HC Deb 07 July 1965 vol 715 cc1777-86

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mrs. Harriet Slater.]

12.20 a.m.

Mr. Paul Hawkins (Norfolk, South-West)

Hon. Members will know from the Order Paper that in this debate I am going to stress the need for better farm produce prices to enable the incomes of farm workers and working farmers to rise nearer to those of their opposite numbers in industry.

I am glad to have the opportunity to speak on this subject, which vitally affects hundreds of thousands who work on the land, either as farm workers or smallholders. The object I wish to secure in this debate should, I believe, be non-controversial.

The Labour Party has said within the last 12 months that it was its aim to ensure better wages for farm workers. That was point 9 of Labour's 14-point plan for agriculture. Again, the Minister wrote in my own local paper last October, just before the election: The main objective of Labour's new policy will be to ensure that the incomes of farmers and farmworkers move rapidly towards their industrial equivalents. There are many reasons why I am raising this matter, and I will mention only a few. Firstly, the Price Review itself. In the farming community's view, very little is printable about this and, whatever the Minister may say, the real crux of the matter is that those living and working on the land have had their incomes cut while everyone around them has been granted increases. That is the plain unvarnished truth, and I challenge anybody to deny it.

Since the Price Review, farmers, in common with everyone else, have seen taxation and every other cost rise. In some cases farming has had extra cost added to it which the rest of the community has not suffered. For instance, credit is extremely short and loans exceptionally dear.

In the case of loans from the Agricultural Mortgage Corporation, the farming community is paying 1 per cent. higher to borrow than the rest of the community. As a result more farms during the past few months have remained unsold than for many years past. Yet farmers are in that small minority of groups, together with pensioners and people living on fixed incomes, who are unable to pass their costs on to somebody else.

They will have to wait eight months for the next Price Review, and then, of course, we do not know whether it will be a better one or a further cut in their incomes.

The House will see, therefore, that there is little room for an increased labour bill—price increases must come first. Secondly, it is undeniable that agricultural workers' earnings—and I stress earnings—are way below the average of other workers in the country. While I do not wish to weary the House with a great many figures, some must be given to show the unfair disparity that exists between agricultural workers and other manual workers in industry. On 17th August, 1960, The Times stated in a leading article: Farmworkers' earnings showed an average hourly figure of 3s. 9d. for men, working, on average, a 52 hour week. The average, in all manufacturing, was 5s. 10d. for a 48½ hour week. The contrast is excessive and it is natural that the drain of young countrymen into manufacturing industry continues". That was stated five years ago, but I believe that since then the gap has widened and not narrowed.

This recent information will, I think, shock the House. It certainly shocked me. It is taken from a document containing statistics of incomes, prices and so on published by the Ministry of Labour in March of this year. It is shown that the average weekly earnings for male manual workers in agriculture was £13 6s. 9d. for a 52½ hour week. In all other categories—and 127 of them are listed—the earnings averaged £18 2s. 2d. for a 47½ hour week. In other words, there was a difference of £4 15s. 0d.—and five hours extra had to be worked for that differential.

In addition, I extracted from that document seven industrial categories which, I believe, could be found in most rural constituencies. All except one are to be found in my constituency. They include animal and poultry food manufacturing, brewing and malting, agricultural machinery and so on. The earnings of men in those industries average £17 18s. 0d. against agriculture's £13 6s. 9d. The difference there is £4 11s. 0d.

Trying, therefore, to compare the agricultural worker's wages not with the wages of someone employed in the car manufacturing industry in, say, Birmingham, but with comparable local industries, we see that there is still a very big margin of difference, and more hours must be worked. It is interesting to note from the same document that in 1965 farmworkers, in order to get the average wages for their industry, had to work two-and-a-half hours longer than they did in 1960.

It is said that the living costs of farm-workers are much less, but many of them, certainly in my constituency, now live in council houses and pay quite rapidly rising rents. Many more workers in rural areas than in urban areas must run cars to be able to do their jobs. I do not believe that the extra benefits which the farming communities in rural districts are always said to have amount to more than £1 a week.

Thirdly, I stress the fact that the small working family farmers are vitally affected in this matter as well. The labour element in their incomes is very high. If farm workers' earnings were on a par with average industrial earnings and the farming industry were reimbursed in the Price Review for this increase, then working farmers and their families would be far better off. The major part of the price of every item produced on the farm is the labour element.

My other reason for bringing forward this subject tonight is a very serious one, and relates to something that has hit the eastern counties fairly hard—the drain of intelligent young men from agriculture. If food production is to expand—as I sincerely believe it must in the future, with rising standards and increasing population—we shall need to keep the very best of our younger men on the land. The extremely costly machinery with which our farms are now equipped needs these intelligent young men to operate it, and they deserve, and will demand, to be well paid for the work.

I often wonder whether many members of the general public realise how skilled the modern farm worker is, and how costly is the machinery that he works. In his hands are tools costing thousands of £s, and a slip in controlling, say, the temperature of a drying plant could cost a farmer very considerable sums of money. Livestock husbandry has become highly scientific, and it is extraordinary how much a good stockman needs to know about breeding, feed rationing, diseases, and so on. I believe that Norfolk pioneered the stockmen's clubs, a movement that is spreading to other counties. The keenness of the stockmen to use the latest scientific information is most gratifying.

But we are losing the keener young men. If we want to see livestock production—fat cattle, calf rearing, and so on—increase, we must do something to retain these young men on the land. The townsman's idea of the farm worker as a comic turn, with a bit of straw in his hair and a funny accent, was never true. He was always shrewd, humorous and skilled, and now he is a tip-top mechanic into the bargain, with considerable knowledge of the latest scientific and chemical advances in the industry.

I have a few suggestions to make which, if acted upon, would help to improve matters. First, the Minister should state clearly that any negotiated settlement between the National Union of Agricultural Workers and the National Farmers' Union which brought workers' earnings more into line with those of the average manual worker would be treated at the Price Reviews as an allowable cost increase. In recent years, few wage awards have been agreed, which is bad for an industry which has had exceptionally good labour relations.

According to friends in the N.F.U., the main reason for that is the belief that a negotiated settlement on these lines would not be reimbursed, so the independent members of the wages boards are left with the job. What a pity it is—and I am sure that many people in the countryside, and not only the land owners, would agree—that the N.U.A.W., instead of asking the N.F.U. to co-operate in this matter, should have chosen this time to produce, once again, its outworn and cock-eyed theories of land nationalisation. I believe that this can only lead to friction within the industry, and I hope that the union will drop that suggestion once the pamphlet has been forgotten.

Further the Minister should also make it quite clear that the whole farming industry will have the lion's share in future increased consumption. At the same time there should be an urgent inquiry into dumping and the machinery to deal with it. Dumping destroys confidence and is rife in many sections of agriculture, in particular in potatoes in recent months. The machinery is hideously slow and completely outdated. It never seems to act until the damage has been done. Any reductions in food imports must be beneficial to the nation in our present precarious financial position and home agriculture saves more than any other section in the way of imports. Given the chance of expansion, it could save more. The Government should seriously consider the danger of allowing wide differences in prices in this country and in Europe. We have seen a gap, which ought to be closed, widened at the last Price Review. A radical change in prices when we enter Europe could be extremely harmful.

In this short speech I have tried to show the quite unjustifiable difference between earnings in agriculture and other industries; the harmful effect that this is having on agriculture and could have on the country as a whole and on our relations with Europe; and the need for higher prices to pay for the very necessary earnings increase. I have also put forward some suggestions. These the Minister may or may not agree with, but I am certain that he will agree that there is a real problem here: the problem of losing from the land the younger skilled men. There is also the promise made by the Minister that he would bring up the earnings of small farmers and farm workers into line with industrial earnings. I hope that in his reply the Joint Parliamentary Secretary will have some constructive suggestions which will enable us to keep a sufficient labour force on the land.

12.37 a.m.

Mr. George Y. Mackie (Caithness and Sutherland)

I am tempted to intervene shortly to clear up one or two misconceptions in the mind of the hon. Member for Norfolk, South-West (Mr. Hawkins) about raising the financial status of the farmer. His party had a fair time in which to sort this matter out, but it has not been done.

The only way in which the financial standard of the farm worker will be raised is by mechanisation and the fuller use of his time. Farmers will never manage to pay farm workers decent wages if the wages are the largest proportion of the outgoings, which the hon. Member seemed to think was the case. Unless wages are only one-third of the total cost of the farm the farmer will make no money and if he is to make any profit it needs to be one in four. For this we need efficiency and education. The Minister needs to look not at dumping but at the Government's promise to provide cheap capital for farmers to improve their mechanisation and raise the standard of farm workers. That is the major point for the Minister to attend to.

12.39 a.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. John Mackie)

I agree with quite a lot that the hon. Member for Norfolk, South-West (Mr. Hawkins) said. He said that there is a real problem here, but I am not sure about some of his solutions. He stressed, and the whole debate is on this, the position of the small farmer and the farm worker. He made statements, which I doubt if he could prove, that incomes have been cut. All the figures that we have—and they have never been questioned—show that in 1964–65 incomes in agriculture were at an all-time high. The hon. Gentleman must not make statements like that unless he can prove them. In fact, incomes have not been cut. [Interruption.] There may be a reason for that, though I doubt whether it is the reason that the hon Member for Cornwall, North (Mr. Scott-Hopkins) has in mind.

The hon. Member has raised an important subject, although I am surprised that he should wish to bring it up this evening, because the Annual Review White Paper which was published less than four months ago surely made it clear that measures to deal with the problem of the low income farm were a fundamental part of the present Government's policy. Indeed, only a fortnight ago the measures we are taking were described again, with particular relation to small farmers in Wales and Northern Ireland, in debates both in the House and in the Welsh Grand Committee. The hon. Member would do well to read the reports of those debates.

I should like to take up the question of the drift from the land. We all know that this had been going on, and I think it is very debateable whether this is a bad thing or not. The hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. George Y. Mackie) mentioned this point, in a rather curious way, if I may say so, of agricultural income, how it is divided, and what the proportions should be. The fact is that the fewer people there are in an industry, the larger is the remaining income for those who are left in the industry. Agriculture has been of tremendous help in encouraging the release of labour by the use of mechanisation and greater efficiency.

As to wages, as the hon. Gentleman knows, these are taken into account in the Price Reviews, whether they are agreed or not. I do not think it makes any difference whether they are agreed or not. I am not sure that I agree with the hon. Gentleman's townsman's idea of agriculturists. I remember some years ago coming to London to attend a meeting at Caxton Hall. I was looking at a bill advertising the meeting and the man at the door said, "Agricultural meeting? Room 16". I did not need to tell him which meeting I wanted. However, that is by the way.

On the question of land nationalisation and similar red herrings, I am tempted to enter into that subject but I feel that tonight is not the time. This question of the lion's share of consumption is another subject which is too long to debate tonight, but, of course, we are definitely giving the British farmer a share of the increased consumption as the demand increases. That is our policy. Machinery for dealing with dumping, I admit, is slow. This machinery was brought in by the late Government and we know what the difficulty is there.

I am grateful for a further opportunity to explain the way in which we are tackling all the problems that the hon. Member raised, such as the alleged need for higher prices for farm produce, the need to raise the incomes of the small farmers and farm workers, and so on. I should like to deal with the farm workers first. I should point out that there are perquisites enjoyed by agricultural workers, such as houses, free milk, free potatoes and that sort of thing. They are of considerable value. With regard to transport, I know that many farm workers live away from the farms in council houses, but there are still a number who live in houses on the farms, and they are often good houses.

In addition, there is something attractive about farm work and, although I know it involves long working hours, it is rather different from standing at a bench and doing repetitive work. We should appreciate this point and not consider the matter purely from a cash point of view, although I know that cash is important. Farm workers have advantages which many of their town counterparts do not have.

We can not treat argiculture as a single unit. There is a wide range of size and efficiency and an across-the-board increase in the guaranteed price will be of the most benefit to the largest producers. It is these producers who find it most profitable to expand. An across-the-board increase would therefore be an inefficient way to help the small farmer and such increases would not benefit farm incomes in the long run if they encouraged a position of over-supply leading to lower market prices. As we all know, that has happened more than once and it is a danger that the Government must constantly guard against. To adopt the across-the-board approach and simply to raise prices would create as many problems as it would solve both for the farmer and for the Exchequer.

I might mention the position with regard to milk. Milk is of special importance to the small farmer and at the review we faced great pressure to give a very great increase in the guaranteed price. Since then milk production has continued to rise and has recently been running at a record level. The trend of production certainly does not suggest that any responsible Government could have gone further than we did. The award was as large as could be made having regard to the risk of over-expansion if it had been pitched too high.

At this year's Annual Review we took account of the complex and heterogeneous nature of our agriculture. About 70 per cent. of the industry's total output is produced by about a quarter of our holdings. These include, of course, the largest holdings which have taken advantage of technological progress and have been able to secure economies of scale. Another half of our holdings are largely part-time holdings producing only a very small part of the industry's total output. The remaining quarter are mainly small and medium-sized businesses and many of these need help to improve their management, farming techniques and marketing arrangements if they are to provide a reasonable full-time livelihood. This help we intend to give.

The Annual Review White Paper sets out our broad lines of approach. We decided first that all farmers—but small farmers especially—would benefit from the measures to encourage better marketing and co-operation and from the provision of better credit facilities. In order to improve credit, we are arranging to provide guarantees to the banks so that they may more readily make available loans both to individual farmers and also towards the marketing activities of farmers' co-operatives and groups. In addition, we are introducing grants to help co-operatives and groups which are marketing primary farm produce to extend their businesses. We are considering the possibility of wider arrangements for promoting agricultural co-operation and group activitity.

In time to come the things we are doing will help farmers generally and in particular the small farmer. We will be laying before the House various schemes to help farm management and to increase the Small Farm Scheme to include farms from 20 acres to 125 acres. This will bring within the Scheme about another 40,000 farmers, about whom the hon. Member was speaking. But all these things take time and the hon. Member can ask his hon. Friend the Member for Cornwall, North about this as he knows this to be so, particularly with a heavy legislative programme. Despite the reverses last night we are going to do it and I can assure the hon. Member that he will be perfectly satisfied with the action which we take in the future. It will be to the benefit of agriculture and the small farmer in particular as well as the farm worker.

12.49 a.m.

Mr. James Scott-Hopkins (Cornwall, North)

What a most unsatisfactory answer to my hon. Friend's well-argued case which he put so clearly. Much as I admire the Parliamentary Secretary's pleasantness of delivery, all he has done is promise us jam tomorrow and nothing today. He has spoken of more reviews going on and said that we will get an answer some time. Strange announcements have been appearing in the Press, as a result, I suppose, of inspired leaks to try the temperature.

The Parliamentary Secretary did not answer a single one of the questions so extremely well thought out in the closely argued speech of my hon. Friend highlighting the difficulties in Norfolk which were of relevance to his constituents. The hon. Gentleman gave us the old menu once again, which we have been getting even since the Price Review.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock on Wednesday evening and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at ten minutes to One o'clock.