HC Deb 12 February 1930 vol 235 cc421-3

I beg to move, That leave he given to bring in a Bill to amend the law as concerning agricultural workers engaged on long-term hirings. This Bill affects those in the agricultural industry, particularly in the north of England, who engage themselves for long-term hirings. It is true that in Scotland farm workers are engaged in the same way, but in that country the National Wages Board does not act, and therefore this Bill does not apply there. The custom in the north of England is that a man hires himself for a period of months for, not a weekly wage, but for a lump sum at the end of the period, and he receives board and lodging. So far, that system has worked admirably, but a case which came to the courts the other day gives a loophole for possible abuse, and might do harm to these farm workers. A man engaged himself for 11 months two years ago, and then he had a row with his employer and left his employment without notice. His employer had paid him for seven months' work a total of £9 10s. That represented petty cash payments, and it left £20 8s. 3d. due to him. One would naturally think that this man, having worked for that period, had earned the money. The case was taken to court, and the justices turned it down. The Ministry took it up last July, and it was turned down by the Court of Appeal.

The ground on which the appeal was made by the officers of the Ministry of Agriculture was that, under Section 7 (1) of the Agricultural Wages (Regulation) Act, the man was entitled to a weekly rate of wages for each week in which he had worked, and that the effect of this judgment was that if a man, instead of leaving his employers, had died, his legal representatives would have no legal claim whatever, even though the man had worked for It months out of the 12 months contract, and had died at the end of the 11 months. That was a very poor position in which to put a workman. I have the particulars here as reported in the "Central Landowners' Journal." The Appeal Court found that the Wages Act only lays down that the rate of wages per week shall be a certain amount, and not less than that, but that it does not lay down that the wages are to be paid weekly; secondly, that the Common Law lays down that an agreement between a man and his employer to work for a period of months was a contract, and the contract was only completed at the end of that period of months; therefore, that nothing was due by the employer until the six months or 12 months was completed.

This leaves a very big gap, which should be closed at the first possible opportunity. I feel that we cannot, in the interests of agricultural workers in the north of England, leave their widows to be exposed to this risk. I daresay that no decent farmer would do it, but suppose that a farmer went bankrupt, he might not be allowed to pay the money to the widow in those circumstances. I put a question to the Minister of Agriculture the other day, and I understand from the written reply that the Minister hopes that this will not prove injurious to agricultural labourers, but that, if it does, he is prepared to introduce legislation. We who are backing this Bill think that action should be taken now. There is a loophole, and we want it closed at once. For that reason, those of my hon. Friends and myself who are backing this Bill ask the House for leave to bring in this Measure.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill ordered to he brought in by Colonel Clifton Brown, Captain Todd, Captain Dugdale, Major Carver, Sir Douglas Newton, and Brigadier-General Clifton Brown.