HC Deb 05 February 1931 vol 247 cc2234-41
Captain BOURNE

I beg to move, in page 14, line 26, after the word "provide," to insert the words "at such rents as may seem to him reasonable." This is the first of a series of Clauses put into this Bill with a view to providing allotments for those who are out of employment. Those who served on the Committee will remember that these Clauses were taken rather quickly because the Minister of Agriculture desired to get a Supplementary Estimate through before the House rose for the Christmas Recess, and, in consequence, several of these Clauses were taken out of their proper place in the Bill. We in Committee sympathised with the desire of the Minister to get these Clauses through in order to obtain his Supplementary Estimate, and there are certain points in them to which we did not give, perhaps, quite that consideration in Committee which we otherwise should have done. No one on this side of the House has any anxiety or reason to object to the provision of allotments for those who are out of work. Many people, of whom I am one, have done their best to try to improve the allotment movement. We have been interested. We fully realise how much better it is for men to be interested in the land and to work on the land than it is to be unemployed and loafing about doing nothing.

I confess that when the Minister first introduced these Clauses, I was under the impression that the scheme was to provide allotments for the unemployed rent free for a period, and it seemed to me that that might create a considerable amount of difficulty locally. Since I have been rather more carefully into the scheme I am led to the conclusion that it is the intention of the Minister to charge a rent for these allotments, and that he required his special financial powers not with regard to the rent to be paid for these allotments but for the acquisition of the land. I have no desire by this Amendment to put any obligation on the Minister to charge any rent over and above that normally paid. I quite realise that in the vicinity of many of our great cities it is difficult either for the Minister or the local authority to acquire land suitable for allotments at a price which bears any real relation to what the men can pay for their allotments. As I understand this Clause—the right hon. Gentleman will correct me if I am wrong—the machinery is intended to enable the Minister to make up the deficiency between what might reasonably be expected from the allotment holder and the necessary cost of acquiring the land on which these allotments will be made.

I have put down this Amendment for the purpose of ascertaining exactly the scheme of the right hon. Gentleman rather than with any desire to tie his hands. I realise that what may be reasonable allotments in one town may not be reasonable allotments in another; you must take into consideration the circumstances in each locality. But if the Minister is going to charge rent—and this is the point—I think he must obviously charge a reasonable rent. I should like to put this further point. The understanding was that a man could have an allotment under this scheme and not lose it merely because he ceases to be unemployed. The thing which has always struck me in relation to this scheme is that in the same city, perhaps in the same allotment society, or at any rate in an adjacent allotment society, you will have people coming in under this scheme to some extent privileged, though less privileged than is generally imagined, and against them, next door, you will have a man who has joined an allotment society and has provided his own seeds, and who pays rent at the rate fixed by the society. I believe that you may get a considerable amount of friction if you have these two systems working alongside each other. If, on the contrary, the Minister charged a reasonable rent, a great deal of the friction would be removed. I move the Amendment largely in order to elucidate the intentions of the Minister.


I am indebted to the hon. and gallant Member for bringing up this point, because it does enable me to make a statement. The power to make advances to help local authorities, was provided in order to assist in the acquisition of land; and with regard to the provision of seeds and fertilisers in order to facilitate such provision, and frankly to recognise that they would have to be provided on special terms. With regard to rent, however, the conduct of these allotments is governed by the law relating to allotments. Under the Allotments Act of 1922 it is provided that land let for allotments shall be let at the full fair rent for such use. Those are the words, and they are words which have become habituated by use. The hon. and gallant Member will see that it would be unsafe to do away with those words and to substitute others. There will be no distinction as between the different holders on any particular site in respect of rent.

Captain BOURNE

In view of that statement, I do not wish to press the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Captain BOURNE

I beg to move, in page 15, line 5, to leave out Sub-section (2).

This Sub-section raises a question on which we had considerable discussion in Committee. The Sub-section provides that the powers conferred on the Minister by the foregoing Sub-section shall include power to provide allotment gardens for persons who are not in full-time employment, as well as for those who are wholly unemployed. To my mind the difficulty under this Clause is that there is no definition of the meaning of the word "unemployed." My object in leaving out the Sub-section is to deal with the case of the systematic short-time man. I can quote an experience from my own constituency. There, there are many people who work in the motor car industry and are on systematic short time. But if you take their wages, together with the unemployment benefit to which they are entitled, they are considerably better paid than a large number of people who are on whole-time employment. Here is one of the things which I fear in the working of this system. If you have men working alongside each other on allotments, one of whom, because he is on systematic short time, is entitled to the benefits that the Government propose, and the other earning lower wages but in regular employment, having to go through the ordinary procedure and having to supply himself with everything, it is going to lead to friction and ill feeling. I am anxious to avoid any friction of that sort in the allotment societies.

If this Sub-section were omitted it would be open to the Minister to decide what people on short-time work or partially unemployed really fell within the ambit of his scheme. I have not the slightest desire to deprive of the benefit of the scheme those people who get only very occasional work and are very ill paid. If this Sub-section remains in the Clause it will be giving a statutory claim to people who are on systematic short time and are in receipt of very much better pay than their neighbours. If I am right in that assumption, I cannot see how the Clause can be made to work smoothly. Allotment work is very largely a matter for local societies, and if the local societies are to function efficiently it is absolutely necessary to have the feeling that one man is not treated better than another. I would like to see the Minister's hands left free rather than tied by this Sub-section.


I beg to second the Amendment.

I do not propose to add anything to what my hon. and gallant Friend has said so feelingly about the effect of a power of this sort upon the allotment associations, but I do desire to add a word or two about the way in which this Sub-section has been drafted. There is no definition at all of people who are not in full-time employment. Perhaps the House will permit me to give an illustration of the sort of thing that has come within my own professional experience in the last few months. It was the case of certain people employed in one of the workshops of a big railway company. They had been in what was described as part-time employment for a number of months. The position was that the actual employment was for five full days a week, whereas full-time employment was five and a-half days a week. As I read this Clause such a man, working at good wages for five days a week, would be entitled to come to the Minister under this Sub-section and ask that the powers of the Clause might be exercised in his favour. That is really not what the Minister intended. I ask him to consider whether he is not better off without the Sub-section, or whether, if the Sub-section is to continue, there should not be some definition which will enable the class of case to which I have referred not to be covered by the powers of the Clause.


I confess that I waited with interest to hear the reasons and arguments which induced the hon. and gallant Gentleman to move this Amendment, because it seems to us highly desirable that the particular class of people whom the hon. and gallant Gentleman and his friends appear to wish to keep out of the terms of this Measure, should be brought into it. On social grounds, it appears to us desirable that people who are on short time should be given every possible facility for using their spare time wisely and to some advantage, rather than that a barrier should be placed in the way of the Minister considering the claims of short-time or spare-time workers in connection with these allotments. When it is remembered that these spare-time or short-time workers will pay the full rent for such allotments as they receive, there would not appear to be any public disadvantage whatever in leaving the Minister the widest possible power of selection. The very definition of which the hon. and gallant Member spoke is precisely the sort of thing which would land the Minister into very serious trouble if he were to accept it. Who is to define when a man is a spare-time worker and when he is fully employed? There are all sorts of occupations in which any attempt to define whether or not a man is on full-time employment would land the Minister into difficulties. I am sure that the hon. and gallant Gentleman and his friends do not desire to crab or hamper the Minister in securing the widest possible area of choice for the beneficiaries under this Clause, and I trust that they will see their way not to press the Amendment.


I think that the hon. Gentleman has misunderstood the point of the Amendment. My hon. and gallant Friend, as I understand, does not wish to exclude part-time workers in country districts, or part-time workers in certain other cases but there is the definite fact, which has to be remembered in dealing with these matters that we are largely subsidising this form of allotments. I am aware that there are many ways in which the State is wasting money, to a very much larger extent than in this way, and I am entirely in favour of allotments, but I think that where a man is earning comparatively good wages we ought to have the most careful regulation of this matter in the interests of the taxpayer. The Under-Secretary said quite rightly that we do not want to hamper the administration of these allotments by too many rules and regulations. For instance if a man who is out of work gets an allotment and then obtains employment, obviously you are not going to put him out of the allotment. In the administration of these matters, however, the House of Commons has a right to insist that if a man can afford to pay the full rent, in the first instance, then the full rent should be paid. The 10.0 p.m. Under-Secretary has said that the full rent will be paid, but there is the further provision as to the supply of seeds and other materials and I think that where a man is employed for a considerable part of his time, and is doing comparatively well, as may be the case near some of these large works which have been mentioned, he ought to make his full contribution for what he is getting. That, however, is a different point from the point raised by the Mover. There is also the question of the agricultural labourer and the casual labourer in the country district and, there, I think, we ought to give as much help as we can. The Minister ought to be able to give some assurance, however, that there will be no abuse in these matters. I do not mean that there is likely to be any abuse but there ought to be some safeguard for the taxpayer.


I quite appreciate the difficulty which my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Oxford (Captain Bourne) has pointed out in regard to this Sub-section, but at the same time I hope that the Minister will not delete it. I should be sorry to do anything in this House which was going to discourage the taking of allotments by these workers, whether they are in employment or not, provided that they have the time to cultivate the allotments properly. If you give an unemployed man an allotment of which he makes use for some considerable time as an unemployed man, you are not going to take it from him simply because he gets employment—always provided that he continues to cultivate it properly. That man may be in a better position than the man on part-time. For those reasons I think it better to err on the side of giving greater facilities than to run any risk of unduly limiting the powers conferred in connection with this matter.


We do not desire to be obstructive in any way in connection with this Amendment but it appears to many of us that the smooth working of this proposal turns on the way in which the regulations referred to in Clause 16 are framed. We understand that those persons who are to receive the benefit of these allotments, will pay the ordinary standard rent but under Clause 16 they may receive grants and advances for seeds, fertilisers and equipment and the regulations governing the provision of these advances are to be made by the Minister with the approval of the Treasury. It appears to us that the economic and proper working of this Clause will depend very much upon those regulations and if the Minister can give us an assurance that he will consider the matter from that point of view, I think there will be no desire to press this Amendment.


Most of the speeches on this Amendment have been made by hon. Members representing agricultural constituencies, but the Amendment very profoundly affects industrial constituencies also. In my own constituency there are large numbers of people who would be very glad to take advantage of this Clause. There is a number of allotment societies which are doing their utmost to extend their activities, and I believe that a power such as this which is given to the Minister to include people on part-time employment, as well as those out of work altogether, would be very widely welcomed and utilised. I hope, from the point of view of the great industrial cities, where there is a good deal of part-time employment, the Minister will insist on retaining these powers, and I feel sure that he will have every opportunity of making use of them if the need should arise later on.

Amendment negatived.