HC Deb 14 February 1945 vol 408 cc352-62

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

6.48 p.m.

Mr. Henderson Stewart (Fife, East)

I apologise to the House for keeping it a little longer, but I wish to make a plea on behalf of a group of citizens who richly deserve the attention, care and sympathy of this House. I want to draw to the notice of the House the conditions of service in the Women's Land Army. I have had this matter brought forcibly to ray attention during the last two or three months. We have had a spell of extraordinarily bad weather in Scotland. These girls have had to work in conditions more uncomfortable and arduous than, perhaps, at any other time in the course of the war. As a result one became flooded with complaints and criticisms from the girls, to such an extent that I thought it right to invite members of the Women's Land Army in Fife to meet me, so that they might express their grievances, as they are entitled to do, to their Member of Parliament. As the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland knows, it was a largely attended meeting. Criticism was fierce and rather pungent, and, I thought, in many respects well justified. The meeting, and the views expressed by the girls, received very wide publicity in the Scottish Press. Since then there has been a flood of letters to all the principal journals, and it is clear that the public in Scotland feel that something should be done to take care of these girls, who are playing so fine a part in the war effort. The odd thing is that I have to make my plea to the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, because his Department is responsible for the Women's Land Army.

There are three types of complaint that the Women's Land Army make—first, that their uniform, their clothes and equipment are inadequate for the work they have to do; secondly, that they are, in a sense, slighted by official and unofficial opinion in the country; and, thirdly, that they are not being provided for as are members of the other Women's Services, when their services are no longer required. All the trouble really arises out of the fact that the Women's Land Army is in a very anomalous position. It is called an army, it is uniformed, it is looked after, to some extent, by the State, it is in a special position, and the girls are subject to a measure of special control. It is, in a sense, part of the uniformed Services of the State. Yet it is in practice no more than an industrial group, doing work alongside other industrial workers on the farms. Most of the girls live in the farmers' homes and cottages, being paid a weekly wage, the same as other land workers. Therefore, they are both soldiers, or A.T.S.—whatever you like to call them—and industrial workers. The Government can scarcely escape blame for that anomalous position, because they chose the word "Army" and they put the girls into uniform. It is that anomalous position that creates so much misunderstanding and ill will. It is because of the title of the force, it is because the girls are in uniform, it is because they are recruited as a separate force, that there has been built up a psychological condition in the minds of the girls which, however one cares to explain it away, can be ignored only at the expense of the continued good will of the Land Army and at the expense of the production of food.

I gathered from my right hon. Friend, in reply to a Question, that the numbers of recruits to the Land Army are falling and that the intake is now only 50 per cent. of the number necessary at present; and when the Spring comes, and the demand for labour is greater, the 50 per cent. will drop a great deal. My right hon. Friend spoke of the low rate of recruitment. No doubt there are many reasons for that. I am certain that one of the reasons is the unfavourable comparison which the potential recruit makes as between conditions in the Women's Land Army and in the other uniformed women's Services, such as the A.T.S., W.R.N.S., W.A.A.F.S. and so on.

I take the three points of criticism that I mentioned, and will deal first with clothes and equipment. I have already spoken about climatic conditions. I made it my business to see what these girls were doing, and I saw them standing up to the knees in mud, quite miserable, in the beet fields of Fife, wearing leather boots that sometimes were needing repair—rubber boots in a few cases—and clothed in outside garments which were quite definitely inadequate for the purpose of keeping out the wind and the rain. Altogether it was making life extremely uncomfortable. At the meeting at which the criticisms were levelled something very interesting happened. I gathered that no rubber boots were to be got in Fife. Yet, within a fortnight of the meeting, 180 pairs of rubber boots were despatched to Fife. Excellent; but I am bound to ask what happens to all the Land Girls in other areas where a similar agitation has not been made? When one realises this, one feels a little uneasy about them.

Mr. J. J. Davidson (Glasgow, Maryhill)

They should get the Italian Embassy to speak for them.

Mr. Stewart

I would like an assurance from my right hon. Friend that, in every part of the country to which a supply of rubber boots ought to go to these girls it has, in fact, gone, because I am not in the least satisfied that this is so. The girls told me that they worked alongside Italian prisoners, whom my hon. Friend just mentioned, and they told remarkable stories. There was no trouble about the Italian prisoners. They had battledress, and were sometimes treated by the farmers with great respect where the girls were treated with great disrespect. It is quite natural that British girls, seeing the Italians provided with all the uniform necessary to keep out the weather, should bitterly complain that the same treatment is not advanced to them. These girls work alongside ordinary workers on the land. Anybody who knows what these professional agricultural women workers are doing must be filled with profound respect. They are sometimes quite old women, and often middle-aged women, who are working throughout this war without any publicity or glamour or uniform, but doing an immense work that will go on, no doubt, after this war is over. I cannot speak too highly of the part they play, but even these workers, trained and brought up as they are in the business, are better looked after in this respect than the Land Girls. One of the leading market gardeners in Scotland, who must be known to my right hon. Friend, wrote me this letter: Most of the market gardeners around here, the Edinburgh district, have supplied their women workers with Wellingtons and oilskin coats when these are available. It is extremely difficult to get workers for ordinary vegetable collection unless they have these clothes available. The Land Girls look round and see that employers have provided this necessary equipment for their regular workers and they ask, Why is it denied to us, a uniformed force?

Dr. Morgan (Rochdale)

Do not they supply these on the representations of an accredited trade union?

Mr. Stewart

I do not think that has anything to do with it.

Dr. Morgan

It is very important.

Mr. Stewart

It is not in Scotland, because they are not in a trade union.

Dr. Morgan

They ought to be.

Mr. Stewart

I want an assurance that these Land Girls will be provided with the maximum equipment for them to carry on their work—leather jerkins, if possible, battle suits, if they can be provided, and certainly a supply of rubber boots.

Their second complaint is about the attitude of the community towards them. What is happening in Fife, and no doubt elsewhere, is that a lot of "welcome home" affairs are being arranged. Very often these girls are not invited to them. Dances are arranged, and in one case the girls were not allowed to enter the hall for a civilian dance because they were told that they were improperly dressed as they were wearing their breeches. This kind of petty slighting goes on throughout the country and makes one thoroughly ashamed, and I cannot help thinking that it is the neglect of the Government that encourages it. If the Government would speak in the high terms necessary of the work these girls are doing perhaps the civilians would look upon them in a proper light.

Finally, and the most important point of all, I want to ask what is to happen to them when the war is over. These girls are watching. Great things are to be done for their sisters of the A.T.S. and neighbouring Services. They see how they are to be treated on demobilisation. There are to be post-war credits for girls who come out of the A.T.S., resettlement grants, civilian outfits in cash or kind, further education and training, all of which is to cost, as the Chancellor of the Exchequer said, £500,000,000; and, in addition to all that, gratuities to all girls in the Services, costing another £200,000,000. But nowhere have I seen mention of any provision for the fine women who are serving the country in the Land Army.

The Chancellor told us in the Debate that the aim of the Government has been to design the provision for settlement so as to cover all the needs of members of the Forces on their return to civil life. I beg that the gratuities for service in the Forces should be extended to all women who have been performing such fine work for the country. It is ungrateful of this country and unwise to treat them in this way. It is ungrateful because the Women's Land Army are a remarkable force. They work at frightfully difficult and heavy jobs—heavy for a woman to take on at any time, and particularly heavy for a woman who has been a typist, or a clerk, or an assistant in a shop. These women have volunteered their services without any pressure and it is ungrateful of the nation to treat them in this way. For the work they have done they deserve the highest credit of this House, and I am pleading for that to-night. Secondly, it is unwise to treat them in this way. The right hon. Gentleman knows better than I do of the need that will exist after the war is over for continued, and may be increased, food production. The necessity for the fullest cultivation of land will continue, as he himself has indicated, for three, four or five years after the war, and there will be need of every one of the workers now available.

There are 8,000 Women's Land Army girls in Scotland and 65,000 in England. If we want those girls to stay on the land after the war, we shall have to give them something to which they can look forward or they will go. I plead that they should be given an incentive to remain. I know that I am speaking to the converted. The Under-Secretary of State for Scotland wrote me in the clearest terms and he gave the assurance that the proper claims of the Women's Land Army to participate in post-war schemes of training and resettlement will always have his whole support. I am glad to hear that, and I hope I may expect some pledge from the right hon. Gentleman to-night. I know it must be a Government decision, and I do not know whether he is in a position to make a statement, but I hope that he will indicate the Government's position and that at the earliest possible moment there will be a statement as to what the Government intend to do for the Women's Land Army. We have been told about other parts of the civilian population and I ask that we should be told something about the Women's Land Army. I beg that an indication be given as soon as possible to show that, when these girls ultimately retire after the fine service they have rendered to the nation, the nation will recognise in a tangible way the work they have done.

7.5 p.m.

Mr. Alexander Walkden (Bristol, South)

In these little Adjournment Debates we do not usually intervene from the Front Bench, on which I have the honour to sit, but I have been asked to say a few words in support of the plea so adequately put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for East Fife (Mr. H. Stewart). There is a clear and very definite responsibility resting on the Government for the existence of these girls as Land Army girls. They brought the Army into existence, they advertised for the girls, they appealed to them, and in those glorious hours when everyone was considering how best to help the country these girls volunteered. If they had waited, a good many of them could have got into more attractive realms of Government employment, but, feeling, as women do, that the first need of men is food, they wanted to help to get more food produced. They appreciated that we were not likely to get enough from overseas. The Minister made that clear.

All our propaganda demonstrated the absolute need of still more food. There were not enough men, so we must have the girls to help, and they volunteered for this work and have done it faithfully and well. It must be so because, as the Minister has expounded in this House, and has thrilled the country with it, the food production of our country has increased by 100 per cent. We used to import two-thirds and grow one-third. Under the present Ministry, and with the aid of the girls, we have grown two-thirds and only import one-third. So the nation owes a very great debt to all who have helped. Of course, the men have helped marvellously. The work of the agricultural labourers and the working farmers has been wonderful, and I know a good deal has been done by trade union action, but it is a peculiar occupation. There are so many scores of thousands of employees that the trade unions cannot recruit them or be so effective, as where they work in masses and one can get amongst them and organise them properly. One can organise only a small minority of them. And these girls are not exactly like the men. Many men have grown up in that occupation, but many of these girls were recruited from comfortable middle-class homes. I know girls who left such homes and went into the Land Army with nice tender hands and did farm work very well. They surprised everybody by the efficiency they displayed in doing this rough and sometimes difficult work.

My hon. Friend spoke about the bad weather this winter. Certainly there has been a record fall of snow and I think the whole country has been concerned. From the West of England, on the land flanking the Bristol Channel—perhaps that justifies my intervention—I have had complaints from friends whose girls are working on farms. They say their clothing is quite inadequate and unsuitable, that they are not sufficiently protected and there are many other conditions that are a proper subject for complaint. However, I am concerned that something should be done to honour these women—to treat them as generously as we are treating other women who have been in the Fighting Services. They have been fighting for our food, and therefore they should be honoured in every possible way, financially and otherwise, so that they may appreciate that they are not forgotten women, and that the country knows that they have served it well and faithfully. I hope their very popular Minister will not let it be a blot on his record that we have neglected these girls, that he will give them a proper meed of praise, and not merely praise but every other kind of recognition we can give from the State for the great services they have been rendering.

7.10 p.m.

Mr. Butcher (Holland with Boston)

I only want to say how wholeheartedly I support the observations of my hon. Friend the Member for East Fife (Mr. H. Stewart) and the hon. Member for South Bristol (Mr. A. Walkden). The great trouble is that the Minister of Agriculture has never really implemented the fact that this is an Army. These girls have been treated as civilians and have not had extended to them Service privileges. Thus we have members of the Women's Land Army excluded from N.A.A.F.I. canteens, although Italian prisoners, under certain conditions, are permitted to use them. On the other hand, when it suits the Ministry they are treated as Service people, and may be required to move from one part of the country to another at the shortest possible notice. That, I believe, may have been permissible in the past, but people are thinking about the future now, and just as the Minister of Reconstruction told us at one time that work on the Land implemented what the Services were doing we demand, on behalf of the Women's Land Army, the same gratuity on demobilisation, the same opportunities for re-entry into, and training in, civil life and, above all, a more generous recognition at the present time than they have received, especially from the Ministry itself.

Mr. Tinker (Leigh)

I think the hon. Member for East Fife (Mr. Henderson Stewart) said in his speech that in some parts of Scotland members of the Women's Land Army were treated with disrespect because of their dress. I merely want to tell him that, so far as I am aware, they are treated with nothing but respect in this country, and that we admire them for what they are doing and what they have done.

7.12 p.m.

Mr. J. J. Davidson (Glasgow, Maryhill)

I want to ask for the Ministry's intervention with regard to girls when they have met with injuries during work on the land. These women had practically a guarantee that they would not have to do service abroad, but I would rather be a typist in the A.T.S. or the W.A.A.F. in Paris, than a Land Army girl in some of the far-away districts of this country, and in the North of Scotland. Those girls undergo very great hardship indeed. One case brought to my notice was that of an attractive young girl who was in the Land Army and who fell from a tractor—which she had been operating with the same competence as a farmer—and gashed her leg very severely. This would not have mattered much in the case of a man, but it meant that this girl was disfigured for life. Moreover, she was paying £1 a week in order to maintain herself in hospital. I ask My right hon. Friend to see that these girls are treated as servants of the nation, and that the same allocations and substantial gratuities that are made to members of other Services, are granted to them so that they will not feel that the W.L.A. is the Cinderella of the Women's Services.

7.14 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture (Mr. Tom Williams)

In the very short time left at my disposal, I am sure Members will not expect me to give a detailed reply to the points which have been made. Hon. Members appear to have combed the dictionary to find suitable words on which to sing the praises of the Women's Land Army, and have left me no new words or phrases with which to add my meed of praise. I can only say, on behalf of my right hon. Friend and myself, that we are second to none in our admiration and gratitude for members of the Land Army and for the work they have done in the course of this war. All the points which Members have raised to-day will be carefully examined, and I hope that that examination will prove fruitful.

I should, however, point out that there are several ways whereby the position of the Land Army differs from that of the Auxiliary Services. For instance, such girls are not subject to the same discipline as girls in the A.T.S., the W.A.A.F. or the W.R.N.S. The Land Army is not, in the main, a State-employed service. Mostly, these girls are in direct employment with the individual farmer. Of course, they receive the same rates of pay appropriate to the industry. Hon. Members may tell me that it is a small wage, and I should not disagree with them. The Government, therefore, necessarily draw a distinction between Auxiliary Services, and the Women's Land Army. Nevertheless, I can assure hon. Members that their observations will be duly noted. Indeed, I can go further and tell them that the Government already have this matter under very active consideration—I believe I can say active and sympathetic consideration. While I do not intend to reply to the questions relating to clothing and gumboots—a reply already having been given by the Joint Under-Secretary for Scotland—I can say that these matters are under active and sympathetic consideration, and I hope that hon. Members will be content with that assurance at this moment.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at a Quarter after Seven o'Clock.