§ Mr. T. Smith (Normanton)
We have devoted a great deal of time to the Scottish section of the agricultural industry. I now want to call attention to the position in agriculture with regard to wages. The Minister of Agriculture, in his very able review a few days ago, said that the nation should be grateful to the four partners in agriculture for a very wonderful harvest, the four partners being the war agricultural committees, the landowners, the farmers, and the workers. We are extremely grateful to all those partners, but I wish that gratitude to the workers could take the form of more consideration for their wages and conditions. Then our Prime Minister, in that graphic way of his, when reviewing the situation a few days ago, said:We have ploughed the land, and, by the grace of God, have been granted the greatest harvest within living memory, perhaps the greatest ever known.If I may say so, without any disrespect, it is wonderful what the Almighty can do when He is given a little help. That wonderful harvest has been obtained, not merely by the grace of God, but by the work of those in the industry, which includes the farm workers. In this House the agricultural workers have no direct representatives. For years a few of us have taken an interest in agricultural questions, and have felt it our duty to 2178 do what we could for the men and women of the countryside. We have attempted in more ways than one to get better treatment for them. On 3rd April, 1940, when my right hon. Friend's predecessor, Sir Reginald Dorman-Smith, moved the Second Reading of the Agricultural Wages (Amendment) Bill, he said that there were a number of reasons why the Bill was necessary. He said that no one would deny that agriculture demanded of those who served our soil a very high degree of skill, and, indeed, of energy and patience, but that the industry was losing far too many skilled men to munition works of one kind or another, where wages were far higher than on the land. He then went on to point out that one of the major objects of that Bill was to reduce the gap between wages in ordinary industry and wages in agriculture. There was more slobbering over conditions in the countryside on 3rd April, 1940, than I have ever heard, in a good many years' experience in this House. From all sides, statements were made as to the importance of the agricultural worker, as to his high degree of skill, as to his patriotism, as to the necessity of retaining him on the land. The Bill went through without a single dissentient voice. We thought—at least, I did—that at long last there was a recognition in this House of the value of the agricultural worker to the country.
Agriculture is the first and most important industry in the world. Men can live longer without coal than without food. It matters not how that food is served up, whether in the big hotels in the West End or in the humblest cottage, or by whatever name you call it when it is cooked; that stuff has to come from the land. It is amazing that in the most important industry there are the lowest rate of wages and the worst general conditions. I have been through six or eight counties in the past six weeks, dealing with the question of the application for a £3 a week minimum, and I have pointed out at all the conferences and meetings that it was not a question of threatening a strike, that their job was to do their 100 per cent. best, along with people in other industries, in order to win the war as quickly as possible. But the men and women working on the land have a right to more justice. When 48s. was fixed, 12 months ago, while some of us thought 2179 it too low, it was an improvement. In regard to agricultural wages, we started this war differently from the way in which we started the last.
As a matter of fact, in the last war, the Norfolk farm workers had to have a strike. In April, 1915, as a result of that strike, there was perhaps the first farm strike conference to take place in that county. It succeeded in lifting the minimum wage to the magnificent sum of 18s. a week. When we got 48s. it was certainly an improvement, although many of us contended that it was not high enough. Some time has elapsed since it was given, and the cost of living has gone up by 20 points, which, according to one professor, is equal to about 3s. 2d. in the £. Organised agricultural workers applied, in these changed conditions, for a revision of that national minimum wage and applied for the magnificent sum of £3 as against 48s. There is not an hon. Member who will say that £3 a week is too high. Indeed, if we are to have a prosperous agriculture after this war, we shall have to get down to removing this rural differentiation—to raising conditions in the countryside nearer conditions on the industrial side. When they applied for this increase they were not asking for anything extravagant.
The progress of this application is, to me, interesting. There have been five meetings, and finally, at the fifth meeting, it was decided to postpone consideration of the application to 3rd November. They ought to have made the date 5th November. I say to my right hon. Friend that there is not another trade union in the country which would have been treated as the agricultural workers have been treated in this application. At the first meeting, the farmers asked the workers to state their case, quite a reasonable thing to do. At the second meeting the farmers reported that they had asked for a meeting with the Minister and that he had refused to meet them. Will the Minister tell the House and the country why? I cannot imagine the Mines Department or the Board of Trade refusing to meet the Miners' Federation of Great Britain. I cannot imagine the transport workers or the General Workers Union being refused in such a way by any other Ministry. The farmers came back and said that the Minister refused to meet 2180 them. At the third meeting the appointed members stated that it was necessary for them to obtain a ruling from the Minister on certain points, such as what was meant by the economic position of the industry, and to obtain information as to production, prices, etc. When they met again the appointed members said the information was not available. It is rather curious that the statement of the Minister to the appointed members should be almost word for word the statement given by the appointed members as to why they should defer consideration of the application until 3rd November. The organised workers believe that the delay is largely due to the influence brought about by my right hon. Friend. They believe that. If he can remove it, all the better. The facts point in that direction.
What is meant by the economic position of the industry? The Act of 1940 contains a statement that the Board must consider not only the general economic position but also the economic position of the agricultural industry. Are the Minister and the Ministry so barren in information that they have not sufficient in order to estimate what it would cost to concede £3 per week? That is quite different from what the Minister said 12 months ago, when he went round the country meeting county agricultural committees. May I remind him what he said? When he met them in Northampton shire on 1st July, 1940, he was asked by Mr. Weston to deal with the money side. The Minister said that the whole question of finance had been gone into most carefully, and certain figures had been supplied by the banks which he could not divulge because they were confidential, but he was satisfied that nationally the position was not as difficult as it had been. The question of the increase in the wages had also been taken into careful account. It was found that they represented £16,000,000 in a full year, but it should be remembered that the farmer would get his increased prices on the harvest of 1940 and that he would pay increased wages for only a quarter of that period, namely, £4,000,000. If they took the figures for a full year and made allowances for the increase in wages and overheads amounting to £10,000,000, that would only give an estimated increase of £26,000,000 as against an increase in prices of £35,000,000. So the net result was that farmers got £9,000,000 extra over the 2181 £16,000,000 for wages and the £10,000,000 allowed for ordinary overheads.
I ask my right hon. Friend if it is not possible to estimate the cost of conceding this application without so much delay. Does my right hon. Friend want the House to believe that he and his Department are so ignorant of agricultural statistics that they cannot get out sufficient to supply the necessary information? Frankly, I do not believe it. If he can disprove it, all the better. It is the historic argument through the pages of history. We have always had that old argument, sympathy by the bucketful, but "We are afraid we cannot concede this because the industry cannot afford it." I recognise as well as anyone that it is house putting a wage demand, or conceding it, if an industry cannot pay it, and that while it is perfectly true that a good many farmers are making more than they made some years before, it is also true that there are farmers who are not making money. Some of the small farmers, some tenant farmers, and small owner-occupier farmers, deserve a good deal of consideration. I believe that the farmer should receive sufficient for his product to enable him to pay all his overheads—seeds, fertilisers, etc. —and to pay a decent wage to the worker. My point is that if this extra demand for 12s. a week increase were conceded, it would cost inside £10,000,000. If the industry or the prices of agricultural products are not sufficient to pay it, then the farmers have just as much right as mine owners to ask for an adjustment of the prices.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Mr. T. Williams), in a speech on 3rd April, said that every produce of farming, except watercress, had a guaranteed price and market. Is there any connection between the delay in dealing with this application and the White Paper issued by the Government on prices and wage stabilisation? In that White Paper there is a paragraph which says there may have to be adjustments for low-paid grades. If we are to stabilise wages and prices, for heaven's sake do not start with the lowest-paid section of industry. There may be a misunderstanding on this point, but I hope there is no connection between this White Paper and this delayed action in agriculture. If that is 2182 to be discussed, it must be discussed generally and not from the point of view of the lowest-paid worker.
As sincerely as I can, I want to ask the Minister to do one or two things. 1 do not want to attack the Wages Board, because they are perfectly within their legal rights in deferring the matter, but we have the right, in this House, of exercising some control over what they do and to use our influence on the Minister to do what we think is right. I know it is not the Minister's job to fix rates, but he can use his influence, and I want to ask him whether he will see the chairman of the Board, tell him about the dissatisfaction felt in this House and in the country at this delay, and whether he will endeavour to get the Board to meet again as quickly as possible to deal with the matter. If we refuse to pay the agricultural labourer fairly for his skill, do not let us keep him as a slave to agriculture. He does not come under the Essential Work Order or have a guaranteed week; he is debarred from leaving the land to go to other industries. He is tied down to 48s. a week, with the exception of 10 or 11 districts where there are variations up to 54s. a week. We have no right to tie him down without some compensation; therefore, if we do not pay him what is reasonable, let him take his place in the competitive labour market. If you go to parts of the country where aerodromes are being built, you will see these labourers in a field, and just over the other side of the hedgemen, whose work is no more important than agriculture, who are earning 50 or 60 per cent. higher wages than the agricultural labourer. [HON. MEMBERS: "100 per cent!"] Well, I like to be modest. Agricultural labourers work in rather isolated groups of four or five. They cannot organise mass meetings and tell the manager where to get off the next meeting morning, such as is done in other industries. They are badly organised; if they were properly organised to-day, they could remove every differentiation in a few weeks.
I have been among these agricultural labourers. I have joked with them, played darts with them and "pulled their legs," and I have found them among the best in any country—and I have been in 10 or a dozen countries. They are not being fairly treated. Do not imagine that 2183 it is cheaper to live in the country than in a town. Try it yourselves. I went to a village "pub" recently and one of my companions ordered a glass of beer, which was brought in not quite full to the top. He was told, "There's as much as you can drink there, mate," and there was when he tasted it. The farm worker's wife has to buy in small quantities and consequently pays dear. When she has to go to town for supplies, she has to pay bus fares. I could show you letters from farm workers who have pleaded for reconsideration of this matter. Some of them have worked 100 hours during each of the last two or three weeks and I say, Either pay them or liberate them and give them a fair chance to go to other industries where they can earn higher wages.
Before we go away for our holidays may eve be told that these men and women of the countryside will be treated in a better fashion? Let us look at a statement made by the Minister of Labour a few weeks ago, when he said:I feel it my duty to establish such conditions of employment as will create a sense of justice, remove grievances and prevent disputes.Is it too much to ask that the sentiments contained in that statement shall be applied to the agricultural workers of the country? Incidentally, many Members have asked me to say that wherever there is an increase of wages there should be a proportionate increase for women. I am told that in Norfolk there is to be nothing extra for women. I also want the Minister to look into the question of the amounts paid for child labour on the land. I am told that in the Isle of Wight 3d. an hour is being paid to school children. We cannot go into this question now, but it is, nevertheless, a scandal. In conclusion, I would repeat my plea to the Minister to use his influence in order to get the Wages Board to meet again and expedite a fairer settlement of this application for an increase in wages for the agricultural worker.
§ Mr. Henderson Stewart (Fife, East)
My hon. Friend the Member for Normanton (Mr. T. Smith) deserves recognition for his public spirit in raising this matter to-day and in drawing attention to the unfair, and I think serious, position that arises out of the low standard of wages paid to the farm workers of this 2184 country at the present time. He has for long held the admiration of the House for the work he has done on behalf of farm workers. I recall that two years ago he made a proposal to stabilise the agricultural worker's wage at a minimum of £2 per week. That was regarded in official circles at that time as an almost revolutionary figure, and I am glad to recall that I was one of those, a mere handful on this side, who, despite an overwhelming majority against us, spoke and voted with my hon. Friend. I will not attempt to embellish the tribute he paid to the skill, knowledge and industry of agricultural workers. The House and country recognise the unique part which these men play in the nation's life. Rather would I prefer to examine the cause of their discontent at the present time, to consider their case in relation to the war effort and the Government's policy on wages as a whole; and point out the dangers that will inevitably arise if a bold, comprehensive and coherent national wages plan is not quickly put into effect by the War Cabinet.
For the essence of the ploughman's complaint is the conditions obtaining not within his farm, but outside it. His dispute is not with his employer, but with the State, and for that reason there never was a more appropriate case to bring before the House of Commons. I hope that before the Debate is over we shall have stated the case with complete frankness and with that breadth of vision which it deserves.
What is the farm worker's complaint? I can give the answer in two sentences. It is demonstrated before my eyes every morning when I come to the House and every evening when I return. On the farm in Surrey on which my home is situated, in the fields that I see when I open my eyes in the morning, two groups of men are now working. One group, the farm hands, highly skilled, highly experienced, hard-working men, who have spent the whole of their lives learning a very difficult job, are earning from 48s. to 55s. a week. The other group, unskilled men, labourers, drawn from all walks of life, many of them having little or no experience in the job they are doing, are digging holes in the ground and erecting anti-aircraft poles. These men are drawing from £5 to £5 7s. 6d. a week. Let hon. Members observe this is a difference, not of a few shillings, but of nearly 2185 60s. a week, between the wages of these two groups.
§ Mr. Henderson Stewart
I will not say they are the same. I hope my right hon. Friend will not make too much of that point, because the real question is what money they take home each week. There may be some variation in the hours of work, but I should say that the farm workers are working longer; I know that some of them are still working when the other men have gone back in their 'bus to Brighton.
§ Mr. Henderson Stewart
The farm workers are paid from 48s. to 55s. a week, and the other men are paid almost double that sum for the work they are doing. Until three weeks ago, when the squad was changed, one of these men, a hefty youth of 19, spent the bulk of every day on the highly important job of making tea for his fellows and walking leisurely to the neighbouring village to buy chocolate, cigarettes and tobacco. I have recounted these facts because they are the standing and universal experience of countrymen in all parts of these islands at the present time. That is the contrast, and it is a bitter, galling contrast that eats into the hearts of the farm workers and their families. It is disturbing, nay, it is revolting the sense of fair play of every English village; it is undermining morale and hampering agricultural production; and what is worse, it is creating in the minds of the younger farm workers and their wives a contempt for the Government, for Parliament, and for all the State machinery that stands, or pretends to stand, for agricultural policy. It is creating a determination in the minds of these men to get out of agriculture at the first available opportunity, to get out of this toilsome, exacting, goalless trade which takes years to learn, but which gains for them as a reward from a grateful State only half of what is given to unskilled men who dig holes, semi-skilled men who make aircraft, and so on.
Of course, the same kind of unrest— I do not exaggerate when I call it unrest —is to be found among all other grades 2186 of low or comparatively low-paid workers. I am not surprised, for example, that the engineers, the Amalgamated Engineering Union—for the purpose of this argument, I am entitled to include them as in a comparatively low-paid trade—are agitating for higher wages, and I have every sympathy with their claim. I have in my possession the statistics of a large factory in Scotland engaged as to half of it on general engineering work and as to the other half on aircraft production. The skilled engineers in the factory, men who have had five years' apprenticeship and often more years at an evening technical school, are earning £6 a week on the average. The semi-skilled aircraft workers, working side by side with them under the same management, men who a month or two ago were hairdressers, shop assistants, butchers, barmen, and so on, are now earning, for the same number of hours and the same overtime, £8 10s. a week on the average. It is no wonder that the Amalgamated Engineering Union are complaining So one can go on. It is no wonder that soldiers' wives are beginning to sit up and take notice. Their husbands and sons might have been doing the same kind of aircraft work had they remained at home, but before the war they joined the Territorials, or by some other means they now find themselves in the Army; and to-day, instead of their families getting £8 a week, they often have less than one-quarter of that amount. And the same thing applies, of course, to old age pensioners. These unhappy and disturbing conditions, which are to be found throughout the country, are not the fault of the workers or of their employers; they are the direct result of the failure of His Majesty's Government to pursue a bold, decisive policy on the whole question of wages.
Mr. De la Bère (Evesham)
A national wages policy?
§ Mr. Henderson Stewart
Certainly, a national wages policy. This problem lies at the root of domestic happiness, and therefore, of national morale. Not everybody seems to realise that the amount of money which goes into a poor man's house each week is probably the most important thing that happens in that house during the week. Therefore, national morale is affected. Despite the importance of this problem, the Government have failed to face it. On the contrary, they have con- 2187 sistently funked it. Their latest gesture, this pitiful White Paper on prices stabilisation, condemned alike by labour and capital, is not only funk, but blind funk. I gather from Sir Walter Citrine that the principal authors of the White Paper were the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Minister of Labour. They really ought to consult the Prime Minister in these important matters. It is all set out in "The World's Crisis," which I have found to be an invariable guide to the efficient prosecution of the present war. As we used to say in another sense of "Mein Kampf," "The World's Crisis" never lets us down. I commend to the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Minister of Labour a passage which occurs on page 1130 of "The World's Crisis": —There is an extraordinary contrast between the processes of thought and methods of management required in war and those which serve in peace. Much is gained in peace by ignoring or putting off disagreeable or awkward questions, and avoiding clear-cut decisions which if they please some, offend others.…In war everything is different. There is no place for compromise in war.…In war the clouds never blow over, they gather unceasingly and fall in thunderbolts. Things do not get better by being left alone. Unless they are adjusted, they explode with shattering detonation."—I ask the right hon Gentlemen to bear those weighty words in mind—Clear leadership, violent action, rigid decisions one way or the other, form the only path not only of victory, but of safety and even of mercy.I do not think anyone would say that this White Paper expresses a very violent action. It certainly reflects no rigid decision, and it is conspicuous only by its lack of clear leadership. The only thing clear about it is that it clearly passes the buck to someone else. Unable or unwilling to decide themselves upon this vital matter of public interest affecting the livelihood of every citizen, the Government have passed on the problem of wages to the trade unions and the employers to do with what they like. It is an extraordinary position, and we have to consider what will be its results.
I think we shall find individual unions, quite independently of each other, will at once present claims for higher wages based on the increased cost of living. There will be no correlation in their 2188 efforts. Each will form its own judgment of conditions and select its own figure. There will be a good deal of negotiation— or so-called negotiation—but since each side will know perfectly well that the Government will pay in the long run—and every contract has a clause which covers the employers against any increase —ultimately, as sure as I stand here to-day, the claim will be accepted by the employers and up will go the wages. The stronger unions will of course get the better results. In those groups, that is where wages are fixed by the traditional voluntary machinery of wage negotiation, there will be little or no difficulty. The Government have said that it is not their responsibility; they will not intervene, and consequently the wages asked will be accepted and paid.
Meanwhile other workers in trades not supported by strong unions—trades controlled by trade boards and central wage boards, such as agriculture—will be putting in their claims. But their experience will be rather different, because here the Treasury, who, as my hon. Friend has just pointed out, have usually a representative on the boards, will exert their influence. The Treasury will take care that the full rigours of the White Paper thesis will be imposed. And so I anticipate only a meagre increase will be given to agriculture, despite the plea of my hon. Friend, and I add all the weight at my command to his plea. The prospect for agricultural workers is, I fear, bleak.
An even sterner fate awaits all those other classes—soldiers' wives, old age pensioners and those with fixed incomes coming from Government sources. Theirs will be the last claim to be considered or met, and, though their needs may be the greatest, and their poverty the most severe, they will be put off and put off with the specious but terrifying plea that if their claims for higher allowances is admitted, then inflation will indeed raise its ugly head and the country will be ruined.
What does all this mean? It means that the inequalities of reward—already glaring and already disturbing the peace of every community—will be greatly exaggerated in every part of the country. It will mean that widespread increases of wages, gained by that first group of which I spoke, will substantially expand pur- 2189 chasing power and, therefore, in a market of limited consumer goods, will inevitably send up prices. It will mean that in order to maintain stability of food prices, the Exchequer subsidy will require to be largely increased, which in turn will widen the gap between income and expenditure and make higher taxation essential. With each rise in prices and wages the lot of the poorer people and the comparatively low-paid workers, such as farm labourers, will become increasingly desperate. The Prime Minister has described the conditions which appertained in the last war. He has told us, in his own penetrating phrases, of the "fierce demand for equalisation of sacrifice." The demand could not be withstood by the Government of the last war, and I warn Ministers that it cannot be withstood by the Government in this present conflict. The scandal of unequal reward for service in the national cause is already too gross.
If this White Paper remains the last word on Government policy, let us recognise that we are running right into danger, that we are facing precisely that "shattering detonation'' about which the Prime Minister has spoken. What is needed? Surely there is no room for doubt or dispute? What is needed isa national, comprehensive and coherent wage policy affecting all industries, which will deal fairly with all classes, which will secure justice for the poorer as well as for the more fortunate groups of workmen, and which, above all, will lay down and control a stable momentary policy for the nation, without which it will be impossible to finance a victorious war. In such a war as this, where the Government, in effect, order all production, take delivery of all production and pay for all production, it surely is absurd to suggest that Ministers have no responsibility whatever for wages. There is no sense in such a contention. On the contrary, I believe it is the duty of the Government to embrace the problem of wages as a whole, and to determine over the whole field of industry the wages to be paid and the conditions to be enjoyed.
I am told that such a plan is unacceptable to the unions and unwelcome to the Government. But is it? I have referred already in another speech to the famous occasion in May last year when the Lord Privy Seal declared that "the 2190 Minister of Labour will be given powers to direct any person to perform any service required of him "and that" the Minister will be able to prescribe the terms of remuneration, the hours of labour and conditions of service." I cannot believe that the Lord Privy Seal was "kidding" the House when he made that declaration. I believe he meant what he said, and, if he did mean what he said, he must obviously have considered the matter beforehand. He must have given it very careful reflection, with the co-operation of the War Cabinet, and in consultation with the interests concerned. He must have talked with the trade unions before making that most important announcement. If it was considered desirable-and necessary then for the Government to contemplate laying down the terms, wages and conditions for industry as a whole in order to procure fair play, why is it wrong now? They have failed to live up to the high promise of May, 1940, and the result is, and will continue to be, that the hon. Member for Normanton will appeal repeatedly and in vain in this House for those lower-paid workers, and I will continue to appeal on behalf of old age pensioners and wives of soldiers and every other class—and they represent millions—whose wages are low compared with others. The unfairness and injustice of present conditions are undermining the morale of the nation, and, as one who seeks an early and complete victory, I protest against it and demand a speedy and effective answer from the Government.
§ Captain Conant (Bewdley)
I have no doubt that the plea of the hon. Member for Normanton (Mr. T. Smith) will receive support from all sections of the House. Indeed there has been agreement, not only since the war, but before the war, that agricultural workers were grossly underpaid as compared with the workers in other industries. It has been an obvious injustice, but the excuse was made that before the war the agricultural worker received certain special advantages in the matter of food and other things. That to a large extent has been changed to-day. There has been rationing, and these small advantages which might have been said to be some compensation for lower wages have disappeared. On that account, if for no other reason, there is ample justification for an increase 2191 which would go some way towards meeting the higher wages paid in other industries.
Wage conditions now have reached an altogether false position. In pre-war days we still clung to the old theory that the value of the produce sold by an industry ought to be connected somehow with the wages paid in that industry. That was a theory which did not work too badly. Under the eye of the trade unions one found, over industry as a whole, that whenever an industry's condition improved, wages went up in most industries. Nowadays that position has ceased to exist. In practice the source of wages is the State. The Government, either by direct orders, as in the case of munition factories, or by subsidies or by price fixing, provide the cash which pays wages. Therefore the State has a special responsibility to see that the level of wages is fair and just between one class of worker and another.
In connection with agricultural wages a figure has been suggested of £3 a week. That is the figure which came before the Central Wages Board. I wonder how it was reached. Is it supposed to represent what the farmer is able to afford without prices being raised? I do not think that is really the case. I am quite sure that if a minimum wage of £3 were introduced, the result in the case of the majority of farms would be a reduction in the wages of those who are now paid more than £3. In certain branches of farming—dairy farming especially—it would be quite impossible to maintain production at the present rate and pay a minimum wage of £3. I do not think that £3 is intended to represent what the farmer can afford to pay without prices being raised. It does not, of course, represent the estimated value of the services of an agricultural worker.
There is no comparison, as was said just now, between the pay of the agricultural labourer producing food and the pay of the unskilled worker over the hedge digging for an aerodrome and receiving twice or three times as much as the agricultural worker. It does not represent, therefore, either what the farmer is supposed to be able to afford or the estimated value of the services rendered by the worker. There is, as my hon. Friend said just now, only one answer 2192 to the problem, and that is for the State to lay down rates of wages throughout industry throughout the country. Though it may seem an appalling task to express in money value the services rendered by the fighting Forces, by A.R.P. workers, munition workers, food producers and others, yet whatever the result may be and however much it may be criticised, it would be far fairer to the workers than the conditions which exist to-day. It would, I think, go a long way towards preventing inflation.
Objections might be raised by trade unions, but we have gone into the war with the determination to give up our individual rights. We are fighting for liberty, but at the same time we are determined to give up individual rights which were felt to be necessary before the war. We want, once victory is won, to get our individual rights back, but I am sure trade union leaders would be ready to give up any of their functions, if necessary during the war for the common good. I believe that this system which has been advocated on numerous occasions is the only fair system with regard, not only to agricultural wages, but wages as a whole. That, of course, would mean going a long way beyond the powers of the Minister of Agriculture. I would only ask the Minister to recognise that if it is agreed that agricultural workers should receive higher wages, then the source of those wages must be provided by the State, directly or indirectly. If it is decided that prices should not be increased, then the State must so arrange things that wages are provided by the taxpayer. No other system is practicable.
There are two other small points which have a bearing upon wages, and a great effect also, I believe, on agricultural production. One is the fact that in the great majority of country villages "one finds a large amount of land which is not being cultivated. Land extending to probably several hundreds of acres even in small districts is waste land simply because it is in small parcels—a rood here and a rood there—and it is not an economic proposition for anyone to cultivate it for horticultural purposes. What is the answer to that? I read not long ago of some village which decided to cultivate all waste land on communal principles, and every man, woman and child gave 2193 up so many hours a week to cultivating waste plots. I have no doubt that the result will be the production of a great deal of additional food. It is a great pity, to my mind, that this village which is held up as an example is the only village which is using waste land. If that is practicable in one village, it should be practicable throughout the country if a proper appeal were made to village communities.
As far as labour is concerned, in the majority of villages there is a large number of people evacuated from the towns —people bombed out in many cases—who have very little to do at present. Some of them, I am told, are very reluctant to take any part in the ordinary running of the village. It should be possible to bring together that unskilled labour which one finds in many villages on the one hand and the uncultivated land on the other hand. The other point relates to a disease which in my innocence I had imagined was confined to soldiers. I refer to the paper plague. It is well known that a great many divisions of the British Army are employed in compiling paper forms, and that the disease had spread even before the war to agriculture and other industries. I know of actual cases where production has been diminished by the enormous number of forms which farmers are called upon to fill up. There is a village in my constituency which was without milk for 10 days because no one could be found who would fill up the forms necessary with regard to milk, risking the enormous penalties to which they would become liable if they filled them up incorrectly. Ultimately it was settled by the good offices of the Ministry of Food.
I would beg the Minister to do everything he can to cut down the use of paper. I know it is inevitable, when you have control, to have an enormous number of forms filled up, but it should be cut down to the minimum, because it is seriously affecting production. I heard of a small farmer who wanted to mow a field, and he applied for a piece of barbed wire to cut the field in halves so that his stock could occupy one-half while he mowed the other. When the wire arrived, after many visits from officials and the filling-up of many forms, it was too late to mow the grass. These 2194 muddles are bound to arise, but they are having a serious effect on some branches of farm production. I hope the Minister will not lose sight of this very important aspect of the production of food. Considering the position of agriculture when the war started, the way in which we have been able to produce food on land which one would have thought incapable of producing it is amazing. The agricultural community have done wonders, and I hope no restrictions will be put in their way which are unnecessary and which will diminish the rate of production.
§ Mr. Horabin (Cornwall, Northern)
I want to say a few words in support of the claim of farm workers for a 60s. minimum, which I feel to be a very reasonable one indeed. It is justified by the cost of living and by the high degree of skill required of farm workers in carrying out their ocupation. Can the disparity between agricultural and industrial wages be justified? Of course it cannot. Even unskilled labourers and women industrial workers are earning higher wages than farm workers. The scheduling of agriculture as an essential industry makes the case for a minimum wage even stronger. No farm worker can leave the land for the factories. I do not disagree with that—it is vital that labour should be retained on the land—but it places the onus on the Government to see that farm workers get wages equivalent to those of comparable industrial work. They are entitled to that degree of compensation for their loss of freedom to offer their labour where they will. But, apart from the justice of their case, I think the grant of a 60s. minimum is justified, in fact dictated, by expediency. Surely the object of scheduling agriculture was to maintain output, and you will only get the necessary output from agricultural workers if they are contented and feel that they are getting a square deal and equality of treatment with other workers. The whole purpose of the Government's policy may be defeated if they fail to accord equality to agricultural workers. That, of course, would be disastrous from the point of view of our war effort.
Is it practicable to give a minimum wage of 60s. a week to farm workers? Cart the farmer afford it, or does it mean increased prices again—another turn of the inflationary wheel? I say unhesita- 2195 tingly that it is the duty of the Government to see that the farmers are put into a position to pay an adequate wage now and in the future. Czechoslovakia before the war was even more dependent upon her industrial exports than we are, but she was able, by bold constructive measures, to put agriculture on a sound basis, in fact to increase the price paid to the farmers for their wheat and at the same time to reduce the- cost of bread to the industrial population, and that without any subsidy whatever. If an industrial nation like the Czechs could achieve that result we should be able to do at least as much. What stands in the way of the Government giving this 60s. minimum? Is it that they are afraid of the inflationary effect of even justifiable wage increases? I suspect that they are trying to reach two diametrically opposed objectives by the same means, and that just cannot be done. If they want to induce the people to work their hardest they must have a co-ordinated wage policy. At the same time, if they want to stop inflation they can only do it by preventing people spending. They are trying to stop people spending by discouraging wage increases, which are vitally necessary in order to get the people to work their hardest. As a result of this policy the Government are getting the worst of both worlds. They are getting inflation and they are getting discontent in all sections of the community.
The way to stop inflation is not by keeping down wages or refusing justifiable increases in wages but by complete rationing. That stops people spending either their incomes or their capital on consumption. If the Government control inflation by complete rationing they can use their wages policy as an inducement to get people to work their hardest. If they do that, they can co-ordinate wages and they can give essential increases to underpaid sections of the community without being afraid that those increased wages are going to increase the competition for our diminishing supplies of consumption goods as the war goes on. It is, I believe, possible for the Government to insist on a minimum wage of 60s. a week for the farm worker and to see that other underpaid sections of the community get wages which enable them to maintain a reasonable and decent standard of living in 2196 accordance with the war effort they are putting forward.
§ Mr. Moelwyn Hughes (Carmarthen)
Earlier to-day I asked a Question of a colleague of the right hon. Gentleman's and followed it with a supplementary in which I asked whether the Minister was satisfied. The answer was, "It is not for me to be satisfied; I am just giving the facts." Not dismayed by that reply, I will repeat the Question to the Minister of Agriculture and ask him whether he is satisfied that 48s. a week is good enough for the agricultural worker for a week's work? I will go further and ask him whether he is satisfied with the discrepancies that arise in the administration of the 1940 Act with regard both to wages and hours? The hours are laid down by the county committees. I believe that the Act of 1940 does not give the Board any power to legislate for hours, but only for the totality of wages without reference to hours. The question of hours is left to the county committees, and they vary up and down the country from 50 to 54 in the summer and 48 to 54 in the winter. In other words, it is possible to have six additional hours pulled out of the agricultural worker for the same wages.
In wages the discrepancies are even wider. Thirty-two of the 47 areas are still on the minimum of 48s. Fifteen of them have either laid down or have proposed minimum wages varying from 49s. to 54s. I have been through the list, county by county, and find discrepancies in adjacent counties which cannot possibly be justified. Why should it be 54s. in Lincolnshire and 48s. in Derbyshire? Why should it be 54s. in Middlesex and 48s. in Buckinghamshire? I can detect no principle whatever in the variations in wages in different counties. When learning the history of the law I used to be taught what is called Equity, the keeper of the King's conscience. When it was asked where the principles upon which equity is applied should be found, the answer was, "No, it varies according to the size of the Chancellor's foot." Looking at the decisions of these committees I can only say that in their administration of the Act the figures for hours of wages vary according to no known principle but only according to the consciences of the committee—whether they are hard and tough or tender towards the proper claims of the agri- 2197 cultural worker. On the figures given by my hon. Friend the Member for Normanton (Mr. T. Smith), I do not think that it will be disputed that the agricultural industry as an industry can very well shoulder the burden of the wage which is asked by the agricultural worker. The money is there, but the problem, unfortunately, is not as simple as that. If the industry has the money, has the individual farmer got it?
That is where we come up against difficulties which are very obvious in areas such as those I have the honour to represent. In my county and the adjacent counties we have an area of family farms. We have very few large farms, and in the whole county of Carmarthen I doubt whether there is a handful of farms of 250 to 300 acres. So long as the farm is of a size that the family can work, well and good, but there are plenty of farms which are just too big for the family and where they must have paid assistance. Hon. Members have pointed out the obvious fact that the farmer must get for his produce a proper return that will enable him to pay a proper wage. That is right but the figure for the produce that you would require to pay to enable the small family farmer to pay the proper wage for the worker he must have would have to be far more than the economy of the country might justify. I therefore ask my right hon. Friend to direct his. attention to the problem of the small family farm which must have assistance. During the war there has been a development of that assistance in the form of mechanical appliances. Tractors have gone round the countryside and have done the ploughing, drilling and harrowing. That has been a great help, but at the same time that this mechanical assistance has arrived we have seen the countryside denuded of the casual assistance upon which the economy of the countryside which I represent largely depends. The Army and munitions have taken it.
The mechanical assistance does not go far enough. My experience of the countryside is that in addition to the mechanical assistance there is that enormous neighbourliness that one finds, and I should like at this first opportunity I have had in the House to pay my testimony to the neighbourliness of the countryside, to the way in which people from one farm and another are prepared 2198 to help each other. I have a cottage and two acres of ground. I ploughed up one acre to plant potatoes, but they would never have been planted had it not been for neighbourliness. The casual labour was not to be had. I am appalled when I think of what will happen when those potatoes have to be pulled. Neighbourliness will not provide nearly enough workers for that occasion. That is only a personal instance, but it does serve to emphasise the need for assistance to the small farmer, and to my mind that question is inextricably linked with the question of raising wages. I ask my right hon. Friend to consider the provision of mobile assistance, which has been done for ploughing and harrowing, and will have to be done for the harvest, in all its implications in regard to agriculture as a whole. When that has been done it will remove the great argument which always meets the request for a proper wage for the agricultural worker, that there are some who cannot pay, and we know that they cannot pay. Take that problem away and we shall find that the industry is prepared to subscribe to the idea which is accepted on both sides of the House, that the agricultural worker should get a wage which is commensurate with his contribution to the national economy.
§ Mr. Granville (Eye)
I should like to add a few words to the appeals made to the Government from all quarters of the House to give the agricultural worker a national minimum wage. The Minister of Agriculture told us the other day that he expects a record harvest, and I should have thought thiswas just the time to appeal to him to show generosity in this matter, especially when he has the assistance of a Parliamentary Secretary who used to make speches from this side of the House, on behalf of his party, advocating the cause of the agricultural worker. The fight in Parliament for the farm worker has been a long and an uphill one. It was not until a few years ago that we succeeded in getting unemployment insurance extended to agricultural workers. In the 1929 Parliament, when we had a Labour Government, we were hopeful that we should see the status of the agricultural worker recognised in our scheme of national economy, but, let us be frank, we had to wait for the National Government to give the agricultural 2199 worker recognition in the form of extending to him unemployment insurance. I should have thought that the present war situation when, as one hon. Member has said, the State is, in effect, paying the wages, would have been the opportunity for the Minister of Agriculture to tackle the Chancellor of the Exchequer on this question and that is what it amounts to—asking at the same time for the assistance of the Minister of Labour, whose colleague, I am glad to see, is attending this Debate, to show his recognition of the importance of the agricultural worker. He should go to the Chancellor of the Exchequer and say, "This is the time, when all parties in the State are supporting the Government, to give the agricultural worker a national minimum wage." We are rejoicing about the act of God in giving us a bumper harvest, and the Minister ought to take this opportunity to do what he can for the men who, more than anybody else, have assisted in getting that harvest.
Like other hon. Members, I recognise the difficulties of farmers. In my part of the world they have endured 10 years of depression. They are small farmers, they have to pay tithe, and they have had a continual fight, the arable farmers, against the world price of wheat and other problems, and when the Minister of Agriculture came along to demand from them greater output to make up the shortage in food supplies many of them found it absolutely impossible to give him that extra production because of lack of capital. I have taken the opportunity on many occasions recently—
§ Mr. Granville
—and in 1929, and in 1932—to say to the right hon. Gentleman and the Government that these small farmers should be given help to assist the Government in its drive for more food production. It is extremely difficult for them to have to meet a higher wage bill. At the end of the week, when he is making up his outgoings and incomings, the problem of finding cash for the wages is his greatest difficulty. Therefore, I agree with the hon. Member who opened this Debate that it is the responsibility of the State to give the agricultural worker a status and to enable farmers to pay a minimum wage. The Government do not hesitate to hand 2200 out millions of pounds in various directions, and if the ordinary small fanner is unable to meet this extra wage demand, it would be an extremely good investment for the Chancellor of the Exchequer to put him in the position of being able to pay a reasonable wage and thus to keep farm workers happy and satisfied on the land.
We hear a great deal about reconstruction after the war. I hope that in connection with any schemes of reconstruction the Government will remember the Debates we have had upon agriculture during the past ten or fifteen years, and face up to the problem of whether they do or do not want to have an efficient and effective agricultural industry in this country. It may be that we shall have to re-design our national economy. In peace time agriculture apparently does not matter to Governments, but when war comes my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture is faced with the superhuman task of going about the country to persuade farmers to grow enough food to make up for the Shortage in imported foods. The right hon. Gentleman is doing well at his job. He has earned the praise of this House and of the country. Let him do a great and generous thing, and set up his name in history, by giving this small concession to the men who have helped him to get his harvest—the agricultural workers of this country.
§ Mr. R. Morgan (Stourbridge)
I rise to take part in this Debate because I want to follow up what has been my policy since I became a Member of this House, and that is to secure a suitable living wage for the agricultural worker. Some time ago I seconded a Motion moved by my hon. Friend who opened this Debate to-day in favour of a minimum wage for agricultural labourers. I think we then asked for £2 a week. One of our chief supporters at that time was the present Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, whose absence to-day I regret, and especially the cause of it. I want to put a question to the Minister. I understand there is a minimum wage in Scotland of £3. A large number of agricultural labourers are receiving 60s. a week in Scotland. I was told that yesterday by a Member of this House. In the last Debate there was a lot of talk about economic and non-economic farms. My own theory is that if a farm cannot pay a labourer 60s. 2201 a week, it is a bad and an uneconomic farm. I do not know whether the Government should step in and help such poor farmers. The hon. Member for Eye (Mr. Granville) said that in peace-time these things did not matter, but that is just where I differ from him. When it comes to resettlement after the war we shall want to attract workers back to the land, and we shall have a very poor chance of doing so if we can only offer them 48s. a week. What sort of response shall we get? We must look much further a field in this matter, and not only in terms of war production.
§ Mr. Granville
The hon. Member has referred to me. I meant to say that in peace-time it did not matter to the Government.
§ Mr. Morgan
Again I cannot agree. This industry does matter to the Government and to everybody. It will matter just as much after the war as it does during the war. I think that hon. Members on all sides of the House will agree with that statement.
Mr. De la Bère (Evesham)
This may be one of the shortest speeches I have made. I rise merely to support what has been said about increasing the wages of the agricultural worker. I am consistent. Ever since I have been in this House I have fought for this cause. I have voted against the Government and, together with the hon. Member for Stourbridge (Mr. R. Morgan), defeated them in a Committee. I make no apology for doing so, and I should do the same again. Some heart should be put into this matter. I remember a former Chancellor of the Exchequer saying that what was wanted throughout the country, and not only in the coalmining industry, was plenty of work and the heart to do it. That was the secret of success and was the source of all happiness. You may multiply the most wonderful machines and have the most modern methods but the human element is the most important, and will remain the key to the situation. I believe in the human element, and the only reason I am in this House is because I want to assist those who need assistance; and I lend my voice to what has been said to-day.
§ The Minister of Agriculture (Mr. R. S. Hudson)
One of the most interesting facts arises out of the speech made by the hon. 2202 Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Horabin), who said that the important thing was that farmers should be placed in a position to pay decent wages. The hon. Members for the Eye Division of Suffolk (Mr. Granville), East Fife (Mr. Henderson Stewart), and Carmathen (Mr. M. Hughes) agreed with him. One of the main reasons why we are facing the present difficulties is that the agricultural labourer is the worst paid worker in the whole range of industry, partly because of the policy which has been followed and advocated by these hon. Gentlemen in peace-time. No-one is more delighted than I at their speeches to-day, and I hope it is a permanent conversion One of my most important tasks is to see whether we can work out details of a satisfactory postwar policy to safeguard a sound and healthy agriculture as the central part of our national life. You cannot have a healthy and well-balanced agriculture unless farmers are in a position to pay reasonable and decent wages to their workers.
Mr. J. J. Davidson (Glasgow, Mary-hill)
Surely the Minister is not suggesting that Members who made representations in the past on behalf of the agricultural industry were in favour of low conditions for the agricultural workers.
§ Mr. Hudson
Hon. Members may not have been in favour of them, but the effect of their policy certainly was to put farmers into the position that they could live only by paying miserable wages to their workers. There is no question about that at all. One of the main planks of our post-war policy must be the restoration of prosperity to agriculture, with the object of making agriculture so attractive in relation to other industries that instead of workers drifting off into the towns to cam more money they will want to remain on the land, where they are needed, and conditions on the land shall be such as to attract the brightest of our young people.
It is an entire misconception to believe that the work of an agricultural labourer is unskilled. The agricultural labourer is among the most highly-skilled of any workers. There has been a gap between the agricultural labourer and other workers—not only the industrial worker but other workers in the countryside. I discussed this matter with the Minister of 2203 Labour, and one of the objects which we had in view last year in suggesting that there should be a considerable increase in agricultural wages was to try to lessen that gap. I confess that I, personally, have been most disappointed by the result, because we only succeeded, by increasing agricultural wages, in lessening that gap for a very short time. The immediate result which followed in a very few weeks was that the other people in the countryside said they had always been accustomed to having more money than the agricultural labourers, and that as the latters' wages had been increased by 10s. or 12s. their wages must be increased too. So, the gap persists. There were, for instance, the roadmen. No one can claim for a moment that the roadman's job is as skilled as that of the agricultural worker, but he has always been accustomed to receiving more than the agricultural worker—I do not know why —and now I understand that claims have been put in that, because agricultural workers' wages have gone up, theirs must go up too. A great deal of what we have been trying to achieve has, therefore, not been achieved. Sooner or later, by some means, we simply have to lessen that gap.
That, however, is a very different matter from what we are considering today. I would recall to hon. Members, what apparently some of them have overlooked, judging by their speeches, that the Act of 1924 set up county wages committees. There are 47 altogether, one for most counties, in some cases one for two counties. These committees consist of representatives of the farmers, representative of the workers, an elected chairman and two independent members. Their task is to determine wage rates inside their counties, and it is quite clear when Parliament passed that Act it intended, by setting up those committees with independent powers, to recognise what is a fact, despite what the hon. Member for Carmarthen said, that conditions in agriculture in England vary enormously. For instance, some of the farmers in Lincolnshire can obviously afford to pay much higher wages than some of the farmers in Derbyshire. You cannot have a single flat rate of wages or hours applicable throughout the country, because of the enormous variation in natural climatic 2204 conditions. But when the Act of 1940 was introduced it was not meant to supersede the committees; its object was, as I understand it, to establish a lower limit and to say that counties must not fix wages below a certain national limit. That is what the Act of 1940 set out to do.
§ Mr. T. Smith
That may be true, but evidently the Act intended that minimum to be sufficiently high, because in the Act itself it is laid down that if an actual minimum is suggested and any particular district or part of a district feels it cannot say it, it has the right to appeal.
§ Mr. Hudson
What happened last year was that the workers put forward a claim for a certain figure as the national minimum. It is an open secret that the Board had it in mind to fix the figure of 42s., the average minimum for the country being 38s. But my right hon. Friend the Minister of Labour and I came along and said it was necessary to try to lessen the gap, and, at the same time, to try and stop the drift from agriculture. We, therefore, suggested to the two sides of the industry, the farmers and the workers, that they should jointly suggest to the Board that instead of a minimum of 42s. the figure should be 48s. Included in that figure was a consideration for tying the men to the industry. If there had been no such consideration the Board would only have given 42s. The men therefore have had, and are having to-day, a definite consideration for being tied to the industry. In May of this year the workers put forward a request for 60s., and the Board, in accordance with its procedure, considered the matter and heard both sides. Will hon. Members please note, however, that under the terms of the Act the Board is required to take into consideration the general economic conditions of the country and also the conditions of the agricultural industry? That is a statutory duty which is laid upon the Board.
The hon. Member for Normanton (Mr. T. Smith) asked me why I had refused to see the farmers. I refused because Parliament has entrusted the task of discussing and deciding on a minimum to the Board, and not to me. The Board was deliberately set up as a buffer between the State and the county committees, and it would be most improper, in my view, for me to exercise any influence over the 2205 Board. It would be most improper for me to see the chairman, and it would be most improper for me to see either the men or the farmers. I have consistently refused to do so. They are quite entitled to ask me for information, and I have provided them with a document which was as impartial and objective a statement as I was able to devise. It is a long document, setting out as far as possible what was the actual condition of the industry. It ended by saying, and I believe it to have been true then and to be still true, that it was impossible until the harvest had actually been gathered in to say what would be the effect over a period of 12 months of the operation of the new rates of wages.
It is quite true that when the new rates of wages were under consideration the Government made as good an estimate as possible of what was likely to be their effect and cost. We did allow a margin, and as it turned out we were very wise in allowing that margin, because we made our calculation on the basis of an average rise in the minimum of between 8s. and 10s., whereas actually it has been more than that. In one case the rise for an individual county was, I believe, 17s. The total cost to the farming community has therefore been in excess of the figure we forecast. Not only has it been in excess of the figure we forecast, because the average rise was greater than we allowed for, but it must also be remembered that the rates averaging 38s. which were in operation before were paid to men who, in a great number of cases, were stood off for quite material periods during the year. During the past 12 months, very largely as a result of the orders for increased production and the increased work which has been imposed upon farmers, and also because the farmer was afraid of losing his men, there has been in fact no unemployment—I was going to say no unemployment at all, but that would be a slight exaggeration. The amount of unemployment among agricultural workers has been insignificant. Therefore, the agricultural worker, taking the year as a whole, is definitely much better off.
Some hon. Members, I think the hon. Member for East Fife, talked as though 48s. was what the average farm worker earned in the average week. That is not so. Forty-eight shillings is merely the national minimum. No fewer than 14 2206 counties have already increased the county minimum to more than 48s. In addition there is much working of overtime, particularly during hay and corn harvest. There must be very few workers indeed who, through the summer at all events, have earnedless than —3 a week. I have every sympathy, as everyone must have, with the agricultural worker feeling in these times that he is earning less money than he should, on seeing a worker on an aerodrome earning more, seeing, perhaps, his own child come back with —4 a week. Equally, let us not exaggerate. I asked the Minister of Labour about this point this morning and he told me that no one working on an aerodrome could earn —5 unless he was working overtime.
The right hon. Gentleman has put forward the argument that because hon. Members here have supported industrial workers to get a certain rate of wages it has affected agricultural workers. Now he is saying that there is not so much difference between them, after all.
§ Mr. Hudson
All that I am saying is that it is obvious that an agricultural worker, seeing another man in the same village with bigger earnings, feels a sense of irritation, but do not let us exaggerate. When I provided a statement on the economic position of the industry to the Wages Board, I said quite definitely that I did not think that until the harvest was in it could fairly be said what had been the result of the increased wages. I still think that statement is true. The Board decided to tell the parties that they would meet again in November, and have virtually promised that when that time comes they will grant an increase of wages. So the position stands. In the meantime the proper thing, as the Wages Board said, and as I have repeatedly emphasised, is for the workers to set in motion, and keep in motion, the statutory machinery for settling wages in the counties. The 1940 Act was not meant to override that machinery. We see that in 14 counties wage increases have been granted. I think the proper thing to do is to move the counties to consider —
§ Mr. T. Smith
Surely the right hon. Gentleman must have looked at the facts. When his predecessor moved the Second Reading of the Bill he specifically stated that one reason why there was a Bill to make a national minimum was because the county system had failed from the fair wages point of view because of its anomalies.
§ Mr. Hudson
I am just trying to point out that whatever may have been true in the past that certainly is not true today because 14 counties have already increased the minimum, and the proper thing is for the workers to continue that process, to make application to the individual counties for such increases as the independent members think possible in the light of the circumstances in the county. I see no reason why that procedure should not be successful. It would be wholly wrong, and it certainly needs legislation, for me to intervene.
§ Mr. Shinwell (Seaham)
; I intervene, having listened to some part of the Debate, and having convinced myself that the case presented by my hon. Friend the Member for Normanton (Mr. T. Smith) was one that deserved much more consideration than has been given to it. I have been at some pains to understand what is the defence presented by the right hon. Gentleman. Does he contend that the wages based on the regular machinery operating in the agricultural industry are high enough, or does he contend that in the circumstances—he used the term "in the circumstances"—of such county no higher wage can be paid? Is that the defence, or is the defence that the Government wash their hands of the whole problem? If that is the defence, I must be quite frank. I want to ask whether the right hon. Gentleman is speaking for the Government as a whole. Is he speaking for the Labour Members in the Government? [Interruption.] All I can say is that I am astonished; indeed I am staggered. I think that in expressing my astonishment I am reflecting the opinion of my hon. Friends behind me.
§ Mr. Orr-Ewing (Weston-super-Mare)
The hon. Gentleman spoke just now of the Government washing their hands of responsibility in this mater. He must have forgotten that he and those behind him warmly supported the Bill in 1940 which supplied exactly the machinery 2208 which makes it necessary for the Minister to keep his hands out of the matter.
§ Mr. Shinwell
I am obliged for the intervention of the hon. Member, which appears to me to be somewhat irrelevant. If he feels it is quite a relevant intervention, I will furnish him with a reply. It is perfectly true that we supported the machinery, but it is equally true that in existing circumstances the machinery is found to be defective because it provides variations—
§ Mr. Speaker
What the hon. Member is asking for would need legislation. That is quite out of Order.
§ Mr. Shinwell
I am grateful to you, Sir, for correcting me and putting me in Order. With great respect, may I make the submission that it appears that many hon. Members have equally been out of Order?
§ Mr. Speaker
I quite agree, but that does not justify the hon. Member's continuing that line of argument.
§ Mr. Shinwell
Perhaps I lack the necessary tact. I do not propose to embark upon a discussion of the machinery regulating wages in the agricultural industry. I am not entirely at fault. My right hon. Friend dragged me by the hair of the head into this. My right hon. Friend has stated the case for the Government, and for right hon. Gentlemen in the Government who surely are sympathetic to the claims of the agricultural worker, who surely believe that a —3 minimum is not too much for him, who surely have believed for a long time that a —3 minimum demand ought to have been met long ago, who surely believe that the agricultural industry at present, with certain exceptions that could be met, can afford, with prices and subsidies as they are, and with the whole forces of the Government behind the agricultural industry, to pay a decent wage. I am surprised at my right hon. Friend. Does he still regard himself as the protagonist for the farmer interests in the agricultural industry, as was once the case in peacetime, when speeches to that effect were made so frequently from the Government benches, or does he regard himself as the friend of the farming industry as a whole, including the agricultural worker? I think we are entitled to some reply.
I will say just a word, although I shall not transgress the Rules of the House, on 2209 the position of the Government in this matter. My hon. Friend the Member for Normanton made what I regard as a very modest request. Requests that come from this side- are, in my judgment, frequently far too modest. He did not say to the Government, "We demand immediately a £3 minimum." He asked the Government to use what influence they had, presumably with the independent members on the Central Wages Board and on the county wages boards, to secure a decision in favour of a £3 minimum wage. It will be found, when we come to consider the implications of the White Paper, that the Government will have to proceed much further than they have done if they are to satisfy contending elements in this country engaged in the industry and, at the same time, deal with the vexed question of inflation. But that is not the question. We ought to know where the right hon. Gentleman stands. Is he prepared to use his good offices with the committees? What is the answer? I will sit down for a moment, and wait for a reply. No answer? Then we can only assume that the right hon. Gentleman is not prepared to use his good offices with the independent members. In other words, as I have already remarked, he washes his hands of the whole problem. The agricultural workers must wait until November, until the Wages Board meets. In November the harvest will be over. What is to happen then?
§ Mr. Hudson
I do not want to be misquoted. I said that the proper procedure was to make use of the existing wages machinery which is open to the workers. I said that if use is made of the proper wages machinery, the county committees can be moved to consider the question of increasing wages, and that that has been done.
§ Mr. Shinwell
I cannot see why my right hon. Friend imagines that I have misquoted him. He certainly referred to some proceedings which might take place in November. But I will take the point he has made. He says that the workers may avail themselves of the existing machinery. They have done so, and they have had increases, but in no case has there been an increase which brings the wage to £3 a week. Is it proposed that they should again appeal to the Wages Board, and then again appeal to the Wages Board—that this is to be a con- 2210 tinuous process throughout the war, engendering discontent around the countryside? Hon. Members opposite have appealed so often for consideration to be given to the farm labourer. They have declared so frequently that the first charge on agriculture should be a contented farm working community. Do they propose now to allow the Government to get away with it, as the Government have so often got away with it?
§ Mr. Speaker
The hon. Member is again proposing something which would require legislation. On the Adjournment he can only propose any thing which would involve the use of existing machinery.
§ Mr. Shinwell
I was a little late in coming to my point, because I directed attention to what my hon. Friend had asked for—not that there should be a reorientation of the whole of the ma chinery, but that the right hon. Gentle man should use what influence he has to induce the independent members on the committees to give their decision in favour, not of a variable wage, but of a minimum wage of £3 for the country as a whole—perhaps with certain exceptions. That does not require legislation.
§ Mr. Henry Strauss (Norwich)
Does the hon. Member suggest that it would be a proper thing for the Government to seek to influence independent members of a tribunal? If they did that, would those members remain independent?
§ Mr. Shinwell
It is the easiest thing in the world. I am surprised that my hon. Friend, who belongs to the legal fraternity and has a thorough knowledge of jurisprudence and matters of that kind, is not aware how easy it is to deal with this matter. It is not interference. All that my right hon. Friend requires to do is to say that the Government believe that the farm workers of this country, taking them by and large, ought, in existing circumstances, to have a minimum wage of £3 a week. If my right hon. Friend said that, it might be regarded as influencing independent members of the committees. I do not know whether it would influence them, but it would be a. very fine gesture indeed, and it would go a long way towards satisfying the farm workers. But what has my right hon. Friend done? He has gone the other 2211 way round. He has said that, having regard to the increases they have received in some counties, having regard to the fact that they have worked overtime at some times, and having regard to the fact that workers on aerodromes do not earn £5 a week without working some overtime, he cannot do what he is asked to do. In fact, he has put up the best employers' case that has been made for some time.
I am surprised at my right hon. Friend, because he has a heart of gold. He is not so stern and unyielding as his exterior would represent. He is a man who has himself been favoured by fortune, and I know he would not desire that the farm worker, in his humble capacity, should be deprived of a decent standard of living. But maybe the Minister has somebody behind him. Perhaps it is the Chief Whip, who is trying to emulate his predecessor, with some measure of success —ready to keep the House and the hon. Gentlemen opposite in order. He has behind him the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who is afraid of inflation and who has agreed to the Government's wage policy of increases through the required trade-union machinery. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Labour said recently that men should be allowed to earn high wages because it would mean more production, but it seems that with agriculture it is quite different. You want production but not high wages. The Government and their agricultural friends do not want the agricultural worker to have too high a wage or even a decent wage in war-time, because once a man gets a decent wage he forms the habit of demanding a decent wage and he may want it in peace-time. Is that the trouble?
We on this side are extremely dissatisfied with the conduct of the Government, and we want to make this dissatisfaction known to the country. My hon. Friend the Member for Normanton has worked hard on this problem; he has been round the countryside and knows what people are saying. He has referred to the patriotism of the farm workers, and I applaud it, although I am bound to say that I do not like their occasional docility. I am sorry that my right hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry is not here to-day, because I re- 2212 call that when he was on the opposite side of the Table, when we were called the Opposition, he made eloquent orations on the subject of raising the standard of living of the farm worker. I wonder whether, in his unfortunate temporary seclusion, he would be ready now to fortify the views of the Minister? Would he care to come to that Box and say that the farm worker has had a square deal? The Government ought to be ashamed of themselves on this matter. Are they not a little ashamed? I believe that deep down in the Minister's heart he feels a little ashamed. At least I hope so, for his own good. I should hate to feel that he has it on his conscience that he has not done the right thing. At any rate, this is not the last word, not by a long chalk. We are going away for a little time, and there will be discussions and legitimate agitation in the country, coupled with the war effort. Men will go on producing but will continue their legitimate demands for a decent standard of life for the salt of the earth of this country —the agricultural worker. I hope my hon. Friends will associate themselves with this agitation and that Members in other parts of the House will feel as we do in saying that the claims of the agricultural worker should be met.
§ Colonel Sir George Courthope (Rye)
I had not intended, until a few moments ago, to raise my voice in this Debate, but I do so now because I believe that in every quarter of the House there is the same motive—that we want to do all we can to improve the status of the agricultural worker. I admit at once that I may be prejudiced, because I am paying something over £1,000 every month in wages to farm labourers. I am hoping that by the sale of my crops and so on I may be able to get it back, although it is rather slender hope. If I am right in believing that we are all actuated by the same underlying motives, I think it is deplorable that this House should go away on the note of controversy and dissatisfaction that we have heard to-day. We all know perfectly well that wages machinery exists, but we cannot properly to-day or, I think, at any other time urge immediate legislation to alter this matter. That machinery can be put into force. As a man who has farmed on a large scale for a good many years and who has been on the friendliest terms with my agricultural 2213 labourers, I cannot recall any occasion in more than 30 years when I have ever stood off one of my workers. I have always been able to find work of some kind.
While I yield to no one in my desire to see the farm worker earning a wage that will keep him contented and reasonably prosperous and will encourage his children to take his place and remain on the land, I want to remind those who share that view that if we attempted to go too fast in this matter we might defeat our own ends. It must be possible, and I hope it will be possible, if the fanner has to pay these good wages, to earn enough to live on and for the profits of the farm to be sufficient to maintain the fertility of the soil and to draw into agriculture what is lacking to-day—the necessary working capital. I would remind the House how greatly the agricultural labourer suffered after the last war because we attempted to go a little too fast.
§ Mr. T. Smith
Not with wages. After the last war this House gave a guarantee that four years' notice would be given to farmers before the repeal of the Act, and it was done within six months. Not only did the fall in prices ruin many fanners, but it also brought down agricultural wages, and the right hon. and gallant Gentleman cannot say that we went too fast in this respect, because the figures are against him.
§ Sir G. Courthope
I was in the House at that time and took part in the Debates. I made a speech on the Second Reading of the Agriculture Act, and I may remind the hon. Member that I moved an Amendment for its rejection on the Third Reading, and got only three Members to support me. I did so on the grounds that T did not think the consuming community would tolerate the amount of subsidy required to give the guarantees. The point I am making is that, in our efforts to improve the lot of the agricultural workers, we must at the same time ensure that the farmers are able to pay the wages. If we try to do one thing without doing the other, we may ruin the farmers and, in the long run, cause greater poverty to the agricultural workers. Personally, I believe that this harvest and the farming accounts for this year may show that the farmers are in a position, as we all hope they will be. 2214 to pay an even better wage than now. For I would remind hon. Members that a great many agricultural workers are receiving substantially more than the minimum wage at the present time. There has been a considerable shortage of labour, and the ordinary laws of supply and demand have operated. Farmers have been paying more than the minimum wage to get extra men on to their farms.
§ Mr. Shinwell
Does not the right hon. and gallant Gentleman appreciate that the laws of supply and demand cannot operate in agriculture because the workers are not permitted to leave the industry?
§ Sir G. Courthope
The industry wants more men, and during the hay harvest farmers have been paying more to get them, and when they pay more to the extra men, they have to put up the wages of the other men, whether they like to do so or not. With regard to overtime, I do not want to overstate the case, but whenever the weather is suitable, the men are working as long as it is light. I do not know for how many hours on the average each week the ordinary agricultural labourer has been receiving overtime wages during the hay harvest, and is receiving them during the corn harvest, which is just beginning. I ask hon. Members to recognise that, although we may approach the subject from different angles, we have the same underlying motives; we want to improve the lot of the agricultural workers, and we want to enable the farmers to pay a wage that will improve the lot of their workers. I hope hon. Members will go away for the Recess recognising this common desire, rather than on a note of faultfinding and controversy such as we have heard to-day.
Surely, the right hon. and gallant Gentleman recognises that the speech made by the Minister of Agriculture is an indication to the county committees that neither he nor the Government believes that the agricultural workers should have a minimum of £3 a week, and that if the Minister's speech is read by the agricultural workers it will arouse discontent, or will increase the discontent that already exists.
§ Sir G. Courthope
I listened with great care to my right hon. Friend's speech. 2215 and I place a different interpretation upon it. He said that he could not properly receive deputations from either side, that he could not properly introduce legislation and could not even discuss legislation in this Debate; and he pointed out over and over again that machinery exists and that it is open to the agricultural workers in any county to put that machinery into motion and to make a case, as they have done in 14 counties already.
§ Mr. A. Bevan (Ebbw Vale)
If the Government have found it necessary to apply the Essential Work Order to the agricultural industry so as to prevent the-workers from using the normal leverage for raising their standards, why cannot the Government make use of the powers which the House gave them last year to impose reasonable standards of wages on the industries they have controlled? The Minister does not need legislation, for he has power to do that already, if he wants to do it.
§ Sir G. Courthope
There is power in any county for the workers to put the local machinery in motion and to make a case, as they have done already in 14 counties.
§ Mr. Bevan
I use the term in a general sense. The Restriction on Engagements Order has been applied to the agricultural industry, and the agricultural workers, therefore, cannot use the ordinary leverage to raise their standards. Therefore, ought not the Minister to use his powers to impose decent wage standards in the industry?
§ Sir G. Courthope
The wage of 48s. a week was applied to the industry as a condition of the Restriction on Engagements Order, and there is nothing to prevent the representatives of the workers in any county from putting the local machinery into motion, as they have done in some counties, and as they will do in others, I hope.
§ Mr. T. Smith
There is a great deal of talk about the 14 counties which have 2216 done this, and some of them have got increases of is. or 2s.; but surely the right hon. and gallant Gentleman knows that in most other counties the agricultural workers' representatives have made appeals which have been turned down, and the agricultural workers know that those committees are ranged against them.
§ Sir G. Courthope
I am sorry that hon. Members opposite take this line, because I can assure them that I am just as anxious as they are to see a contented and prosperous rural community. I recognise that unless there is in the countryside a standard of living and a wage that will compete successfully with the standard and wage in industries in the town, we shall not get that. But I think hon. Members opposite are using the wrong occasion and putting a wrong interpretation on the Minister's speech. Hon. Members opposite represent the workers, and I am an employer, but I ask them to believe that the employers of farm labour generally are equally anxious to be in a position to give their workers a satisfactory and established wage on such a level that the workers will not want to leave the land.