HC Deb 05 June 1947 vol 438 cc478-93
Sir Ian Fraser (Lonsdale)

I beg to move, in page 44, line 43, after "given," to insert: to persons who, having served in the armed forces of the Crown, are qualified by agricultural training and experience in accordance with paragraph (a) of this Subsection and. If hon. Members will turn to Clause 50 (3, a), which is the paragraph before the paragraph which I seek to amend, they will see that where it is intended to let a smallholding to any person it is categorically laid down that that person must have "sufficient agricultural experience." I call particular attention to those three words "sufficient agricultural experience." My Amendment is to Subsection (3, b) which follows that paragraph, and, therefore, the whole of the power, such as it is, of Subsection (3, a) stands, and is not in any way affected by anything I ask in paragraph (b). It is important that Members should note that, because in conversations I have had with many of my hon. Friends I have gathered that there is some doubt about whether anything should be done to facilitate the coming of ex-Service men on to the land lest we should bring on to the land ex-Service men who have not the degree of experience which is asked for in Subsection (3, a).

Therefore, I call attention to the fact that the words which I propose to insert do not affect Subsection (3, a), and I submit that Subsection (3, a) governs Subsection (3, b). Subsection (3, b) emphasises that any ex-Service man who is to be given any opportunity under my proposal shall have training and experience, as defined in paragraph (a). The reason for this is very important, and I will try to dispel a little feeling of doubt about this Amendment which I know exists in many parts of the House.

8.30 p.m.

I want this Amendment to be treated in a non-party manner and without controversy. I wish to ask the Government to listen to what is, said, and not then read from a brief which they have already prepared, without taking into account the arguments which I hope to put before them, and which I feel were not adequately put before them in the Committee. The whole purpose of bringing the Bill to the House after the Committee stage is to get a wider view than may have been expressed in Committee. That does not reflect in any way upon the Committee which, in this instance, did most of its work admirably. After the first great war, a great sympathy for ex-Service men led to a demand to bring them on to the land, and there were many instances in which ex-Service men without experience or training went on to the land, spending the small money they had, their gratuity or whatever it might be. Because they had not the experience, they lost their money. That is in the minds of the Government and of hon. Members on this side of the House who are interested in ex-Service men and their settlement.

We do not want that to happen again. We must resist it lest we bring these men, with their great hopes, into disillusionment. I ask the House to observe that my proposal is safeguarded so absolutely that that cannot occur. There has been misunderstanding about this in the earlier stages and, because of a fear that that is what I had in mind, a sufficiently wide view has not been taken of this matter. Why are any words necessary? We start from the assumptions that no man must go on the land unless he has had sufficient experience. What is sufficient experience? It depends entirely upon who is in the field. If everybody has a little experience, then a little experience is sufficient. If the need of the nation is very great and we must bring men on to the land or starve, then a little experience is sufficient. But if those applying for smallholdings are five or ten times as many as the number of smallholdings, and if they have many years of experience on the land, then "many years" may be the test of what is sufficient. Perhaps "sufficient" means average. In any event, it must be a matter of opinion.

I wish to put to the House what will happen if this Bill is not amended, because I am sure that it cannot be the wish of any hon. Member that it should happen. There may be 10 smallholdings for which there are 50 applicants next year, that is, two to three years after main demobilisation took place. Therefore, there will be a selection and four out of five applicants will have to be left out. Owing to the circumstances in which the war was fought, amongst those who apply it will be found that some 40 remained in this country throughout the war years doing most admirable work on the land. That was work without which the soldiers could not have fought their battles. I agree with Napoleon that an army marches on its stomach. It would be absurd to have an army if we did not retain the vigorous young men on the land to grow the food for them and for the people who munition them. I praise those who stayed to work on our land as well as those who stayed or were directed to work in other essential services.

But it is a fact that one would find in the queue waiting for these smallholdings 40 who were at home during the five or six years of war, and ten who went away. If sufficient experience is the average of the 50 in terms of years of work in agriculture—those are the narrow words of paragraph (a)—then the ten men who served their country under arms will not be able to catch up with the others when one is judging on the basis of sufficient experience. It is inevitable, if we leave these words as they are, that we will have this situation. The majority of those demanding a smallholding by next year will have had five, six, seven or eight year's experience on the land, assuming they were youngsters when war broke out. On the other hand, the men who, for one reason or another, went away, will have had much less experience. Perhaps they were Territorials, men who were praised in those days and whom we wish now to join the Territorial Army again. The reason may be that there was a tradition of soldiering in the family. It may be that something stronger than the duty they felt to stay at home on the land urged them to go into the Armed Forces. I do not criticise the one who staved at home or the one who went away. I praise both. I ask the House only to observe the fact that the one who went is five years behind when counting his agricultural experience.

The man that went away might have driven a tank for four years and might have become a sergeant in the Tank Corps Hs knows what a tractor is because the construction of a tractor is very similar to the construction of a tank. In agriculture we are becoming more and more mechanised. Experience in mechanism is an important part of the experience likely to make for success on the land, but it is not agricultural experience as construed by the words in paragraph (a). Other experience which young men who served for years in the Armed Forces have had may have hardened them and enabled them to manage men and work with them. Those qualities may go far to qualify them, in the judgment of ordinary men. as likely to be successful on a smallholding, but that experience is not agricultural experience, and we are bound to judge agricultural experience under paragraph (a) We have no loophole by which to do otherwise. It is no good the Minister saying that the committee naturally will think of the men who served. The com- mittee must do what it is told to do under the Bill.

If a man has the experience I have mentioned, and he conies back and works on a farm for a year or two, and then goes to one of the agricultural courses which the Minister is arranging, or is supposed to have arranged, he will find it most difficult to get on to the land. In parenthesis, I would recall that the Coalition Government visualised 100,000 men being brought on to the land. Nearly 4,000 have applied for courses of instruction. If more had applied the courses would not have been available. Without blaming any one for this state of affairs, I ask why the men do not go on to the land. Perhaps it is because there is no inducement. When they read this Bill they will find that they, of all people, are to be the ones who will find it most difficult to get on to the land.

I beg the House to look at this thing honestly and sincerely; without private prejudice or party view, to see whether I am not right in saying that if the words I suggest are not inserted the ex-Servicemen will be at the end of the queue. I do not say that they should be at the head of the queue to the exclusion of the ordinary farm worker. I welcome the opportunity for the largest possible number of farm workers to go up the ladder from smallholding to farming and ownership. At the same time we should ensure that somewhere at the head of the queue there should be a fair chance for men whose whole experience—technical, military and agricultural, as well as their experience of the world—should be taken into account. I think that the Clause, as it stands, does not give the ex-Serviceman a fair chance of getting placed in a smallholding under the State scheme, and because of that I have moved this Amendment. Although the word "preference" occurs, I am not asking for preference for ex-Servicemen. I am asking that they should have a level chance of bringing all their experience and of weighing it with the particular experience of the men who stayed at home doing their duties. I think it would be a matter for regret, both in the House and widely in the country, if this country were to deny to those who took up arms in its defence the chance of getting back on to the land.

Colonel Clarke

I beg to second the Amendment.

I would like to emphasise that this Amendment cannot in any way reproduce the unfortunate circumstances that occurred after the first war in regard to ex-Service men and smallholdings. I know well enough what happened in those days. I was a member of the smallholdings committee of a county council, and if I thought that this Amendment could reproduce those circumstances, I would not support it. I am quite confident that, as it is drafted, there is no danger of such a state of affairs occurring. I think that possibly there might be some criticism of the Amendment from the point of view that, in the recent war, the great majority of agriculturists were directed to remain at home. On the other hand, a great number of them did go into the various Services, some of them at great disadvantage to themselves. Therefore, I think they deserve all the credit, and certainly equal opportunity, if not preference, and I should be sorry if this Amendment in any way interfered with the ladder of agricultural advancement. All that we ask is that, where there are two men standing on the same step side by side, the ex-Service man should go up to the next rung first if he is equal in agricultural knowledge, and I feel that that is the right thing to do.

Mr. T. Williams

While I appreciate the object of the hon. Gentleman who moved this Amendment, and the hon and gallant Gentleman who seconded it, I am afraid I cannot accept it. I can assure both hon. and gallant Members that I also am well aware of what happened after the first world war. I remember the number of failures, and the number of ex-Service men who were enticed on to the land only to lose their all, and I know that many of them will never forget it. They were let down by an emotional Parliament. I can also assure hon. Members that this matter has been dealt with honestly and sincerely and without prejudice or bias. It is true that Clause 50 (3, a) does cut out inexperienced persons, but the Amendment does nevertheless completely ignore the conditions of the call-up in the recent war.

To accept this Amendment would be grossly unfair to the many thousands of agricultural workers who were compelled to remain at home, who were directed to remain in agriculture, who are still directed to remain in agriculture, and who are likely to be directed to remain in agriculture for quite a considerable time. I think it would also be unfair to those who were literally born and reared in agriculture, who worked in the countryside until they reached 18 years of age, and then opted to go to the mines because coal was so necessary during the war. In these cases, they certainly are what I regard as skilled agricultural workers, who were not permitted to join the Forces, but who are clearly entitled to be given an opportunity to go up one step further on the ladder, and, if we were to accept this Amendment, it would give an absolute—

Sir I. Fraser


8.45 p.m.

Mr. Williams

—an absolute preference to any person who had served with the Armed Forces either in peace or war. Those are the terms of the Amendment. It gives an absolute preference to any person who has served in the Armed Forces in either peace or war. Insofar as the ex-Service man has the necessary 'agricultural qualifications, he can always be considered for a smallholding, and, if there are 50 applicants for 10 smallholdings, and the ex-Service man has the necessary qualifications, he will take his chance side by side with the other applicants, whereas this Amendment declares, if I start with Subsection (3. b)— (b) in selecting persons to whom small holdings are to be let preference shall be given to persons who, having served in the Armed Forces of the Crown, —and so forth. That means that if a pet-son has joined the Forces but has never been out of the country and has never served in time of war, he must have an absolute preference over a skilled agricultural worker who has been in that industry all his life.

Mr. Frank Byers (Dorset, Northern)

If that is true, it would change the attitude of some hon. Members, but is it, in fact, true? Does not the Clause go on to say and to applicants who at the time of the application are employed under a contract of service"? It cannot be an absolute priority. We are now including two categories in one priority. Surely, the Amendment does not mean to say that, in order to be the first on the list for a smallholding, men have to have Service experience? Surely, that cannot be right?

Mr. Williams

Shall I read the Subsection again? The last thing I would wish to do would be to mislead the House.

Sir I. Fraser

Will the Minister read the whole of it this time?

Mr. Williams

Certainly— (b) In selecting persons to whom smallholdings are to be let preference shall be given to persons who, having served in the armed forces of the Crown, are qualified by agricultural training and experience in accordance with paragraph (a) of this Subsection and as between persons otherwise equally suitable, to applicants who at the time of the application are employed under a contract of service.

Sir I. Fraser

The Minister has missed out half a line.

Mr. Williams

No, I am quite sure I have not missed out half a line. I have quoted from the Bill and imported the Amendment into it.

Sir I. Fraser

Not the whole of the Amendment. I beg the right hon. Gentleman to read it all, and then he will see that it is quite fair.

Mr. Williams

The hon. Gentleman's Amendment on the Order Paper, which is the only one I have, says "persons who have served in the armed forces of the Crown."

Sir I. Fraser

The Minister's brief is wrong.

Mr. Williams

That does not alter the case. The Amendment gives preference—an absolute preference—to persons who have served in the Armed Forces and who are qualified in agricultural experience in accordance with paragraph (a), but it still gives an absolute preference to persons who have been in the Armed Forces. I am stating the case as I see it. We ought always to try to do our best—

Sir I. Fraser

The preference is asked for the ex-Service man and for those under contract. The right hon. Gentleman did not even then read the whole of the Amendment; he only read the first part. He ought to read it all in order to see that preference is asked for two classes of persons, and not for one. That does not put one before the other; it puts both in a fair position.

Mr. Williams

I do not think I need read it again; it does not make the slightest difference. I have already quoted the Amendment two or three times, and I cannot make any difference in it. My main point is that the smallholding policy of the Government is designed to provide a ladder for bona fide agricultural workers. Once we start importing preferences into opportunities for smallholdings, we destroy the very basis of our smallholdings policy. For men who were born in agriculture, who have remained in agriculture and who have acquired skill in agriculture, the only possibility of promotion is to become smallholders on their own behalf. Therefore, the small holdings policy of the Government is to provide that opportunity. I do not think we should be justified in diverting from that policy one iota. I hope, therefore, that the policy as embodied in the Bill will remain, and that agricultural skill will be the major factor, and that the agricultural worker will always have first consideration. If, as I have already stated, the ex-Service man has also agricultural experience, so much the better. The chances are that he will not only have an equal opportunity, but that sentimentally, perhaps, he will find himself in a superior position to many other applicants. The opportunity is provided for agricultural workers, and I hope it will remain so.

Mr. Gooch (Norfolk, Northern)

While I have every sympathy with much of what the hon. Member for Lonsdale (Sir I. Fraser) has said with regard to the claim for ex-Service men, I think we should understand that the foundation underlying the regulations for the provision of smallholdings in future is to enable them to avoid the pitfalls of the past. We all know what happened after the first world war. There are many men coming out of the Forces today who say that they would like a hit of old England for winch they fought. There is a lot to be said for that argument, but, side by side with that, we must give very careful consideration to the points made by the Minister in support of leaving the Clause as it is. I do not exactly agree with the Minister that, by adopting the Amendment, we should be giving absolute priority to ex-Service men. I think the other line suggested is that they should take their stand with the rest, Against that, the only way to make a success of smallholdings in the future is to give those smallholdings to men who are prepared to do a lot of hard work for a little gain, and who, owing to past experience, can really make a success of the job.

Reference has been made to ex-Service men undergoing agricultural training at the present time. The, numbers are not very large, but I think more men would go into those training centres if conditions on the land were made more attractive than they are at present. We must not only pay increased wages, but must also address ourselves to the matter of employment. The point has been raised that if we are to make a success of the agricultural training scheme for ex-Service men, we shall only get the men to come in, in so far as they realise that there is a future in it from the employment standpoint. Could the Minister look at the possibility of inviting applications from those men when they have completed their training? The Clause lays it down that the men must have agricultural experience. I make the very definite suggestion that in the ranks of ex-Service men, and particularly in the ranks of the British Legion, there is a very strong feeling that ex-Service men should be given a look in. I want not only to pay lip service to the fine work done by these men during the war, but I, with others, want to play my part in trying to make up to them something which they lost during the war years. We want the smallholdings to be a success. They can be made a success if the Minister will put into operation co-operative schemes for buying and selling and for cultivation which will enable these men to get on with the job. As I have said, I think the Minister should consider the possibility of entertaining applications from men now undergoing training.

Mr. Byers

I do not think the Minister has fully appreciated the intention of this Amendment, although I must say, with regard to its actual terms, that I am slightly unhappy about the wording of it. It can be read, although that was certainly not the intention of its mover, as giving an overall and absolute priority to the ex-Service man in one category, and then, below that category, comes the dispute between other persons under contract for service, and so on. Therefore, I think there is some substance in what the Minister has said in condemning the actual terms of the Amendment, although I also think there is a point of substance in what was put forward by the hon. Member for Lonsdale (Sir I. Fraser).

As I see it, it is not that we are trying to do anything like what was done after the 1914–18 war. We are not trying to push men on to the land, and let them chance their luck as to whether or not they will "make a go" of it. Although it will be a diminishing liability, because there is to be a lesser period of military service from now onwards, the ex-Service man will be penalised in the future when he comes up as an applicant for a small, holding, even though he has the agricultural experience and training required under paragraph (a). I think it would be quite natural for whoever has to decide—whether it be the county council, or whoever it is—who should get the smallholding, to give the preference to the agricultural worker under a contract of service. Even though by this time the ex-Service man will be an agricultural worker under contract for service, the preference will go to the man who has been an agricultural worker for the longest time.

9.0 p.m.

There is a very great danger. I am not arguing the case for ex-Service men as against agricultural workers. I am keen to see that justice is done to both, and I think that is the point behind the Amendment. Suppose that a man has served in the Army for four years. At the same time, an agricultural worker, through no fault of his own, has been kept on the land. The former may have volunteered to go into the Army or he may have been directed into it; that does not matter. But supposing a number of years later, both apply for a small holding, and their agricultural experience and training are relatively the same, I can visualise the preference being given to the man who has been an agricultural worker for ten years as against the man who has been an agricultural worker for six years and has served in the Army. I think there is a point of substance in the suggestion that there should be level pegging and that an ex-Service man should be given full credit for the years he has spent in the Forces, subject always to the qualification that he has had agricultural experience and training. I am not prepared to suggest in exact terms how the Amendment should read, but I do suggest that the Minister should not brush the point on one side as being of no substance. I believe it is a point of substance and should be given favourable consideration.

Mr. Parkin (Stroud)

I regret that the discussion on this Amendment has taken rather a harsher turn than I expected. I anticipated that after the Amendment had been moved in general and non-party terms, there would have been a general assurance by the Minister that ex-Service men would in no way suffer in their applications for smallholdings and that the Amendment would then have been gracefully withdrawn. Unfortunately, there has been some argument because the Amendment appears not to have been drafted as well as it might have been. I think the intention of the hon. Member for Lonsdale (Sir I. Fraser) would have been better expressed if the Amendment had come after the word "suitable" instead of the word "given." However, we have had the old argument as to whether or not there should be preference for ex-Service men, and that argument ought to be dead. Unfortunately, it is not dead in the country, and neither is it dead entirely on the benches opposite. The Minister was quite right in pointing out the folly of the idea that ex-Servicemen are a sort of caste apart for the rest of their lives, to be kept happy by minor privileges and charity—a policy which has failed us completely in the past, and which has been replaced by the more modern attitude that the sooner we enable a man to forget that he is an ex-Service man as far as his career is concerned, the better.

There is before us the immediate problem of recruitment to the land, and just because this Debate has gone wrong in the last quarter of an hour or so, it would be unfortunate if it went out from this House that there was any danger that an ex-Service man trying to get a career on the land would lose his chance of getting a smallholding. Therefore, before this discussion closes, I hope the Minister will give an assurance that the ex-Service man who feels that the land is his career will not in the future lose his chance of becoming a smallholder. After all, it is the possibility of becoming a smallholder which is the only incentive. No such consideration arises among farmers' sons. It applies only to the man who enters the industry as a wage earner to begin with. If the Minister can assure us that by regulation, supervision or by the most definite assurances here, it will be made clear that nothing will stand in the way of an ex-Service man, I am sure we shall all be happy.

Mr. George Brown (Belper)

Following the remarks of my hon. Friends the Members for Stroud (Mr. Parkin) and North Norfolk (Mr. Gooch) may I say none of us would want the ex-Service man to be prejudiced in this respect. On the other hand, in view of the past history of the industry, and the disabilities, handicaps and troubles of the agricultural workers for many years in the past, we must be careful to see that the agricultural workers are not handicapped in obtaining smallholdings in the few years immediately ahead. We are apt to talk about this as though there is some reward for having been an ex-Serviceman in being given a smallholding.

There are two things to be considered. One is the success of the, smallholding scheme. That does mean we must have people who really have had plenty of experience on the land, and that means putting agricultural workers who have not been in the Forces at the head of fellows who have been in the Forces who have not had experience on the land. That has to be faced if we are to make a success of the scheme. The second consideration is the success of the individuals. It is always easy to say we do not want to repeat what happened after the first world war, but hon. Members who say that then slide off very quickly by suggesting that we can do this sort of thing without the trouble that we had after the first world war. I hope the Minister will stand firm, and point out that we do not use this argument in other industries. We do not put it to the engineer coming back from the Forces that he is to have preference over the men who stayed behind.

If a man comes back and gets experience on the land, of if he had experience on the land, or was an agricultural worker, he will stand a chance of getting a smallholding. The hon. Member for North Dorset (Mr. Byers) said he felt there was something in the Bill which would mean that the agricultural worker who had been on the land 10 years would always get a preference over the fellow who had spent the last six years in the Forces. He must have a rather suspicious mind, because there is nothing whatever in the Bill that would lead anyone else to make that assumption. I think that what the Minister said is absolutely right, that if an ex-Serviceman has what is held to be the minimum necessary experience to work a smallholding, it is almost certain that, for some time to come, there will be an overhang of sentiment which will give him an advantage over the other chap. I am anxious we should not make this mistake of inviting to happen what happened after the first world war, while disavowing it. I hope the Minister will stand firm. I am prepared, though I was not in the Forces myself, to argue that the agricultural workers have had such a very raw deal until the most recent times that there should be a preference for them over almost anybody else. I hope the Minister will not give way on this principle.

Lieut.-Colonel Lipton (Brixton)

If my right hon. Friend the Minister will accept what has just been said by my hon. Friend the Member for Belper (Mr. G. Brown), I think it will go some way towards satisfying the really legitimate point made by the hon. Member for North Dorset (Mr. Byers). What I think is at the basis of this Amendment is, that a man who was an agricultural worker, who went to the Forces, and has gone back to agriculture, should not, by reason of his service in the Forces, be prejudiced by comparison with another applicant for a smallholding, who, for one reason or another, may not have served in the Forces at all, but who has had a continuous period, perhaps, of 10 years' experience in agriculture. After all, what we are asking for, if we put that forward, is simply a reaffirmation of the principle that has been long accepted in the Civil Service and in local government service. In these two branches of activity, if a man goes into the Forces, he loses nothing in seniority, or pension rights, or superannuation, or promotion prospects by reason of his service in the Forces. I think that if the Minister will look at what has been said from that particular point of view he will go some way towards satisfying the points that have been raised in the discussion on this Amendment.

Sir I. Fraser

I will not press this to a Division because, as I said, I do not want to divide the House on a poignant matter of this sort, as if one party thought more of this group and the other party thought more of that group. If this matter is not thought about between now and the Third Reading, or in another place, and if no opportunity is given for further consideration, I cannot but feel that a prejudice—and I say that advisedly, and without heat or passion—will have developed in the minds of hon. and right hon. Gentlemen, and will have stood in the way of the bare justice for which I have asked. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] I believe that to be true.

There are two points which I should like to put to the Minister. The first is, that I did not mean to include the peacetime soldier. Everybody knows that the words of the amateur are not those of the experts in Government Departments. Therefore, I should be glad if the Minister would exclude the peacetime soldier. The second point is, I did not mean to give an absolute preference. If there is any doubt about that I should be very pleased to accept any words which make it an equal chance and not a preference at all. I am inviting the Minister to think of suitable words to cover the admirable sentiments expressed by many of his hon. Friends, particularly the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Mr. Gooch), who made a very fair speech. If his desire could be carried out we should have some satisfaction. Can we not hope that between now and the time this Bill leaves another place—or with our help in another place if the Minister wishes it—the Minister will find some words which will give the ex-Service man an equal chance and not a preference?

Mr. T. Williams

I rather take exception to the hon. Member's suggestion that there is prejudice, on either the Front Bench or the back benches anywhere in the House, against ex-Service men. That simply is not true. So far as giving an assurance is concerned, the hon. Member must know that the ex-Service man with agricultural experience stands absolutely on a par with any other agricultural worker. Since agricultural experience alone will determine the selection of smallholders, there is no distinction whatever. The selection will be based upon agricultural experience and knowledge, and nothing else. There will be prejudice against anyone.

Amendment negatived.