HC Deb 23 April 1934 vol 288 cc1489-98

When an unemployed person of the insured class undertakes the cultivation of a small holding with the object of making a livelihood, he shall, during the first twelve months of his tenancy or such shorter period as may be decided upon, be eligible for benefit, subject to the approval of the Minister of Labour.—[Sir T. Rosbotham.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

9.8 p.m.


I beg to move, "That the Clause be read a Second time."

The object of this Clause is to give encouragement to unemployed persons to undertake the cultivation of small holdings. The Lancashire County Council passed a resolution to admit 100 land settlers, and up to date about SO unemployed men have been set up in these settlements. We have had no difficulty up to the present time in finding suitable men with sufficient capital, but now we are coming to the end of such applicants, and we are finding that men have not sufficient capital. Some of them may have a little capital, and some probably have none, but they have the ability to cultivate a small holding. This new Clause has been moved largely at the instigation of Sir George Etherton, Clerk of the Lancashire County Council, who takes a great interest in this movement. There is no doubt whatever that there are a large number of unemployed men who are anxious to go on to the land if they could get financial assistance. There are great possibilities in these days for men to make a living on the land. We have proof of the fact in the County of Lancaster, and anyone who paid a visit to the exhibition of the Royal Horticultural Society last week will be convinced of the great possibilities of growing fine produce in this country.

The Land Utilisation Act no doubt would have supplied the want at the present time, but it is not in operation, and this Clause will to some extent provide what is the necessity until the Government can see their way to put Part II of the Land Utilisation Act into operation. There are in various parts of the country to-day hives of industry where smallholders and land settlers are carrying on poultry keeping, glass farming, market gardening, and in other directions. I could give many instances where land settlement has been the means of increasing the number of men on the land. For instance, a friend of mine purchased a small farm of 33 acres in extent. At that time six persons were working on the farm. To-day there are 46 expert workmen on that 33 acres. That is sufficient proof and evidence that there are great possibilities in land settlement. We ought to use every endeavour to get men off the unemployment list and on to the land and into occupations where they would be perfectly happy and contented and able to make a living. In two cases unemployed mill hands in Darwen have been settled on two of the Lancashire County Council holdings. These tenants came out to thank me one day when I was round that way. They said, "Being out of work was breaking our hearts. We had saved a little but found it dwindling week by week, and now you have found us something that has brought us complete happiness and contentment, and we are earning a living."


I beg to second the Motion.



9.12 p.m.


I think the whole Committee has shown that they have very great sympathy with the hon. Member for Ormskirk (Sir T. Rosbotham) in his desire to see the small holdings movement in this country encouraged, but we know that persons who ought to undertake the cultivation of small holdings are in need of financial assistance in the early months, and it may well be desirable that such assistance should be provided by the State. The hon. Member, however, is asking in this Clause that the financial assistance should be provided out of the Unemployment Insurance Fund at the expense of the contributors to that fund, both the workmen and the employers. If you are to allow persons who set up in whole-time occupations on small holdings to draw money for the first year or so out of the fund to keep them going, there is no reason why you should not make the same concession to the person who wishes to set up as a small shopkeeper.


Why not?


"Why not," says the hon. Member, but you could go on extending the principle indefinitely. If it is felt desirable that small holdings should be assisted, they should be assisted by a specific ad hocAct and not out of a fund set up for an entirely different purpose. If you assisted smallholders, as is suggested by this Clause, you would cut at the root of the whole principle of unemployment insurance. One of the most important qualifications of a man to receive benefit is that he should be unemployed and available for work. A man who is engaged on the full-time cultivation of a holding obviously is not available for work, and, if he were available for work and work were offered to him and he accepted it, it would break up his whole scheme of life on the small holding. I am talking about the full-time worker with whom this Clause deals. Therefore, although I have very great sympathy, as the hon. Member knows, with his proposal, because I recognise the very valuable work that has been done by the Lancashire County Council in promoting small holdings, with very great success, this Clause suggests that the cost should come out of the Unemployment Fund, and I must ask the Committee to reject it.

9.16 p.m.


I think the Minister has read into the Clause something that is not there. Obviously, a man would not be eligible for benefit under the provisions of the Bill if he refused a job when it was offered to him. Suppose he was a cotton operative out of work and with his savings he took a small holding for himself and his family. The fact that he was a smallholder and still out of work should not deprive him of the same benefit as if he was standing still and being idle. If he was offered a job in a factory by the Employment Exchange and turned it down, he would immediately and automatically forfeit his benefit. Therefore, it is not fair for the Minister to say that this is a proposal to subsidise small holdings out of the Unemployment Insurance Fund. There have been questions on this very point. As the law is interpreted at present, as soon as a man goes to a small holding and works it, he loses benefit that he would otherwise have. That, I most respectfully submit, is to penalise industry and to discourage a man from trying to make himself independent of the fund. If as a result of his success on the small holding he found his time fully occupied, and a job was offered to him, he would immediately go off the fund, and the fund would be saved temporarily from having to maintain him, and he would completely pass permanently out of the unemployment insurance system.

That is, I understand, the object of the new Clause. It is a most valuable new Clause, and I suggest that the Parliamentary Secretary is not interpreting the real mind of the Government. The President of the Board of Trade stated in a recent unemployment Debate that it was part of the constructive policy of the Government to encourage men in derelict districts, mining districts, cotton districts, and so on, to cultivate land and become independent of the ordinary labour market. This new Clause is not a theoretical proposition. A good deal of work in this direction has already been done. It may surprise some hon. Members to learn that in a place called Bethnal Green we have a certain number of unemployed men occupying their spare time in poultry keeping and in the production of rabbits for their skins. I know of two cases where these men have gone off into Essex as a result of their training and experience and become small holders, their families helping to carry on the farm.

It would be reasonable in cases of that kind if the man was offered a job and turned it down that he should forfeit benefit, but it does seem unwise from the point of view of a broad policy, in the interests of the State, that when he is not offered a job, when he registers every week at the Employment Exchange and presents himself for employment but cannot find it, then because he is trying to free himself from unemployment insurance and become independent of the State, he should lose his benefit. It is clear that in the early stages of cultivating a holding it is very difficult to a man to maintain himself and his family. Therefore, I think the Minister is taking a short-sighted policy against the interests of the State. It will defeat the object which the Government ought to have in view, namely, to draw off many men from the derelict districts, where there is no hope and no prospect for the future, and to help them to become self-sufficient and independent. I hope the Minister has not said the last word on this subject, and that he will persuade his right hon. Friend to discuss the matter with his colleagues, particularly with the President of the Board of Trade and the Minister of Agriculture, so that he can hold out some promise that on the Report stage a Clause of this kind will be inserted in the Bill.

9.21 p.m.


I think the hon. Member for South-West Bethnal Green (Sir P. Harris) is under a misapprehension. This Clause deals specifically with whole-time smallholdings and I limited my remarks to that aspect of the problem. It refers to those who get their livelihood in. a smallholding, and that means full-time employment. In the case of part-time occupation on an allotment, poultry keeping, rabbit keeping and so forth, that is a matter which my right hon. Friend is doing his best to encourage, and it is greatly favoured by the Government. My right hon. Friend has been instrumental in getting a grant for the Society of Friends for helping on this work, which has resulted in the numbers of men assisted increasing from 50,000 to 150,000 and I hope that the number will be 200,000 this year. Therefore, we cannot be accused in any way of discouraging allotments or of discouraging in any way part-time cultivation, the raising of poultry or rabbits or anything like that, which would be a subsidiary occupation which the man could follow out of hours and still pursue his ordinary work, when he has any. The new Clause deals with the question of full-time occupation on the land and I repeat that, however much we may desire to see such a policy adopted and fostered, the proper fund for that purpose is not the Unemployment Fund but a specific ad hoc fund set up for the purpose.

9.24 p.m.


I see the difficulty of my hon. Friend and I appreciate it, but this Clause seems to me to have such hopefulness behind it that it is well worthy of consideration. I urge my hon. Friend to look at the limited character of the proposal. The Mover intended full-time employment upon the smallholding and the Minister has replied twice on that, and both his objections are strong ones which have to be met. His first objection is that you ought not to subsidise the smallholder out of the Unemployment Fund, because that would be unfair to the fund. Does he not think that it might be for the benefit of the fund, if for a short time, say, for 12 months, you took a man off the fund and start him in work which might mean that he would never come back on to the fund? I am not sure that it is not good business for the fund. Take a man of the kind of whom we have heard, in Durham; give him a smallholding there and give him that little start in money that all smallholders are bound to have. If in the meantime he has found work at his job, then he must forfeit his benefit. I entirely agree there. But do consider very carefully whether you are not doing the best for the fund by giving it a chance of getting rid of a man who may be a very heavy financial liability to it.

So much for my hon. Friend's first point. His second point was that it is a basic principle that a man should be out of work and available for employment. Assume that the man is out of work at his own trade, and you give him his smallholding and benefit for a year. All the time he is on that holding, if you can get him back to his trade, the man must forfeit his benefit. All the Mover asks is that, if it so happens for a year that he gets no chance of going back to his trade, he should then be able to start on the land. A great many people have tried to evolve some scheme whereby you could combine work with the receipt of benefit, and all such schemes have been open to the objection that if you subsidise one sort of labour you tend to increase employment at that sort of labour at the expense of unsubsidised labour. Here, however, there is no objection of that sort. The man is not in the labour market, but stands on his own feet. Therefore, for both reasons, because it is a temporary payment and you may benefit the fund thereby, and because you do not want to put a subsidised man into the labour market with unsubsidised men, I should be very much relieved if the Minister would say that he would consider the Clause. I am quite certain that the Minister would like to see it in the Bill, and if he and the Minister of Agriculture put their two agile heads together, I believe that they could evolve a scheme.

9.28 p.m.

Commander COCHRANE

I wish to support the principle of the proposed new Clause. I would submit that the difficulty in which we appear to be arises in part from the fact that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary is seeking to apply a different test to those who go on smallholdings from that which he would apply to those who return to ordinary industrial occupations. Take the case of a man who is unemployed; he is not bound to go back to an industrial job at a wage very much below the ordinary standard of the district in which he is employed. He is safeguarded against being forced off unemployment benefit because he refuses to take a job which is below the ordinary standard of the district in which he is working. But my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary said that these people on smallholdings had a full-time occupation. I submit that that is not the test. The real test is whether they are getting a reasonable return for their money. As I understand it, all that my hon. Friend the Member for Ormskirk (Sir T. Rosbotham) is asking is that, in the early days of their occupation of their smallholdings, when it is unlikely that they can, by their own efforts, get a reasonable return for their work, they should continue to receive unemployment benefit. I submit that that is in accordance with the ordinary practice of the fund. It would not be overstraining the purposes of the Unemployment Insurance Fund to give this benefit as long as the people concerned were not getting an adequate return for what would probably be the very hard work which they were putting into their smallholdings.

I should like to emphasise the point just made by the right hon. and gallant Member for Ripon (Major Hills), that it might result in a very considerable saving to the fund. I am certain that, from the point of view of national policy, there can be no doubt whatever of the benefit of getting men to work on smallholdings, whether they be whole-time or part-time. In that connection I would submit to my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary that in his reply he has not had regard to the old proposition that the greater includes the less. One can assume that if the Clause applied to whole-time holdings, it would certainly apply to every type of part-time holding.

9.31 p.m.


In that case it is not necessary, because at the present moment a man is entitled to pursue a subsidiary calling from which he obtains a profit or income not exceeding 3s. 4d. a day, provided that it can be pursued during the hours outside those of his normal employment. It is perfectly open to a man to-day to take up a part-time employment and continue to draw benefit as long as the holding is of such a size that he is able to continue to cultivate it when he is at work. The only new element in this Clause is the test of livelihood; in other words, the test of full-time occupation. There you are up against the statutory condition of benefit, that the man must be available for work. Obviously, the man is not available for work if he is engaged full time in agricultural pursuits. I fully sympathise with the desire of hon. Members to see smallholdings encouraged; I am very keen about it myself. You have, however, to remember that you are dealing with a system that covers 12,500,000 people, and, in order to administer the system, it has been found necessary to insist that one of the conditions for the receipt of benefit is that the man should be available for work. If you once cut away and make a breach in that essential condition, you open the door to every kind- of difficulty, evasion and subterfuge. The whole thing would have to be administered by other means, by setting up an ad hoc body, but it is not worth making this tremendous breach in a system which is very difficult to administer and which, on the whole, has stood the test of the last 15 years very well.

9.33 p.m.

Lieut.-Commander AGNEW

The hon. Member the Parliamentary Secretary has fully proved his ease, and has very rightly taken shelter behind the Unemployment Insurance Acts, and does not wish a breach to be made in them. In that I support him. He has not, however, met the difficulty of how these men who are going to settle, and who wish to settle, on the land are to derive an income or livelihood at all during the first year. He has suggested that there should be local resources which should help the men to keep themselves during the first year, before they begin to derive any profit or produce from their holdings. In a great many cases, however, especially in distressed areas the local authorities themselves do not possess the resources which are necessary to give the financial assistance to the men.

Some special machinery must therefore be devised. The Parliamentary Secretary mentioned something about a special ad hoc Bill, but can he give the Committee any assurance or suggest any likelihood that a special ad hoc Bill will be introduced and passed into law in sufficient time to facilitate this work that must go on? We cannot get away from it; we are now at a time when a great many men, particularly in the heavy industries, will never go back to those industries. They have to be placed in a new life. Actually they are not only being placed in new work but changing their whole character, and from wage earners are becoming capitalists. We ought to give every assistance to increasing the number of these capitalists, the creation of a new class who will have their feet firmly planted in the soil and be a credit to their country. I appeal to the Parliamentary Secretary that if he is going to bring in an ad hoc Bill he will do it within a very short space of time.


After the explanation of the Parliamentary Secretary I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Clause. A strong feeling has been shown in all quarters of the Committee in regard to this matter and I hope that with a view to alleviating unemployment he will bring in an ad hoc Bill and also put into operation Part II of the Land Acquisition Act.


May I put one point—


If the hon. Member insists on speaking the Motion cannot be withdrawn.

Motion and Clause, by leave, withdrawn.