HC Deb 30 January 1969 vol 776 cc1547-51
The First Secretary of State and Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity (Mrs. Barbara Castle)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the pay of agricultural workers.

The Government have received the Report from the National Board for Prices and Incomes on the Pay of Agricultural Workers in England and Wales; this has been published this afternoon. The conclusion reached by the Board is that agricultural workers may be distinguished in two respects from most other workers.

First, there are many more low-paid workers in agriculture than in other industries. Indeed, the Board states: Agricultural workers are by a fair margin the lowest-paid body of workers of significant size in the country. Because of this, the provision in the Government's White Paper on Productivity, Prices and Incomes Policy that would allow an above-ceiling increase to low-paid workers as part of a wider settlement which is within the ceiling cannot be of benefit to them.

In the second place, the Board points out that, although this is an industry in which productivity has been rising steadily for many years, it is hardly possible to envisage the conclusion of a productivity agreement by the Agricultural Wages Board, because working practices are not regulated centrally but are determined day by day on individual farms. The combination of these factors puts agricultural workers in a quite exceptional position.

The Board concludes that the award of 17s. is outside the terms of the Government's White Paper, but it goes on to suggest that the Government should consider whether a special exception to the requirements of the White Paper ought to be made in this case.

Finally, the Board suggests that if the Government are prepared to make an exception in this way, they have the means to ensure, through the Price Review procedure, that the interests of the community are safeguarded. In making decisions following Annual Farm Price Reviews, the Government already take into account all relevant considerations, including the industry's gain in efficiency and cost increases and will do so at the coming Review.

I wish to inform the House that, in the light of the Report, the Government do not propose to take any action to delay the implementation of the Agricultural Wages Board Award.

Mr. R. Carr

Will the right hon. Lady tell the House why she needs all this complicated procedure to tell the Government such elementary common sense? Secondly, is she aware that the whole House will welcome the fact that at least on one matter common sense has prevailed?

Mrs. Castle

I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman recognises that the policy which the Government are operating, contrary to the impression that he has tried to give in the past, has plenty of room for the operation of common sense.

The answer to the right hon. Gentleman's question is that if a prices and incomes policy is to be operated, it can do so only on the basis of consistency of treatment between one group and another and that, therefore, if it is desirable to go outside the criteria of the White Paper, it is obviously essential that the basis on which this is done should be assessed and approved by the Prices and Incomes Board.

Mr. Hazell

On behalf of the farm workers, may I thank my right hon. Friend for the statement which she has made, which will be received with pleasure by those employed on the land?

May I ask my right hon. Friend why the award to the agricultural workers was referred to the National Board for Prices and Incomes when the tally clerks' award of £2 8s. was not so referred, particularly bearing in mind the rising output and the ever increasing productivity of the workers and their very low wage rates?

Mrs. Castle

If my hon. Friend will read the Report of the Prices and Incomes Board, which is now available, he will see that this exercise has greatly helped the cause of the agricultural workers and has indicated how their position can be safeguarded in the future.

Mr. Prior

Is not the Minister aware that what has happened is that the agricultural workers are now fed up with the Government, who have done immense harm to the agricultural industry? Is it not an apt comment on the Government's performance that they have had to take the advice of the Prices and Incomes Board to tell them something which everyone else in the country knew already?

Mrs. Castle

Far from the agricultural workers' being fed up with the findings of the Prices and Incomes Board, they are certain to welcome the findings, as my hon. Friend has done. I repeat, if we are to have variations from the policy of the White Paper, it is important that the basis of that should be spelled out by the Board so that we can see that the incomes policy is operated consistently.

Mr. Mackintosh

While thanking my right hon. Friend for her statement, may I ask what percentage of industrial wages the new level of agricultural wages will represent, and whether she will accept the N.E.D.C. Report finding that, unless this be 80 per cent., the outflow from agriculture would be at such level that the Government's expansion target could not be achieved?

Mrs. Castle

My hon. Friend will find all the relevant figures in the Report. The Report makes it clear that, if the ceiling increase of 3½ per cent. had been applied in this case, then the agricultural workers' position would have been relatively deteriorating in relation to other workers, and this is the direct opposite of the intention of the prices and incomes policy.

Mr. Stodart

Is the right hon. Lady aware of the real resentment that was felt among the farm-working community at the reference to the Prices and Incomes Board, in view of the way in which the tally clerks' case was not so referred, and of the great loyalty of these low-paid workers and their enthusiasm for their jobs?

Mrs. Castle

I cannot accept for a moment that there is a great sense of resentment against having their claim and their case objectively assessed. Now that the Report is published, the agricultural workers will see that all the points which they put forward have been dealt with justly.

Dr. John Dunwoody

I assure my right hon. Friend that her statement this afternoon will be widely welcomed in rural areas as moving at least one step towards giving farmworkers fair shares. Will she assure the House that she will take the P.I.B. Report into account when dealing with the problems of other lowly-paid sections of industry?

Mrs. Castle

We have to deal with all cases on their merits. It is not possible to generalise. This is why the work of the Prices and Incomes Board, and the examinations which it makes, are so useful in enabling us to distinguish the needs of particular groups, since we have to take into account not only wage rates but earnings and other factors in each industry.

Mr. Heath

May I ask the right hon. Lady about the suspicious sentence from the Prices and Incomes Board's recommendations which she quoted with approval, that, in granting this increase as an exceptional case, the Government have power to safeguard the community in the Price Review? Does this mean that it will be the farmers who will have to meet this cost, or can she give the House a firm assurance that the farmers will be recompensed in full for the additional wage increase?

Mrs. Castle

The right hon. Gentleman will be able to read the full reference in the Report, but, as he would be the first to appreciate, questions on the Price Review are for the Minister of Agriculture and not for me.

Mr. David Steel

Is the right hon. Lady aware that we on this bench welcome this long overdue award? Since it applies to England and Wales, may I ask whether the principles which she has outlined will in future apply in Scotland?

Mrs. Castle

When the hon. Gentleman speaks of a long overdue award, I should point out to him that the award was due to come into operation on 3rd February. There has been no delay. Its operation will take place on the original date. The Scottish Agricultural Wages Board has not published any proposals for an increase in pay. Hours of work were reduced last year, and I understand that a pay claim has recently been submitted to the Board and the Government will consider any proposals if and when they are made.

Mr. Paget

Reverting to the question put by the Leader of the Opposition, will my right hon. Friend make it quite clear that this wage increase will be considered at the Price Review pari passu and on the same basis as all other increases in agricultural costs? If that is left in the air, there will be great trouble.

Mrs. Castle

I think that the House fully appreciates that matters concerning the Price Review are for my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture and not for me. Questions on it should be addressed to him.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

Order. We must move on.