HC Deb 03 June 1949 vol 465 cc2495-508

1.5 p.m.

Mr. Mott-Radclyffe (Windsor)

The question of farm workers' rations has been raised in this House on many occasions during the last two months at Question Time. I make no apology for raising it again, except to say that I am sorry that the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Food should be obliged to come to the House to answer for his Department in the luncheon hour, although I am quite certain that his Department have packed up a sandwich lunch for him nicely wrapped in cellophane paper, which will probably be a good deal more palatable than some of the sandwich lunches which the farm labourer is taking into the fields.

The Government, quite rightly, are continually exhorting the agricultural community to produce more food. Their exhortations have received the support of hon. Members on all sides of the House. We all recognise that agriculture is the greatest dollar-saving industry that we possess. But I think that those who are engaged in the vital task of food production are at least entitled to a fair share of the food that is available, and in this respect the position of the farm worker is far from satisfactory. There are a number of specific complaints to which I wish to draw the attention of the right hon. Gentleman.

In the first place, one of the principal causes of complaint is that those agricultural workers whether British or foreign, who are accommodated in hostels, receive a meat ration of 2s. 6d., whereas agricultural workers who live in their own homes receive a meat ration of 1s. 1d. The meat ration for the latter of 1s. 1d. applies to those for whom no canteen facilities are available. What is quite clear, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, is that by the very nature of the work, only in a small proportion of cases can canteen facilities be available for them on the farm. This differentiation between 2s. 6d. and 1s. 1d. is very naturally and, in my view, quite rightly causing considerable dissatisfaction. I understand that the argument is that the farm worker who lives in his own home has points which he can spend. I would point out that there is singularly little meat available on points, and that what is available is very highly pointed. I would also add that I am one of those who believe that the farm worker needs fresh meat in order to give him the required stamina. I am not in the least convinced by all the scientific arguments of the food experts about the high calorific value, of all sorts of substitutes for fresh meat.

The second point to which I wish to draw the attention of the right hon. Gentleman is that those who are accommodated in hostels, if I understand the position correctly, get their 2s. 6d. meat ration, whether or not they are fully employed all the week. Although I do not in any way wish to pass any general criticism on the European Volunteer Workers, many of whom served us well in the war, and many of whom are unable or unwilling for reasons which we all understand to go back to their homes in the countries from which they came the fact remains that, at any rate, a proportion of the E.V.W's. are not very satisfactory.

There is also this point, that those who are accommodated in hostels do not, by and large, work as long hours as the ordinary agricultural workers who live in their homes, for the simple reason that the former are taken out every day in agricultural committee vehicles, dropped at the various farms in the countryside where they work and picked up later at specific times, which means that the gang on farm A may be picked up half-an-hour before the gang on farm B. This is the cause of complaint and irritation to the ordinary agricultural worker who does an honest day's work every day of the week.

The third point is our old friend the Food Seasonal Allowance Order. The right hon. Gentleman will remember that we prayed against this order last year. The real trouble is that it is no more practical in 1949 than it was in 1948. There are far too many anomalies. For instance, seasonal allowances are granted for lambing, but not for muck spreading; for haymaking but not for hedging and ditching. Perhaps the supreme example of the anomalies that can arise concerns hoeing root crops. Two men can be working in the same field, the one hoeing and singling mangolds for which he receives a seasonal allowance and the other, hoeing kale, for which no extra rations are allowed. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman could explain how he arrives at this incredible decision. The fact is that all farm operations demand physical energy. It would be infinitely preferable for all farm workers to receive the extra rations for the whole year instead of extra rations being given only for those engaged on specific operations for part of the year.

The fourth point, about the seasonal rations is that whereas the miner's wife can draw her husband's rations direct from her grocer, the farm worker's wife for some curious reason is not considered competent to do so. They must be drawn in bulk by the employer, which causes a great deal of inconvenience and waste of time. I noted that in a written answer to a Question by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for East Norfolk (Brigadier Medlicott) the Minister said: I have now arranged that applications shall in future be accepted not only from an employer but from his nominee, from a representative of the workers or from any other responsible person, such as a union official acting on their behalf."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 4th May, 1949; Vol. 464, c. 56.] I do not know what that means. It still does not get us out of the difficulty. A farmer can appoint his nominee, or a man who belongs to the Farmworkers' Union delegated to draw the rations, but the rations still have to be drawn in bulk and split up. It is no easy job to split up the rations when they have been drawn in bulk for the different number of men working on different days and in different categories. It wastes a great deal of time and causes a great deal of resentment between those who are entitled to extra rations and those who are not.

Another difficulty is that this system aggravates the difficulties of the uneven distribution of points goods in the countryside. The employer goes with 300 or 400 points to the grocer with whom he is registered. In many cases the grocer is unable to honour the points because his allocation of points goods depends upon the number of registered customers on his books. Some of the farmer's employees may not be registered with that grocer, which means, quite naturally, that the grocer can only honour the points at the expense of his registered customers. In many cases the points goods which are available are quite unsuited for making up sandwiches.

We have had the argument before, and I can only repeat it again, that the provision in the order which lays down that the employer must apply 24 hours before the commencement of each seasonal operation in respect of each individual he employs just does not make sense. Can the Minister explain how this works out, for instance, during the fruit-picking season when the farmer employs women from the village? Quite a number of women are willing to pick fruit, but the farmer does not know whether they will be available on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays, or on other days of the week. It means that if a woman turns up unexpectedly on a Monday the farmer has to say, "I did not know you were going to turn up today. I have not applied for your rations, as I have to do, 24 hours ahead; I cannot therefore employ you till tomorrow." That seems to me to be the logical conclusion of this order. It means that the order is completely impracticable. I understand that the N.F.U. were not consulted about Form S.A.4 (A.G.) which was brought out last year.

As there are other Members who wish to speak in this short Debate, I will conclude by saying that I hope before the season gets much older the right hon. Gentleman and his officials will address themselves to these problems very carefully; that they will do their utmost to see there is a fairer distribution of points goods in the rural areas; that suitable points goods are available for making sandwiches; that the inequalities of the meat ration are ironed out as between those who live in hostels and those who do not, and that the agricultural labourer's wife shall be entitled, in the same way as the miner's wife, to go to her own grocer to draw the extra rations to which her husband is entitled. The agricultural labourer is a valuable member of the community. Indeed he is a great deal more valuable than many other members of the community. If he is to be convinced that the Government think well of him. then what is required from the right hon. Gentleman's Department are deeds and not words.

1.20 p.m.

Major Wise (King's Lynn)

It is perhaps a curious coincidence that following the speech of the hon. Member for Windsor (Mr. Mott-Radclyffe), in whose division Windsor Castle is situated, I, in whose division Sandringham is situated, should also take part in this Debate. I know that the hon. Member opposite is aware of the difficulties with which we are faced in the northern part of Norfolk, and I must tell my right hon. Friend the Minister that I wish to support to the full the arguments which have been put forward on this subject. There is very great dissatisfaction among agricultural workers in my part of the country about the question of meat allocation to European Volunteer Workers. At a meeting of agricultural workers only a few days ago I was detailed, if I may use that word, to put a Question to the Minister about the value of the meat ration which is being given to European Volunteer Workers in a certain hostel, and to ask why agricultural workers in that district could not be treated in the same way.

In view of the serious trouble we had in the countryside last year about this question of rations I ask the Minister to reconsider the whole position. I think he might reasonably bring one or two Members on this side of the House, who have had experience of this rationing system, into consultation, because I can assure him that this is a sore point with agricultural workers. Personally, as a farmer, I have never had any trouble but only last night, on my way to attend a special meeting in my constituency, I was approached by a worker who told me of the trouble he was having in his village because a farmer was not procuring the rations to which his men were entitled. There are good and bad farmers in every respect but, nevertheless, I believe the present system is capable of improvement.

I confirmed by telephone the amounts of the special rations given to agricultural workers, and I think it would be of interest to give them to the House. There is a weekly ration of 1½ oz. of tea, 4½ oz. of margarine, 5 oz. of sugar, 2½ oz. of cheese and three points. It is very difficult to measure these quantities, and although it may be said that rations can be procured monthly, which will make it easier for the proper quantities to be weighed and allotted, all this causes great difficulties in village shops. As the hon. Member for Windsor said, two men might be hoeing in a field, one with his special rations and the other without; two men might be sowing in a field, one getting his special rations and the other not. There is also the case of the farm worker who is doing a routine job such as stock-feeding, which is not classed as a special job and who does not, therefore, get a special ration allowance. Some of us on this side of the House who are in constant touch with agricultural workers believe the time has come for the Minister to revise the present system, so that we can keep our agricultural workers in the countryside. They are entitled to better treatment than they have had in the past. They are looking forward to considerably increased production from the land, especially home meat supplies, and it is discouraging when they have to exist on cheese and such like food.

During the last harvest I was not far away from the Division represented by the hon. and gallant Member for the Isle of Ely (Major Legge-Bourke), where I saw some men under a rick having their lunch. They were drinking water and eating food which was quite insufficient to enable them to do their work properly. I am hoping that the Minister will be able to increase the meat ration later in the year. I am certain that there will be increased production of home meat supplies. It is a heartening sight, as one travels by rail, to see cattle out in the fields. In all seriousness, I say to the Government that they must look more kindly on the plea of agricultural workers for better food.

1.30 p.m.

Sir William Darling (Edinburgh, South)

The Minister of Food has a most unfortunate office. Fifty million people think of him three times a day and possibly with less goodwill than he is entitled to. Yet as long as he and the Government stand for a system of rationing and distribution, he must, of course, be a target for criticism. I understand that the aim of his Department is fair shares for all, and from what we have heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Windsor (Mr. Mott-Radclyffe), and what has been said before in the House and elsewhere, it appears that that very desirable aim has not been achieved.

I speak of the European voluntary workers in the district in Scotland with which I am familiar, They receive a meat ration to the value of 2s. 6d., while the agricultural worker living on a farm has a meat ration of 1s. 1d. I have seen something of the meat ration which the European voluntary worker gets, and it is in bulk. It is cooked in bulk in the hostel and distributed round a communal table. To that extent it would seem to me to go very much further. The meat ration which the agricultural worker gets in his own home cannot be bulked, unless he is one of a large family, and often the village is at the end of the butcher's journey, so that the farm worker gets a very meagre and not very attractive piece of meat.

Applying the Minister's principle of fair shares for all which I think he honestly attempts to apply, is he satisfied that 2s. 6d. worth of meat for the hostel worker, who can have his food bulked as in a canteen, is really the equivalent of 1s. 1d. worth which the individual worker gets in his cottage or farm? I suggest that here is something which might very well be looked at again. If there is to be a disparity, that disparity should be more or less in favour of the family rather than of the person who has the facilities for bulk cooking and distribution.

The second thing which occurs to me and which might be relevant in this matter is the real hardship of people who are engaged in the food production business, in that they are not allowed to participate in the fruits of the labour of their hands. The hon. and gallant Member for King's Lynn (Major Wise) would not quote Scripture, but I am sure he would agree with me that the Scriptures do contain the phrase, "Thou shalt not muzzle the ox when he treadeth out the corn." It seems to me to be extremely hard that people who produce beef, mutton and the other necessities of life should not at least be allowed to have a little more than their neighbours. It is not unfairly or unnaturally conceded that the coal miner shall be entitled to some of the work of his hands in concession coal. The same principle is conceded in other directions. Those who are in the hotel and catering business—I have some small experience myself—are entitled to participate in what has been provided for others. It is very natural that the coal miner should want some of his coal, and that others engaged in handling food should want to have a special claim on the food which they have been handling.

The agricultural worker has the very same idea. Should he not, then, have some concession above the ordinary urban population because he is engaged in this particular activity? I know there are devices which many farmers have been driven to adopt. The accidental death of an animal is not recorded, but I imagine that it happens with greater frequency under these circumstances. There is no record in the Ministry's files of these accidental deaths, but the Minister's policy rather tends in an immoral world, as he is only too well aware, to encourage these irregularities, and I should find it difficult to blame anyone in that connection, for I recognise that the thing is not unnatural.

Then there is the question of rations for special workers. That creates a very great problem, and I feel that my hon. Friend the Member for Windsor is quite right when he advocates that it should be reconsidered. The thing in itself is extremely clumsy. The farm with which I am connected is some 15 miles away from a shop. Roads are bad and transport is difficult. Some person, generally the farmer's wife, has got to be relieved from other duties for the better part of a forenoon to collect the points goods at the shop. In the shop they are limited and have been hoarded with great care. When they are bought they are necessarily limited in character, and there is the greatest dissatisfaction among the farmer's family and workers. What really happens is that the farmer's wife or daughter is made the agent for the Government in this matter, and suffers the odium for bad distribution for which she is not to blame. That is no new thing. Those of us who are operating P.A.Y.E. for the Government act, as we know, for the tax collector and receive the odium which is his, without getting any of his emoluments.

The farmer's wife goes into the grocer's shop to spend her points. He has a limited supply of points goods. On the hillside of Peeblesshire the redistribution of these carefully husbanded tins and boxes creates dissatisfaction. I think the Minister will see that it is very farcical, and brings human life almost to a de-grading level. I suggest, if possible, we should give a blank cheque to each of these workers to draw their accumulated points goods at their own will. The present system is a nuisance to the farmer, and if in some way he could be relieved of it, he would be very glad.

The truth is that this will continue as long as the Ministry of Food continues, and as long as there are officials in the Ministry who are given what to them must be the fascinating task of solving these problems. I can imagine a very fascinating range of problems in the Ministry from bulk buying to the distribution of tinned foods and fish pastes. It must be immensely fascinating, and we have built up in this country groups of people who are metaphysically inclined to the development of this problem to their hearts' delight. I think the time has come when we must take a chance in this matter and say to the Ministry of Food, "We require neither you nor your problems any longer." We should let these things solve themselves, as they did when independent traders traded freely throughout the world, and when independent buyers and consumers dealt with the grocer and dealt with him very firmly, taking no cheek from him. I should like to see those days return, but as long as we have these puzzle pictures, we shall be faced again and again with such discussions as this. I say, let us take the risk of laissez faire and abolish regulations and restraint. I do not think that many of us would be any worse off than we are.

1.37 p.m.

The Minister of Food (Mr. Strachey)

I will not bother to follow the hon. Member for South Edinburgh (Sir W. Darling) in the last part of his speech as to the metaphysical divisions of Peeblesshire, but I was interested in the universal remedy which he put before us. It is quite true that it would be possible to remove all these controls and solve the problem by letting the price mechanism do its work again. It is very interesting to find that that is what he advocates, and I hope he will continue to advocate it publicly all over the country and that his hon. and right hon. Friends will join him in so doing.

Sir W. Darling

The right hon. Gentleman has shown us the way by removing many of these controls.

Mr. Strachey

Where we find that demand and supply will balance at the current prices, we will remove controls at once; we are anxious to do that. A recent example of de-control where we experimented in a non-essential food, was when controls were removed from sweets. So far the results are not altogether reassuring, and I would not like to do that with the staple foods of this country, as apparently the hon. Gentleman would like. We are very willing to refer this decision to the electors and let them decide whether they want us to go on with our system of control, which gives fair shares with all the problems that it does raise, or whether they prefer the system advocated by the hon. Gentleman, about which he has made an important declaration today, and allow price mechanism to have a free play on the market and do the distribution for us, which it would do, but at the cost of a 50 or 100 per cent. increase in food prices. The country will have to decide which system it prefers. However, I will not follow the hon. Gentleman further in that.

We now have the problem, as the hon. Gentleman said, of trying to maintain fair shares for different sections of the population. The case of the agricultural worker for a bigger share has been very well put. What is our problem there? Undoubtedly the agricultural worker does not receive one advantage which the urban population as a whole receives, and another advantage which one section of the workers receive. He does not have free access to canteens and other catering facilities such as the urban workers and miners get, nor does he get the miners' special meat ration.

Sir W. Darling

Or shopping facilities.

Mr. Strachey

Yes, that is so, but I should not have thought there was very much in that point. Those are on the debit side of the account. What do we do to balance them? The agricultural worker receives a special cheese ration which amounts to six times the normal amount of cheese. The miner receives only about double the existing meat ration, and cheese is countable as meat. The agricultural worker and the rural worker in general receive six times the normal cheese ration. In addition, the agricultural worker receives a seasonal allowance in the shape of the harvest rations which have been mentioned in this short Debate. There are difficulties, and I do not believe that they are fully solvable, in the distribution of those rations.

The seasonal allowances are not really rations at all. They are a catering allowance. They were put in by predecessors of mine to enable the farmer to continue the traditional system of helping his workers in the harvest periods during their particularly heavy spells of work. Whatever we do and whatever regulations we made there would be anomalies in that distribution. Those seasonal allowances amount to an ounce and a half of tea, five ounces of sugar, 4½ ounces of margarine, 2½ ounces of cheese and three extra points. On the average, taking the amount of food that we distribute in that way, it means that all the agricultural workers of the country draw those extras for just about half the year, or 25 weeks out of the 52. If we put it to all the other workers in the country, they would probably think it was very desirable to draw even those modest quantities of food, appreciable quantities, during half the year, in addition to their ordinary rations. Whatever difficulties arise in the method of distribution, we ought not to write off those seasonal allowances as inconsiderable in the volume of food they give to the agricultural worker and their contribution by making up to him for the advantages he does not fully share with the urban worker.

In addition to that advantage, there is a minor one, in the rural pies and rural meat schemes. That scheme is becoming quite appreciable; there are 1,750,000 pies served each week in the rural areas now, and the scheme is quite a perceptible thing. Then there is the point which was made by the hon. Member for South Edinburgh. I should have thought it would be far from true to say that the agricultural worker, farmer, and food producer generally did not get a special share of the food which he produces. After all, there is nothing illegal whatever in his engaging in the various self-supplier schemes. He does so, to a very great extent. He can raise two pigs a year for himself and family. That is an enormous contribution to his supply of pig meat. He can keep hens on a very comprehensive scale and make an acceptable and appreciable contribution to his diet, which the urban worker has far less opportunity of doing. He has perfectly legal ways by which a man on the land can get an additional share, and it is perfectly right that he should, of the food supply of the country, on the principle of not muzzling the ox that treadeth out the corn. I should have thought that we had gone quite a long way in that direction.

That is all I wish to say in general but I would like to say a word in regard to the so-called E.V.Ws., or European workers. I would repeat to hon. Members that we ought not to look at this matter in terms of nationality. It really is not the case that there is any differentiation whatever according to nationality. If the hon. Member for Windsor (Mr. Mott-Radclyffe), or anyone else who has spoken, feels that workers, whatever their nationality, in hostels are getting too much, then it is open to them to make representations that the meat in the hostels is too large in relation to the rations of the rest of the country.

Major Legge-Bourke (Isle of Ely)

There was no suggestion of differentiation between E.V.Ws. and British workers in the camps, but surely the right hon. Gentleman would agree that the vast number of people in agricultural hostels are E.V.Ws.?

Mr. Strachey

Probably there the majority are E.V.Ws. But taking all workers in camps and hostels, they are almost exactly half and half British and foreign. We make no differentiation whether the worker in a hostel goes out to work in a field or a factory.

Mr. Mott-Radclyffe

The point about the differentiation is that the E.V.W. gets 2s. 6d. worth of meat per week if he lives in a hostel, whether he is working for a full day or a half day, or not at all.

Mr. Strachey

That might be a case for reducing the rations in all hostels. They might be reduced from the heavy industry scale on which they are today, to the light industry scale, although there is a good deal to be said against it.

Major Wise

Would my right hon. Friend say that the Women's Land Army in their hostels, and in all hostels get the same ration?

Mr. Strachey

Yes. There is no discrimination according to nationality. We should make it clear in the countryside that there will never be discrimination according to the nationality of the worker. If we replanned the agricultural camps and hostels and said that they ought not to receive the heavy industrial allowance, it would bring their meat and other allowances much nearer to the domestic level, but I should think that agricultural Members would protest against it and I should have thought it would be wrong. For this purpose, agriculture ought to count as a heavy industry. That is why these camps receive the heavy industry allowance, which is quite generous. I am willing to receive representations about the proper level of rations in hostels but we must get them from the people who live in the hostels.

I have said a word about seasonal allowances. The only thing I want to say, in conclusion, on that is that we have now helped in the way in which they are drawn by making it possible for them to be drawn not only by the farmer but by any appropriate person nominated by the group of workers concerned.

Mr. Mott-Radclyffe

What is the objection to the farm workers themselves drawing these rations?

Mr. Strachey

These are not differential rations; they are a catering allowance provided to enable the farmer to carry on the traditional custom of helping his workers in the field in the harvest season. That is why they are drawn in bulk and distributed from that bulk. If we simply gave them to the individual farm worker, they would become a differential ration, and there are very great objections to extending the differential rations. We can adjust them from time to time as anomalies are brought up, but we must find some means of distributing basically on the principle we have today.

Major Legge-Bourke

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the answer which he has just given to the question about the drawing of rations, does nothing to allay the very real suspicion in the minds of a great many people that he agrees with the Economic Secretary to the Treasury that housewives as a whole cannot be trusted to buy all the right things, so far as food is concerned?

Mr. Strachey

I cannot see the connection there. I have given the reason why the rations are drawn in bulk and it has nothing to do with that. They are drawn in bulk because they are not rations but a catering allowance to enable the farmer to continue his traditional and excellent practice of providing food at busy times on behalf of his workers.