HL Deb 08 August 1918 vol 31 cc673-8

THE EARL OF SELBORNE rose to ask the Lord Privy Seal whether His Majesty's Government have had their attention drawn to the following Resolutions passed unanimously by the National Agricultural Council on 6th August last; and whether he can give an undertaking on their behalf that no more keymen will be withdrawn from agriculture, and that those keymen considered indispensable to food production by the county war agricultural execu- tive committees will be released from military service—

  1. 1. That the National Agricultural Council, representing landowners, farmers, and labourers, desires to enter the strongest protest in its power against any further withrdawal of keymen from agriculture as certain disastrously to affect food production; and calls upon the President of the Board of Agriculture and Fisheries strenuously to resist any further pressure to make such men available for military service.
  2. 2. That in view of the fact that so many key-men have already been called to the Colours as seriously to jeopardise the maintenance of the present standard of food production, and to make its increase impossible, and that those men, while essential to agriculture, represent but a small fraction of the fighting forces of the Crown, county war agricultural executive committees should be empowered to claim the return from the Army to the land of any men who in their opinion are essential to the cultivation of the greatly increased area of arable land during the next ensuing farming year.
  3. 3. That these resolutions be communicated to all the mèmbers of the War Cabinet, to the President of the Board of Agriculture and Fisheries, and to the Director-General of National Service.

The noble Earl said: My Lords, in asking His Majesty's Government this Question I would like to draw your Lordships' attention to the fact that it is the first time that any pronouncement of the National Agricultural Council has been mentioned in this House, or, indeed, in Parliament. I think I may claim that the resolution to which I draw attention is the most authoritative pronouncement on agriculture that has ever yet been made, because never hitherto have agricultural labourers and farmers and landowners united in one organisation for the purpose of formulating their joint demands from time to time. I was desired by the Council, after they had passed this resolution, to ask this Question of His Majesty's Government, and I was urged to endeavour, with the greatest emphasis at my command, to make His Majesty's Government realise the danger of the present situation.

"Danger" was the word that I was asked to use. There is a general belief that, unless stopped by the War Cabinet, Sir Auckland Geddes will resume his recruiting operations among the keymen of agriculture the moment after the harvest. By "keymen" I mean of course carters, ploughmen, engine men, and shepherds; those most skilled men on whose operations agriculture depends. There is no doubt in the minds of the county war agricultural committees that Sir Auckland Geddes will resume his recruiting operations among these men unless stopped, and I have been asked by the National Agricultural Council to warn the Government that if more of these men are taken the industry will be brought to a standstill.

The situation is already more serious than the Government realise. Case after case has been brought to our notice where, apparently, there is really no prospect of the farmer getting in the harvest which is now standing on the ground. The harvest will be much more difficult to get in than was anticipated a month ago. There has been abundant rain. I have no doubt, the rain has done much more rood than harm, but the result is that many acres of valuable corn are, in some eases, almost flat on the ground and cannot be harvested by machine. It will have to be harvested by scythe or hook (by hand) and where that is the case, on a farm that has been absolutely denuded, or almost denuded, of its skilled men, I do not wonder at the farmer sitting (low n in despair and wondering how he is going to get his harvest in. Therefore the situation is a very serious one and demands all the, assistance that His Majesty's Government can give, and nothing would reassure the farmer more than to know that this taking of his key-men is going to stop.

The National Agricultural Council also claim the right, not at their own discretion, but at the discretion of the war agricultural executive committees, to claim back from the Army some of these keymen who have been taken, and who in their opinion are really essential for the farming operations of the coming year. The total number of such men that might be claimed is probably much less than the number of Americans landing in France in any one day, and their corporative value here on the land or in the Army really does not admit of argument. Therefore I have been asked to put this matter in a clear light before the Government, and to express, as I have done, the sense of responsibility of the National Agricultural Council in its demands and also its sense of the extreme seriousness of the position.


My Lords, I regret very much, and your Lordships will also regret it, that my noble friend the Secretary of State for War is not able to be in his place to-day as he desired to answer some of these questions. I will, however, give your Lordships such information as I am able to do upon the subject.

First of all, the Government are aware of the resolutions passed by the National Agricultural Council, and the matters referred to in them have received for a long time their fullest consideration. When the call was made for the last 30,000 men the position as affecting the whole agricultural industry was the subject of the most earnest consideration by the Government. My right hon. friend the President of the Board of Agriculture on more than one occasion placed the entire facts before the Government, and explained very fully the probable effect of the withdrawal of these men, not only on the coming harvest, but on the general need of agriculture. He went as far as was possible to go to save the country districts from the hardships which the withdrawal of these men would cause, and the Government were fully informed of and thoroughly realised, the effect of their proposals.

My right hon. friend showed quite plainly that the industry was dependent on these men; that they were in the very highest degree indispensable, and that the number of unskilled men who may possibly be called upon to replace them would be of comparatively small value without their guidance. He went further, and made it quite clear that the absence of these keymen would imperil not only the coming harvest but the whole programme of food production which had been laid down as indispensable for the safeguarding of the nation's food supply. With all these facts before them, and in the full knowledge that disaster to agriculture at this moment would have an effect upon the war no less than a disaster to our Army, the Government took the responsibility of deciding—and no one but the Government, with a full knowledge of all the relative demands and necessity for man-power, could decide—that these men should be taken away from the imperative needs of agriculture to supply the still more imperative needs of the Army.

The House is aware that the full number of 30,000 men was not taken, and that on a certain date, owing to further representations which were made and other causes, the call up of these men was stopped, and 9,000 men were left until after the harvest In addition, I am able to inform your Lordships of certain figures which have been given to me by the Ministry of National Service. Ten thousand men are being released from the Army for England and Wales.


Are they skilled men?


Not largely skilled men.


That is the whole point.


Previously to this, the Ministry of National Service had arranged with the War Office to give one month's agricultural furlough to men in command depots who are not fit for discharge within a month, and also to allow convalescent soldiers to do harvest work. The Ministry of National Service is also arranging for the employment of about 15,000 men from public and elementary schools, scouts divisions, etc. Further, the part-time committees which have been established by the Ministry are providing large numbers of seasonal workers. One committee in Liverpool has provided workers to do 2,500 days' work on the land each week.

Besides the above temporary sources of labour supply, permanent war agricultural volunteers are being enrolled, and up to date 2,068 have been actually placed in permanent situations on the land, and at least a further 2,000 have applied for jobs who have not yet been placed. These volunteers will form a permanent source from which agricultural labour can be reinforced, and approximately 60 per cent. of these men have had previous agricultural experience. The Food Production Department are arranging to have a number of these volunteers trained as ploughmen. The number of men in agricultural companies now number about 60,000, and they are also a permanent reinforcement to agriculture. The War Office has agreed, where low category men in such companies were placed by the county agricultural executive committees with a farmer—provided that the men are not above category B 2—that they will be left with such farmer for a period of twelve months. A number of the men in the agricultural companies have now had sufficient experience of agriculture to make them valuable.

There are 17,100 prisoners of war at work on the land in Great Britain, and 488 have been allocated but are not yet at Work. In addition to this, arrangements are being made to make a temporary levy, if necessary, for harvest work on prisoners of war employed on other work in this country. It should also be remembered that men are being constantly discharged from the Army and are going back to agricultural work. Those are the figures which I am able to give about these men. We have no information as to how large a number of them are trained men, with the exception of the 60 per cent. of agricultural volunteers to whom I will refer.

The first of the two specific Questions asked me by the noble Earl was whether an undertaking could be given that no more keymen will be withdrawn. I am authorised to give that undertaking, subject of course, I imagine, to no urgent need arising for the Army which is not at present anticipated.


The 11,000 men to whom the noble Lord has referred will not be taken?


The noble Lord means, I think, 9,000. I understand it to apply to them.


The point is not that. All these 9,000 men may not be keymen. There may possible be young men among them.


Quite so. I understood that Lord Gainford was asking whether my authority went so far as to say that those keymen included in the 9,000 would not be taken. I understand that is so, but I regret that I am not able to make any statements as to the release from the Army of the keymen already called up.


Is that matter under consideration?


I have no definite reply upon the subject.

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