HC Deb 12 July 1944 vol 401 cc1853-8

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Captain McEwen.]

Mr. Boothby (Aberdeen and Kincardine, Eastern)

I wish to raise——

Earl Winterton (Horsham and Worthing)

On a point of Order. Would you, Sir, direct hon. Gentlemen below the Bar to cease talking so that we may know what is going on in the House? We cannot hear a word.

The Deputy-Speaker (Mr. Charles Williams)

I hope hon. Members will go out quietly. I do not think there is need for me to say more.

Mr. Boothby

I should like to raise the question of domestic help on farms. It is a question of very great importance. The agricultural community, I think the Minister will admit, come into quite a different category from that of ordinary domestic service. The farmhouse is the centre on which the whole life and work of the farm hinge. If it is not well run, then nothing is well run. There is, in any case, apart altogether from the question of domestic help, an acute shortage of agricultural labour, as I know the Minister will be the first to admit. When is added to that the equally acute shortage of domestic help, it is bound to decrease the efficiency of the agricultural industry as a whole, and I think it is, to some extent, decreasing it. Many farmers, who are single men or widowers, are quite unable to get a housekeeper or any domestic help at all, and an additional strain is put upon them. I think I cannot do better—because it gives quite a good picture of the conditions which prevail to a large extent up and down the country—than quote from a letter which I received only the other day from a farmer's wife in the North-East: I wish to bring to your notice the plight of some of the farmers' wives up here in the North-East and will state my own case as an example. I have three children, ranging in age from 10 weeks to seven years, pigs and poultry, a bothy to keep, and extra labourers when required to feed and attend to, besides my awn household—all with the help of a child of 14 newly left school. I find that it is physically impossible for me, as a nursing mother, to do all that is necessary in the way of cooking, cleaning, washing, ironing, mending and the usual routine of milking, keeping utensils clean, churning, etc., that comprises the domestic work of a farm… I get up at five in the morning and at ten at night I bath the baby, who has to be roused out of sound sleep in order to be kept clean. I dread the thought of harvest, with all it implies for the housewife who is already overburdened. I think that that is a statement of the case that is as good as I could ever hope to make it, and it is a practical experience and one of many.

There is one other point I want to raise, and that is the position of domestic helpers on farms. It is far from clear. I will give as an instance the case of a dairymaid who undertakes at the request of the farmer to do some housework. In one case about which I was written to a girl works 7o hours a week—28 on dairy work and 42 hours on housework on the farm. Her wages, 50s., work out at 33s. for dairy work and only 17s. for 42 hours housework, and yet, when the Wages Board raised the minimum wage, she was held not to be qualified for the increase because she was predominantly a domestic servant and not a dairy maid. There is some confusion there, and I am asking my hon. Friend to look into that point. The actual position of dairy maids, for example, or of farm workers who volunteer to work in domestic service on the farm, is that they may be deprived of a certain amount of wages on that account. That is the one other point, but I want to suggest to my hon. Friend that the whole question demands the urgent attention of the Ministry of Labour. You cannot drive industry too hard, and agriculture is being driven pretty hard at the present time. It has done pretty well. When there is a world shortage of food, we cannot afford to neglect food production in the next few years as we did at the end of the last war. It is absolutely of vital importance. Perhaps, after the fighting, the most important aspect of our lives at the present time is producing food. We know that we shall be confronted by starving populations in the future.

In conclusion, may I draw the attention of the House to the tremendous work that the farmers' wives have done in this war, which I do not think is universally recognised? Their hours are unlimited and their praises are largely unsung. They get no medals or decorations, they are never mentioned in despatches and they wear no uniform, but their work is of vital national importance and they have done it well. They have borne a very heavy burden without complaint and they deserve well of the nation, and I hope that the Ministry of Labour can hold out some hope of bringing assistance to farmers and their wives as soon as possible in this vital matter of domestic service, which, I impress on the House, has nothing to do with ordinary domestic service. Domestic service on the farm is vital and comes in quite a different category. I think that my hon. Friend can do it, and I hope that we shall get something from him to-day.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour (Mr. McCorquodale)

Twice in the last two months we have had raised the problem of domestic service in the country, and we have had a fairly general discussion on the matter. My hon. Friend the Member for East Aberdeen (Mr. Boothby) raises the specific point of farmers' wives and I am very glad that he does, first of all, because it enables me to express, humbly, my appreciation of what the farming community have done in contributing to our war effort. I often think that one of the most wonderful things in the whole national war effort has been the increase in production per head, man and woman, in the farming industry. The amount extra that has been turned out by more or less the same number of people is a most striking example of what can be done, and I think that everyone who has part of his constituency or a number of his constituents engaged in farming feels proud of the contribution that they have made to the war effort.

I am in entire agreement with what my hon. Friend says, that the most important job on the farm is, very often, that of the farmer's wife. Frequently that is the key job of the whole farm. We at the Ministry of Labour have endeavoured to recognise that that is so, because we appreciate that the women members of the farmer's household are often called upon to undertake, apart from their ordinary domestic duties and apart from raising families—which are similar duties to those of ordinary housewives—dairy work, seasonal work in the fields and, at harvest times and other times very often, to feed a very large number of labourers. Therefore, we realise that they have a special problem, and we have endeavoured to meet it so far as is practicable at the present time.

What do we do? We do not withdraw domestics or women members of farmers' households without having prior consultation between our District Man Power Office and the appropriate War Agricultural Executive Committee, so as to make certain that we know the real needs of the household in question. In that way, we endeavour to ensure that, where domestic help is available, it is not wrongly taken away. Furthermore, we give farmers' households a special priority where requests for increased domestic help or assistance are made to the Ministry; in so far as is possible with the limited number of domestics available, domestic work on farms carries a special, high priority. In the case which my hon. Friend has just quoted, where the farmer's wife not only had the responsibilities peculiar to farming life, but was also endeavouring to bring up a young family of several children, she would rank doubly for priority wherever we could secure help. We have been able during the last few months, as I think I told the House in the last Debate, to place something over 6,000 domestics in hardship households. I do not know how many of those hardship households are in the farming community because we do not keep these statistics separately, but it is certain that a considerable number of them have gone to farm houses.

I would like to call the attention of the hon. Member for one moment to the Question he asked my right hon. Friend, from which this Adjournment Motion has arisen. That was, whether he would direct an increasing number of young women to domestic service on the farms. We have never found ourselves able, and indeed I myself would not agree, to direct compulsorily—with all the sanctions and penalties which would attach to noncompliance—men or women, young or old, to domestic private service. I do not believe that this House would tolerate a situation in which anybody was prosecuted, and possibly sent to prison, for refusal to go and work in somebody else's private house, where we could not tell what the conditions were like. Therefore, we have only the power of persuasion, and the power of pointing out to those who become available, that this is work of national importance to which the Government give high priority, and urge them to go into. If this short Debate could do anything to bring before people who wish to play their full part in the national effort, the need for domestic workers to help the farmers and the farmers' wives in the great tasks they are undertaking on behalf of this nation, I would consider that the Debate had been well worth while.

Question, "That this House do now adjourn," put, and agreed to.