Section five of the Agricultural Wages (Regulation) Act, 1924, shall have effect as if after paragraph (b) there were inserted the following paragraph—
(bb) fix a minimum rate of wages which, in the opinion of the Agricultural Wages
Board, is not consistent with the provisions of Sub-section (4) of Section two of this Act; or.—[Mr. T. Williams.]
§ Brought up, and read the First time.
§ 7.16 p.m.
§ Mr. T. Williams
I beg to move, "That the Clause be read a Second time."
We have heard hon. Members opposite asking the Government this afternoon to be generous to farmers, and that is by no means the first time that we have listened to that plea. The new Clause which I propose will give hon. Gentlemen the opportunity of expressing their generous instincts on behalf of the agricultural laborer. First of all, I should explain how the proposal which I am making would apply, assuming that the Minister felt disposed to accept it. Section 1 of the Agricultural Wages (Regulation) Act, 1924, established an agricultural wages committee for each county and an Agricultural Wages Board for England and Wales. The duties of the committees are denned in Clause 2 and the duties and powers of the Agricultural Wages Board under Clause 5. If the proposed new Clause is accepted, thereafter, if an agricultural wages committee does not fix a minimum rate of wages which, in the opinion of the Agricultural Wages Board, is consistent with the provisions of Subsection (4) of Section 2 of the Act of 1924, the Agricultural Wages Board will have the power to step in and, after giving the prescribed notice,to fix, cancel or vary the rate of wagesoperating in the district concerned, as the case may require.
Sub-section (4) of Section 2 of the Act to which I have referred calls upon an agricultural wages committee to secure as far as practicable, in fixing minimum rates for able-bodied men,such wages as in the opinion of the committee are adequate to promote efficiency and to enable a man in an ordinary case to maintain himself and his family in accordance with such standard of comfort as may be reasonable in relation to the nature of his occupation.Briefly stated, therefore, the position would be as follows: A county wages committee may have fixed a wage which, in the opinion of the national or central Wages Board, was not consistent with Sub-section (4) of Section 2 of the Act of 1924. What the Committee is called upon to do this afternoon is to give to the 1047 Agricultural Wages Board real power, where a county wages committee appears to have faltered in its interpretation of Sub-section (4) of Section 2 of the Act. I think that is a very modest plea, and it will prove the sincerity of hon. Members opposite, whose expressions of sympathy for years have exceeded the expressions of sympathy from hon. Members on these benches. They have always said that the agricultural laborer's wage is not what it ought to be and they would like to give him more, but the money is not there. Prices are too low. The economic situation of the industry will not permit it. The position has always been that in storm and sunshine the laborer has always been the last consideration. That position is really not good enough.
The agricultural laborer, after all, has no say in the management of the farm. He has no say as to what shall and what shall not be produced. He has no say as to whom the produce shall be sold and at what price. He is a sort of good lad who just does as he is told by the farmer, and he does what he is called upon to do as skillfully as any other artisan in the country. But because they have been so badly organized in their trade unions they have been taken undue advantage of by some farmers, since they have been able to exercise little or no pressure in an industrial sense. I think it has come to be regarded by some farmers—not all; there are good farmers, as there are good industrialists, mine owners and others, but there is a section of farmers who have come to regard the agricultural laborer, because of his bad organization, his isolation, and the fact that he had no unified voice, as something of a clodhopper, something sub-normal, and his wages and general conditions have been reduced to that status. The agricultural laborer who can plough a straight furrow, build a thatch, lay a hedge, and care for livestock is no longer a clodhopper. He is a very skilled man, and he is entitled to far better wages and far better treatment than he has been having for generations. I think it is time that the Committee, which has been by no means hesitant in dealing with problems affecting the landlord and the farmer, ought to recognize that unless they are willing to confer upon the laborer a greater measure of home comfort and provide him with far better wages he is 1048 going to lose the skilled laborer altogether. Since 1918 there has been a spread of the population. As the result of cycles, and motor cycles, and motor cars, hundreds of thousands of urban dwellers have gone out into the country.
We therefore have to-day the urban and the rural worker almost living side by side, but with this major difference. While the urban worker resident on the country side lives in a modern house with modern conveniences, and has a few shillings left after dealing with his home requirements for recreation and the rest, the wretched agricultural laborer in 1940, very much as in 1840, still lives in a wretched old cottage with none of the modern conveniences and none of those pleasures and joys of modern civilization that the urban dweller resident on the countryside is now able to enjoy. Moreover, he has so few shillings left for recreation when he has turned over such money as he receives to his wife. Whether in time of peace or of war, the time has definitely arrived when the Committee ought at long last to recognize its duty to that very sadly neglected section of the community. We often hear it said that agriculture is going to the dogs and that it is down and out. Unless you have contented laborers, that perhaps is the biggest weakness within the whole agricultural industry. I ask hon. Members to take note of what farmers are saying in all parts of the country. There is a definite shortage of skilled labour. They are informed that if they apply to the Agricultural Executive Committee or to the Employment Exchange there are 1,500,000 out of work and they ought to be able to provide themselves with all the labour they need. The simple fact is that the farmers will not take men from the Employment Exchange. They know that their skill is in comparison inferior, and that any wage paid to the ordinary urban worker would be dear compared with what they pay to the skilled worker. Therefore cheap labour can be dear labour if it is not skilled and if it is recruited in the wrong direction.
The clause, simply calling for the establishment of a Central Wages Board, does not necessarily mean that there is going to be an instantaneous increase of 10s. for every agricultural laborer in the country. It does not mean that every farmer is going to be turned into the 1049 bankruptcy court. It simply means that the board, which is made up of men with assumed intelligence, will review from time to time, according to their interpretations of Section 2 (4) of the 1924 Act and either confirm the decision of the county wages committee or give notice of their intention perhaps to revise the wage for the county. The farmer's position, after all, may be bad here and there, but I have here a report from the "Eastern Daily Express" of a speech by the Minister a few days ago which is an indication of what Parliament and other factors have done for the farmer during the past few months or years. Speaking somewhere in Norfolk, he emphasized that we had started the war with a low level of prices for agricultural products, and some of the figures might seem to the ordinary consuming public to have gone up quite a lot. They had fought for years the battle for barley, and actually since this time last year the price had risen from 7s. 10d. a cwt. to 18s. 1d., oats had gone up from 6s. 6d. to 14s. 10d., feeding oats from 6s. 5d. to us., fat cattle from 48s. 5d. to 64s. 6d., and second grade in like proportion.
That is sufficient to prove that the Government since 1931 have put millions of pounds into the pockets of farmers, which perhaps in some cases only just enable them to carry on, but, since every piece of legislation has been passed to make it possible for the poorest farmer just to carry on, those farmers who have got good land and who farm exceedingly well, who have taken advantage of mechanism that is now available to them, are doing extremely well. Yet in war-time we still find that there are counties where wages of agricultural laborers are as low as 32s., 34s., and 35s. and 36s., while about three counties in the whole country pay wages of £2 a week.
The farmer and his political representatives have become the best beggars in the country. Governments, if they have not done all for the fanners that some hon. Members think they might have done, at least have done a good deal for a lot of farmers, and it is my confirmed opinion that, ignoring the small number of farms where no mechanization has taken place, there is quite a large number of farmers who are doing reasonably well, and who could quite easily afford to give their laborers a much better wage, and provide them with better 1050 houses and more amenities than they at present enjoy. I have heard that the Department are considering a Bill to deal with agricultural labourers' wages. Unless I can be shown that this very simple and direct Clause, which simply re-establishes a Central Wages Board with some power, is not the most efficient means of giving effect to what we desire, then we shall be obliged, in case of necessity, to go to a Division. But I am hopeful that hon. Gentlemen who have begged so long and so often for the farmers will be as generous to the agricultural labourer this time as the House has been to the fanner many times since 1931. I beg to move this new Clause in the hope that the House will accept it, whatever the two Ministers in charge of the Bill may think.
§ 7.34 p.m.
§ Mr. T. Smith
In the middle of last year when we were discussing an agriculture Bill we had a full dress Debate about the agricultural workers, and we heard from hon. Members opposite many speeches sympathising with the agricultural worker and hoping that the time would soon come when he would be paid a reasonable wage. This Clause is somewhat similar to the provision in the Bill of 1924 when it was introduced, and hon. Members who were on the Standing Committee which considered that Bill will recall that we had a terrific fight on this very principle of a Central Wages Board with overriding powers. We were told then that what was necessary in agriculture was good will on both sides, and that if wages could be fixed by voluntary agreement that was the best thing of all. The next argument used was that it was far better to fix wages in the locality through the wages committees than to fix them in London. I was not at all impressed by the arguments that were then used, 16 years ago, and it would have been a good thing for the farm workers if a combination of Tories and Liberals had not deleted the Central Wages Board provision from that Bill.
There has been some progress made in agricultural wages since 1924. After Parliament abolished the Wheat Act and the Wages Board set up during the last war wages in agriculture fell to a very low level, and the local voluntary conciliation committees were not able to arrest the decline; and when Mr. Noel-Buxton, as he then was, introduced the 1051 very Act which this Clause seeks to amend there were counties where wages were lower than £1 per week. Historically the agricultural worker has been the Cinderella of all industrial workers. Since the war started last September there has been considerable improvement in wages. A good many wages committees have given increases, and I was very pleased to read in the "Land Worker" a paper read very widely by agricultural workers, and by many Members in this House, that since hostilities began last September there has been something like £2,250,000 given to agricultural workers in increased wages. But wide discrepancies exist as between district and district. According to an answer given by the Minister a couple of weeks ago, there are about three districts in the Kingdom paying more than £2 a week. I believe that Lancashire (with the exception of South Lancashire) has the highest minimum wage in the country. That is 43s. a week, but it is for a 58-hour week, and that is considerably less than 1s. per hour. There are two or three more counties paying £2 a week—I believe Kesteven and Middlesex; but there are districts where wages are as low as 32s., and there are three or four agricultural wages committees which have not given a penny increase.
It is hardly fair that the farmers in some counties should be paying as much as 9s. or 10s. a week more than their competitors in some other district. This is an argument that has been put to us as negotiators for many years past. It is an argument that has been used with effect by colliery managers in fixing new prices. What they say is, "We have all got to sell coal in the same market. If you insist that this price-list should be so much more per ton than my competitor demands, then he has a distinct advantage in the market when seeking orders." The right hon. Gentleman the Member for South Molten (Mr. Lambert) said in 1924 that when there are two jobs for a man, the man can command his own wage. If the agricultural workers in this country realized their strength as some of the other industrial workers do, they could force their point of view in negotiations, and the Government and the farmers would be bound to listen. Agricultural workers are very difficult to organize, because there are so few of 1052 them working on a single farm. While there are certain counties with excellent organisations, which have made their influence felt on the wages committees, other counties have very little organization. As one who has addressed meetings on agriculture in a good many counties during the last 14 or 15 years, I have been appalled at the difficulty of getting the ordinary agricultural workers in some districts into a trade union. In these days, we have farmers crying out for labour. Everybody knows that the farm worker is a skilled worker. He has a right to a decent wage, and up to now he has not got it. The House of Commons has a responsibility to see that he is paid on something like a fair basis.
I cannot anticipate what the Government's reply to this Debate will be, but we were told by the Lord Privy Seal a few days ago that the Government had been meeting the different interests in the industry, with a view to securing some agreement on new legislation for farm workers. It may be that we shall be told that agreement has been reached, and that it is the intention of the Government, in the near future, to bring in legislation. But I still think that the principle contained in this Clause is long overdue. It would be a good thing to accept the Clause, and at least give the Central Wages Board an overriding supervision, so that they may see that the men are treated fairly. If the Government have reached agreement—and, from information I have received, I think they have—and they intend to bring in legislation, I hope that, even if they do not accept this Clause, they will be generous to the farm workers. I look back to one period which, so far as the farm workers are concerned, is not altogether to our credit as a nation. I remember 1914 very vividly. When war broke out, one of the best organized counties in this country, Norfolk, had an agricultural wage of 15s. a week. It actually required a strike of Norfolk farm workers to secure an increase. As a result of what I believe was about the first three-party meeting which took place in Norfolk between landowners, farmers and farm workers, a 3s. increase was secured, bringing the wage up to 18s. a week.
We may get the argument that the farmer is no worse than a good many other employers. We may get the argument that the industry cannot afford to 1053 pay better wages. Quite frankly, I believe that the farmer has a perfect right to prices which will enable him to lead a decent life and to pay a good wage. One hon. Member who has done a certain amount of writing for the "Farmers' Weekly" wrote about "bearing poverty joyfully." I believe that there is no reason for either the farmer or the farm worker to continue joyfully living in poverty. I hope that, if they do not accept this Clause, the Government will bringing new legislation, which will be generous to the farm worker, which will recognize that the farmer is an important factor, in peace and in war, and which will enable him to pay a decent wage.
§ 7.45 p.m.
§ Mr. Ramsbotham
The hon. Member for Don Valley (Mr. T. Williams) put his arguments, as he always does, very clearly, fairly and moderately. It is always a delight to me to accept the proposals of the Opposition, and I feel a tinge of pain when I am unable to do it. I am going to deal rather meticulously with this Clause, to show why I do not believe that it will achieve the result which the hon. Member intends, and to suggest what I believe will prove a better course. The object of the Clause is, I believe, to provide that the Agricultural Wages Board, set up under Section 1 of the Agricultural Wages (Regulation) Act, 1924, shall have power to override the decision of the county agricultural committees, set up under the same Section. Section 1 of the Act set up the committees for the counties, and Section 2 charged them with the duty of fixing minimum rates of wages for workers in agriculture. Sub-section (4) of that Section provides that:In fixing minimum rates a committee shall, so far as practicable, secure for able-bodied men such wages as, in the opinion of the committee, are adequate.…Section 3 provides that, when a committee has fixed the minimum wage, it shall submit it to the Agricultural Wages Board. The board is then required tomake such order as may be necessary for the purpose of carrying out the decision of the committee.It is important to note that the board has no choice in the matter. The only ground on which the board can interfere is that the agricultural wages committee has not fixed a rate, or has failed to fixed a rate 1054 to replace one which has been cancelled or has ceased to operate, or where, by a resolution of the representative members of the committee, the board has been asked to fix, cancel, or vary a rate. The difficulty about this Clause is that it provides that if the committee fix a rate of wages which the board thinks is not consistent with the provisions of the Act, the board can fix the rate itself. I see very great complications arising out of such a. provision. Let us imagine how, in such circumstances, a rate could be enforced. A committee has fixed, and submitted to, the board, a minimum rate which, in the opinion of the committee, is adequate, having regard to the conditions laid down in Sub-section (4) of Section 2. On the other hand, the board have now to take action, because, in their opinion, the rate is not adequate. Whose opinion is to prevail? A very difficult state of affairs might result from such a clash.
I think that what is intended by the Clause is that the present position in regard to minimum wages should be suspended. If my interpretation is right, the point is in a sense met. If the hon. Member desires to carry out a Measure of this kind, he will find something in the Bill much more elaborate than what is provided in this Clause. In view of the difficulties which I see about accepting this Clause, I would remind the hon. Member for Normanton (Mr. T. Smith)—though, of course, he requires no reminding, because he is well aware of this—that negotiations have been carried on between the parties affected; and my right hon. and gallant Friend the Minister of Agriculture intends to legislate on this matter in the near future. I, obviously, cannot disclose in advance the contents of this legislation, but I think he will agree that, in view of the difficulties, technical difficulties to a large degree no doubt, in connection with this new Clause, it would probably meet his case that it should be dealt with by separate legislation devoted to that subject. For these reasons I think it is better on the whole not to accept the new Clause, but to wait until the legislation of which I spoke is forthcoming.
§ 7.51 p.m.
§ Mr. T. Williams
May we have this made very clear? My colleagues and I have gone into this matter with meticulous care and attention and we think that this is the most direct, simple and effective 1055 way of providing a national wages board with real power. If I do not misinterpret the statement of the right hon. Gentleman, he does not disagree with that view, but what he does disagree with is that, when the county wages committees come to interpret Sub-section (4) of Section 2 to fix adequate wagesto promote efficiency and to enable a man in an ordinary case to maintain himself and his family in accordance with such standard off comfort,they may differ from the interpretation of the same Sub-section by a national wages board. Our justification for believing that there is ample reason why there should be a national wages board is that at the moment there are counties where agricultural laborers are receiving 32s. a week, 36s. a week, 38s., 40s. and 43s. Does any hon. Member sitting in any part of this Committee believe that the agricultural economics in the counties vary to that extent? I cannot be made to think so. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that, with two sets of people sitting down to interpret one set of words, there must be two views, but not necessarily violent disagreement. A national wages board would hold a watching brief for the right hon. Gentleman, and we think it would do good.
§ Mr. Ramsbotham
I do not wish to 4abour the point unduly. I notice that the hon. Gentleman, as always, has meticulously considered this matter, and so have my advisers, and what I am giving him is the advice that they have given to me of the effect of the new Clause, and I still think that the best way to deal with this matter is to await legislation.
§ 7.54 p.m.
§ Mr. Ede
I think that before we part from this matter the Minister ought to give a little more indication of what such legislation is going to be. It might very well be legislation that would be completely satisfactory to us, but on the other hand it might be partly satisfactory or it might be unsatisfactory. The right hon. Gentleman confessed at the beginning of his speech that heal ways felt pained in dealing with the Amendments of my hon. Friend and not being able to accept them. It would surely be a deplorable thing if the new Clause were withdrawn on the statement made to-night. I understand—it is what I am 1056 sure the right hon. Gentleman meant to convey—that if we would only wait long enough, but it would not be too long, we would find that the proposed legislation would give us the substance of what we require, if not the precise machinery that we propose for effecting it. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will be able to say something more on these lines. If the objection of the right hon. Gentleman is only to the machinery, I should have thought that the proper thing to do would be to accept the Clause to-night, and, on the Report stage of the Bill, put in some more elaborate provisions which he says are necessary. I did not gather from the wording of the Clause how two rates of wages could be in existence at the same time for the same area. Paragraphs (a), (b) and (c) of Section 5 of the Act are all alternatives, and if we therefore amend it after paragraph (b), the Clause would read:If an agricultural wages committee(bb) fix a minimum rate of wages which, in the opinion of the Agricultural Wages Board, is not consistent with the provisions of Sub-section (4) Section 2 of this Act;the Agricultural Wages Board may, if after giving the prescribed notices, by order fix, cancel, or vary the rate as the case requires, and for that purpose shall have and may exercise all the powers of the committee.As I read it I cannot make that mean anything other than that, if, in the opinion of the board, the rate fixed by the county committee is not consistent with Sub-section (4) of Section 2 of the principal Act the board can then themselves fix, cancel or vary the rate. In this case presumably they would vary the rate which had been recommended by the wages committee, and from the date that they so varied it, as I understand it, their rate and not the committee's rate would be the one which would have effect within the area. I do not know whether there is some point in the original Act that I have overlooked, but, in reading Section 5 with great care, it appeared to me that the machinery in the proposed new Clause was completely effective for securing the decision for which my hon. Friend pleaded. The right hon. Gentleman made it clear that it is hoped in the near future to get agreement on this matter, but did not say where the Clause, as I have read it, fails to achieve the purpose that we desire. I regret that we have not heard in this Debate the voices of any of those hon.
1057 Members who had been pleading earlier in the evening for getting as little as £1 8s. for the farmer.
§ Mr. Ede
If there is even the slightest desire on the part of other hon. Members to participate in the Debate—I am very glad to know that they have that desire—I will not prevent them for more than another few seconds from giving evidence of their desire to see that appropriate machinery is set up for over-riding the decisions of the agricultural wages committees. I would ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he can explain exactly the way that Section 5 of the principal Act, as amended in the way that we propose, would fail to bring in a rate of wages which would be effective in the area concerned.
§ 7.59 p.m.
§ Sir Archibald Sinclair
The Debate really is becoming the monopoly of the two Front benches. We have had five or six speeches in succession from the two Front benches, from the Minister and from two hon. Members sitting there, and Members in all parts of the Committee, including the back benches behind hon. Members on the Front Opposition Bench, have been getting up and trying to get in. To add insult to injury the hon. Member who has been occupying so much time of the Committee during the last hour has said that other Members were not interested in the Bill and that that was the reason why they had not been speaking. I hope the Deputy-Chairman will be able to observe others who wish to speak.
§ The Deputy-Chairman
I think the right hon. Gentleman is mistaken. The Minister, I understand, got up to explain a position which was not clear. Members cannot debate a thing properly if provisions are not explained.
§ Mr. Ramsbotham
I will delay the Committee for only one minute. The hon. Member who has just sat down asked me about the effect of the Section. In my own opinion, and in that of my advisers, there would be a conflict of opinion between the committee and the board. I am asked now to give some indication of the kind of legislation to be brought forward but I think it would be 1058 unwise to do that because negotiations are in progress and hon. Members well know how undesirable it would be to forecast legislation until negotiations are completed. For that reason I cannot accede to the hon. Gentleman's request.
§ 8.2 p.m.
§ Mr. W. Roberts
I believe that this is a most serious problem, which will affect not only the agricultural workers but also the future food supply of this country. I do not want to go back into the old question raised by the hon. Member for Normanton (Mr. T. Smith), but I was pleased to hear that there has been considerable progress under the Act. Whatever the rights or wrongs of the case the fact remains that the position has improved. Although I was not a Member of the House at the time I know the view was held by some of us that to control wages centrally would bring the higher scale to the level of the lower scale and would not scale up the lower wages to the higher. It might well have been argued then, but the position is rather different now. The difference between counties who pay higher rates and those who pay lower rates is less great than it was then. Local differences in agricultural practices are much less than they were then and, as already pointed out, for so many commodities the farmer is getting the same price whether he lives in Cornwall or on the Scottish Border. If he gets the same price there is little reason why he should not pay the same wage to his workers. I wish I could say it with the eloquence of the hon. Member who moved this new Clause, but the agricultural worker does deserve better treatment for his skilled work than he has received in the past.
Having read some of the history of agriculture in the last war I have been much interested by the tremendous difference that faced the Food Production Department when the numbers of agricultural workers were reduced by calling up, and men left the countryside to work in better paid munitions works. I hope that when the Government introduce the legislation they have told us about to-night it will provide an effective solution of the problem, and that they will deal courageously within. I am sure the principle which the agricultural community is, in general, prepared to accept—that wages should be related to prices and that the price of agricultural commodities should make a fair and decent 1059 wage—is one that gives great possibility of improvement of the position of agricultural workers if there is reasonableness on all sides, and willingness to meet the position. It is vital that workers should have a better standard of living and should be retained on the land if our food supply is to be maintained.
§ 8.6 p.m.
Sir Murdock MacDonald
We have heard a great deal about the negotiations which are proceeding on this particular matter and I would like to know whether they are also in hand in Scotland for the improvement of the machinery in connection with agricultural wages. Everybody is deeply concerned that agricultural wages should be put on a proper and adequate level, because it is quite evident that the machinery so far in operation is not quite successful.
§ Mr. Colville
In reply to the hon. Member for Inverness (Sir M. MacDonald), I can say that for some weeks past my officials have been discussing with both sides of the farming industry in Scotland the question of whether the existing machinery for fixing wages can be improved. I hope shortly to be able to make a report on the proposals which require legislation. I am anxious to get agreement on both sides.
§ 8.8 p.m.
§ Mr. Ridley
I do not think my hon. Friends on this side of the House desire to misjudge the intention of the right hon. Gentleman and the Government in this matter, but I am bound to say that they have an unfortunate habit of always seeing in the easiest of principles what the right hon. Gentleman called "very grave complications." He went so far as to confess that there had been a meticulous search in order to find these grave complications. I share the views expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mr. Dee) that the proposition now before the Committee is really a simple one. It is difficult to think that the complications are so great that the right hon. Gentleman could have arrived at the conclusion he did arrive at, unless it was a conclusion he really wanted to arrive at. Surely the position which my hon. Friends desire by the terms of the new Clause is to give to the National Wages Board over-riding authority over the county committees which would enable 1060 the board to say, as to any rate fixed by a county committee, "That is not within the provisions of the principal Act and should be revised in a way that would be favourable to the farm worker."
I do not think that my hon. Friend is unfair in pressing the right hon. Gentleman to say when his alternative proposals are likely to be before the House, or to state the nature of these alternative proposals. Here is a definite submission. I have no desire to introduce unpleasantness into this discussion but the party opposite have a very bad history and an unsavory record in connection with this matter, and we are entitled to see something definite out of the bag before we withdraw the new Clause. We are entitled to see whether the alternative proposals will give the national wages board the same overriding authority as the new Clause proposes. I am not going to assume, I refuse to assume without further evidence, that the proposal of the Government will meet the situation in the way we desire and in the same substantial fashion as the new Clause. I warn the Government that this is a matter which lies very near the hearts of hon. Members on this side and that they will pursue it with energy and examine the Government's proposal with the same meticulous care as the right hon. Gentleman has examined our proposal. The men on whose behalf we plead this evening have been the victims at the hands of this House of more ill-treatment, and more treachery, sometimes bordering on brutality, than any other section of workers in any industry.
I do not want to be too sentimental, but it is a matter of pride to us that only a few years ago we celebrated the centenary of six great men indeed, agricultural laborers who over 100 years ago laid the foundation of our great trade union movement. When I speak of treachery, I am reminded of the references which have been made to the repeal of the Corn Production Act. I have more than one very good reason for remembering the consequences of that repeal. I remember in the Spring of that year taking part in a by-election at Taunton when Sir Arthur Griffith-Boscawen, then the Minister of Agriculture, flying from one constituency to another in the hope of getting back to this House again, was the Conservative candidate. He placarded the division with huge posters, "Vote for 1061 the man who brought prosperity to the agricultural community and happiness to the agricultural labourer." On the basis of that appeal he came to this House with a large majority. Within three months from the Front Bench he moved the repeal of the Corn Production Act, and agricultural wages came down and the industry became bankrupt and poverty-stricken. I was then in a little Norfolk town, King's Lynn, and one of the consequences of that repeal was that there was a strike of Norfolk labourers, who marched miles through the winding lanes of the county to get a wage of 24s. a week, because there was no statutory authority after the disappearance of the Agricultural Wages Board to secure a figure of that amount.
The party opposite in repealing the very provision in the principal Act which we want to reinsert, only justify me in saying that before we see the proposals of the right hon. Gentleman we are not prepared to assume that they are going to be satisfactory. This is a matter of special interest to me for personal reasons. One generation of my family was born in the hungry 'forties, and my children's grandparents were agricultural labourers earning 9s. a week in the county of Norfolk. The marks of that poverty are on one of my own children to-day. In 1910 I was working as a young railway clerk in the county of Lincoln, in the division represented by the hon. Member for Holland with Boston (Mr. Butcher) and in the heyday of pre-war prosperity I remember a farmer and a merchant tossing as to whether 250 tons of potatoes should be at a rate of £6 per ton or £6 10s. per ton. The farmer won at £6 10s. At the same time labourers were asked to work for 16s. a week and those who dared to join the Agricultural Workers' Union—I saw it in scores of cases—had their furniture turned out from their humble cottages on to the highways in the drenching rain, in the hope that by such victimisation their proud and valiant spirit would be crushed. It was out of such resolute courage that the steady improvements in the condition of agricultural laborers referred to by the hon. Member for Normanton (Mr. T. Smith) have been effected. It may be assumed that we on this side will stick to the proposal to secure for agricultural labourers the same central over-riding authority in the determination of their wage conditions which exists in most other 1062 industries, and certainly in one with which I am associated. I hope that in the absence of some more definite knowledge as to time and provisions my hon. Friends will press the Motion to a Division.
§ 8.18 p.m.
§ Mr. Henderson Stewart
I was one of those who supported the proposal for a £2 per week minimum wage for agricultural labourers a month or so ago. I felt that it was right then, and I think it is still more right now. I rather support the Clause, and I gather that the Government have rather accepted it; that it is only a matter of machinery. The Government's reply that they will undertake to produce an alternative scheme is as good a reply as we can expect. The only point I want to mention is that if there is established a central wages board with power to review decisions of local wage committees then, quite clearly, that principle must be established in Scotland, and it so happens that we have already in existence the report of a committee which examined this matter presided over by Lord Caithness. One of the principal recommendations of that committee was that there should be such a central wages, board in Scotland, with power to review the decisions of local committees. If the Secretary of State's negotiations are leading to the adopting of a scheme with that provision in it I shall be prepared to accept it. That committee was representative of farmers, landowners and farm workers, and it was a unanimous recommendation. If my right hon. Friend's; activities are directed towards that objective he will receive the support of this. House and also of Scottish agriculturists.
§ 8.20 p.m.
§ Mr. Hubert Beaumont
This is the first time I have intervened in a Deabte on agriculture, and I do so because I believe that the conditions of work and pay of the agricultural workers will be the determining factors in this scheme for the revival of agriculture. The hon. Member for East Fife (Mr. Henderson Stewart) appears to be satisfied with the statement made by the right hon. Gentleman the First Commissioner of Works that something is to be done in the future for the agricultural workers. With the agricultural worker, it has always been a case of jam yesterday, jam to-morrow, but never jam to-day. If the right hon. Gentleman had given some indication of the 1063 sort of machinery that will be set up and when it will work for the benefit of the agricultural labourers, we might have been prepared to consider withdrawing the new Clause. But the point is that, as the war goes on, we may be told that there is not time to bring in legislation of that kind, and then agricultural labourers will be left in the soup. Since I have been a Member of the House, I have listened to many speeches pleading for the farmers and for the landowners, and the farmers and landowners have been given grants and subsidies to relieve them. When the First Commissioner of Works refused our request and disapproved of the new Clause, he said that it always gave him great pleasure to accede to requests from this side of the House, and that he was extremely pained to have to refuse this one. All I can say is that the right hon. Gentleman must be suffering from perpetual discomfort, because I have never known him to give anything to this side of the House.
In the Second Reading Debate, the right hon. Gentleman said this Bill would fill a gap. I have not heard him define either the size or the location of the gap, but I suggest that if the well-being of the agricultural workers is left out of consideration, a very big gap will be left. The agricultural workers have always been the worst paid of all workers, and this has often been due to the fact that if their wages were kept low, other wages could be kept low as well. I speak with a certain amount of personal experience in this matter, because just after the outbreak of war in 1914, I was privileged, in the Derbyshire County Council, to move a motion for an increase of 5s. a week in the wages of roadmen. On that occasion, the farmers were against the motion the argument being that if the roadmen's wages were increased by 5s. a week, all the agricultural labourers in the district would want to become roadmen. Agriculture has been the Cinderella of industries, and the farm workers have always been the worst paid of all workers. This Bill will necessitate the provision of a vast amount of labour if its objects are to be carried out effectively. I wonder whether the right hon. Gentleman is satisfied that there is in the country districts sufficient labour to carry out this work. I feel that there will not be adequate 1064 labour available unless the agricultural workers are given a square deal. After the last war, there was a drift from the country to the town, and possibly we shall, after the cessation of hostilities, see an even greater drift unless agriculture is made a promising industry for the workers in it.
I was amazed to hear the First Commissioner of Works, when refusing to accept the new Clause, simply give reasons why it could not be accepted. If the Government had any sympathy for the agricultural workers, they would have endeavored to find reasons why they should accept the new Clause. During the last few days I have heard the right hon. Gentleman pleading, cajoling and promising in matters that would be of benefit to the landowners and farmers, but in refusing to accept this Clause, he did not even offer a word of sympathy for the agricultural workers. If he has sympathy for the agricultural workers, he ought to express the view that the plight of the agricultural workers is a disgrace to a civilised community, and state his desire and intention to see that in the revival of agriculture the workers shall be considered. The success of any such scheme will be absolutely dependent upon the position of the agricultural workers and the possibility of retaining them on the land. If the Government are not prepared to give some further indication as to what they promise for the future, how their promise is to be carried into effect and when legislation will be brought forward, I hope my hon. Friends will press the new Clause to a Division, and so demonstrate that we at any rate are desirous of securing better conditions for the agricultural labourers, and that the Government are not concerned about the conditions of the workers in the countryside.
Last Tuesday, when a Motion was moved from this side of the House, the Financial Secretary to the Treasury asked us whether we realised there was a war on. When one sees the attitude of the Government and how they attempt to thwart and prevent an improvement in the conditions of the people of this country, one wonders whether they are certain there is a war on, and whether they are determined to carry it through as effectively and quickly as possible. I believe that we are fighting for the 1065 preservation of all that democracy stands for; and the first essential of democracy is that it shall give to the people an opportunity of leading a full and rich life and having an adequacy of money with which to buy the necessities of life. The agricultural workers never have had an adequate wage for the work they do. It is because the agricultural labourers are worthy of much more than they get, and because, if there is to be a revival of agriculture, we have to get the sympathetic co-operation of the agricultural labourers, that I hope this new Clause will be pressed to a Division.
§ Sir Patrick Hannon
Will the hon. Gentleman answer one simple question? In the last 20 years we have had two Socialist administrations. On each occasion when there was a Socialist Administration projects were brought forward to help the agricultural labourer. Can he inform the Committee of a single instance in which a Socialist Administration has done anything positive or constructive for the agricultural labourers of this country?
§ 8.31 p.m.
I think we should have some further elucidation, either from the Secretary of State for Scotland or from the First Commissioner of Works on this subject. I propose to touch on one aspect only of the matter, one which the Secretary of State for Scotland himself raised, namely, that he or his Department has been negotiating with both sides in the hope of being able to find a basis of agreement before the introduction of the projected legislation. It happens, fortunately or unfortunately for me, that I have been taking some part in negotiations, through the Ministry of Agriculture, on the general principle, and I want the right hon. Gentleman to give us a clearer statement than we have had up to the present, on whether the Government consider that they must have the approval of both sides of the industry before they introduce legislation, and on whether they are going to protract still further the negotiations which have been going on since September, before they determine what type of legislation they are going to introduce.
I am justified in declaring that we of the workers' side in agriculture have 1066 accepted the principle of a national wages board. I press the right hon. Gentleman, in view of that declaration which has been given to the responsible Department, to say whether the Government still want to procrastinate and to delay before introducing this legislation. I am not seeking to extract from the right hon. Gentleman a statement on what the nature of this legislation will be. I only seek to know what is the position with regard to the principle of the establishment of a national wages board and whether they will now declare, with some degree of certainty, when this legislation will be introduced. I warn the right hon. Gentleman that agricultural workers of both organisations will not tolerate any further delay, from whichever section that delay may come. I press him, therefore, to give us a clear and definite declaration of when this legislation is likely to be introduced and whether the full principle of a national wages board will be accepted.
§ 8.35 p.m.
§ Mr. Colville
When my right hon. Friend indicated that he hoped that legislation would be introduced at an early date, he meant what he said. Obviously, I cannot give a precise date, but it will be introduced very soon indeed.
§ Mr. Colville
Yes. In the case of the Scottish negotiations, with which I am more familiar, the hon. Member may rest assured that it is in the interests of a happy solution of this question that we should consider it together a little further. What may be found suitable in England may not be suitable in Scotland. In fact, some of the proposals adopted in England have been discussed with Scottish representatives from both sides of the industry, and both sides are intent on framing a scheme rather different from the English proposals and suitable to Scottish conditions. This necessitates further discussion. Here, again, without committing myself too strictly, I would only say that what is true of the English proposals is also true of the Scottish proposals.
§ Question put, "That the Clause be read a Second time."
§ The Committee divided: Ayes, 66; Noes, 117.