§ 2.20 p.m.
§ Lieut.-Colonel Corbett (Ludlow)
I thank you, Sir, for giving me this opportunity of addressing the House for the first time. I have watched many other hon. Members going through this ordeal, and I have often thought that they looked extremely brave and quite unembarrassed, and that when they asked for the indulgence of the House, they were hardly in need of it. I now realise that they were, and I hope hon. Members will forgive me for any shortcomings I display.
I want today to press the Minister of Agriculture to try to persuade the Minister of Labour to increase the releases under Class B for agricultural workers. I know that it is just possible for an agricultural worker, provided he is a specialist and an expert, to be released under Class B at the present time, but I personally have tried, as I know other hon. Members have done, to get agricultural workers released, and have found the greatest difficulty in doing so. I ask the House to consider how the agricultural industry stands with regard to labour today. We know that the farmers, under the able leadership of my right hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Mr. R. S. Hudson), have done a great job during the war. They have increased their output by 70 per cent. But does the House and the country realise that the number of regular workers has decreased from what it was in 1939? That is a very serious situation. Since I have been back in England—I came back before the General Election—I have studied this problem, because it affects me personally, as I am a farmer, and have farmed throughout the war. I have talked to a great many farmers about the labour position, and I would like to review it generally.
I consider that there are three main reasons why we have managed to increase 841 production during the war: first, because of all the help we have got from various sources in the field of labour; secondly, because of the extra effort made by the regular workers and the farmers—I do not think that aspect of the case is sufficiently realised—and thirdly, because of improved methods and the extension of mechanisation which has been introduced into the industry during the war. To take the first point, we have had tremendous help from our own Forces, from the Land Army, from harvest camps, and from prisoners of war. If we look at each of those in turn, we see now that we are going to lose some or all of those resources in the near future.
We hope that the Government are going to demobilise our own Forces in this country, and if that is done, they will not be able in large units to work on the land next year, or indeed for much longer. We know that the Minister of Agriculture has produced the means by which the Women's Land Army can be released in the near future; so we shall have to accept the fact that we will be losing some of that force. We know, too, that the Italians will have to go back to their own country soon. I do not think people realise how much good has been done by school holidays, and I would like to pay a special tribute to schoolboys. We must accept the fact that next harvest we shall in all probabilty be losing that service. I have had four schoolboys from Manchester Grammar School in my home. They have come for the last four years, and we have been very proud of them. When they went away this year, having given up their whole holiday, I said "We will see you next year," but they said "No; after all, the wars are finished now, this is a voluntary camp, and we think we ought to have a summer holiday." Therefore, out of those resources that I have mentioned, we shall not be able to maintain that great source of casual labour which has been available to the farmers.
I would like to enlarge upon the long hours which have been put in by our own farm workers. Most men come to work at seven o'clock in the morning, or in dairying, earlier, and they go home when the day's work is done. They may be supposed to go home at six o'clock, but as a rule through the hay and corn harvests they go home when dusk arrives and when the day's work is done. They 842 have carried on in that way all through the war. I would like to remind the Minister that before the war there was a great drive to organise a system of relief in dairying. We paid considerable attention to it. Suppose that a man has a small farm and keeps from 12 to 20 dairy cows. His idea of a labour force would be three men. There would, of course, be other work to do on the farm. But most of these farmers have only two men, or possibly one man, at the moment, and those men have to work, milking morning and evening, seven days of the week. What we want to see is a proper force available. If they had three men they could arrange reliefs as they liked; they could have one man away for every third weekend. That is what we must aim at, and we must aim at cutting down the long hours which our regular workers have always put in. We have seen pictures in the newspapers of farmers ploughing by night during the war. I would like to remind the House that that has not been the night shift; it has been just extra work. Furthermore, there were last year over 20,000 workers over 65 years of age employed in agriculture, and I would be so bold as to say, although I cannot find out the figures for this year, that probably those 20,000 are still hard at work over 66 years of age.
Since I have been a Member of the House, I have been asked by several farmers to obtain release for either sons or workers who were with them before the war. I have looked into their cases, and it has seemed to me that they were good. However, when I sent them forward to the War Agricultural Executive Committee, I received a note back to say that that was nothing exceptional, and now that I have talked to many farmers I find that that is indeed the fact. We cannot expect our farm workers to go on working for ever 60 or 70 hours a week. What we ask is that those men in the Forces who really know the business and who belong to the land should be returned to it quickly. We shall go on producing all the food we can. We should like to increase our output. If necessary, we shall be prepared to work long hours as we always have done on the land, but it is most disheartening to farm workers who do put in these long hours— this is no fairy tale— to see other industries claiming a 40-hour week at greater wages. This is the primary and 843 Most important industry in the country. We claim the right to have our men returned under Class B, and we expect to see every other industry working as hard. The building industry and every other important industry must put in these long hours and overtime as do the food producers of the country.
While speaking on the subject of labour, I would like to mention the long-term outlook for agriculture. As I have said, the number of regular workers has decreased during the war, although the output has increased by 70 per cent., and we reckon that we need an increase of regular workers of something like 100,000 to 200,000 in order to keep up the present rate of production. I would remind the Government that they have given a pledge that they will do all sorts of good things for agriculture—that they will keep markets firm, fix prices and keep up production, but let me say that all those good intentions are worth absolutely nothing if we do not have the labour to carry them into action.
§ 2.31 p.m.
§ Mr. David Eccles (Chippenham)
The hon. and gallant Member for Ludlow (Lieut.-Colonel Corbett) is much to be congratulated in raising this subject in his maiden speech. He knows this subject, and the House likes a man who speaks from experience. He put the case for agriculture with great skill, and agriculture is an industry which needs to be explained clearly to a House of Commons whose Members are predominantly drawn from the towns. I hope we shall have the opportunity of hearing him again on this subject many times in the future.
I want to devote my remarks to the question of Class B releases. As the House knows, a man can only be got out under Class B for work in agriculture if he can be proved to be an individual specialist. The rules governing this category of specialists were published last May, and I think all hon. Members representing rural constituencies now know how few men can get through the net. I believe I am right in saying that up to date only some 600 men have been released under Class B in England and Wales, while the cases of another few hundred are being given favourable con- 844 sideration. This number represents only something like one in fifteen of the applications, and the number of applications, judging from my own county, has been severely restricted because men were told by the Agricultural Committees that they had no chance and so they withdrew their requests.
I want the House to compare this small number of 600 men released to this great industry with the food shortage. We all know, and the hon. and gallant Member has just reminded us, that had it not been for the Women's Land Army and the prisoners of war, the output of British grown food would have been very much lower than it is to-day. We know that, sooner or later, the prisoners of war will be repatriated, and that sooner or later the girls will leave the land. What is to happen then? I suggest that food is so short, the crisis that is coming upon agriculture is so serious, that the Government must put labour for the land in the top priority, which they are not doing at present. Let me give one example from milk production in Wiltshire. We are now employing 1,500 temporary milkers, that is to say workers who are either prisoners of war or women. We know that we shall lose those 1,500 before long, and how is the wastage to be made up? We see no prospect of it, and already farmers are coming to me and saying that they must cut down their dairies because they cannot get herdsmen and other skilled workers.
§ Mr. Alpass (Thornbury)
Will the hon. Member allow me to make a suggestion? The best way of attracting people to the land is to make the conditions of their employment comparable with those in the large towns. Does he not agree that until that is done, it will not be possible to get the workers on the land?
§ Mr. Eccles
The hon. Gentleman is flattering me, because he is repeating in a few words an argument he could have read in my book entitled, "Wages on the Farm," if he had spent a shilling on it. I am now discussing the question of men who want to come back to the land from the Forces but cannot because the rules do not allow them to do so. It is a narrow point compared to the wider issue raised by the hon. Gentleman. I was pointing out that many farmers are going to cut down their dairies if the key men are not released, and that there are key 845 men in the Forces who want to go back, but who cannot do so under Class B as it is operated at the present time. I ask the Government why we cannot treat agriculture on the same basis as the building industry in regard to Class B releases. Will they tell us whether they really consider that food production is not now just as urgent as the building of houses? Evidently, last May, when the Coalition Government published the rules for releases under Class B, they must have taken a decision that food production was not as important as house building. Whatever the situation was in regard to food in May last, it is surely much worse to-day; the end of the war has revealed hunger conditions in Europe beyond our most pessimistic calculations, and to that gloomy picture we must add our own difficulties created by the end of Lend-Lease.
I would mention another point. My hon. Friends on this side of the House and I were seriously perturbed last week when the Chancellor of the Exchequer mentioned that he was going to give an unlimited subsidy to keep the cost of living where it is. He said it would certainly cost £300,000,000, and might cost a great deal more. The greater part of that subsidy goes, of course, in maintaining the price of food. With such prospects of unlimited subsidy in front of us, on financial grounds alone the Government should leave nothing undone to increase the home production of food, which would enable us to cut down the proportion of our taxes and savings that has to be devoted to a purpose against which no fixed assets can be created. Any severe drop in the food supply from our own land must mean higher subsidies, because the price of the food which we are buying from abroad today is very high indeed and is likely to continue so for some time.
I would ask the Minister of Agriculture to impress upon his right hon. Friend the Minister of Labour the peculiarities of the agricultural industry, which those who have their minds chiefly on the manufacturing industries sometimes overlook. In the first place, farming is a continuous business. The farmer cannot cut down his operations, or shut them down altogether, for a few days. As the hon. and gallant Member just said, the cow is an animal which has to be milked twice a day seven days a week, or else she must be sold. Also, the number of days is limited on which British weather gives 846 a man the opportunity to carry out his cultivations in the fields. If his labour is not handy, he may miss those patches of good weather, and that will spoil the whole season. Industry is not under that handicap. A factory can take men off a machine, or reduce the number of shifts, and nothing very serious happens to the plant. Such opportunities are not open to the farmer; he has to go on every day of the week, every week in the month, and every month in the year. If he shuts down at all it may have a fatal effect on his output.
My next point is this. Agriculture is an industry of very small units. There are, I believe, 300,000 farms in England and Wales, and the average labour force is about 3½ workers per farm. That means that the skilled labour is spread much more widely and much more thinly than over manufacturing industry, and therefore the proportion of the total labour force which it is right to consider as key men for the purpose of release under Class B is very much greater than in industries which are organised in big units. After reading these rules governing releases under Class B one must conclude that those who drew them up were very urban-minded. They do not appear to have considered all the peculiarities of the countryside. I ask the Minister to draw the attention of the Ministry of Labour and National Service to these peculiarities of agriculture, which, especially in regard to the definition of key men, do not seem to have been properly considered.
I come to a few practical suggestions—four in number. First I want the definition of individual specialists to be considerably widened, and to embrace all those men who really are key men on small farms. Any man who can look after stock, or do one of the complicated operations of farming, like thatching, is really a key man. He cannot be replaced by anybody who has not had years of experience on the land. So, I want the definition of key men to be considerably widened. Secondly, I want the overall shortage of labour in the industry to be taken into consideration when examining the applications for release under Class B. It is not so at present, but surely this is exactly what happens in the building industry, where the overall shortage has been made one of the principal factors for accepting applications for releases 847 under Class B for building workers. The Government would have great difficulty in showing that food production was less in the national interest today than the building of houses.
The third point is that I understand no applications, even within the rules as they are now, are accepted for any men whose release groups under Class A are comparatively early numbers. That is a restriction that ought to be removed. It would have been better to have removed it before last harvest, but it is not too late to mend. Many farmers are almost at the end of their tether, and the prospect of getting the men out whom they know well, even a month or two earlier than they could anticipate under Class A, would cheer them up and help them through the winter. My final point is, that I wonder whether the Minister can persuade his Service colleagues to let women in the Forces volunteer to complete their service in the Women's Land Army? I know two or three who would like to do it, and, although we might not get many, even a few would be important because agriculture cannot now attract young people to the industry. The position of the intake is so serious that any young girls who want to come into agriculture should be given the chance now. The Government will be forced by the food shortage to open the gates of Class B releases whatever the position of the scheme as a whole. We know, in fact, that the Scheme has not lived up to expectations and that only between 2 per cent. and 3 per cent. of the releases under Class A have come out under B, that is only about 13,000 instead of 60,000. That being the case, my hon. Friends and I can press the Government to increase the number of releases for agriculture without endangering the principle underlying the relation between the rate in releases under Class A and releases under Class B. I think that that is a very powerful argument.
I do not know when the prisoners of war will go home and when the land girls will leave the farms, but I am sure that a crisis of national proportions is blowing up in agriculture on account of the shortage of labour. Nearly all other industries can look forward for the next two years, as demobilisation proceeds, to an increase in their total labour forces. Agriculture 848 can look forward to nothing of the kind. The normal wastage, plus the loss of prisoners of war and of the Land Army, are not going to be made up out of the releases under Class A. That is a most serious position for our food industry. The crisis cannot be averted unless it is tackled in many different ways; but one sensible thing that the Government can do is to speed up the releases under Class B. If they do that, they will get more home-grown food and incidentally, they will reduce the appalling burden on the Exchequer of the subsidy to keep down the cost of living. I would add one last point. All of us who listened to the Debate here a week ago on the situation in Europe must feel the gravest anxiety if we see the Government not doing everything that is possible in their power to enable us to give some help, even if it is only a very little more, to the miserable people on the continent of Europe.
§ 3.47 p.m.
§ Major Wise (King's Lynn)
It is appropriate that in my maiden speech I should speak about agriculture, and I am very sorry, that, this afternoon, when we are discussing a subject of such vital importance to the nation, the House should not have been full. There was much in the speech of the hon. Gentleman the Member for Chippenham (Mr. Eccles) with which I am prepared to agree, but I am not sure whether hon. Gentlemen opposite realise that the complexion on this side of the House at the present time is somewhat different from what it was in the last Parliament. I am happy to say that, on this side, there are now a few Members who are engaged in practical agriculture and, as one of those who obtains his living from farming, I am naturally perturbed, as are hon. Gentlemen opposite, at the way in which the releases are conducted under Class B. I am most anxious that agriculture should have its full quota of men released. During the war period we did great things in farming. We carried on under tremendous difficulties. We were asked to produce the food of the people, and to everybody's credit in the industry, we did what was required of us.
Now things are changing. We are losing our men and we have not sufficient skilled men. We may shortly lose the prisoners of war, mostly Italians, and possibly later on the Germans. We are losing our land 849 girls, and as far as I can see we have no surplus labour in the industry with which we can replace the losses we shall suffer in the next few months. That is an extremely grave position. We cannot carry on our industry with a shortage of labour. I am sorry indeed that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Labour is not here today but I understand that it is not possible for him to be here, possibly because this Debate was arranged at short notice. But we on our side do want to impress upon the Minister the urgency of our case and the necessities of the country, because if we cannot produce, then it means that we shall have to import more, and conditions throughout the country are likely to suffer. We want a prosperous and contented agriculture, and we want, above all things, to supply the good food which the nation requires. Everybody here can see the importance of this matter, and I hope that, when this Debate comes to the notice of the Minister of Labour, he will see the force of the arguments which have been used and will help us in the release of these men.
The last speaker referred to the question of the individual specialist. That is a point which has seriously puzzled me. Those of us who are interested in agriculture, and those of us who represent rural constituencies—and as I say there are a good number on this side of the House who represent rural constituencies—are much perplexed by this question of the individual specialist. In many cases, I have been anxious to get back from the Forces boys who are skilled tractor drivers. They are really necessary, and I hope something will be done by which their services can be brought back into the industry. It is very necessary that they should come back to us. In my own Division I represent people who live on some of the finest land in this country, as well as people who live on some of the worst; I have got a happy mixture of the two sorts, but we are all in the same boat. The position is that, as in all producing areas, we require labour for potatoes, sugar beet and so on, while the farmers of our highlands of Norfolk are also short of the skilled men to whom they look for means to carry on. I do not want, in this my maiden speech, to trouble the House further, but I do say that we ought to look to the future of our industry. We have got a job to do—the most important job in this country at any time—and we do 850 want the House, and, particularly, the Minister of Labour, to help us in the work which will come to our hands in the next few months—work which, I hope, will be well done by the whole of our industry.
§ 2.54 p.m.
§ Mr. Renton (Huntingdon)
I give my warm support to the plea which has been made to the Minister, and, in doing so, I would remind the House of two facts which seem to have a very direct bearing on this matter. The first is that, during the war years, agriculture was a reserved occupation, and the second is that, although it was a reserved occupation, a very large number of agricultural workers nevertheless joined up and served in the fighting Forces. From these two facts, the deductions, I suggest, are as follows. The fact that it was a reserved occupation during the war would seem to lend weight to the importance of providing sufficient labour for agriculture now; and the fact that a large number of men joined up, and, in doing so, very frequently left their fathers to carry a heavy burden, means that farming has been denuded of men at a time when they are greatly needed. The fathers are, in many cases, growing old too quickly. They are having to carry a burden which they cannot easily bear very much longer.
There would, perhaps, be less need for an increase in the Class B releases, were it not for the fact that the Class C releases are so slow. Both the Class B and Class C releases are so tied up with regulations at this moment that it is extremely difficult for any ready remedy to be found to this problem on account of these restrictions.
When I rose to my feet, I was not aware of the fact that the hon. and gallant Gentleman who preceded me was making his maiden speech. Indeed, I am surprised now to find that it is so, because he delivered his speech with great assurance. I learn that he is a practical farmer. As I am not a practical farmer myself, I feel that, by comparison with the time he occupied, I am wasting the time of the House. I am sure we all look forward to his further contributions on these occasions, and that we shall give close attention to what he has to say.
I think it is agreed on all sides of the House that we should aim at maximum production on the farms—not merely this 851 year or next year, but always in the future. It has become almost a platitude, but one which will not suffer from being repeated, that in our land we have the greatest possible national asset. In the land, we have a source, not only of great wealth but, I suggest, the solution of a great many of our future problems. The argument which has to be put forward on these occasions is not only the economic and social one; but, as the hon. Member for Rugby (Mr. W. J. Brown) would say, the question is also important morally.
If we are not very careful, we may find, when the men are coming out of the Forces and turning their minds to their future occupations, that the possibility of their going on to the land is entirely overlooked. Men coming out of the Forces need a very great deal of encouragement when deciding which job to enter. During the days of the Coalition Government earlier this year, that encouragement was promised by the then Parliamentary-Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture in announcing a scheme for the training of, I think 100,000 men coming out of the Services. We were given to understand that that scheme would be put into operation straight away. My own information is, however, that the scheme is not very well forward. Would it not be a great opportunity to ensure that all the vacancies which can be found under that scheme will be filled straight away, so that the Forces can, under a system of block releases under Class B, at once begin their return to the land?
I have another suggestion which I hope may commend itself to the Minister; and I am tempted to put that forward, because in Huntingdonshire, the constituency which I have the honour to represent, it so happens, merely by accident, that we have a very large number of Territorial soldiers who were captured in the early stages of the war in the Far East. Those who have been fortunate enough to survive their terrible experiences are now coming home, and their immediate future in the Services seems uncertain. I suggest that a block release could be made in their favour, and I feel confident that, if that were done, the majority would go back to the land from which most of them came. I most warmly support the request which has been put forward in this Debate.
§ 3.0 p.m.
§ Mr. Paget (Northampton)
All I wish to say on this matter is that agriculture is the one industry which cannot afford a temporary shortage of labour. The position is that agriculture cannot run at half speed, because in that way you not merely destroy its immediate production, you destroy its potential production. Take, for instance, a dairy herd. At present, the number of cows which can be maintained, is conditioned by the number of people who can be obtained to milk them. Herds all over the country this winter are being reduced for the simple reason that you cannot get people to milk them. That does not merely mean an immediate loss of milk; it means a loss of calves, and a potential loss of milk in the future. In the same way, if you do not till your land properly this winter, you are not merely losing your next crop; you are damaging the crop after that and the crop after that. That is the position of agriculture this winter.
We have carried on with the assistance of the Women's Land Army and with the assistance of the Italians, and the position now is that the Italians are getting sulky. They are working at half-speed. There is something like a "go slow" strike among the Italians at this moment. I am not speaking of the Italians on my own farm—I have been very lucky with them and they have done a wonderfully good job—but I hear it on all sides. They feel they are co-belligerents, they feel the war is over, they are getting news of their own farms in Italy, of the hunger of their own families, and that nothing can go to their own families, and they are desperately anxious to go back to their wives and children. The interest they used to take in their job is disappearing. Again, the Women's Land Army, which did a magnificent job during the war, is not working so satisfactorily now for somewhat different reasons. All those things combine to produce a serious result. One's own workers are getting older and growing tired; the Italians are not doing the work they formerly did, and the Women's Land Army is disappearing. The result is that this winter the work that should be done on the farms is not being done.
The consequences will be very serious indeed, not merely to the next harvest but the harvests that will come after; not merely to the herds today but to the herds 853 as they will be in the future. After all, the stock position of our dairy herds is not merely a problem for England; it is a problem for Europe, whose dairy cattle have been slaughtered. We are not producing those dairy cattle which are vitally required, simply because there are not the men to milk them. I urge the Minister of Agriculture and the Minister of Labour, therefore, to take a very serious view of this. Unless men are released immediately, so that the work on the farms can be done this winter, irreparable damage will be caused.
§ 3.5 p.m.
§ Mr. Studholme (Tavistock)
It is my very pleasant duty to congratulate the hon. Gentleman the Member for Northampton (Mr. Paget) on his maiden speech. It seems hard to realise that it was a maiden speech, it was delivered with such assurance and skill. The hon.Gentleman spoke with great sincerity and knowledge, and it is always a pleasure to hear speeches made by hon. Members with first-hand knowledge. I know that the future contributions of the hon. Gentleman to our Debates will be listened to with interest and will be of great value.
I would like to say a few words in support of this plea. Those of us who live among the agricultural community know to what very dire straits many farmers are now reduced. In this connection I would like to speak especially on behalf of small farmers who have had practically no help through the war. These very often are old men who have been struggling hard, and they are very tired indeed now. It is only fair that these older men should get some relief. They have the very greatest difficulty in getting any of their sons released from the Forces, and I think we should do something to help them. We all agree on the importance of agriculture, we all agree that it is vital, we all agree that for many years to come we shall have to go on growing a large percentage of the food we eat in these islands—far more than pre-war. Therefore, we shall need more manpower on the land than we had before the war. We should start to get that manpower on to the land now because, unless we do so, where shall we be when the prisoners of war go, and when the Women's Land Army is 854 reduced, as it is bound to be in the course of time?
The supply of manpower for agriculture is a vital question for all of us, not only for those in the countryside, but the people in the towns too, because so much of our food supply depends on it and we have to eat. All this is quite obvious, but I think it cannot be stressed too often. It is not enough for the Government to affirm its interest in agriculture, it must do something, and it is really time that we got more of these people back from the Forces on to the land, to make things easier for the agricultural industry which has worked so magnificently during the war, and to which we owe so much.
§ 3.9 p.m.
§ Mr. Percy Wells (Faversham)
I am very pleased indeed to have had the opportunity of listening to the tributes which have been paid so generously this afternoon to the agricultural workers of this country. It is perfectly true that, with less labour, we have managed during the war to increase our production by over 70 per cent. That is a remarkable achievement, and because of that I realise how necessary it is that we show in a practical way how much we appreciate the contribution which all engaged in agriculture have contributed to the victory that we celebrated such a short while ago. I, therefore, find myself supporting the appeal to the Minister of Labour to reconsider the decision that apparently has been come to, in regard to the question of Class B releases to agricultural workers who, we all agree, are skilled workers. Seeing that we have, during the war, realised the importance and skill entailed in the proper cultivation of the land, it is difficult to understand why we have not been more generous in both Class B and Class C releases as far as these workers are concerned.
I wonder why those who have spoken so far, have placed so much emphasis on Class B releases and have not been so much concerned with the fact that a large proportion of ex-agricultural workers who have been under Class A, are not willingly returning to the land. Although I am not a farmer, I claim to have some knowledge of agriculture in that I have had, for the past 25 years, the honour of representing the agricultural workers on the Kent agricultural wages committee and for the past two years I 855 have been a representative of the agricultural workers on the Central Agricultural Wages Board. If we desire to attract the extra 100,000 or 200,000 workers that have been referred to this afternoon, to this very important industry, then we have to make the conditions under which they work and live sufficiently attractive. I did not hear, when we were discussing the question of the £4 10s. minimum wage for agricultural workers, so much unanimity as to the value of the work performed as I have heard this afternoon, when we are trying to bring pressure to bear upon a Socialist Minister of Labour to release agricultural workers from the Forces.
Is there a fear that unless these men are returned to the land under Class B releases, which of course involves a compulsory return to agriculture, we shall not get voluntarily the 100,000 or 200,000 we require? I am not quarrelling with that figure. I think we require that amount of labour on the farms to-day. These men, among whom I have worked practically the whole of my adult life, are often referred to as the "salt of the earth." I know their value, but whilst they appreciate and are grateful for services rendered to them, and will give a fair return for wages that are paid them, they never forget a disservice and they were the victims of great disservice after the last war. Those men had their wages in Kent reduced, in a matter of a few weeks, when the agricultural wages boards and committees were abolished, from 47s. 6d. to 32s. and less. They are expecting that that kind of thing will happen again. It was not until 1924, when a Socialist Government restored the Agricultural Wages Board, that we began very slowly to force the wages up again.
I am not unmindful of the difficulties of the farmers; I make it my business to do what I can to keep in contact with the representatives of the National Farmers' Union, because I realise that there are difficulties in connection with this industry that one does not find in general industry and, so far as we are able, we want to meet those difficulties. We are concerned very much about this question of the depopulation of the countryside and I hope that whilst hon.Members opposite are pressing for Class B releases, they will bear in mind the point that they should do something to see that the men who are 856 coming out now, return to an industry which offers them a decent standard of existence.
§ 3.17 p.m.
§ Sir Ronald Ross (Londonderry)
All of us in this House, who have gone through the same experience ourselves, must naturally feel sympathy with anyone who makes a maiden speech, and I wish to offer congratulations to the hon. Member for Faversham (Mr. Wells) upon his skilled address. If I agree more with the other Members opposite who are practical farmers, that is, I suppose, natural, but certainly because of the interest the hon. Member for Faversham takes in this vital problem I am sure we all look forward to hearing from him in future in our Debates. I do not propose to discuss the general issue at any length because that has been done very admirably and adequately. I would simply say that I adopt the arguments of the hon. Member for Chippenham (Mr. Eccles) who, I think, if it is not impertinent to say so, put them succinctly and with effect. I wish to raise points in connection with Northern Ireland. We are in the unusual position of being an exporting area. We should not have been obliged to resort to rationing at all in eggs, or butter, but we have, as is proper, been part of the general scheme for rationing. We have been subject to rationing, as have people here, and have exported the surplus for the use of our brethren in England and Scotland, and I do not think that throughout the whole period of the war I have had a single complaint from my constituents on that point. I think that is remarkable, because even in Northern Ireland we have unreasonable constituents.
We are an area which, through no fault of our own, is not subject to National Service. But every Member for Northern Ireland voted for National Service, and as a matter of fact I acted as a teller against my own party. It has produced this situation, that on some farms the younger men have joined up and the older men said "We will carry on. That is all right, go and fight." No one at that time was thinking of the war lasting six years; one is naturally optimistic about these things. In many cases the older people have broken down, sometimes they have died and sometimes they have become unfit for further work, while 857 on the farms next door, where no one has left, conditions are completely different. On the patriotic farm it is very difficult for them to carry on, and they are very largely family farms. No special consideration has ever been given by the Government to this situation. On the joint release committees there was a representative of the Services concerned, but there was no representative of the Minister of Labour for Northern Ireland, who knew the situation. There was only a representative of the British Ministry of Labour and National Service, who was wholly unacquainted with the situation, and who was dealing with the matter as if it was in an area in which the National Service Acts applied. That has meant injustice. I have known of instances where the Northern Ireland Ministry of Agriculture have recommended the release of a man for agriculture, and have had it turned down by the joint release tribunal. Surely the Minister of Agriculture for the particular area should be the best qualified to judge whether it is in the public interest that a man should be released.
I sometimes think that we are rather inclined to pay too much attention to the individual interest, and too little to the public interest. There is no service which is more valuable than the production of foodstuffs, not even housing, because it is no good having a roof over your head if you have nothing to eat. Good men in agriculture are a vital need. As has been said, agriculture cannot stand still. You cannot stop the machine. The skilled agricultural worker is vital and, therefore, as strongly as I can, I would urge the Minister of Agriculture to accept the proposals which have been put here today. In particular I would ask that in any question relating to Northern Ireland he should see that the men who are volunteers and who, in many cases, see their farms being ruined by their not being released, are given the proper degree of justice which their gallant action in volunteering has earned. The farms of those who joined up should not be ruined while the farms of those who did not join up are flourishing.
§ 3.24 p.m.
§ Lieut.-Colonel Nigel Birch (Flint)
I would like to say a few words in support of what has been said on this subject today. In my own county, Flintshire, 858 which has a record second to none in this war for the production of food, we have mainly small farms, on which the work is done by the farmer and his sons. The farming community are a very patriotic body, and many farmers' sons volunteered for the Services during the war and, before that, many were in the Territorial Army. So many farms have been reduced in labour force as a result of that that farmers have had to struggle on as best they could, and are now getting too old for their job. They are beginning to break down under the strain, they are suffering from things like hernia, and they cannot carry on very much longer. It is not a question of sons not wanting to come back, or not being keen on agriculture; they are skilled men and are mad keen on getting back. The fact that so many are not doing anything now makes the situation worse. The last man I interviewed, who was trying to get back under Class B, was a sergeant in the R.A.F. I asked him what he was now doing and he said ''I spend my time playing patience in the sergeants' mess." This man has some time to go yet, and no doubt in six months' time he will still be playing patience, providing he can get the cards. This makes people bitter, because they know that when they get back there is great danger that they will find their fathers broken in health, and their farms ruined. The request made today is really to accelerate the Class B release scheme. I feel that the whole demobilisation scheme wants thinking out again from the beginning, and that the present position of the Government will ultimately be untenable. At the moment we are having limited withdrawals to prepared positions, but unless the Government think this matter out again they are in great danger of a rout. I have no doubt that the Minister of Agriculture knows the story of the Gadarene swine, but I believe that rushing down a steep slope into the sea will be a comparatively well-planned move, compared to the ultimate rout of Ministers on this issue, unless the Government think things out again from the beginning.
§ 3.27 p.m.
§ Mr. Wilfrid Roberts (Cumberland Northern)
I would like to add my voice to the plea that agricultural workers should be released freely from the Services to work on farms. It would, of course, be best from the point of view of agricul- 859 ture as a whole if the general scheme of release under Class B could be applied to this industry. I imagine that the present Minister would be very glad if Members pressed him and the Government that this should be so. It is probably not the Minister of Agriculture whom we have to persuade, but other Ministers who have strong claims for other industries and other occupations. As I understand the position, under Class B there are two types of release—general release, and the release of individual specialists, key men. I would like some information about that. Am I right in thinking that a man has to get the support of the war agricultural executive committee if he wants to be released as a key man under Class B?
I think of a case of a man who is in the Navy, doing nothing at the moment. He has a small farm, which is being managed by his mother. It is being managed badly. I have pressed this matter during this last nine or 12 months. The farm is not producing the food it ought to produce and, possibly, is being managed so badly now that it ought to be taken over. Yet the man who could manage it is doing nothing whatever at a naval depot, and has been doing nothing since the end of the Japanese war. I took this matter up in the interval between the end of the German war and the end of the Japanese war and I found that restrictions on the war agricultural committees had been tightened up, and that they could not even recommend that man for release because of the rules laid down by the Ministry. I want to know what is the position today, and whether the Minister cannot give very much wider latitude to the labour departments of the war agricultural executives to recommend men who are vitally needed on farms. There might easily be a possibility of getting out individual men in particularly hard cases.
The Ministry have a scheme for training ex-Service men for agriculture. I would like to know how that scheme is going. Does the Minister find that men are anxious to avail themselves of the scheme? How many men are being trained? How many farms are available to train them? I suppose that it is not too early to ask for that information, because I think the scheme was an- 860 nounced some time early in the summer. I am doubtful whether that scheme is going to work, and if the Minister has figures or information on how it is going, I should be very glad to have them. This is one way of getting new workers into industry. I hope that the scheme will be successful, but from the information which I have, it appears that it is not appealing very strongly to ex-Service men.
There has been a tremendous strain on the small farmers in my part of the world, during the war, to carry out the instructions of the war executive committees. They have had to do far more work, with far less labour, under the difficulties of bad harvests, with the exception of this year's harvest, and shortages of every kind. They are over-taxed with the long war, and I hope that the Minister will be able to give us some help in getting men out to these farms, particularly in cases in which the older people are breaking down under the strain.
§ 3.31 p.m.
§ Mr. Orr-Ewing (Weston-super-Mare)
I would add a very few words in support of the Minister of Agriculture, in the battle which I feel sure he is prepared to carry on with his colleague, the Minister of Labour. We in Somerset think that that is probably one of the most hardly dealt with places with regard to labour. Of all the counties in England we have done as much as any other to translate our traditional type of farming into modern farming, by taking the plough round the farm at excessive speed, and involving ourselves in the use of machinery and farm implements not in common use in that part of the country. We feel the shortage of labour acutely. We cannot get farm implements and machines serviced in the way they should be serviced, owing to the shortage of labour in local garages and agencies which look after these implements. We cannot get the machines serviced on the farms because they have no labour to service them. This shortage of labour has been felt throughout all farm operations, which, in modern farming, must include the use of machines.
I ask the Minister to look very carefully into the subject of releases, and to try to find some means by which cases on the borderline of being considered compassionate cases, are dealt with by the labour committees of the war agricultural committees. I think that the definition of a 861 compassionate case under which they are working now, cannot stand close examinaton. It is a very difficult point for them, as the definition at present stands, and I would ask the Minister to give it consideration. I have known a number of cases turned down simply because a man is told that his is a compassionate case, and must be dealt with in the normal way, through the Services, as a compassionate case. It only needs a little thought to see the difficulties that arise in these borderline cases.
I would like to say a word on what was suggested by the hon. Member opposite concerning the responsibility for finding labour to work on the land, and making it possible for men to get out of the Services to work on the land. That responsibility is not confined to this country by any means. We have great world responsibilities. Every ounce of food which we fail to produce here, which could have been produced if we had the labour, adds to the load on the world tonnage and shipping tonnage position. We have to face that fact. We shall not, and this Government will not, stand well in the eyes of the world and of the starving population of Europe, if they are not prepared to use their best endeavours to extract from the Services those who are capable of producing more food from this country, so that we shall make a lesser demand on the food producing markets of the world.
§ 3.37 p.m.
§ Mr. R. S. Hudson (Southport)
I think that it will be generally agreed that we have had a very interesting Debate, and have listened to some excellent maiden speeches. I think that this Debate could have been even more useful, if we had had the advantage of the presence on the Front Benches of Ministers more directly concerned. Would it be indiscreet to ask the present Minister of Agriculture for his private views on this subject? I suspect, knowing him, and knowing the views I should entertain if I were sitting in his place, that he agrees with practically every word that has been said. The unfortunate thing is that he has not the responsibility. The responsibility is on certain of his colleagues. I cannot help feeling it would have been much more effective if those colleagues could have been present to hear what was said, and get the feeling of the House and the feel- 862 ing of urgency expressed in all parts, rather than obtain it secondhand in HANSARD, or even to listen to it retailed by the right hon. Gentleman.
It would be quite easy for the present Minister to make the obvious retort to me that I was a member of the late Coalition Government which laid down the details of Class B. That is perfectly true. It is disclosing no Government secret, I think, to say that I, and many other Ministers responsible for other Departments, tried to get the men for whom they were responsible included in Class B; but the argument against that, at that time, convinced us, and we lost the battle. The position to-day is appreciably more serious than it was, even when Class B arrangements were originally devised. No one can accuse me or the present Minister of having taken an unduly optimistic view of conditions in the world, so far as food is concerned, after the war. He and I, in the Autumn of 1943, in speeches warned the country that conditions after the war were, inevitably, going to be more difficult than they had been during the war; but neither of us, I think, realised how much more difficult, in fact, conditions would prove to be than the worst we anticipated. It is no argument to say that because a scheme was regarded as adequate a year ago, that scheme must be stuck to through thick and thin today. The whole basis of that scheme was that if you made any exception at all from the narrow class of builders and a few key specialists in other industries, you were opening the door so wide that you would destroy the very basis of the general demobilisation scheme.
When we were drawing up this Class B scheme, we anticipated that the total releases under that scheme would be of the order of 60,000 to 70,000 persons. That was at a time when we anticipated that the total releases by the end of the year would be of the order of 750,000. But the war has come to an end since then. In deference to pressure, exercised from all quarters of the House, the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Labour stated that he hoped to speed up demobilisation, and hoped to get 1,000,000 men out. Without any accusation of unfairness to the men still in the Forces, that should automatically increase Class B releases to 100,000 by December. What are the actual figures? The latest we have been 863 given are that some beggarly total of 9,000, 10,000 or 15,000 men have hitherto been released under Class B. Therefore, I submit that without doing any injustice to men in Class A, there is plenty of room now to make a special exception by getting out men who will be engaged in agriculture.
My hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham (Mr. Eccles) said that it was all very well to say that houses are needed; it is quite true, but equally important is that the people's bellies should be filled. Speaking with all the seriousness at my command, I say that unless something is done, and done quickly, to get more labour for the industry, and it is by including agriculture under Class B that that can be done most quickly, production will break down. Members on all sides have quite rightly pointed out that we have been dependent on prisoner of war and women labour. Now that the Italian prisoners know that they are going home they are working even less well than before. The Italian prisoners I have employed have worked well up to now, but they hear that they are going home, and already they are beginning to work less well, and I am not sure that one can blame them. I have six prisoners working for me. If they go away what am I to do, how am I to keep up production as I have been able to do up to now, still less increase it, as I could do with more men?
I have a good deal of sympathy with the right hon. Lady the Minister of Education. She got into a good deal of trouble with other Members of the Cabinet for the speech she made at Jarrow, and I daresay that she was technically wrong. But, after all, she is a woman, with all the natural human instincts of a woman, caring and anxious about what is to happen to other women and children. Though possibly she was technically wrong in saying that there was a danger of bread rationing this winter—she was repudiated rather harshly, I think, by her right hon. Friend the Minister of Food—I am pretty sure that what actually happened was that she was impressed, as I imagine anyone would be, if they could see the figures showing what the actual food stocks in this country are. She may have been technically wrong in saying that bread rationing might be coming, but the present Minister of Agri- 864 culture and I ceased to give directions for wheat growing this winter because we believed that there were ample supplies of wheat coming forward in the world. Bread is not the only thing for which wheat is required. For example, we put on foot arrangements for increased rations for pigs and poultry, not because we had the wheat actually in the country, but because we were confident that when the time came when the stocks of pigs and poultry would be up, by the early part of next year, adequate supplies of wheat would be coming forward.
Why should we not be told the actual position? Why should the Minister of Food say that he will not disclose the stocks of food in the country? There cannot at the present time be any question of public interest for not disclosing the facts. It may have been in the public interest not to do so during the war, when there were plenty of occasions when we were very close to the bone. I remember an occasion when bacon stocks were so low that bacon was actually being taken direct from the ship for retail distribution. If that had been said at the time it would have caused undue apprehension at home, and would certainly have given undue encouragement to our enemies. But those conditions do not exist today. Why should not we be told? There cannot be any danger of speculation, of what used to be called forestalling, because the Minister of Food is the importer, he is the purchaser, he has long-term contracts running with overseas suppliers.
What is the actual position today? I am bound to say that the only conclusion we can reach, in the absence of any explanation of why this secret should be kept, is that the Government are afraid of letting people know how serious is the position. I do not know what the Minister of Agriculture has in mind for next year for his cropping programme. We decided not to issue directions this year for wheat. In the light of the information we had I think that was a right decision. Not only were there prospects of ample supplies of wheat, but our land had been pushed so hard that it was very desirable to give it a rest, to some extent. It may well be that in the light of circumstances the Minister of Agriculture will next year find himself compelled to demand a bigger 865 acreage of wheat and ask the committees to issue directions. In my view there is not the slightest chance of those directions being complied with, or of his getting that increased acreage, unless he can now provide us with the additional labour. As the hon. and gallant Member for King's Lynn (Major Wise) so rightly said, this is a long-term job. Farmers do not just consider the situation today. They have to look ahead, and they cannot be expected to go on increasing their burdens, increasing their tillage acreage, bringing it back to the peak of two years ago, unless they are reasonably confident that they will have the labour when the time comes, and that they will have the labour now to make the necessary preparations.
Unless the right hon. Gentleman can persuade his colleagues in the immediate future, in the course of the next week or two, to modify the existing system and to say that a block release of something of the order of 15,000 or 20,000 men engaged in agriculture shall be included in Class B, and unless he can, in addition, persuade them to alter those restrictive regulations referred to by various speakers, including the hon. Member for North Cumberland (Mr. W. Roberts), there is no prospect whatever of the food production of this country being maintained next year at its present level, and still less of its being increased to meet the greater demands likely to be made upon the farmers of this country.
§ 3.49 p.m.
§ Sir Stanley Reed (Aylesbury)
I will not abuse the consideration extended to me in being allowed a few minutes in which to speak. There is one aspect of the discussion which has not, I think, been sufficiently stressed today. What are the stark economic realities behind the agricultural industry of this country at the present time? After two generations of cheap imports, paid for by the interest on our overseas investments and our invisible exports, it is almost impossible to get people to realise the actual position we have to face today.
Those invisible exports have almost disappeared. The interests from our overseas investments have been cut by at least a half, if not more. Therefore, we are faced with a desperate shortage in our capacity to pay for such food as may be 866 available for our people. There is no escaping this blunt and stark fact that unless we produce the very maximum from our own soil, the people in this country are going very hungry indeed, and that is a very modest way of putting it. I am confident that this problem causes the right hon. Gentleman and his colleague, the Minister of Food, many anxious nights.
The right hon. Gentleman is charged with this tremendous responsibility which affects the lives of our people in the years to come. It rests also with the Minister of Labour. Either our agricultural force must be increased rapidly and immediately, or else the effects on the people of this country will be disastrous. I would not, for one moment, suggest that the basic principle of demobilisation plan should be altered. I would be very reluctant to say that there should be any priority with regard to the provision of houses. It is no use having a roof over one's head if there is nothing to eat. But there is this plain, blunt, inescapable fact that we have an understaffed, overworked and tired agricultural community, which, in many respects, has reached breaking point. We must recruit substantial numbers of young and skilled men from the Forces; unless we do it we cannot maintain our present standard of production. Most assuredly, we cannot raise it to that pitch which is absolutely essential to give our people the food which they imperatively need.
I would, in passing, like to refer to the point which has been raised concerning the man who is anxious to return to his own industry of poultry raising, but who cannot get the assistance which is extended to other single-men businesses. If that is correct, I would like the right hon. Gentleman to look into it. I would also urge, with regard to the war agriculture executive committees, that he should be moreexpeditious than he has been in the past in dealing with applications for compassionate releases. I ask the House to believe that the economic situation of the country is one of terrible severity and that it will not be solved by increases in subsidies. It will only be solved by an increase in our food production. Unless we bend our minds to that problem, there will be very bad things in store for our people in the years to come.
§ 3.54 p.m.
§ The Minister of Agriculture (Mr. Thomas Williams)
I think perhaps my first duty is to express to the House an apology for the absence of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Labour who happens to be fulfilling an engagement in Cardiff, I believe, and of his Parliamentary Secretary who is also fulfilling a Government engagement in Paris at the International Labour Conference. I am quite certain that no one will regret his absence more than the right hon. Gentleman himself, except perhaps myself. I know that he has at heart this question of labour, not only on the land but wherever else it may be required. He is not at all unsympathetic, so far as sympathy can extract more men for any purpose when any approach is made to him.
I felt, during the course of this Debate, something like the boy who stood on the burning deck and had not even a spoon with which to put out the fire. Indeed, I was almost inspired to make a speech comparable with those that have already been made strengthening the appeal made to my right hon. Friend. [Interruption.] If I did make such an appeal it would be a most satisfactory one, even for the hon. Member for Evesham (Mr. De la Bère).
I think this Debate has been extremely useful, and it has been characterised by some very excellent maiden speeches. I wish to compliment the hon. Member who opened the Debate, and several other hon. Members who made maiden speeches subsequently, and particularly my two farmer friends who addressed the House from these benches. I almost felt like shivering when I heard farmers' voices from behind me, having had so frequently to look across the way to see farmers, whatever position one happened to have at any given moment. Most of the speeches have been direct. There have been helpful and constructive contributions. I have no complaint to make, and I am sure my right hon. Friend, had he been here, would have had none to make at any single speech made in the House.
I am sure my right hon. Friend, my predecessor, and many other hon. Members in the House will recognise that we all appreciate the difficulty of the labour position in agriculture. No one has been more tireless than my right hon. Friend during the past five years, not only in 868 securing for the time being but in preparing for the future, the maximum amount of labour that might be made available on our farms. Despite the unfortunate diminishing returns we are receiving from the Women's Land Army, I ought to tell the House that there is a redeeming feature and that is that recruitment is going on at quite a nice pace. Despite the fact that we are likely to lose certain prisoners of war, the real fundamental labour problem in agriculture is the fact that we lost nearly a quarter of a million men during the period between the two wars. If those 250,000 skilled men had returned to good conditions with decent homes to live in, and if Parliament had recognised its responsibility to this our first and basic industry, I am quite sure we would not have been suffering from the acute shortage in the countryside that exists today.
One hon. Member asked me which I thought was the more important—food or the production of houses. If I gave a reply it would, of course, be one or the other, and if the same question were put to the Minister of Health his reply would also be one or the other. They would not necessarily be the same. But I have to remind the House that agriculture needs both labour and houses, and if one cares to take the long view, I should say that we are not likely ever to get the army of labour required in the countryside to make the best use of our land, until we produce a very large number of decent cottages for the future workers. We have reached the stage when we have to think not only of the agricultural worker himself but of his wife. Unless the man can offer to his wife conditions comparable with those offered in a town or urban area, our job of producing the amount of labour required—
§ It being Four o'Clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.
§ Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Mathers.]
§ Mr. T. Williams
I was saying that our job of securing the amount of labour that we all know to be necessary will not be made easier unless we can improve these conditions.
I wish to say one thing, not in justification of the category B releases and the 869 figures about which we all know something. That is—and hon. Members will bear it in mind I am sure, when considering the question—that something like 80,000 agricultural workers or young farmers were lost to the industry in the course of the war out of 1,000,000 employed on the land. It is equally true that building has lost something like 600,000 out of 1,000,000. Therefore we cannot speak in terms of equality of man-power between one industry or the other. I am sure that hon. Members will recognise that the Ministry of Labour has to face very urgent and determined demands for the release of mineworkers and teachers. I can assure hon. Members that the labour question has never been forgotten during the past three months, any more than it was forgotten by the right hon. Gentleman opposite when he was responsible for the industry.
I can assure the House that at this moment the Minister of Labour and I are actively engaged in discussing the possibility of what changes can be made, without adverse effect upon others, in the category B scheme. Many of the points which have been raised will be helpful in those conversations with my right hon. Friend. One hon. Member asked me why it was that those who were released under category A—and most of those who, being in the Territorials, are either out now or will be out very shortly—were not returning to agriculture. The answer may be very simple. Perhaps it is the wages they had before the war, or their long hours, or the absence of decent houses for them to return to. I hope that time will help us to get over this problem, that within a few weeks these people will be given the confidence to which they are entitled, and that when the trail back to the countryside starts it will be continuous for a long time.
I do not want to delay the House further, except to deal with questions put to me about the power of the county war agricultural executive committees, with regard to one or other of the various release categories. So far as category C is concerned, the committees have no power at all. That is exclusively a matter for the Service Departments. If inquiries are made locally, they are made by the Service authorities themselves. With regard to category B, that is, the 10 per cent. of Class A, the quota for the Ministry of Agriculture is undoubtedly a 870 small one. Therefore only those who are recognised to be specialists can be released under category B. We have our own personal view of what is a specialist. I have had the temerity sometimes to think that a boy who was born in an agricultural worker's home, whose father was an agricultural labourer who was throughout his working life on the land, is a specialist in many phases of agricultural activity, but that is merely a personal view. We must for the time being, until further discussion has taken place, accept the position as it is.
§ Mr. Orr-Ewing
The right hon. Gentleman said that inquiries are made locally by the Service concerned, which is exactly the point I made when I spoke, but is it not wiser in investigating compassionate cases, or cases that border on the compassionate, that the Service should call in a representative of the agricultural executive committee, which is in a far better position to judge the effect on the farmer of the conditions existing on the farm which raise the case on to the compassionate level?
§ Mr. Williams
My hon. Friend will see that the moment the agricultural executive committee intervene in a category C case, it becomes industrial and not compassionate. Therefore, the Service personnel make their own inquiries into compassionate cases. If, however, one of the three Services wish to use the executive committee to make local investigations on their behalf, every agricultural executive committee in the land will be ready and willing to make such investigations for them. They cannot, however, participate unless the Service Department makes that request.
§ Sir R. Ross
When a recommendation comes from the Northern Ireland Ministry of Agriculture, in respect of a Northern Ireland application, will that be treated as a sound recommendation? I ask because they have been turned down.
§ Mr. Williams
It is my unfortunate position this afternoon that I cannot even reply for the Ministry of Labour. I would not be drawn, despite my right hon. Friend's suggestion, into replying for the Ministry of Food on the wheat question. I am certainly not going to venture a reply for the Home Office, which is responsible for Northern Ireland agriculture. All I can do is to express my thanks 871 to hon. Members who made constructive contributions and to assure them that this matter will be kept under active consideration.
§ Lieut.-Colonel Dower (Penrith and Cockermouth)
In view of what has been said in the Debate, does the right hon. Gentleman feel that the position is being met when there have been only 600 releases for agriculture under Class B? It is a very small proportion of the 60,000 which was mentioned by the late Minister of Agriculture—
§ Mr. Williams
If I may reply to the hon. and gallant Member, the numbers allocated to agriculture are working out fairly well.
§ 4.8 p.m.
§ Mr. Manningham-Buller (Daventry)
We must all feel sympathetic towards the Minister of Agriculture in dealing with this problem, which, as he has told us, he has much at heart. What he has had to say, I am afraid, will not bring much comfort to those who appreciate the urgency of the problem, its extent and its importance. Those of us who represent agricultural constituencies and who have spoken from both sides of the House, have all spoken in the same way. I was glad when my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton (Mr. Paget), in an excellent maiden speech, supported the arguments that have been put forward for release under Class B being accelerated. That does indicate that the urgency of the problem is beginning to be appreciated, not only in the country, but in the urban areas. The Minister's statement does not bring much comfort to me, in dealing with the letters I am continually getting from constituents asking that their sons should be released, sons who went voluntarily, and who after having to work their way through a network of obstacles, then find Class B release refused. It does not bring much comfort to me to be told that, at this time, labour on the land is very much in the heart of the Minister of Labour; that he is not at all unsympathetic; that he appreciates the difficulty of the labour situation, and is actively engaged in dealing with the problem.
872 What we would like to know is, what is going to be done about it now? It is no use blaming the present position on the past 20 years. The present position is due in a great degree to the war, and we want to know what is going to happen now to avoid a food shortage next winter, which may be very acute and may involve a decrease of rations. I am not going to enter into argument with the right hon. Gentleman as to whether houses in rural areas should have priority over labour on the farms. There is urgent necessity for both, but so far as food production is concerned, if we are to have the food next winter, there is need for urgent action now. Every delay is likely to be most harmful.
I have not got a copy of that document which the Chancellor of the Exchequer waved in this House earlier in the week, but speaking from recollection, that document held out promises of great things for those engaged in agriculture. Those promises—and the document was full of promises—can only be fulfilled if the labour is made available on the farms. What the right hon. Gentleman has had to say today, does not give much evidence of action being taken for the prompt fulfilment of those promises. I would conclude by saying that in my view, unless something is done now, those who in that pamphlet asked to be allowed to face the future will, in a short period, regret their request.