HL Deb 29 March 1916 vol 21 cc559-62

LORD STRACHIE had the following Notice on the Paper—

To call attention to the position of Irish migratory agricultural labourers under the Military Service Act, and to move that such labourers should be provided with a certificate of exemption.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, at this hour I will content myself with stating briefly my reasons for putting down this Notice and will refrain from moving the Motion with which my Notice concludes. The Central Chamber of Agriculture yesterday discussed once more the difficulty of labour. As your Lordships are aware, on the one hand we are urged by the President of the Board of Agriculture to sow more wheat and have more land under the plough, and, on the other hand, we are urged by Lord Derby to release a number of men. Your Lordships will remember that there has been a controversy between Lord Selborne and Lord Derby on this question. In the discussion which took place yesterday at the Central Chamber of Agriculture as to how we are to produce here more food for the people of this country and at the same time provide more men for the trenches, a well-known agriculturist, Mr. Patterson, who represents the Staffordshire Farmers' Club, raised the question of migratory labour from Ireland. Mr. Patterson stated that, owing to certain answers that had been given in the other House by the President of the Local Government Board and the general feeling of uncertainty amongst Irish labourers, the men who had previously come over to work upon his land and whom he desired very much to obtain again were frightened to come over. They were afraid that they would be enlisted and sent out to serve in France, and that the exemption they had at present in Ireland did not hold good in this country.

I will state what has happened, and it is no doubt due to the fault of the particular labourer himself. One of the men working for Mr. Paterson last year—he had worked for him for some years—filled up his registration card and gave his address as that of the farm in England on which he was then working. Consequently he was treated as an Englishman. As he did not appear for the purpose of joining the battalion to which he had been posted, a warrant was issued for his arrest. He does not realise that it is his own fault in putting this English address instead of his Irish address on the registration card. The result has been that he has frightened other agricultural labourers in Ireland, and they will not come over because they are afraid that they, too, will be arrested. The question was raised in another place, but the President of the Local Government Board gave an answer which to the peasant mind—and no doubt the Irish peasant is just as suspicious as is the English peasant—does not convey an assurance that any Irish labourer coming over to work on the land in this country will not be arrested and forced into the ranks of the Army. The reply of Mr. Walter Long was given in a very guarded way. He said it was only his own personal opinion that migratory labourers would not come under the Military Service Act. All I am asking my noble friend who will reply is, if it is impossible to give an exemption certificate to the Irish labourers coming to this country—that would be the most satisfactory way of meeting the difficulty—to give a direct assurance from the Local Government Board that no Irish peasant coming over here will be impressed or treated as a deserter. I can assure my noble friend, on the authority of Mr. Paterson, that Mr. Walter Long's statement not being official but merely a personal opinion has had a detrimental effect upon the obtaining here of Irish migratory agricultural labour.


My Lords, the answer to the Question of my noble friend opposite is that these labourers, if, as may be supposed, they were on August 15 last ordinarily resident in Ireland and not in Great Britain, are not within the scope of the Military Service Act and therefore do not require certificates of exemption. The Act applies, subject to the exceptions in the Schedule, to unmarried men who were on August 15, 1915, ordinarily resident in Great Britain and within the age for military service. If an Irish labourer who was outside the Act comes over and becomes ordinarily resident in Great Britain, the Act will apply to him, and unless he gets exemption he will thirty days after he becomes so resident be deemed to be enlisted. With regard to what the President of the Local Government Board said in another place in reply to a similar question, I am not aware what effect that statement has had in Ireland. But I see that Mr. Walter Long said— The position of these men is absolutely secure and clear. Any Irish labourers coming over for employment, either on farms or in any other capacity, will not come under the Military Service Act and will not be liable to be called upon for service. There is, therefore, really no doubt. To that I am afraid I cannot add anything.