the Wells Division of Somerset to his wage level; and, more than that, for protecting him against the resentment that his farming neighbours undoubtedly feel against him for paying higher wages than they do.

There are two objections which have been raised against the proposal. The main one, of course, is that, in these days of depression of prices, farmers cannot pay a better wage. In regard to that, I shield myself behind the authority of that unrivalled agricultural expert, Sir Henry Rew, who, in an article in this month's "Contemporary Review," says that that case is not proved. I would also advance that it is for the men to decide whether they like to take the risk of a certain small fraction of arable land going out of cultivation. After all, they are entitled to say that, even if, possibly, 5 per cent. of the farms in certain parts may be driven to grass, that is no reason for levelling down the standard of living on the remaining 95 per cent. Of course, however, the board is a responsible body. It would take count of the possibilities in regard to the payment of wages. In the counties with which I am familiar, the board worked very well during the War, and its decisions were generally arrived at by the influence of the nominated members representing the Ministry of Agriculture. We are not to suppose that the Ministry of Agriculture will act in a wild-cat manner and encourage wages which could not possibly be paid; so that this proposal only secures that, when prosperity returns—and there are signs of returning prosperity in agriculture—Labour will get its share. Everyone admits that, in the boom, Labour did not get a share equivalent to that which the farmers obtained.

We are told that the farmers are ready to accept the Board, but that it is conditional upon assistance being given to them in other ways. May I just remind the House that the Prime Minister, not long ago, advocated Wage Boards for agriculture without any talk of a countervailing boon to be given to the farmer? The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Birmingham promised the men that the country would never again neglect their interests; and we all know that the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George) for many years has taken that line. I remember, too, that, when I was in the House 10 years ago, a Bill was introduced from the other side of the House to establish the system of Wage Boards. That was years before the War. Finally, there are the proposals of the Tribunal set up by this Government, which also are in favour of Wages Boards.

If they are to be conditional, have not the conditions been fulfilled? Have not the farmers got their quid pro quo? They are to take £2,750,000 in relief of rates; they are to have £1,300,000 from the Road Board; they are to have 10s. a quarter on malting barley; they are promised credit facilities; prices are going up; and, on the top of all that, the rates, we are told, during the last year, have fallen by 1s. 6d. in the pound, on an average, in the rural areas.

The Tribunal said that there ought to be boons on both sides. Perhaps three-quarters of the cake was to go to the farmers. But is the Government to say, like a shrewish stepmother, that the whole cake is to go to the farmer and none of the cake to the labourer? Surely, that is rather an un-British idea, and I trust that it is rejected by the party opposite especially, which claims a very large share of the patriotism of this country.

There are two reasons why the Board is more urgently needed than it was before. Experience of its working shows that it has improved the relations of farmers and men. Certainly, in Norfolk, it did a great deal by bringing them together and forcing them to work together. If the Act had not been repealed, Sir Henry Rew again says, we should not have had the Norfolk strike. Good employers welcomed it. The settlement at 25s. proves the need of it. If there is any meaning in the word "starvation," it is injurious underfeeding. There is injurious underfeeding as the result of the absence of the Board to-day. I was talking to an old labourer, a pensioner, last Sunday. The old men, although they do not usually pity the younger men, say that the younger men are doing worse than they did even in the bad old days. A schoolmistress in Norfolk was telling me that the average increase in weight of the children in her school during the period of last year has been only 20 per cent. of the increase in weight during the previous twelve months. That is a very serious thing indeed. We are asking the labourer's wife, an unknown heroine, to bring up a generation of men on an impossible means for doing it. The effect of refusing, as I trust the Government will not refuse, to re-establish the system, will be the underfeeding of the children, and the putting of an impossible task upon the rural population.

I think I may fairly appeal for general support for this Measure. The idea of regulating to prevent the occurrence of areas with wages below the subsistence level has been established now for 14 years in this country. I am only, by this Bill, asking the House virtually to agree to an amendment of the Trade Boards Act, which, as we are told, does not definitely include the industry of agriculture. The principle is the same. The Minister of Labour told us a few days ago that no less than 2,500,000 workers are now covered by the provisions of the Trade Boards Act. Agriculture is only regarded in a different light because there is a certain tradition, which has come down, I suppose, from the days when the labourer was a serf; and we remember that 40 years ago it was thought an incredible thing that he should even have a political vote. We are recovering a great deal from those illusions, and, surely, after the service the labourer gave to the country in the War, those illusions ought to be abandoned. This ought not to be a contentious proposal. It is a basic claim that the labourer who feeds us shall not see his children go hungry for want of what the labourer himself produces. I only ask that, when prosperity returns, he should get his fair share. We ought all to agree that if the proposal was good in war-time, it is all the more necessary now. I beg to move.

Question, "That leave be given to bring in a Bill to establish Wages Boards in the agricultural industry for the fixing of minimum rates of wages; and for other purposes in connection therewith," put, and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Noel Buxton, Mr. Duncan, Mr. Ede, Mr. Richards, Mr. Riley, Mr. Royce, Mr. T. Smith, Mr. T. Williams, Mr. David Grenfell, Mr. MacLaren, Mr. Frederick Roberts, and Mr. Robert Richardson.

  2. c1389
  3. BILLS REPORTED. 25 words
  4. c1390
  6. cc1390-1
  7. STANDING ORDERS. 254 words