HL Deb 18 March 1919 vol 33 cc753-64

LORD HINDLIP rose to call the attention of His Majesty's Government to the shortage of agricultural labour, and to move a Resolution.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, in raising the Question which I have on the Paper I do not wish it to be understood that there is a very serious shortage of agricultural labour in all parts of the country, because, so far as I can gather, that is not the case. The shortage appears to be patchy and local; but in this respect, as in a good many other respects in regard to the agricultural world, as your Lord ships know, there is a considerable amount of unrest and dissatisfaction. I think that-a statement from the noble Lord the President of the Board of Agriculture would do a great deal to ventilate the subject and probably to allay much of the unrest.

There seems to be, in the minds of the Board of Agriculture, no possible doubt that there is not only a very serious shortage of labour now but that there will be-later on in the year. One of the officials of the Food Production Department, Miss Talbot, the head of the Land Army, quoted the President of the Board of Agriculture the other day at Oxford as saying that it would be quite impossible to provide sufficient male labour this year for the harvest, and she also said that she was asked to find another 5,000 women this year to meet the shortage. We are a very long way from the harvest, and the shortage of labour is with us now. The ploughing is not done, leave alone the spring, sowing, and I am afraid it is very doubtful, whether it all will be done. All the evidence I can find points to a serious short—age in many parts of the country. In 1914, before the war, I believe the number of men employed on the land was something like 700,000. We know how many of those men were taken during the war, and we unfortunately know also that many thousands of them will never return Since 1914, I believe. 1,600,000 acres have been ploughed up, and the requirements of the industry, with that addition of arable land, means another 150.000 men, making over 800,000 men.

I should be very glad if the noble Lord the President of the Board of Agriculture can give us some idea where this extra 150,000 men, in addition to those to replace the losses from the 700,000, are to, come from. We have four sources of supply. First of all, I will take the women; next, the German prisoners. I think the action of the Government in withdrawing German prisoners from the land is causing more dissatisfaction than anything else with regard to the agricultural labour situation. No one seems, to know why they are being withdrawn. All we know is that the men are taken, from the farms and no substitutes are provided. I imagine that when the various. Treaties are exchanged and we are back once more to that desirable state of things called Peace, naturally these men will have to go; but, till they are sent back to Germany, I cannot for the life of me understand why they are not allowed to be used on the farms doing useful work, instead of being sent to concentration camps, where, I gather, they have very little or nothing to do. About ten days ago the agricultural correspondent of the Morning Post—who, as many of your Lordships know, is as well acquainted as anyone else with matters appertaining to the state of the industry—said: From most parts of the country farmers are complaining bitterly of the stripping of farms of labour through the withdrawal of prisoners. One hears of large farms with one or two men left. There seems to be no sense and no reason in this action.

I am quite sure that the fault does not lie with the Food Production Department or with the Board of Agriculture. It lies with some other Government Department which is interfering and tinkering with the business, probably knowing absolutely nothing about it. That is the way a great many of our troubles arise. The other day I had a letter from an agriculturist who farms a great deal of his own land. He is very well known to many of your Lordships, and he says, "I am suffering acutely from the withdrawal of the aliens." That man has not been able to replace his aliens, and, as he says, his cultivation is suffering very acutely. There is another class of alien, the Austrians and Hungarians. About ten days ago the Home Office—I do not know if they wanted to play a practical joke on the wretched agriculturists—but they exploded a bomb. They said that every Hungarian and every Austrian was to be withdrawn from the farm immediately. No reason was given. In many cases, I believe, men were taken away at about twenty-four hours' notice and no substitutes were provided. There was no regard for the consequences of this arbitrary and sudden action.

What is going to be done with these men? Are they simply going to be sent back to concentration camps to catch influenza and do nothing, or are they to be repatriated? I know that a considerable number of these men want to go back to their own country, and I should be the last person to suggest that any obstacle should be placed in the way of their going back, although I employ some myself and if they go at the present moment I see no way of replacing them. Then there are other Austrians and Hungarians who have certain ties in this country, who have married English wives and have been in the country for a long time. Until the fate of these men is decided by the Bill which I understand the Government are bringing in, what on earth is the use of taking these men away from the farms and locking them up? If they are to be repatriated later on, well and good; but until we have some law on the subject why cannot they be left in peace doing the work for which I can assure your Lordships, after three years' experience, it would be very hard to get better men. When legislation dealing with men with English wives is brought in I hope nothing will be done to force them into the hands of Germany, but that it will leave them as friendly to us as they are to-day.

Then we come to the supply of English labour. I suppose that as regards them the farmers' worst enemy is either the War Office or the Ministry of National Service—if that Department exists now—who have always seemed to regard a farm hand as absolutely indispensable to the Army. I do not know how many were taken for the Army, but we do know that in the dangerous days of 1918, after the Government had promised not to take any more men from the land, they swept down and took 30,000. It was necessary at the time, but those days are gone. They were probably the oldest of agricultural labourers and a great many of them were "key men." I should like to know—I do not suppose the President of the Board of Agriculture can tell us, and there is no one in the House representing the War Office to-night—what has happened to those 30,000 men, and how many of these pivotal or key men, the War Office still have. In addition to that the age for agricultural labourers surely might be reduced. I believe it is now about thirty-seven years. I cannot for the life of me see why the age limit should not be reduced to thirty-five or thirty-four years, and men of that age demobilised. The requirements of the Army to-day surely cannot be so imperative that they want to keep men who are urgently needed on the land.

I am afraid there is another side to the question. There is alleged unemployment. I dare say there is some unemployment, but what can anyone expect when men can get 29s. a week by doing nothing and only a 1s. more by doing a great deal. Then the Wage Committee say that a great many of the men who come back are not to be taken on. That may be true in places. What I think is a great deal more true is that they are not going back. They are drifting into the towns where there is more attractive employment and higher wages, or they are refusing to work for the minimum wage, or doing nothing on 29s. a week. There is no doubt that all the men are not going back to the land, and that in certain Places farmers are not employing more labour than they can help. They are reckoning, I think, on getting casual labour at odd times, at higher prices during the harvest and at the times when more men are wanted on the farms than in the ordinary every day work. I think that this may account for some of the allegations of unemployment, but on the whole the evidence available goes to prove that there is in a great many parts of the country a very serious shortage of labour for agriculture; the situation seems to be very unsatisfactory, and I am quite sure that the agricultural community would very much welcome a statement from the noble Lord the President of the Board. I beg to move the following Resolution—

That in view of the shortage of labour and the serious prospects occasioned by the wet season, this House considers that His Majesty's Government should make every endeavour to assist the Board of Agriculture to meet the necessities of the farming industry.


My. Lords, I only desire to say a few words in support of what has been stated by the noble Lord in his very interesting, and, as I think, exhaustive speech. It is no doubt not quite easy for anybody, however good the means of information at his disposal may be, to know precisely what the rights of this matter are, largely owing to the fact that there is no doubt that the shortage is very local, sporadic, and due to a great number of different causes. I have no doubt that it can in fact and beyond dispute be attributed in varying degrees to all the causes which my noble friend has mentioned. There evidently has been some mismanagement of the unemployment benefit. One has heard of cases, backed by first-hand knowledge, of farmers who have found their men after a period of some employment actually leaving them to go on the unemployed list. How numerous those cases have been one cannot say, but in counties where the agricultural wage is not very much above the authorised unemployment benefit it seems almost inevitable that at any rate some such cases would occur. I have also heard of cases where girls employed on the land have taken precisely the same course. At the last meeting of the Central Chamber of Agriculture a farmer told a story of two girls who had been earning 27s. 6d. per week and who went to London where they obtained 25s., under no doubt far more agreeable and easy conditions. There, again, it is impossible to say whether those cases are numerous, but that they should occur certainly shows some kind of mismanagement.

Then there have been other complaints of men being lured away by high wages paid for Government contract work. I have known of complaints of that kind in my own neighbourhood, and I have also heard of them from other parts of England. One has heard of cases where unskilled labour has been paid as much as 75s. a week. One of the special allegations made was that in the hurried construction of aerodromes and in Air Force work generally some enormous wages of that kind had been paid for unskilled labour, and that thereby agricultural labour had been abstracted from its usual work.

My noble friend mentioned what are called "key" or "pivotal" men. It is no doubt true that a certain proportion of these, having been quite fairly released by the military authorities, have preferred to take up some other employment. Some of them may have been, as I mentioned just now, tempted away, but to others the general shortening of hours in some other forms of employment may have proved an irresistible attraction. The one thing that we cannot do for an agricultural labourer, particularly in some forms of farming where stock has to be looked after, is to shorten his hours to any very great extent. Nor has it ever been found so far as I know possible, if farming is to be made in the slightest degree remunerative to the farmer, to work agriculture by means of shifts. That being so, there always will be a certain number of workers of both sexes who are likely to prefer more highly-paid employment where work is for fewer hours, even if the actual physical conditions may not be so agreeable as they are, at any rate at times, for the agricultural worker.

In these cases, of course, nobody can be blamed, and certainly no one would think of imputing any blame to His Majesty's Government so far as those elements of choice are present to the minds of the workers. But the noble Lord opposite will no doubt see that, so far as the other causes of shortage enumerated by my noble friend are concerned, it is possible that some steps might be taken by his Department or by other Departments concerned to alleviate what is undoubtedly a real, though not probably a universal, grievance. So far as my present experience goes, there is hardly anything which is troubling farmers more than the question of shortage of labour. They are naturally deeply concerned about the dark hints which are thrown out in different parts of England, sometimes taking the form of threats, with regard to large demands for increased wages. But I think that this particular matter of shortage is puzzling and occupying the minds of the farming community almost more than anything else, because they certainly did suppose that when military operations were over agricultural labour would return to something like a normal condition, plus, as they hoped, the possibility of securing the services of a good many of the women who had not been on the land before the war, and who had proved themselves capable workers, and in many cases had taken a liking to the occupation. Therefore there is an acute sense of disappointment, and I trust that my noble friend opposite will be able to say something to reduce it.


My Lords, I am much obliged to the two noble Lords for calling attention to what is a very important question, and one which at the present moment, owing to the weather we have had, is both pressing and urgent. I think that perhaps I can best explain the situation if I give, as far as I can, the actual figures of the labourers employed on the land. The noble Lord who proposed the Resolution started with 1914, and quite correctly stated that the number of male workers permanently employed upon the land was then 714,000. When the Armistice was proclaimed the number of male workers permanently employed on the land was 412,000, a shortage therefore of 300,000. The numbers I have given, of course, included the men who had joined one or other of the combatant Services and the men who had entered munitions or quarries or timber or similar employment. We had to try and meet that very grave shortage. We collected 72,000 soldiers, who were formed into agricultural companies. We had 30,000 prisoners, and we had some 4,000 or 5,000 licensed aliens—that is to say, aliens who were interned and whose voluntary help on the land was accepted and who were duly licensed We also increased the number of women working on the land from something like 91,000 at the last census of 1911 to upwards of 300,000. Therefore we had to a certain degree made good the shortage. We had done it at all events as far as we possibly could, and I think that your Lordships will find that the shortage remained at something like 100,000. We must also remember, as the noble Lord pointed out, that we had increased the arable acreage by something like 1,600,000 acres, and therefore instead of only 718,000 we ought to have 850,000 workers. There is, therefore, a very grave shortage.

The women who are now working on the land are either part-time women, or they are women of the Land Army. We are endeavouring to increase the number of women of the Land Army by getting them to enlist for a period up to the end of the harvest. I did not see the extracts from the newspaper to which the noble Lord alluded, but I think that what I said was that we ought to keep the women over the harvest—in which I included the potato harvest—and therefore that we wanted to recruit them until at least October 30.

The real seriousness of the position lies in this, that we are obliged to demobilise the war agricultural companies of soldiers. That process is going on. We have lost 42,000 of them; therefore the deficit is increasing from that point of view. On the other hand we have not, I am glad to say, as yet given up a single German combatant prisoner. All the German combatant prisoners are still on the land. What has happened has been that we have had to move them from place to place as there have been complaints of unemployment by native-born agriculturists in the particular neighbourhood.

As to the licensed aliens, non-combatants, the Austrians and Hungarians and other nationalities, they are called in by the Home Office. There are not very many of them—4,000 is probably the total number. They have worked most excellently, and they are a great loss. But what happens is that, if anybody has lost a German prisoner and appealed to us we could get him a fortnight's respite and meanwhile examine into the case. But I think you may take it that all the men of that class who are really taken from the land are taken for immediate repatriation.

Then as to the source of English labour to which the noble Lord alluded. It is a very small point, and I only mention it because the same mistake has sometimes been made before. It is quite true that the War Office had liberty to take 30,000 men, but as a matter of fact they took only 20,000, and I am not quite sure whether they got all those. At all events, those 20,000 men were the very cream of the agricultural labour; they were all men under thirty, and they were probably the best lot of men that agriculture sent out at any time during the war. The position is that we are getting the agricultural labourers demobilised far more rapidly than we are disbanding either aliens or agricultural companies. When I mention the fact that we have got demobilised 154,000 soldiers who were agricultural labourers and that we have only demobilised 42,000 of the agricultural companies, it is obvious that there is a balance in favour of agriculture on that figure—and on paper—of 112,000 men. Therefore the position is slightly better, when you take into consideration all that large returned number, than it has been at any time during the last two years.

I have to say "on paper," and to lay stress on that fact, because we really do not know whether all those 154,000 men have gone back on the land. The evidence, such as we have been able to collect it, rather points to a considerable number not having gone hack to the land. It is just there that I think careful inquiries should be made, and we are making them to the best of our ability. The average wage to-day of agricultural labourers is 33s. a week. But the unemployment benefit is, for the first thirteen weeks, 29s., with allowances for dependants besides, which, in the case of two children, would be 9s.


It is 6s. for the first child, and 3s. for each subsequent child.


Yes; and if there were two children it would amount to 38s. Therefore an agricultural labourer who is able to get, unemployment benefit is very likely to take it. And, though in the second period of thirteen weeks the payment is reduced, it is only reduced to 20s., and the dependants' allowance continues, so that there is still a chance that a man, if he is an agriculturist, may prefer to remain unemployed for six months. Strictly speaking, we ought to be able to prevent his having unemployment benefit, because unemployment benefit is not given to a man who has been offered a better place than that which he left before the war in the industry to which he is specially adapted, and which he followed previous to the war. But our difficulty is to trace these men after four years. Many of them have perhaps in the interval passed into munitions, or quarry working, or timber working, and it is very difficult to establish the fact that the man was previously an agricultural labourer. We are, however, trying to do our best to have that matter carefully investigated by the Ministry of Labour. That point was strongly dwelt upon by the noble Marquess.

Then there is the competition with Government contract work. We all agree that the moment the war is over every man is bound to be allowed to sell his labour in the best market that he can. During the war we were able to establish a sort of arrangement with the Government Departments and with the contractors that men should not be taken out of agriculture and employed. It was very difficult to enforce, but on the whole the number of men was restricted in that way. Now we have no means of doing that, and the wages are very high, and though the system of Government contracts has been altered so that a contractor no longer gets a commission on the height of the wages which he pays, it is still quite to his interest to pay very high wages in order to get his work done.

There is also the question of the key, or pivotal, men, which was also raised by the noble Marquess. I am afraid there have been a good many cases in which pivotal men have been applied for by agriculturists to go home and do work on the farms, and when they have arrived they have gone off into some other industry. I have a case here which was brought to my notice this evening where that has happened in the county of Bedford. We think that it is almost in the nature of a false pretence for a man to be taken out of the Army for a specific purpose on the application of an employer, and when he comes home to throw over the employer and adapt himself to another purpose. We are asking the labour exchanges to deal with that class whenever they find it.

I am afraid that we shall continue to be short of labour, but I think we shall be better off than we were last year or the year before in most parts of the country. There will not be anything like the number of men we want, anything like the number of men who can be profitably employed upon the land; but with the aid of the machinery which we now have I hope very much that we may be able to pull through this ploughing season, because it is obvious that the next six weeks is the all-important time, and we can get no immediate relief from the situation. There are only two sources from which I think we can get relief. One is if the War Office would, as the noble Lord suggested, reduce the age from thirty-seven to thirty or thirty-two, we should then get a large number of very valuable agriculturists. We are trying to bring that about, and I am sure the fact that the matter has been brought before the notice of this House will help us in our representations to the War Office. The difficulty, of course, is that the War Office say that thirty-seven is the age, whatever their industry, at which men are to be demobilised, and that it is very hard upon all other industries if agriculture gets a priority. That is, of course, an argument which it is rather difficult to combat.

The next point would be this. I believe that the farmers are quite willing to employ inexperienced, unskilled men who are cut of employment. They would like to do it; and if they were allowed to pay them less than they have to pay their skilled labourers, that would be a way out of the difficulty. But unfortunately they have to pay them on the same scale; and your Lordships will, I am sure, understand the ding among agricultural labourers, who are themselves skilled and experienced, if they see men brought in who hardly know one end of a plough from another but receive the same wages as themselves. I am sure your Lordships will appreciate that the difficulty is very great, and unless we get relief through the War Office I do not know to what source to look.

I am hoping, however, that we may get a considerable number of soldiers who intend to settle upon the land, and who have had no experience in farming, to volunteer their services upon the land. They will have to be paid, of course, the district rate; but I do not think that their coming in, as they are going eventually to take to the agricultural industry as their profession, will be regarded with the same sort of feeling by agricultural labourers generally. We shall have no doubt to face a considerable deficit on the figures. As long as the Army of Occupation is retained, I fear that is inevitable. There are probably in the Army of Occupation something like 100,000 agriculturists; and we have also to remember that among the 300,000 who joined one or other of the combatant Services there have been heavy casualties. Consequently, though I do not regard the situation as hopeless, I admit it is very difficult.


My Lords, the noble Lord has expressed Ids gratitude to the two Peers who preceded him, and I should like to begin by expressing my gratitude to him for the full statement he has been good enough to make to us to-night. I cannot say that I think it was encouraging, nor, I am afraid, will the farmers feel it to be so. I was very much struck by what the noble Lord said about inexperienced labourers. I have had absolute confirmation of that from a leading farmer in the country—the chairman of the Farmers' Union—who said, speaking for himself and his district, that he knew that in spite of the high wages given at present it took three men to do what two men used to do formerly. In those circumstances it is not surprising that what my noble friend Lord Crewe said just now is absolutely true—namely, that the great trouble of the farmers is the shortage of labour. If, therefore, we fall far short of the high hopes that have been held out to us of the greatly increased production which was said to be necessary for the safety of this country by the Prime Minister and other leading members of the Government, I earnestly hope that the blame will not be laid on the farmers, as has been the ease, in the past, because no men have worked more patriotically, and few men have received less gratitude for it.

On Question, Motion agreed to.