HC Deb 22 April 1947 vol 436 cc990-1000

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

12.58 a.m.

Mr. Skeffington-Lodge (Bedford)

In spite of the pressure which has been put on me the time, and the tenseness of the atmosphere created by the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition, I intend to go on with this Adjournment Debate. The matter I am raising is one of considerable importance and both I and various other hon. Members who have for some time interested ourselves in it, are disturbed by the hesitation, in the light of what seem to be premature statements with which it is at present surrounded. My main object tonight is to obtain some clarification of the issues from the Parliamentary Secretary, who I see is here, together with assurances that the Government is not going back on undertakings given in respect of questions put on 13th May, and 13th and 18th March last, in this House.

Mr. Driberg (Maldon)

Tell them the subject.

Mr. Skeffington-Lodge

The gist of the answers then made about the future employment of German prisoners of war in this country was that arrangements were being worked out whereby prisoners of war could be retained in agriculture as civilians, provided the farmers employing them could accommodate them and that their remaining here was not detrimental to British workers. This plan was endorsed by the Minister of Agriculture in the Distribution of Manpower Debate on 19th March and again on 31st March. Let me turn to one of the latest announcements on this subject made in reply to a Question put I think, by my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr. Driberg) who I believe wants to say something in this Debate if possible. His Question was put to the Secretary of State for War. Among other things the Secretary of State for War said that the number of prisoners of war anxious to stay here to be free workmen was not known; they were not invited to stay on until the time for their repatriation came round; no census had been or could be taken of those wishing to remain until he knew the conditions under which they would be permitted to stay here, and finally,' what seemed to me a "get-out" opinion was expressed when he said that most of them wanted to go home. I contend that this kind of inconsistency, and even contradiction, between Ministers simply will not do. Either we want these men or we do not want them. All the evidence, I contend, proves that we are in dire need of their services for a long time ahead.

This is precisely one of those cases in which the Government should give an imaginative lead to the country and more narrowly to the trade union most closely affected. I refer to the Agricultural Workers Union, which is, quite properly, jealous of the rights of British workers. I want to insist that, in no circumstances, would I advocate the employment of any foreigner if this would adversely affect the employment of our own people. But we are facing a shortage of manpower not alone in agriculture, and it cannot be beyond the wit of the Minister's officials to devise a system which safeguards completely the status and position of our own workers. With the approaching removal of the Control of Engagements Order from farming, plus the many would-be emigrants to the Dominions, many of whom have been hitherto tied in this country to the land, I predict an acute manpower crisis in agriculture in the not very distant future. Immediate action, therefore, is needed to meet this. As it is, I believe that the agricultural industry could easily absorb no less than 100,000 extra workers in present conditions. In these circumstances, it is, in my judgment, sheer madness to turn away these first-class potential recruits, keen to help us on the land, who are available among German prisoners of war. In another month's time, all the workers we can get will be needed to cope with haymaking and the hoeing of root crops.

I expect I shall be told by the Minister that the Poles must first be absorbed, and then the displaced persons, who are already arriving from the Continent. Apart from the undesirability of perpetuating the racial discrimination, this attitude involves now the war is over, and taking into account the fact that I believe we have no moral right forcibly to keep the Germans here at all, this argument I contend is a bad one. I say this because I believe that the best Poles have already opted to go home, and in view of the categorical assurance given recently by the Polish Ambassador in London, I hope that far more of them will see this as their duty. Indeed, I urge the Government to use all the persuasion they can, short of force, to bring this about, and thus to improve our relations with Poland. Neither the Poles nor the displaced persons whom it is proposed to employ here have experience or knowledge of the agricultural industry which is so ably demonstrated by thousands of Germans in our midst at present and already actually on the job. All these newcomers would need a long period of training and initiation into the peculiar conditions of British agriculture.

Before more prisoners of war are allowed to drift back to the misery and destitution of unemployment in Germany, as so many have done, I suggest that the following steps should be immediately put in hand. First a census of prisoners of war should be taken to find out how many are willing to remain here as free workmen under conditions carefully worked out so as to safeguard the status of British employees. These men should be registered in categories according to their experience and abilities in farming. I calculate that at least 20,000 are anxious to stay under suitable civilian conditions; secondly, I suggest that a labour pool comprising those who can be released and replaced in their present jobs and who wish to stay here should be formed. Thirdly, those farmers who are losing prisoners through repatriation and are unable to obtain British labour should be registered through county agricultural executive committees as prospective employers of those men in the labour pool, the creation of which I advocate. Lastly, details of the scheme decided on should be promulgated to all camps to allay the many false rumours in circulation there, and to disprove the criticism of commandants and officers by the prisoners to the effect that they are being deliberately kept in the dark. For prisoners of war to get a preview of all this through the radio and the Press is most undesirable especially as there is already an average time lag of three weeks between the making of official Government decisions and camp action. I ask the Minister to assure us that the earliest attention will be given to this whole subject, and that rapid action will follow.

1.6 a.m.

Viscount Hinchingbroke (Dorset, Southern)

Without committing myself to the detailed proposals made by the hon. Gentleman the Member for Bedford (Mr. Skeffington-Lodge) I would like to give general support to the main scheme. Some time ago, the hon. Member for Ipswich (Mr. Stokes) had a Motion on the Order Paper asking that all German prisoners of war should be sent back to Germany by next Christmas. About forty of my hon. Friends and I put down an Amendment asking that, in this case, where the Germans agreed to stay, they should be allowed to do so under some scheme to be worked out by the Government, with agreed conditions of pay and employment. Those Germans who wish to return to Germany should be allowed to go, but a number of them would desire to stay if given the opportunity. Some of them are becoming more and more acclimatised, and although I have no figure in mind, the hon. Member for Bedford mentioned 20,000. I have no knowledge whether that is a true figure or not. But it is now being proposed that the Italians who went home as returned prisoners of war should be invited back, and it seems to me that something of that same kind will happen with these Germans unless we are careful. In other words, a great deal of time and effort will be wasted in sending men back to Germany who will, in the last resort, desire to return here.

I would like to ask the Government to say whether they cannot stop that waste of movement. Our agricultural position is very serious, and we need every man on the soil for whom we can find supplies. I realise that the position of the Poles must be fully safeguarded. I should not associate myself with the hon. Member opposite who says no German should be employed here if that turns out some other man. Poles are being placed in employment, and I should like the Government to consider if some framework of the same kind—some German resettlement corps—could not be worked out. I think that something might be done 'in the way of sending representatives from the camps in this country to Germany to see what the conditions are there, so that they could come back and report to the men. Many of the Germans over here do not know what are the conditions in their own country, but this could be done without exercising any persuasion to get the men to return. The Government could very well give attention to this matter.

1.9 a.m.

Mr. Driberg (Maldon)

I wish to speak for only a few minutes, but I would like to say that I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Mr. Skeffington-Lodge) for having raised this matter, for having staked out my modest claim to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, and also I might say, for having occupied only seven minutes of his own half-hour. I only want to make two main points. First, it is absolutely necessary that there should be proper and full consultation with the Agricultural Workers' Unions, as well as with the National Farmers' Union, on this matter. I do not know how much consultation there has been already, but I believe that the first reaction from the Agricultural Workers' Unions have been unfavourable. I cannot help feeling that if there had been proper preliminary consultation, or if there were now full consultations, the unions would possibly adopt a reasonable and generous attitude comparable with that adopted in January by the Mineworkers Union with regard to the Poles, and would agree to a limited and strictly controlled importation of this kind of labour into their sphere of activity.

I, personally, support very strongly the view of the Agricultural Workers Union, as I understand it, that our first aim should be to make our countryside, rural life and rural industry attractive to our own people, to provide proper homes and amenities for all the British agricultural workers and potential workers in agriculture. I am sure that is the Government's view also. But that cannot be done in one or two years. The need for labour is so urgent for this and next year's harvest that it would be folly to cast away the services of perhaps several thousand young men, prisoners who are among the minority who are anxious to stay here and who are on the whole settling down very happily and doing an extremely good job in agriculture. Obviously, as the Secretary of State for War said, most of them want to go back home and I am among those hon. Members—like the noble Lord and the hon. Member for Ipswich (Mr. Stokes)—who have pressed for a much speedier repatriation. But there is, none the less, this minority, perhaps prisoners who have lost their own homes, lost their families in Germany, with no ties there, who do not know where they are going to go or what to do when they go back there, and who have made certain ties here, with the reasonable relaxation of the regulations which the Secretary of State for War has so wisely allowed. Therefore I say that this minority should certainly be allowed to stay here as free, paid workers under conditions which will not make them in any way dangerous competitors to the British agricultural worker.

My last point is this. I was puzzled and worried by the extremely vague answers given last Tuesday by the Secretary of State for War. He seemed to be going back on what the Minister of Agriculture had already said. He said that no detailed scheme had yet been worked out, and no inquiries had been addressed to the prisoners. That conflicts with the information which I have derived from an official publication of the Control Office, the newspaper Wochenpost, issued officially for prisoners of war, which, as I understand it, gave a definite figure some weeks ago of something like 900 men—out of the first batch who had been consulted—who opted to stay here as free, paid workers. I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to clear up this apparent discrepancy between the departments. I am sure that he will be able to show to our satisfaction that there has not been, in fact, any muddle. But I hope that he will be able also to show satisfactorily how this appearance of muddle has arisen.

1.14 a.m.

Mr. Baldwin (Leominster)

I have only time to make one point. It is of importance that the German prisoners should be kept at least for this season. We are desperately short of men. But after two years, I think it is time that these prisoners of war were paid appropriately for the work they are doing. It is disgraceful to think that these men are being paid twopence halfpenny an hour while farmers pay one shilling and fourpence for their work. We can never get good work out of these men if we are paying them in a disgraceful fashion which makes them slaves. We should educate them in the fairness of British traditions, and not give them the impression that we are keeping them as slaves after two years. Let my hon. Friend tell us that we are going to pay these men, not give them slave rates.

1.15 a.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour (Mr. Ness Edwards)

I would like in the short time at my disposal to answer as many as possible of the points that have been advanced The Germans are only a part of the general manpower problem and must not be looked at in isolation. Might I indicate to the House what the general position is. We had the Balt Cygnet scheme under which displaced persons were brought over for domestic work in sanatoria and hospitals, and we now have the Westward Ho scheme, for displaced persons generally from Germany and Austria. We hope very soon to have worked up to a rate of 4,000 a month from displaced persons camps in Austria and Germany. Then there is the Polish resettlement scheme and the Ministry of Labour must have regard to its obligation to get these men placed in civilian employment in this country. We have now something like 76,000 Poles available for labour, and so tar, we have placed 6,869 in civilian employment on an individual basis. We have 109 camps ready in industrial areas to receive them as soon as we can provide employment for them. Farmers and county agricultural committees have been asked to apply for Poles to make up their manpower requirements. That no doubt will come along but recently we have had a slowing-up in the programme. I expect in the next month or so substantial claims for these men but the House will realise our first obligation is to render all Polish men available for employment in this country. As we are maintaining them at our expense, for which we are getting no return, they are the men who should first be put to real and effective work to help our economy.

Then there are the Italian prisoners of war whom we are allowing to come back to the farms in this country with these special conditions, that they must not displace British workers—that has been agreed on both sides of the House—and that accommodation must not be provided for them on the farms on which they are going to work which ought to be available for British people. There are now under consideration 450 applications by farmers. There are of course some 1,400 Italians still working on farms and billeted in farms in this country.

I now come to the question of German prisoners of war. As the House knows we are committed under the White Paper—Economic Survey for 1947—to get from all these non-British sources 100,000 new workers. We have in the country 163,500 Germans who are allocated for agriculture. I want the House to be assured of this, there is no intention of decreasing that number, which will be available for the next harvest. There will be at the next harvest, in this country available for agriculture, 165,000 Germans prisoners.

Mr. Stubbs (Cambridgeshire)

That is a fleabite.

Mr. Edwards

Of these 19,000 are billeted with farmers. That pool of labour will be available, in addition to which there are the 76,000 Poles for whom so far agriculture has made no demand. Now what is the use of saying this is a fleabite when we have 76,000 men eating their heads off at our expense for whom the agricultural industry is not making a demand. There is the position. I ask that in considering this whole problem we shall have due regard to the fact that here are substantial pools of manpower which we are satisfied can be used. But there is the other factor that employing Poles on a civilian basis may be a little more costly than employing prisoner of war gang labour. There is the question of holidays and insurance. All those things enter into it. I am not so certain that a continuation of prisoner of war labour is going to be helpful in the resettlement of the Poles.

Now I come to the question of the scheme that has been announced. That concerns the right or entitlement of farmers who are now employing German prisoners of war to retain those men on a civilian basis if the prisoners of war are prepared to stay. We must approach this not from the point of view of the German prisoners of war. We must approach it from the point of view of the needs of our own economy, and the first demand must come from the farmer who is employing German prisoners of war. If the farmer feels that he can continue to employ a German prisoner of war and can provide him with accommodation, and the German prisoner of war is prepared to stay, in those cases the farmer will be asked to communicate with the agricultural executive committees who, will institute the arrangements for the transfer of the man from prisoner of war status to civilian status for an experimental period.

Mr. Michael Foot (Devonport)

Is it the farmers' responsibility to find out whether the prisoners want to stay here? Is the farmer to find out that before he writes to the Ministry?

Mr. Stubbs

The farmer will find out from the prisoner who is working for him?

Mr. Ness Edwards

The farmer will find out from the prisoner. Between the prisoner and the farmer there is a fairly regularised and intimate relationship. If the farmer thinks the prisoner is a good fellow, he will want to keep him. The farmer will ask the prisoner of war if he wants to stay. If he wants to stay he will stay on the basis of a civilian rate of wages.

Mr. Stubbs

Will it be the agricultural wages minimum?

Mr. Ness Edwards

Yes. He will be treated as a civilian. The farmer will make application to the county agricultural executive committee who, will arrange for the release of the man.

Mr. Stubbs

Do I understand that it will be the agricultural labourers' minimum?

Mr. Ness Edwards

I answered "Yes." I thought I answered it loudly enough to be heard in all parts of the House. The answer is "Yes." It will be the agricultural wage as fixed by the Agricultural Wages Board.

Mr. Stubbs

Wages and hours?

Mr. Ness Edwards

Wages and hours. There will be nothing to prevent the farmer from paying extra if he wishes. I come to the point raised by the noble Lord the Member for Southern Dorset (Viscount Hinchingbrooke). That was with regard to these men having the right to go back to Germany and to be called back in the same way as now applies in the case of the Italian prisoners of war. I, do not know whether the noble Lord was in the House this afternoon when I was pressed by hon. Members opposite to let the German prisoners of war go back to Germany and then be called back here. I undertook to give that matter consideration but, as the noble Lord will recognise, he is asking me to do something entirely different from what I was pressed to do this afternoon.

Mr. Baldwin

Either will do.

Mr. Ness Edwards

There is the straight position. If the farmer wants the German, and the German is prepared to stay, and if he is not robbing the Britisher of accommodation or preventing a British worker from getting employment, the German prisoner of war will be allowed to stay on a civilian basis until the end of this year. That is the scheme. It is true that the National Farmers' Union has been informed of this scheme, and the Agricultural Workers' Union has been informed—

Mr. Stubbs


Mr. Ness Edwards

The unions have been informed. With regard to the National Farmers Union, they are partial to the scheme, but they want more details, and that is in process of being attended to. With regard to the Agricultural Workers Unions—

Mr. Stubbs

Thank you.

Mr. Ness Edwards

—we have had some communications which so far are not encouraging. We hope to be able to satisfy the Agricultural Workers Unions that the terms and conditions on which the German prisoners of war will be allowed to stay here will be such as not to prejudice the rights of British employees. Our problem of food production in this country is tremendously urgent. We want all the men we can get. I have indicated the pool of labour that is available. What we are anxious about is that it shall be used.

Mr. Skeffington-Lodge

Would the hon. Gentleman answer one question? Has this scheme which he has more or less endorsed been promulgated as yet to the prisoner of war camps, so that the prisoners know of it, and are given an opportunity of volunteering for permanent work here for twelve months?

Mr. Ness Edwards

I am afraid that my hon. Friend misunderstands the position. It is not for the German prisoner of war to volunteer to stay here. It is for the farmer—[HON. MEMBERS: "Why?"] Oh, yes, it is for the farmer—

Mr. Driberg


Mr. Ness Edwards

—to ask for a German to be employed on his farm.

Mr. Beswick (Uxbridge)


Mr. Ness Edwards

We cannot have in this country a lot of volunteers from all sorts of sources for whom we cannot find employment. We cannot mix the Poles with the Germans. We cannot put the Italians among them. We have to try to get them in different areas. All this is bound to cause some trouble in getting these people settled down.

Mr. Beswick

Has the farmer endorsed this scheme?

Mr. Ness Edwards

I was coming to that point. The National Farmers Union are now discussing the thing generally, but until we have cleared the position, which will be soon—

Mr. Stubbs

You have no agreement.

Mr. Ness Edwards

—we do not propose to promulgate this in the orders of German prisoner-of-war camps.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock and the Debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTYSPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Order made upon 13th November.

Adjourned at Twenty-eight Minutes past One o'Clock.