HC Deb 02 May 1940 vol 360 cc955-65

5.17 p.m.

Mr. Gallacher

I beg to move, in page 2, line 20, at the end, to add: (2) The chairman of the Board shall be chosen from an occupation where the wages and living conditions are comparable with the wages and living conditions of agricultural workers. I consider this a very important Amendment and I am certain that it would be very acceptable to the agricultural workers' organisation. While there may have been agreement about the Bill, I do not think there was, of necessity, any agreement about the person who is to preside over the Board. I agree that the important thing is that every agricultural worker should be in his union. Nevertheless, when a Bill comes before this House, whether it is an agreed Bill or not, hon. Members here have a responsibility to consider it and if it is possible to improve its terms, then it is their duty to do so. I would like the Secretary of State seriously to consider the proposal contained in this Amendment. It is time that we had a different attitude on these matters from that which is general now. When any Board is appointed, whatever its functions may be, the chairman is always drawn from outside the working-class. Why does it never enter into the minds of responsible members of the Government to select some one from the workshop, from the railway or from the mine to preside over one of these bodies? Those men have intelligence, experience and knowledge of the condition relating to the subject which is to be considered by this Board to a far greater degree probably, than many other members of the Board.

I have already referred to the case of another board which dealt with the conditions of workers. The chairman of that body was a well-known and wealthy baronet. He was fair-minded and in the ordinary, accepted sense of the term, well-meaning, but he had not the faintest notion of how the workers lived or of whether it was possible for people to live on 20s. a week, or on 50s. a week. If someone told him that 20s. a week was enough to maintain the working people in their ordinary ways of life, he would have accepted it. If someone else had said that the amount should be, not 20s. but 50s. he would have been in the greatest difficulty to know which party was giving him the correct advice. He was chairman of that board and he did not know one thing about the subject with which it was dealing. He had no experience of the life of the people whose wages and conditions, the board had to consider. In Scotland, we always find members of the Faculty of Advocates being pushed forward for positions of this kind. That Faculty is one of the most select trade unions in the country. Of course, its members are very nice gentlemen. That is their business. But does any member of the Faculty of Advocates know anything about the living conditions of the agricultural workers? In what kind of society do they mix? Do they go round visiting the cottages of agricultural workers? Do they attend barn dances on Saturday nights with agricultural workers? No, you will find them in high society in Edinburgh. They operate on a bank-book and not on a few shillings a week.

The Chairman

The hon. Member is in danger of developing one of his pet theories rather than explaining his Amendment.

Mr. Gallacher

I am trying to visualise the type of man who is likely to be chosen, if the Secretary of State does not experience a change of heart and if he is not prepared to accept an Amendment of this kind. However genial and plausible such a man may be, however good he may be at conciliation—as the Secretary of State suggested on an earlier occasion—he does not understand the vital question of how the agricultural worker and his family are to live. If the right hon. Gentleman wants to strengthen the Bill, if he wants to take steps which will mark a great advance and will be an encouragement to the workers to go back to the neglected agricultural industry of Scotland, he will accept this Amendment. I would insist—and I wish I could get other hon. Members including the hon. Member for East Fife (Mr. Henderson Stewart) to insist also on this—that whatever qualifications a professional representative may have, and whatever may be the lack of qualifications of a miner drawn from the pit or a railway worker drawn from a country railway siding, the miner or the railway worker would be a thousand times more valuable than the professional man as the chairman of a board like this.

If the right hon. Gentleman is not prepared to accept the principle of the Amendment, then it is clear that class and professional interests are of more concern than the advancement of the wages and conditions of agricultural workers and the re-population of the deserted lands of Scotland. I ask the right hon. Gentleman not to be in too great a hurry in answering on this proposal. I ask him to say that he will give the matter further consideration. It is a vital question whether plausibility, or a knowledge of conciliation, should count for more than fundamental knowledge, drawn from experience, of the matters which are to be considered by the Board. I ask him to select as the chairman of this body an actual workman, not someone who has been a long time away from industry but a man in daily employment who will leave his work at the times when the Board is sitting in order to act as its chairman. Such a one will have the requisite knowledge of the conditions of the agricultural workers.

5.25 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Captain McEwen)

In its wording and in its essence, this Amendment is nothing new or startling. I am sure we have all been impressed by the earnest not to say eager manner in which the hon. Member presented his case, but he did so in a way which gave me, at least, the impression that he thought he was putting forward a proposition which it would be difficult for us on this side of the Committee to swallow or even to understand. Possibly he underrates our swallowing powers, and he certainly underrates our intelligence. The fact is that one has only to look round to see that there are many in this country, in the highest places, who have started as railway porters or as miners, or whatever it may be. Some of them even decorate the benches in another place. In essence, this proposal is nothing new.

I would point out to the hon. Member that this is an unpaid position; there is no salary attached to the chairmanship of the Board. If one were to ask a person such as he suggested, to undertake these duties, one might not be thanked for it. Further, the discharge of the functions of the chairman of a Board of this kind does not necessarily depend on a close acquaintance with the conditions of those with whom the Board has to deal. It is not necessary that such should be the case. It may be argued, as the hon. Member argues, that it should be so, but it is not so in this country nor has it ever been as far as I am aware. Even the Committees of the House of Commons do not follow that principle and yet I am perfectly certain that the hon. Member will agree that those Committees are admirably served by their chairmen. If one has a person in a position of this kind who is intimately acquainted with the subject, if the person is, say, a farm labourer, surely the hon. Member himself would be the first to admit that such a person would be bound to be prejudiced.

Mr. Gallacher

Is it not the case that Chairmen of Committees of the House of Commons are selected because they have a thorough knowledge, which is vital when they have to give decisions, of the Rules of the House and its Committees? The Chairman of this Board is not to be there for the purpose of giving decisions on rules, but to give decisions in relation to the wages and living conditions of agricultural workers. Is it not necessary that the Chairman of the Board should have a knowledge of that which is vital to the work of the Board, just as the Chairman of Committees here must have knowledge of what is vital to the work of the Committees?

Captain McEwen

The Chairman in this connection has to consider and have regard to the condition of the industry as a whole as well as to particular cases which may be brought before him. As to the strictures which the hon. Gentleman has brought against the Faculty, I do not think it is either fitting or timely that I should attempt to refute them—others are much better fitted to do so than I. I presume this is an attack on the Chairman already appointed to this Committee, but I am certain that the remarks which the hon. Member has passed have no bearing whatever. In short there is no reason why the Chairman of this Board should not be chosen at the discretion of the Secretary of State, nor that the discretion of the Secretary of State should be limited in any way by any considerations other than the selection of the best man for the job. That is the only limitation which has been placed on all our selections. For these reasons I am afraid we are unable to accept the Amendment.

5.32 p.m.

Mr. Muff (Hull, East)

I intervene in a Scottish discussion with some diffidence; but do I understand from the hon. and gallant Gentleman that we are discussing in Committee a Bill which has not become an Act of Parliament and that the Chairman under the Clause now under review has already been appointed? If so I do not think it is dealing quite fairly with this House. It seems that everything is cut and dried and the Chairman has been appointed, because there is, shall I say, a docile majority of "Yes men" ready to go into the Lobby to support the Secretary of State for Scotland. In appointing the Chairman he seems to have anticipated that this Clause would be carried.

Captain McEwen

The fact is that this is not a new Board but the same Board continued. Therefore the appointment of the Chairman is not the anomaly which the hon. Member appears to think.

Mr. Muff

I, of course, accept that, but I rather contest what the Under-Secretary has said with regard to the appointment of Committees upstairs sitting chiefly on municipal and private Bills. I am taking up the argument which you, Colonel Clifton Brown, unfortunately were not able to hear. It was an eloquent argument from the Under-Secretary in which he tried to make out that it was only lawyers—I think they are called advocates in Scotland although fortunately I know very little about Scotland—who were suitable for these appointments. That only lawyers are altruistic people, according to the Secretary of State for Scotland and his very able lieutenant, is a new theory to me. To use a vulgarism, it will not wash when it goes out to a waiting world that Scottish advocates work for nothing. The Under-Secretary also cast a grave aspersion upon a body of men who serve the public for nothing. If there is one thing of which we are proud in England—

The Deputy-Chairman (Colonel Clifton Brown)

I am not at all clear what this has to do with the Amendment before the Committee.

Mr. Muff

I am replying to the Under-Secretary, but I have no wish to contest your Ruling, and if you allow me to put my argument in a few words I will leave this part of the subject. England—I emphasise England—is proud of the thousands of men and women who work for nothing on public boards and I wish to sympathise with the hon. Member for West Fife (Mr. Gallacher) and the purposes of his Amendment. This Amendment will provide for the appointment of a Chairman—and here I believe I am on the rails—who will understand what he is talking about, and who can speak without any legal phraseology. We say in England that because a chairman has lived in the same street he understands the conditions and will be able to deal intelligently with subjects coming under his review, whereas the super-lawyer has only the intelligence but not the knowledge of conditions. I am certain that the hon. Member for West Fife would not hurt a fly and that he does not wish in his Amendment to be offensive in any degree. All he is striving for, and I for one am prepared to go into the Division Lobby with him, is that the Chairman in benighted Scotland should be a man who understands the life of the agricultural workers. The Chairman might: easily be a lawyer, but on the other hand he might easily be someone drawn from another walk of life.

I therefore ask the hon. Member for West Fife to stick to his Amendment, even if he has to be Horatius on the bridge holding the fort alone. I am prepared to go into the Division Lobby with him to strike a blow and to try to upset this age-long tradition which it is high time should go by the board, namely, that it is impossible to have a Board to settle wages and so forth unless the chairman has been at the Inns of Court or the corresponding place in Scotland. I hope as an Englishman, and with the emphasis on the Englishman, that the hon. Member will stick to his Amendment and that I shall be able to carry with me a good many more Englishmen into the Lobby in support of his Amendment.

5.38 p.m.

Mr. Westwood

I trust that we shall consider this Amendmenton merit and not go into the Horatius controversy. It is a fact that there are good men in the ranks of the working classes who can act as impartial chairmen, but that is not the issue at the present moment. There can be found as good a chairman among the working classes as among the advocates. Since the Second Reading of this Bill we have been in contact with the trade unions who were carrying through the negotiations and we have their authority that they are more than pleased with the suggested appointment. They are more than satisfied with the suggested appointment, and therefore it is not for me, speaking on their behalf, to doubt their wisdom so far as this particular choice is concerned. I understand that Mr. McIntyre is a member of the Faculty and is respected by everyone. He was approached and asked to give his services, and it was pointed out that it would mean a certain amount of sacrifice for him and that no salary or pay was attached to the appointment except the ordinary expenses in connection with carrying on the work. I understand the employers and employés have accepted the appointment and agree that if it is a question of weighing up evidence and giving impartial judgment he is the man for the job.

I am not going to admit, as one who has been so often a chairman of committees, that it is only the alleged experts who can deal with these matters. I knew very little about agriculture at the time, but for 10 years I was chairman of the Agricultural Advisory Council in my own County of Fife, and I was unanimously appointed by the farmers because they knew that I would try to give a just judgment, and I presume that Mr. McIntyre will do exactly the same thing. It is not for me to argue whether it is good, bad or indifferent, but it is sufficient for me that the trade unions, on whose behalf I am speaking, as a union have accepted Mr. McIntyre on the Board to deal with these particular problems. For these reasons, despite the appeal from the back benches, I am going to advise my hon. Friends not to divide on this Amendment. I am going to be loyal to the trade unions.

5.42 p.m.

Mr. Gallacher

I know all about the story of the man coming from the railways and other industries to the other House and so on, but I would like to draw attention to the fact that when you have a national board of any kind there is always the suggestion made that the chairman of that board, whether paid or unpaid, should be drawn from the Faculty of Advocates. The trade unions may be prepared to accept this particular gentleman, I do not know him, but he belongs to the Faculty of Advocates, and that is enough for me. Whether the trade unions agree or not to this gentleman, I am quite certain that in Scotland they would be even better pleased if they had someone who came from a railway siding or from the mining industry to take the chair. Again I say, although the trade unions and the employers may have agreed, that does not absolve Members of this House from their responsibility to examine the Bill, and if they think there is any particular phase in which it could be improved from doing their duty. Have we no responsibility in this House to try and make the Bill much better? My contention is that the chairman of this Board should have a thorough knowledge and experience of the matters which may come under his consideration. In regard to the hon. Member for East Hull (Mr. Muff) I would remind him that Horatius said: Now who will stand on either hand, And keep the bridge with me? I have the hon. Member on my right but I have no one on my left hand, so in view of that, Colonel Clifton Brown, I beg leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 3, 4 and 5 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule agreed to.

Bill reported, with an Amendment; as amended, considered.

5.46 p.m.

Mr. Colville

I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read the Third time."

The smooth working of this Measure in future is really the thing that matters, and there is a very good augury for that in the good will that has been shown by both sides in the negotiations which have led up to the introduction of the Bill. The farm worker will see in it that the farmers are prepared to accept the method of wage regulation for which the workers have asked; and they will see in this a spirit of good will and co-operation which is the reflection, not merely of current labour difficulties, but of a genuine desire to do everything possible for those who are in fact their partners in the business. I have been repeatedly told by farmers, and I believe it, that they recognise that farm wages are too low and ought to be raised and, indeed, that they will be raised to the utmost that farming conditions make possible. The hon. Member for Stirling and Falkirk (Mr. Westwood) said that it was of immense importance that the economic conditions in the farming industry should permit of proper wages being paid, and that is a responsibility of the Government from which we do not shrink. I echo his words as to the importance of that aspect. The farmers have accepted this Bill in a desire to give proof of their attitude; they have accepted it subject only to the caveat that wages must have some relationship to the economic conditions of the industry.

I should like to pay tribute to the excellent spirit shown by both sides in the negotiations which led up to this Bill. We are sometimes told by our friends south of the Border that we are very quarrelsome in Scotland. We certainly can argue a point together, but in this instance there has been shown on both sides a real desire to come to an understanding. The various possibilities were examined and discussed in the negotiations with shrewdness, sound sense and a keen desire to arrive at agreement. I cannot but feel some satisfaction that we have been able to adopt a distinctively Scottish line. It is because of what lies behind the Bill in this sense more even than because of its particular provisions that I am disposed to agree with what was said by one of my hon. Friends on Second Reading, that this Measure may well be regarded in future as a great landmark and one of immense importance to the agricultural industry in Scotland.

5.49 p.m.

Mr. Mathers

Very few words are necessary from this side of the House to support the Third Reading of this Bill. The speech of the Secretary of State in moving the Third Reading was as commendable as that which he made on the Second Reading. He is right in saying that this is a Scottish Bill which adopts a different method from that adopted in the southern part of Britain in dealing with farm wages. All of us sincerely hope that the result of bringing this important machinery into operation will be to improve conditions for the agricultural workers in Scotland and that the farmers themselves will find that they have the means at their disposal. I hope, at the same time, that they will show good will in putting at the disposal of the workers the improved wages and conditions which are certainly their due. My hon. Friend the Member for Stirling and Falkirk (Mr. Westwood) said that agriculture was the Cinderella of the industry. It is wrong that that should be the case with an important industry like agriculture, and I hope this Bill will do something to remove that reproach from the great and important industry in which those engaged are just as worthy as those in any other industry.

5.51 p.m.

Mr Henderson Stewart

I would like to add my commendation of this Bill. I may have appeared a little critical of my right hon. Friend on Second Reading when I was stressing the importance of dealing with the housing of agricultural workers. I would not seek to withdraw one word of what I said then, but I would like now to take the opportunity of congratulating my right hon. Friend on the success of his negotiations. It is a considerable tribute to him to have got both sides to agree on a Measure which a few years ago was completely unacceptable to both. Circumstances have changed, but my right hon. Friend must have used his persuasive powers on both sides with effect. We are facing now the desperate need of a vastly increased production of food. Anyone who has read the most recent book of Sir John Orr's which was placed in our hands a few days ago must have been impressed with the gravity of the situation. Unless we make a supreme effort in the next year or two under clearly defined plans, we shall find ourselves in great difficulty with regard to food production. An essential factor in obtaining success in that campaign is the maintenance of a vigorous and increasing agricultural population. So far as this Bill aims at retaining on the land in proper conditions the men who work there, it is to be commended without hesitation. I hope, as my right hon. Friend has said, that in view of the immensely important part which farmers have to play in the defence of the nation at this hour, they on their part and the men on theirs will co-operate to make of this Measure a great success for the ultimate benefit of all.

Question, "That the Bill be now read the Third time," put, and agreed to.

Bill read the Third time, and passed.