HC Deb 05 June 1947 vol 438 cc564-78

Order for Second Reading read.

1.26 a.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Thomas Fraser)

I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time "

This Bill has been forced upon us mainly by two facts. First, the abnormally high increase of potato acreage we are attempting to secure, and second, the operation of the provisions of the Act of 1945. The provision I have mainly in mind is that as from the date of the raising of the school age no school children can be exempted from school attendance for the purposes of engaging in remunerative employment.

The potato acreage target for Scotland this year is 220,000 and that is 64 per cent increase on the prewar acreage. I am sure the House will be glad to hear that, despite the difficulties we had this spring with the shortage of labour and the fears that were expressed that the labour would not be forthcoming for the heavy planting programme, we believe the target of 220,000 acres will be reached. The harvesting of the main crop is to be done during the period from the end of September, perhaps including the last week, until the end of October. We really must get the potatoes gathered in that period as there is a very real danger of frost attacking potatoes if they are not gathered by November.

To undertake the gigantic task of in-gathering the potato crop, it is estimated that an additional labour force of 90,000 workers is necessary. That labour force is greater than the labour forces employed in any other industry in Scotland. The question we have to ask ourselves and try to answer is, from where are we going to recruit this great labour force? We anticipate that by recruiting from the ranks of the unemployed and those not normally gainfully employed—married women—and other civilian sources, we shall get about 28,000 workers. That is about the number we got last year, and we have every reason to believe that we shall get an equal number in 1947. We also expect about 40,000 workers from among the members of the Polish forces in this country, many of whom are going into the Resettlement Corps, from prisoner of war sources, together with our own services. We shall find it most difficult to provide accommodation for that very large labour force in the main potato growing areas, but we think we will get the accommodation to house more than 40,000. That gives a total of 68,000 only. I said we estimated that we require a labour force of 90,000, so we are 22,000 short.

If we are to harvest this crop we must get assistance from yet another source, or other sources. It would seem to me that there are only two other sources from which the workers can be drawn. First, they might be drawn from among the workers engaged in other occupations, and, second, from the schools. I think it will he accepted on all sides that we could not possibly contemplate at this time, and in our present economic difficulties, the extraction of that number of workers from other occupations for the potato harvesting period. In the circumstances, we are forced to the conclusion that we must get assistance again from the school children. In the past, of course, the school children have assisted. They have been made available to us in two ways. The first is by the splitting of the summer holidays. Then we have in many parts of Scotland what is known as the potato holiday. Education authorities in those parts of the country, arrange their holidays so that part of them which usually comes during the summer months is given during the month of October. A very large number of children have for more years than many of us care to remember been made available by exemptions, and for some years past it has been perfectly legal to exempt children over 12 years of age from attending school to engage in this work. That class of exemption was brought to an end by the Act of 1945.

I should say that the splitting of holidays is not considered to be a means of making children available to the extent to which they are necessary for this employment. We can only arrange the splitting of holidays so that children will be free for two or three weeks during the harvesting period. They may, in fact, be free during weeks when we are experiencing inclement weather, and, if there were not provision for exemptions, they would not be available for the potato harvest when the weather is suitable for the work to be undertaken. We find that the edu- cation authorities are becoming increasingly less keen on making school children available by splitting holidays. I had a series of conferences with the education authorities throughout Scotland. We discussed these matters very thoroughly, and the educationists in most parts of Scotland impressed upon me the desirability of introducing emergency legislation so that exemptions from school attendance might be permitted for a short period during the time when it could be reasonably expected that we would require workers for an abnormally high potato acreage. Having gone into the matter very fully, we came to the conclusion that we had better introduce a Bill such as this.

The Bill is a very short one. It gives the Secretary of State power to serve a notice on any local authority stating that, in his opinion, it is desirable that a specified number of children should be granted exemption on days to be notified to the authorities, and the authority shall thereupon grant exemptions to such numbers of children over 13 years of age, provided that the other conditions of the Act and the regulations are satisfied. I make it clear that hitherto it has been possible to exempt children from school attendance over 12 years of age. The age is now being raised to 13 and children will only be made available over 13. There is another essential difference, however, from past practice. Hitherto, education authorities have decided whether or not they would grant exemptions for this or any other purpose. But when I discussed the matter in many parts of Scotland at conferences specially convened, I was pressed by educationists who had for very many years made children available and who co-operated with the Government during the war years in making a greater number of children available, to secure that this burden should be as evenly shared as possible by the whole of the population of Scotland.

They argued with me that if the Secretary of State should require that a certain acreage of potatoes should be planted and so make it necessary for a demand to be made on the young people of this country who are still at school, then the decision to grant exemptions was one that ought to be taken by the Secretary of State and not left to be taken by those whose main responsibility was to look after the education of the children. They said that it was most unfair to the children in one area to give them an opportunity of coming and assisting in the harvest whilst the authority in the neighbouring area could very well say that, notwithstanding the wishes of the parents of the children, no children would be made available. I was much impressed by the arguments made, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State also was when I reported to him. So, the Bill provides that the Secretary of State shall accept the responsibility of deciding how many children shall be made available. This further fact, of course, must be borne in mind, that we are not dictating to any of the children that they shall help us in this work. The Secretary of State shall only give notice to the authority that a given number of children will be necessary, and if the authority has applications from the parents of the children up to that number, then the authority is obliged, if the other conditions are fulfilled, to make that number available.

I think that in the Bill we have offered all reasonable safeguards. It provides that the regulations to be made by the Secretary of State shall have regard to the health of the children; shall seek to secure that the health of the children is not impaired; shall prohibit other employment; shall regulate the hours of work; shall provide that the children must have suitable clothing; shall provide that suitable arrangements must be made for midday meals; that the children must be properly supervised; that, if necessary, they must be conveyed to and from work in a vehicle that is safe for the conveyance of children and that is so constructed as to afford them protection from the weather. I think the Secretary of State is taking all reasonable safeguards in the interests of the children. The only other point I should like to make is, that the Bill is limited in time. We are providing that the Bill shall remain in force until the end of 1948. That should give us the advantage of the Bill for two potato harvests, those of 1947 and of 1948. We are hoping that by that time it will be possible so to reduce the potato acreage, or to provide for the ingathering of the crop by mechanical means, as to make the use of schoolchildren unnecessary in the potato fields.

1.41 a.m.

Lieut.-Colonel Elliot (Scottish Universities)

The Joint Under-Secretary has brought before the House an important proposal, rather too important, I think, to take at this late hour. But it may be that the pressure of the Government's legislative programme is so great that they have to legislate at this somewhat unseemly hour. The Joint Under-Secretary made a strong case, undoubtedly; but it seemed to me that the very strength of his case militated greatly against the contention he made at the end of his remarks that this limited Bill could be dispensed with after two potato harvests. He hopes to draw this year from unemployed and married women some 28,000; from Poles and prisoners of war and our own Services, 40,000. That still leaves him 22,000 short. All those categories will not increase in numbers in future years. It is not to be supposed that the unemployed will increase in future years, and it is not to be supposed that either prisoners of war or Polish soldiers will increase in future years. The hopes he held out that, in the next 12 months, it will be possible greatly to reduce the food production acreage of this country do not, I think, square with the economic picture which other Ministers are drawing, and which, particularly, the agricultural Ministers are drawing; and that, and the other suggestion, that within the time of two potato harvests it will be possible to avoid the necessity of employing this vast force of human labour, are rather illusory hopes.

Therefore, we find that, immediately after passing an Education Act raising the school-leaving age, the Government have to bring in another Bill, taking thus a step to which many educationists take strong exception. These Measures have to be systematised, the Secretary of State himself taking certain responsibility. These are realities which the Government are facing, and one has to consider what has been said by the hon. Member and by hon. Members sitting on that side, and what would be said if we had produced in this House such a Measure. They certainly would not have proceeded as we intend to proceed, to give them support, to give them the support of His Majesty's Opposition. I do not think in the past hon. Members now sitting on that side of the House have realised the harsh compulsion of necessity. They are now being driven to recognise it by events, but many times we have received severe criticisms and harsh judgments while we ourselves realised the necessity of events. I am glad to find that hon. Members formerly sitting on this side of the House have developed a much greater sense of realism, faced, as I say, with the unpleasant facts of life, because I do not honestly think that it will be possible to recruit any great additional force which will enable us to dispose of this crop now or in the future, nor do I see any prospect of reducing the food producing acreage to enable us to draw in our horns and avoid the recruitment of this extra labour.

While it is right and proper to bring in a temporary Bill, it should address itself to the problem that somehow there will have to be obtained some very large, labour force for seasonal work such as this. This is—let us face it—a kind of direction of labour. The Under-Secretary says it is not so. It simply means that you make it available, that there is no compulsion, but that there is a labour force necessary to prevent the people of this country dying of hunger. If he does not get it, how is he to lift the crop? He is obviously relying on this Bill to close this gap. He has drawn a picture of a shortage of labour to obtain for the people of this country the vital necessity of food, and if this does not meet the position we will need to leave the potatoes to rot in the ground and the people to die of hunger.

Mr. George Thomas (Cardiff, Central)

Does the right hon. and gallant Gentleman suggest that the Minister should direct labour?

Lieut.-Colonel Elliot

I am making no such suggestion. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will realise that he is taking the responsibility for the governing of this country, he is taking the responsibility for introducing this Measure. It is his responsibility now, and he must not ask for an answer to those questions from his Majesty's Opposition who have not the authority or power to carry out what they would do. He is responsible for obtaining the food for the people of this country from the soil of this country. He has sketched out a balance sheet tonight which shows a very dangerous deficit, and I say the very figures which he has given in sketching out this deficit will tend to increase the deficit, for some of the forces on which he is relying for labour, are forces which he will not be able to draw upon to the same extent in the future—prisoners of war and the Polish Corps. The Government are entitled to ask for a breathing space to consider the position. Are we to support them in their proposal to have that breathing space. But it will not be conjured away by this Bill. The hope has been held out that it will be possible in 1948 to allow this Bill to lapse and not again to bring forth to the House another major Measure of this kind prolonging again the necessity, which everyone of us deplores, of cutting into the school year at a very difficult time, and to that extent handicapping and prejudicing the chances of the young people of this country. It is a problem to which the whole House will have to address itself. It is a problem which, in future years, Ministers of Agriculture, and of Labour, will need to be more prepared to deal with by far more constructive proposals.

1.50 a.m.

Miss Herbison (Lanark, North)

I also feel that the time at which this Bill is introduced into this House is not the time at which we should be taking what I consider to be a most important Measure. I have no intention of voting against the Bill if it comes to the question of a vote, but I do feel that some other method might well have been found to get the extra labour we must have if we are to get the potato harvest in this year and, possibly, next year. It is true, as the right hon. and gallant Member for the Scottish Universities (Lieut.-Colonel Elliot) has said, that we on this side have always been against the exemption of children. I feel that exemption is a very bad thing. It will give to those who are needed for the potato harvest only a certain number of children and it will militate against some children as it will not against others. I do feel, having taken part in harvest camps during the war, that another method should have been found. I would not say that I oppose this on grounds of child labour. I know from experience of the camps that the boys got much out of the work which they did. Conditions in the camps were good. They found what it was to live a communal life, and they felt, also, that they were giving something to the nation. All these things are very important for the boys, provided that they are not too young.

My chief objection is that where one institutes a policy of exemptions, rather than the splitting of holidays—which I prefer —one will find parents refusing to allow their children to apply for the exemption, even if the boy or the girl wants to do so. It must be seen that the children lose nothing of education so long as the school is open. I taught at a school where I should be surprised it six boys asked for exemptions. I am afraid that the children we still get into this labour force are those who are, not very interested in their education, or those whose parents think that the little extra money they will get from the potato picking will help them. From what the Under-Secretary has said, the education authorities have been against the splitting of holidays. Again from my experience as a teacher, particularly of boys and girls going forward for their higher leaving certificate, this break in October is a very serious thing.

It is not a case, as the Under-Secretary said, of two or three weeks. Where we had holidays in the cities during the war, it was a case of four weeks from the middle of September to the middle of October, the time when potatoes to a great extent are lifted in Scotland. I should much prefer, even if it did need legislation and even if it was not liked by those responsible in the educational authorities of Scotland, that that step had been taken by the Scottish Office. I would prefer to have criticism from the educational authorities provided we are doing everything to give justice to every child in Scotland. I feel that in this Measure there is a grave danger of an injustice being done to some of our children. I am not at all sure that we are getting from the Armed Forces in this country the amount of men we could have got for this harvest. I feel that sufficient examination has not been made of this point. We find in certain quarters that complaints are made that the men in the Forces do not have very much to do, and if this is a national emergency we should take every soldier in this country away from training and away from whatever they were doing to provide food for our people.

I am glad that this is only a two years Measure and that at the end of that time we will be able to survey the whole position again. If the Under-Secretary wants 20,000 children, he has to get more than the children living in and around potato-growing districts. Some will have to come from our big cities, and all of them can- not be taken by buses to the fields every day. They will have to be taken to camps, just as they were during the war. Who are to supervise these camps? If the schools are in session, we shall not have the teachers we had during the war who did an excellent job of work in these camps. Of course, we had great fun; we enjoyed it just as much as the boys and girls, but that supervision force will not be there. Who are going to do it? The boys and girls do need help. I remember one instance in which a boy was taken from a job we thought bad for him. We did not send him back to the farm and when the farmer came to us, we told him he did not treat the boy as he ought to have treated him. That boy was safeguarded because he had with him supervisors interested in his welfare. If we want to get boys and girls from the big cities we must see that they have with them men and women who will take care of their welfare. I hope the points I have raised will be taken note of and that when this Bill comes to an end in two years' time some other form will be found rather than exemption which, I must stress again, will be borne mainly by children who really need education.

1.59 a.m.

Sir William Darling (Edinburgh, South)

It is nearly two in the morning and this is a very bitter hour for the Government. They are re-introducing with four or five Scottish Members child labour in Scotland. This is not being done by a Tory Government. A Tory Government put on the Statute Book the Children and Young Persons Act of 1937. It is the Children and Young Persons Act of 1937 which is being torn up tonight by a Socialist Government, and I am glad my right hon. Friend the Member for the Scottish Universities (Lieut.-Colonel Elliot) has brought home in his inimitable way the poignancy of that fact. I say to the Scottish Labour Members, "You have played fast and loose with the destiny of your country." And four juvenile Members of the Scottish Labour Party are there to answer for the sins of the whole Labour Party. We are entitled to put the matter plainly and straightly before them.

At this hour, when the children whose liberty we are taking away, and whom we are robbing of their childhood, are in bed the members of the Government are pilfering their youth, and doing so in a shame-faced fashion. The only good thing about the Under-Secretary and his two colleagues and the hon. Member for North Lanark (Miss Herbison) is that they are heartily and properly ashamed of themselves for the job they are doing. This Government came into office to plan a better and fuller life for the people of this country. Is this their planning? Is the employment of Scottish children the best that they can do? Let me tell you, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, that your official statistics show—

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

I would remind the hon. Gentleman that I have no statistics.

Sir W. Darling

The official statistics show that there are 70,000 people unemployed in Scotland. Is this Government of all the talents unable to organise those 70,000 unemployed to pick "tatties"?

Miss Herbison

Can I ask the hon. Member whether he is in favour of the direction of labour, for that would be the only way you could force the unemployed to go into the potato fields?

Sir W. Darling

The hon. Lady asks me if I am in favour of the direction of labour. With that subtlety and charm of which she is a mistress, she imputes to me the necessary authority and power. I would ask her to re-address that question to me when those who put her and her friends into office now have formed sounder views on politics, and have placed me in the seat of authority, and I will then give her the answer. Tonight let her ask her friends and those who have placed them in power. Let her ask the working men and women, whose boys and girls are going to undertake this work, whether this is direction of labour.

This is a dark and humiliating hour, and it is right that the whole gang of the Scottish Labour Party, whom I have known for 25 years, should be in bed, like the children they intend to exploit next October. Let them pull the blankets over their heads and cower down, for indeed they are ashamed of themselves, and the whole Scottish Labour movement. When, at two in the morning, the young Under-Secretary, supported by the hon. Lady, herself almost in tears, asks the House of Commons to give a new lease to the exploitation of children, which we thought was a thing of the past—

Notice taken that 40 Members were not present;

House counted, and, 40 Members being present

2.5 a.m.

Mr. William Ross (Kilmarnock)

It may be just as well that we got those few minutes between the sitting down of the hon. Member for South Edinburgh (Sir W. Darling) and my rising, because I had quite a few words to say that would probably be better left unsaid. The hon. and gallant Member for the Scottish Universities (Lieut.-Colonel Elliot) said it was good and right that we on this side of the House should now face—I think his words were—"the harsh compulsion of necessity." I wonder if he remembers that when the children of Scotland went into the fields to pick potatoes in the days when he and the party opposite were more in control of matters, it was the harsh compulsion of necessity that was forcing the children to go. It was the need for the coppers, for there were at the time 400,000 unemployed in Scotland. Like any other person interested in education, I regretted that it should be necessary for the Government to introduce this Bill, and I am not going to applaud for the benefit it is doing education. Like every other schoolmaster in the country, I was glad when the school-leaving age was raised to 15 and equally glad when the Government set their face against the principle of exemption. The only consolation I can see in this piece of paper is the word "temporary" and like the right hon. and gallant Member for the Scottish Universities I am sceptical, but for a different reason. I am sceptical also about the success of this Bill because the harsh compulsion of necessity does not force the children into the' fields now. There are such things as family allowances and the agricultural worker—and do not let us shut our eyes to the fact that it is his child who is going to do this picking—sets a high value on education.

This break in education by exemption is a very serious thing. Some people dismiss it and say it is only for a few days. That few days, though it affects only a few people in one class, affects the whole class. It may retard the child very seriously and for a considerably longer period than that. I feel that a mobile force—the Army—going round various places, might have been able to tackle this problem, too. Then we have that other gallant body of people who want to save their country. We had 60 come down all the way from Scotland to take some of the rations the housewives of London need. Are they going to leave the children of Scotland to dig potatoes for them while they find the time to come down from Scotland to London? The housewives of Scotland who are truly representative of the Scottish people are not in London. They are looking after their houses and their families. They knew the queues when it was the men who were standing in them. The Secretary of State should make every effort to ensure that this Bill is really a temporary provision, and make every effort to ensure that whatever organisation is made for these children will be of a type which looks after their health to the fullest extent and will not interfere unduly with their education.

2.14 a.m.

Mr. T. Fraser

I will speak again with the leave of the House. My hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. W. Ross) said we might have made full use of the Armed Forces—a mobile force—to move round the country. In making that suggestion he overlooked the fact that the Armed Forces have to be accommodated, and he also overlooked the fact that we have a vast acreage to be harvested in four weeks, so a mobile force would be no good. You cannot take up all the potatoes on a farm in one day.—[A HON. MEMBER: "Not even under Socialism?"] Not even under Socialism. The people who harvest the potatoes in any one county in Scotland will be in that county for the duration of the potato harvest. Therefore, the suggestion of using the Army as a mobile force is not one which would be likely to be practicable. Indeed, I would ask the House to believe that all the accommodation which is available at the present time is being used by the Armed Forces, and that the accommodation which has been used by the Armed Forces and at present is not being fully employed, will be fully employed in the main growing areas in providing accommodation for those very large forces of prisoners, Poles, and even civilians who are unemployed, who will be drafted into the main growing areas for the duration of the potato harvest. We shall make the fullest use of the accommo- dation which might in other circumstances be used by the Armed Forces in the main growing areas.

In reply to the hon. Member for North Lanark (Miss Herbison), who is on my own side of the House, I would say that the split holidays are not a full answer when we need such a large labour force. She spoke of the contribution made by Glasgow during the war years. If one examines figures and takes the year 1945, we find that Glasgow's contribution represented only 10 per cent. of the eligible children of Glasgow. Is she suggesting that we should endeavour to split the holidays of a number of the children in Glasgow who might assist us? Does she think that we should split the holidays of all the Glasgow school children, or just the holidays of the eligible children? I am sure that if she goes into the difficulties she will find that it becomes very difficult indeed to secure that the requisite number of children will be made available by splitting the holidays. Then again, she said that I had referred to a period of two or three weeks, and she said that her school had four weeks. But even so, those children might well have their four weeks and, if that autumn holiday was from the middle of September to the middle of October, it might be found that in a particular year the bulk of the potato harvest was ready during the last two weeks in October and the first week of November. In that case, these children would not be available for the work unless we could in some way make them available by means of exemptions. I hope that wherever practicable the authorities, including the Glasgow authority, will provide for the splitting of the school holidays, and so make available a number of children to assist in this work with less interference to their education than, it might be argued, is the case if they are made available by way of exemptions.

Turning to the other side of the House, I must say that the hon. Member for South Edinburgh (Sir W. Darling) talked the most awful nonsense, as he usually does, arguing that—

Sir W. Darling

There cannot be both nonsense and argument.

Mr. Fraser

There was no argument.

Sir W. Darling

The hon. Gentleman said "argument."

Mr. Fraser

There was no argument. The hon. Member talked the most awful nonsense. He said we were reintroducing child labour in Scotland.

He said we were tearing up the Tory Party's Act of 1937. Is that true? They have been employed every year since 1937. If we did not have this Bill it would be the first year in the history of this country when it was not possible for the children to help in the harvest. Whereas hitherto, children of 12 years of age or over could assist, now under the povisions of this Bill, only children over 13 years of age can assist.

Sir W. Darling

What an advance.

Mr. Fraser

The hon. Gentleman thinks it is not an improvement, none at all. I should have thought it was a considerable improvement, because only quite recently the vast majority of these children were leaving at 14 and going into permanent employment, not employment for only three or four weeks. He went on to contend that this was direction—nothing short of compulsion of labour Again, of course, he could not adduce any argument to support that silly contention. The right hon. and gallant Member 'for the Scottish Universities (Lieut.-Colonel Elliot) also made the mistake of describing this as being nothing more nor less than the compulsion of labour. When he was challenged he sought to wriggle out of it by saying that the alternative for this was the compulsion of labour. But we are not using the alternative. We are using this method. He said that he appreciated that we were facing up to the realities of the situation and, of course, he was going to support us. He thought it was illusory to suggest that we might get some mechanical employment to raise potatoes in 1949 and 1950, and so save ourselves employing these children, but he must know that now we have harvest machines that are doing the job—not to perfection —but they are doing the job, and there is no reason to believe that no progress will be made in the course of the next two years. In any case, it is a breathing space. If, after two years, we find that we are still unable to have the potato acreage we need in Scotland without getting some assistance from the school population, then it will he the responsibility of the Government to come back to this House and ask for fresh powers. I think it is fair that in asking for such powers as these and asking that the children should be made available for this job, we should limit the period of the Bill, and if it continues to be necessary an obligation should be on the Government of the day to come forward to get fresh powers from Parliament. These arguments can be continued in the Committee upstairs.

Squadron-Leader Sir Gifford Fox (Henley)

Will the Minister explain how harvesting machines will save any labour?

Mr. Fraser

I should have thought that was obvious.