HC Deb 24 July 1952 vol 504 cc890-900

9.36 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of National Insurance (Mr. R. H. Turton)

I beg to move, That the Draft National Insurance (Seasonal Workers) Amendment Regulations, 1952, a copy of which was laid before this House on 4th July, be approved. The history of these Regulations is that in 1948 the right hon. Member for Llanelly (Mr. J. Griffiths) asked the Advisory Committee to make a Report on the general question of seasonal workers. That Report was made, and the Seasonal Workers Regulations were based on that Report. They were introduced two years ago by the right hon. Lady the Member for Fulham, West (Dr. Summerskill). Last year the right hon. Lady asked the Advisory Committee to review the working of the Regulations and to consider whether any amendment was desirable. The Advisory Committee made their Report which was published on 12th May, and these Regulations which I ask the House to approve tonight are in complete conformity with that report.

Hon. Members will remember that the Seasonal Workers Regulations are designed to deal with the problems arising from employment which by its nature is limited to certain parts of the year. In order to protect other workers and the Insurance Fund, before such workers can obtain unemployment benefit in the off-season they have to satisfy two conditions. They must have registered at the local office of the Ministry of Labour and National Service, and they must prove that they can reasonably expect to obtain during the current off-season a substantial amount of employment.

As those conditions might create for them a difficulty when they attempted to obtain unemployment benefit in the on-season, they are given the advantageous condition of only having to show 13 Class I contributions paid or credited instead of 39 Class I contributions paid or credited.

The Advisory Committee have found that owing to certain decisions of the Commissioner a rigidity has been introduced into these Regulations that was not anticipated or desired, and an anomalous position has arisen. I think I can illustrate that by pointing out that under the Commissioner's decision if a person only works for 48 days in the year, provided he works for at least 12 days in each period of three consecutive months, he is not a seasonal worker; whereas a man who has worked for 274 days in a year may yet be classed as a seasonal worker.

The first and third amendments are designed to remove that anomaly and to put back into the Seasonal Workers Regulations the flexibility for which the House asked when they were first introduced. The second amendment is designed to deal with the possibility that in a period of adverse trade conditions a man might be classed as a seasonal worker by reason of those adverse trade conditions. That is not desired by anybody in any part of the House. We are, therefore, introducing the second amendment as recommended by the Advisory Committee to meet that position.

In view of the fact that these problems have been considered by the Advisory Committee and that all the representative bodies have appeared before that Committee and given their views, I hope that the House will endorse the Committee's recommendations and approve these Regulations.

9.40 p.m.

Dr. Edith Summerskill (Fulham, West)

I have no intention of opposing these Regulations, for by so doing I should be rejecting the advice of the Advisory Committee, who I know have gone to some trouble to devise a scheme which would meet the special needs of the seasonal workers. But I have a very vivid memory of a deputation which came to see me last year. That deputation represented the seasonal workers of the country, and I recall that the representatives of the agricultural workers made a special plea on behalf of the married women engaged in seasonal work. At that time I gave an undertaking that I would keep an eye on the working of the Regulations and if necessary I would seek to amend them on behalf of these special workers.

I have read the Report of the Advisory Committee and it is quite clear that they have examined the situation and believe that no hardship is involved. Despite that, I ask the Parliamentary Secretary to give me a reassurance that he has given special consideration to the needs of these workers, about whose problem my hon. Friends, and perhaps hon. Members on the other side of the House, feel strongly. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] I am glad that hon. Gentlemen say, "Hear, hear," because I recall that last year hon. Members on both sides of the House felt rather strongly about this problem.

I think that the representatives of the agricultural workers, particularly, would like to put their point of view. As I have already said, I could not think of rejecting the advice of the Advisory Committee. They command the respect of the House and I know that the Chairman has taken a special interest in this matter. Although I shall not oppose these Regulations I would ask the Parliamentary Secretary to give the House the reassurance that I seek

9.43 p.m.

Mr. E. G. Gooch (Norfolk, North)

I have been critical of these Seasonal Workers Regulations ever since they were introduced. In saying what I have to say tonight, I want to assure the House that I am trying to be consistent. I oppose or criticise these Regulations because I think that they prevent workers from getting benefits to which they are entitled.

I should like to follow up a point which was made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Fulham, West (Dr. Summerskill) in saying that I was not the only critic of these Regulations. A number of hon. Members on the other side of the House shared my criticism and, despite the fact that we have changed places in the interim period, I hope that those hon. Members who criticised the Regulations when they were on this side of the House will still be critical and join with me in asking the Minister to right a wrong.

I am concerned with seasonal workers in agriculture. The right hon. Lady said that representatives of the agricultural workers went to see her. May I say that representatives of the agricultural workers have this week been to see the hon. Gentleman who presented the Regulations to the House tonight. We expressed dissatisfaction with the old Regulations when they were introduced in 1950 and, arising from our complaint, the then Minister of National Insurance in August, 1951, asked the Advisory Committee to consider whether it was necessary to amend them.

We are very grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Fulham, West for having taken this step. I do not think she would have asked the Advisory Committee to have another look at these Regulations but for the fact that she was impressed by the case we put up. Later, representatives of the agricultural workers gave evidence before the Advisory Committee, and, as the House is aware, their Report has been issued. Apart from what I describe as a very minor modification, there are no changes in the Regulations.

The Committee appear to have taken account of the representations of the National Union of Agricultural Workers only to the extent of recommending the Minister of National Insurance to exercise discretionary powers where there is some doubt concerning the ability of the applicant to satisfy the benefit conditions laid down in the Regulations.

I repeat that the objections which my hon. Friends and I have to these Regulations are well known to the Parliamentary Secretary, and I suggest that the seasonal workers in agriculture should be regarded as quite apart because of the peculiar circumstances regarding employment in the farming industry. The point I desire to emphasise is that we have always drawn attention to the special position of seasonal workers in agriculture and have pointed out that a considerable part of the labour force in the Holland area of Lincolnshire is made up of seasonal agricultural workers who have no work available to them for approximately three months each winter.

A very important point is that there is no other available work on the land to which these people can turn their hand. These conditions are not peculiar to the Holland area of Lincolnshire. Similar conditions apply in other parts of the Fenland, in my own county of Norfolk, in Kent and in Worcestershire. This position was recognised by the Act in operation prior to the introduction of the present Regulations in 1950, because up to 1950 the seasonal worker was able to get benefit on satisfying the Ministry he had worked for 39 weeks in a season.

Since 1950, the worker has had to satisfy the conditions laid down in the Regulations, and the attempt to satisfy those conditions has resulted in some thousands of workers being disallowed benefit in the off-season. I want to quote a few paragraphs from the Report of the National Insurance Advisory Committee, because they reveal the extent of this problem, a problem which some of us have to face. The Committee say: It is estimated that the number of persons whose claims to unemployment benefit were specially considered under these Regulations during the year was approximately 23,000, of whom, after taking appeals into account, about 12,000 were disallowed for part, at least, of their off-season. It goes on: We have noted that the geographical distribution of claims from seasonal workers was uneven"— although I am quoting the whole paragraph, I repeat that I am concerned particularly with the workers in agriculture— claims were heaviest in Scotland (especially among fishermen on the north-east coast), but were also numerous in areas of arable and crop farming (such as the Fen district of East Anglia and the Holland division of Lincoln- shire), and in holiday resorts. The industries chiefly affected were agriculture and horticulture, fishing, and the catering and entertainment trades, but there was also a substantial seasonal variation in employment under local authorities, including certain forms of employment by local education authorities. The Report further states: Women were chiefly affected, despite the fact that they take no part in one of the major seasonal occupations—fishing (except for certain ancillary employments). Out of a total of 21,029 claims during the year under review, 13,666 (65 per cent.) were from women, 7,110 (34 per cent.) were from men, and only 253 (1 per cent.) from young persons. The ratio of disallowances to total claims was also much higher in the case of women, being 10,140 (74 per cent.) as compared with 4,083 (57 per cent.) for men. The Report deals, on pages 8 and 9, with the differing interpretations given by insurance officers and local tribunals in dealing with these claims.

It is proposed to amend the existing Regulations in such a way as to over-rule the decisions given by the Commissioners. This is a very important point. A very bad impression is created when one Minister gives an assurance that tribunals and Commissioners will safeguard the worker from harsh treatment at the hands of Ministry officials, and the next Minister designs Regulations to over-ride a Commissioner's decision.

The assurance to which I have referred was given by my right hon. Friend the Member for Fulham, West, and accepted by the Trades Union Congress and the National Union of Agricultural Workers. If the present Minister changes those Regulations in such a way that any remaining loophole is closed, the workers concerned will have justification for feeling that the Regulations are designed entirely to prevent them from getting benefits when they are unable to find work. The result will be to discourage women workers from finding work on the land and to create difficulties in the industry. I consider the Regulations to be ill-advised and unfair to the workers, and that the effect of their working cannot fail to be ultimately detrimental to the agricultural industry.

9.52 p.m.

Mr. W. S. Duthie (Banff)

I want to say a word about herring fishermen. The findings of the Committee are not exactly sympathetic towards them.

Herring fishermen want to work all the year round. Markets and the incidence of shoals break up the continuity of the year's work. Up to three years ago, there was practically no winter herring around the Scottish coast. Suddenly there was an influx of herring into the Minch in the winter, which gave more or less continuous work through the winter to the fishermen. It is wrong to classify herring fishermen as seasonal workers along with seaside workers or workers at the Battersea Fun Fair. They are on the job all the time, ready to go to sea when conditions of weather and markets permit.

One other consideration militates against complete employment of herring fishermen and that is that they know nothing about what is to happen to the grant and loan schemes. The solution of the herring fishermen's continuous working is the dual-purpose vessel. If they are constrained to use the old type of drifter they can only work in the herring season, but with a dual-purpose vessel the fisherman can switch over to other fishing. That is a factor wherein the Government play a part.

That leads me to plead urgently with the hon. Gentleman who moved the Motion that his officers shall treat the cases of herring fishermen with sympathy and knowledge. The ruling that was given by the Official Referee a year ago worked very well for fishermen and with absolute fairness to the taxpayer. I sincerely trust that the Minister will keep these matters in mind and ensure that his officials do not treat the cases of herring fishermen along hard-and-fast lines. Local knowledge and sympathy are necessary here, because we cannot afford to do without these men.

9.55 p.m.

Mr. Denys Bullard (Norfolk, South-West)

I want to make one point arising from what was said by the hon. Member for Norfolk, North (Mr. Gooch) with reference to agricultural workers. Many of them are women workers who cannot get employment during the winter and to whom no other source of employment is available. I know the trouble which arose two years ago when these Regulations were first introduced, and on reading the Report of the Advisory Committee I was surprised and disappointed to notice that the Committee found that the Regulations affecting these agricultural workers were neither too lenient nor too harsh. I hope the hon. Gentleman will be able to say something about the position of these workers when he winds up the debate.

9.56 p.m.

Mr. Gerald Nabarro (Kidderminster)

I intervene because I also have a constituency problem here. Deputations from the National Union of Agricultural Workers have, on many occasions since I was first elected to this House, represented the case to me which was put so eloquently this evening by the hon. Gentleman the Member for Norfolk, North (Mr. Gooch). During the speech of the right hon. Lady the Member for Fulham, West (Dr. Summerskill) I interjected "Hear, hear" because she will remember kindly receiving deputations from me during her period of office at the Ministry of National Insurance. She told me then of the establishment of this Advisory Committee and what it was hoped to achieve by it.

I am rather disappointed with what the committee have achieved, although I realise that they have sedulously examined all the problems inherent in seasonal working, notably in the horticultural areas. There is a grave problem here which can be exemplified by what takes place in my own constituency. In the western part of Worcestershire we grow large quantities of hops and fruit. I believe that in the course of the next few years economic conditions will make it vitally necessary for us to increase still further the home production of fruit and to reduce the amount of imported fruit because of foreign exchange and other considerations.

That will require an increasing number of seasonal workers, and the effect of the current insurance Regulations is to discourage married women from going into the hop gardens and into the fruit orchards in this short period of the harvest, which places an undue burden on the shoulders of the farmers. This year, of course, they cannot sell all their fruit because there is too much. There may well be, however, a state of affairs in future years when a large part of the fruit crop goes to waste simply because insufficient seasonal workers are available. The reason, in my view, will be the deterrent and the discouragement provided by the National Insurance Regulations.

It should not be beyond the bounds of practical possibility to have special scales of contribution for seasonal workers and special benefits for them. They are a community very much apart from normal, full-time workers. The conditions of seasonal workers in all parts of the country are similar whether they are herring fishermen in the North-Eastern part of Scotland or fruit pickers in Worcestershire.

Mr. Duthie

May I interrupt my hon. Friend? I hope he is not confusing fruit pickers in Worcestershire with herring fishermen in the North-East of Scotland. We catch herring all the year round, but fruit is picked only in the season.

Mr. Nabarro

Yes, but there are a fair number of seasonal workers in Scotland, whether they are married women or others. The National Insurance deterrents to which I am referring apply equally to those workers to whom the hon. Gentleman alluded as to those to whom I alluded.

I should have thought that it was possible in the passage of time to evolve a system whereby special contributions and special benefits were applicable to seasonal workers in all the industries and trades to which we have referred tonight. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary when he replies can give some encouragement that it is his ambition to go forward to an arrangement of that sort in the years ahead.

Mr. T. Driberg (Maldon)

Like the hon. Member for Kidderminster (Mr. Nabarro), I represent a constituency in which there is a great deal of seasonal fruit picking of various horticultural crops. I wish to put merely one brief question to the hon. Gentleman, with which, I hope, he can deal for my enlightenment.

Can the Parliamentary Secretary say to what extent the seasonal workers who are not resident—that is to say, not the wives of agricultural workers, and so on, but the migratory workers who come round every year to do pea picking, strawberry picking and other work of that kind—are covered under the Regulations?

10.1 p.m.

Mr. Turton

In answer, first, to the hon. Member for Maldon (Mr. Driberg), migrant workers of that type do not fall foul of any Seasonal Workers Regulations because they can satisfy the availability for employment test; they are moving from employment to employment.

The problem here is quite different, whether it relates to the fishermen about whom my hon. Friend the Member for Banff (Mr. Duthie) talked, or the agricultural workers to whom my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, South-West (Mr. Bullard) and the hon. Member for Norfolk, North (Mr. Gooch) referred. Let me deal with the point regarding the fishermen first.

The Committee in their Report said they were satisfied that the Regulations were working equitably for fishermen. It is difficult to administer unemployment benefit for fishermen, but my hon. Friend must remember that originally many fishermen were not in the unemployment benefit scheme. They were brought in as share fishermen as a special concession. They were told that if they were brought in they must conform to the seasonal workers rules, and that we could not possibly have a special scheme of Seasonal Workers Regulations for share or other fishermen.

Regarding agricultural workers, the hon. Member for Norfolk, North appeared rather to base his argument on the assumption that the workers in his constituency were satisfied with the Commissioners' decision, which is now being altered. I believe I am right in saying, however, that the representative of his own union, before the Advisory Committee, pointed out how rigid was that rule and what anomalies it would create. Therefore, we are helping the hon. Member's union, as well as the constituents of many other hon. Members, in altering that decision by the new Regulations.

Mr. Gooch

What I said was that an attempt was being made to override the Commissioners' decision by the Regulations now before the House.

Mr. Turton

By these Regulations, we are bringing back the flexibility of the Regulations first introduced by the right hon. Lady the Member for Fulham, West (Dr. Summerskill). The real burden of the argument, both of my hon. Friend the Member for Kidderminster (Mr. Nabarro) and of the two hon. Members from Norfolk, is that there should be a special scheme for seasonal agricultural workers.

The House must remember that that was the case before the war. The hon. Member for Norfolk, North talked of those days when agricultural workers could get benefit for 90 days. But that was under the old scheme, where those workers got far worse treatment than being brought in under the general scheme of unemployment insurance benefit. Before the war, the unemployed seasonal worker in agriculture could draw out in benefit only what he had paid in contributions; he was limited by that maximum. I am sure that neither the hon. Member for Norfolk, North nor anyone else wants to go back to those days.

Mr. Gooch

I am not suggesting that.

Mr. Turton

The assurance I can give—it was asked for by the right hon. Lady—is that we will watch very closely the working of the Regulations to see that they are fair and equitable, not only to agricultural workers, but also to fishermen and other seasonal workers. If we find that they are not working equitably or fairly, we will take appropriate action.

Question put, and agreed to.

Resolved: That the Draft National Insurance (Seasonal Workers) Amendment Regulations, 1952, a copy of which was laid before this House on 4th July, be approved.