§ Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.
§ THE PARLIAMENTARY SECRETARY OF THE MINISTRY OF AGRICULTURE AND FISHERIES (THE EARL OF ANCASTER)
My Lords, I am sure you will readily understand that it is not an easy task for me to commend to your Lordships' acceptance a Bill which has for its purpose the reversal of a policy which you were asked to accept, and did accept, only some eight months ago. Though the task is naturally a difficult one, I cannot ask your indulgence on the ground that to me it is a painful one. It will be in your Lordships' recollection that, on every occasion when I had the opportunity, both by my voice and by my vote, I showed it was my opinion that it was a policy which could not be a permanent one. There were many who looked upon the Agriculture Bill, when it was first introduced into your Lordships' House, as a reasonable insurance for the corn growers against loss. The almost perpendicular fall in the price of corn which has occurred since that time, and, especially, in the price of oats, has turned that which might have been only a reasonable insurance premium into a huge subsidy, and we are faced with that difficulty at the present moment.
We had in your Lordships' House, a few weeks ago, a preliminary inquest. The noble Marquess, Lord Lincolnshire, on that occasion gave a witty and somewhat caustic description of the funeral of the Agriculture Act. I did my best to reply to him then, and to say why the Government had to introduce a Bill repealing that Act. The reason I gave on that occasion, and the reason I give to your Lordships this evening, is the simple one that we cannot afford it. There can be no doubt that during the last few months the financial situation of the country has changed considerably, and changed, unfortunately, very much for the worse. It must be perfectly palpable to everybody that the unfortunate dispute in the coal trade has had a most depressing effect on the receipts of His Majesty's Treasury. I think I should be travelling too far afield if I were to discuss the whole policy which His Majesty's Government has followed since the Armistice in dealing with our industries and with labour questions. But I think I may be permitted to say that, whether the Government policy in the past 128 has been right or wrong, as a result of that policy, from the time of the Armistice up to the beginning of the coal dispute, there was not another country in Europe which was so free from acute poverty and dire distress as the United Kingdom. I also think I can say without much fear of contradiction that the enormous cost and burden of the war had up to that time been mainly, if not entirely, borne by those who had fixed incomes, or who were earning large salaries in this country, and that the actual burden of that great war had hardly been felt by the great mass of the working people of this country.
Unfortunately, we cannot say the same to-day. Unfortunately, the coal dispute has had the effect of reducing a large number of people to great poverty and of throwing tens of thousands out of employment, and it has caused distress among the working people, who, up to that time, even allowing for the high cost of living, were better off than they were before the war. But it has also undoubtedly placed a terrible strain on His Majesty's Exchequer. It must therefore, I think, be apparent to all that the policy which, I understand, the Government have decided upon—I know nothing, of course, of Cabinet secrets, but I think it has already been announced—the policy, namely, of abolishing subsidies, was one which, having regard to the solvency of the country, they were absolutely bound to pursue. However necessary it might be to aid industry by subsidies, there can be no doubt that the solvency of this country was the first consideration. That is practically the defence I used on a previous occasion in answer to the noble Marquess, Lord Lincolnshire, and it is the defence which I have to advance again to-day in introducing this Bill, which will practically have the effect of repealing the Corn Production Act and Part I of the Agriculture Act.
I think I ought at this stage to explain to your Lordships briefly the general effect of this Bill, and to give a rough outline of the proposals of the various clauses. Clause 1 repeals the Corn Production Acts, as from October 1, 1921. With it goes the guaranteed prices of wheat and oats, control of cultivation, and the wages boards. Clause 2 provides that, in place of the procedure for ascertaining the guaranteed prices for the harvest of 1921, laid down in the Agriculture Act, the Ministry will pay 129 to the farmer £3 in respect of each acre under wheat, and £1 in respect of each acre under oats. These payments Will be Made on or shortly after January 1. 1922. The advantage of this procedure will be that the Government can ascertain within the next few weeks; the exact sum which they will have to pay in respect of this year's crop, whereas, under the Agriculture Act, the amount could certainly not be ascertained before the beginning of April next year. And the farmers will also have the advantage of getting their money on January I. or soon afterwards, instead of having to wait for it probably until the following June or July. I think it is only right I should say also that this formal agreement as to the prices to be paid for wheat and oats was come to after considerable discussion and negotiation between the Ministry of Agriculture and the corn producers of the country.
Clause 3 provides for a special Fund for promoting agricultural research and education. It is proposed that the sum of £1,000,000 should be employed for that purpose during the present financial year, which ends on March 31 next, and that will be in addition to the current expenditure already sanctioned by Parliament for that purpose. It is, however, probably on Clause 4 that the largest amount of criticism will arise when this Bill reaches Committee. On that Clause, I anticipate, there will be more Amendments and discussion than on any other. It deals with conciliation councils which. It. is proposed to form. The Government have always taken the view that act guaranteed prices and the wages boards stand together, and that when one goes the other should go with it. We are of opinion, however that in order to avoid industrial disputes it is well that there should be some kind of conciliation boards—committees or councils, call them what you like—upon which both workers and employers should be evenly represented, and which should have power to deal with questions of wages and hours. We hope, and we believe, that the formation of voluntary councils such as these will have the effect of stopping disputes and of maintaining those excellent relations which have generally existed in the past between agricultural employers and their workmen.
I think it reflects the very highest credit on the agricultural employers and laborers of this country that, during the whole of the war, and during the troublous years 130 Through Which the country has passed, with the industrial disputes that have taken place, shine the termination of the war, except for a very few partial strikes the agricultural industry has been practically free of any serious labour disturbance. We are sincerely anxious that tins state of affairs should continue. We believe that these voluntary councils will have the effect of bringing employers and workmen together, and are more likely to bring about conciliation and to stop strikes and trouble than would be the case if such matters were left entirely to individual bargaining.
We do not wish to coerce these councils in any way. In the immediate future they will be very different, and eventually utterly different, from the existing wages boards. As this Bill is not likely now to pass until the end of August, and, if it becomes an Act, the wages boards, the guaranteed prices, and everything will conic to an end on October 1, the Government are afraid that in the short time available it might be impossible in many districts to get a conciliation committee together and to set it going. To meet that contingency it is provided in Clause 4 that the wages board is to continue for two years after the passing of this Act, or until conciliation committee is formed to take its place. But it is to continue for those two years or until a conciliation committee is formed, with this very considerable alteration—that the appointed members will disappear from the board and, of course, that the Central Wages Boo rd. in London will disappear as well.
Therefore, on those conciliation committees there will be direct representatives only of the men and the employers. Those two classes will meet together and attempt to settle differences of opinion which may exist between them. If they fail, it will be open to them, should they think fit, to appoint a Chairman, with or without a vote, to being them together. There is no necessity for them to appoint a Chairman; they may do so if they like. We believe that by leaving those conciliation committees as free as possible we shall obtain what we desire—a means by which any serious dispute in the agricultural industry may be averted—and we think on the whole it will tend to the existence and continuance of good relations between employers and employed. Apart front that, there is only one other small clause which I must men- 131 tion, Clause 5, which provides tie tribunal for determining the compensation to be paid for disturbance by an employer to a workman when he is turned out. Of his cottage. Those are the main provisions of the Bill, and they are provisions which I hope will meet with the approval of your Lordships.
Having said so much on the Bill, I must say a few words not in reply to the Notice which the noble Lord. Lord Strachie, has placed upon the Paper, but by way of an attempt to deal with what. I have no doubt, from the wording of his Motion, will be the charge he will bring against His Majesty's Government. In his Motion he describes the. Bill as "partial and lop-sided." The term"lop-sided" is one which, perhaps, could be applied more accurately to forestry than to agriculture, but I imagine he means that he does not approve of the action of the Government in repealing Part I of the Act without at. the same time repealing Part II, which, of course, deals specially and entirely with the question of land tenure in this country. I have no wish to press this argument, but I think it is one which your Lordships should consider. When the Agriculture Bill was in Committee of this House last year it was always made perfectly clear that those two Parts were entirely distinct. It will be recollected that Part TT was largely moulded, and brought into the shape in which it stands at the moment, by the considered opinion and vote of your Lordships.
I have no doubt the noble Lord will mention others, but there are three main questions involved in Part. II to which imagine he will refer. The first of them is the question of the arbitration upon rent.As your Lordships are aware, under Part II of the Act, which will remain, if there is a dispute between landlord and tenant as to the raising or lowering of rent, it can he taken to arbitration and the arbitrator will decide whether the farm is worth more or less. Regarding that, I must say plainly that, like the noble Lord opposite, I voted against.it; I did not care for that provision. I thought it was better for landlord and tenant to be left, as they had been in the past, perfectly free. On the other hand, it is now the law of the land. It is a question which, no doubt, considerably affects the question of land tenure, and I desire to call your Lordships' attention to the fact that it was freely decided by your Lordships that it was a good thing both 132 for landlord and tenant that disputes about rent should go to arbitration. I well remember the Division by which, by no inconsiderable majority, your Lordships decided it was beneficial to both parties that an arbitrator should act in such cases.
The other question which is of most importance in Part II is the question of compensation for unreasonable disturbance. I use that phrase because we all understand it. On that point, again, it was your Lordships who very largely framed the provisions of the Regulations under which this compensation for disturbance should be paid. The clause arrived here from another place in a very different form from that in which it. Left.As your Lordships know, you very materially altered it.
I should like to ask your Lordships to consider whether you think, with the Amendments which you made to the Bill, that the Bill, as it left your Lordships House, is not fair to the landlord, and what the posit ion is of Lord Strachie, who apparently wants to get rid of this Part of the Bill. If I carry my memory back—and it is not so very many years ago—to the year 1906, when the noble Lord and myself were legislating in another place, I recollect that. The noble Lord was one of the advocates of compensation for disturbance. I admit that he was not the parent of the child, but he was a sort of godfather, or adoptive father, and time after time in another place, when we used to be fighting out this knotty point of compensation for disturbance, it was the noble Lord, as the mouthpiece of the Government, who brought forward the Bill and made it an Act of Parliament, providing that compensation could be paid to a tenant when he is unreasonably evicted. It is rather strange that now, legislating in another place, he should take exception to that proposition.
The actual position is this. In the Act of 1906, Which was afterwards incorporated in the Act of 1908, the question of compensation for disturbance was left in a very nebulous state indeed. The monies that were to be paid for losses sustained by reason of quitting a holding, and the occasions on which compensation was to be paid, were left in a very indefinite state; but during the passage of the Agriculture Bill through Parliament last year, and especially in your Lordships' House, your Lordships laid down certain definite rules. You laid it down that the compensation 133 Should be less than one year's rent, and should not exceed two years' rent. I believe that there are a large number of landowners and tenants who would prefer to see compensation for disturbance left in that plain and very definite way, rather than have it in the nebulous state in which it was left by the 1908 Act. I therefore think that it would be a mistake at the present moment for your Lordships to throw into the melting pot this question of compensation for disturbance. Your Lordships made a very important addition to the provision for disturbance. I rather think that you changed the law on that matter very considerably by stating that the landlord had power to give notice to his tenant if he was not cultivating his land according to the rules of good husbandry. That gives very considerable assistance to the landlord when he has a tenant who is farming badly, for he can turn him out and will not have to pay him compensation for disturbance. Both as regards the question of rent and the question of compensation for disturbance, your Lordships, after due and careful consideration, practically moulded the Bill according to your own wishes in these respects, and, if I may respectfully say so, I cannot help thinking that it would be a great mistake to go back on what was done on that Occasion.
There is only one other point of substance in Part II with which I need deal. This relates to the question of improvements which can be carried out by the tenant, with or without the consent of the landlord. As your Lordships are aware, the Ministry of Agriculture has power to issue Regulations or Orders stating that certain of these improvements can be moved from one schedule to another, but your Lordships perhaps acted very wisely during the Committee stage last year, when you retained to yourselves the power of vetoing these Orders issued by the Ministry of Agriculture. As the noble Lord himself knows, only a few months ago, at his instance, some Orders issued by the Ministry of Agriculture were revoked. Therefore, on all these three important points, I really do not think there is any very great charge to bring against the Government that by failing to repeal Part II of this Act they are making the Act into a very partial and lop-sided measure.
I may also make this appeal to noble Lords, that there can be no doubt, if the 134 noble Lord's Motion is carried, it will kill the, Bill. Moreover, it is perfectly certain, if your Lordships take that action, that the taxpayer will next year have to find a sum of probably £25,000,000. In fact it is quite possible, if the noble Lord's Motion is accepted, that during the next four years the taxpayers of the country may have to find a subsidy of no less a sum than £100,000,000. I therefore most respectfully urge upon your Lordships that you should consider well and hesitate before you vote for the noble Lord's Motion, which if think would be very disastrous to the taxpayers of the country. At the same time I do not think it would, to any large extent, alter or remove certain grievances which some landlords seem to think they have against His Majesty's Government the present time.
There is one noble Lord who, I hope and trust, will give me his support. It is only a few days ago that Lord Buckmaster, in this House, drew a most depressing and lurid picture of the state of Great Britain. He described it as almost a corpse, being slowly bled to death by the un- skilful operations of His Majesty's Ministers. He told us that taxation was bleeding the country to death. Here, at all events, we have followed the advice which he has so frequently given His Majesty's Government in the past, and are making some effort to bind up some of the wounds, and to stop that flow of blood. We sincerely hope that the noble and learned Lord will help us in that Endeavour. He told us that he was tired of giving advice, and that he almost despaired of ever getting His Majesty's Government to charge their policy in the matter of the expenditure of money. I can only say to the noble and learned Lord, and to other noble Lords who think with him—"Do not despair." Some of the seed which he has sown has fallen upon good ground, and it is only fit and proper that the first seed—the seed which he has sown—should germinate and bring forth a harvest of economy at the Ministry of Agriculture. I beg to move.
§ Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a—(The Earl, of Areaster.)
LORD STRACHIE had given Notice, on the Motion for the Second Reading to move to resolve, "That this House refuses to assent to a partial and lopsided repeal of the Agriculture Act, 1920." The noble
Lord said: My Lords, the noble Earl has anticipated the object of my Amendment. I base my proposal, that it is not desirable to have any partial or lop-sided treatment of this Bill, on what was said by a former Minister of Agriculture, who has since left the land and taken to the water. What did Lord Lee of Fareham say, in recommending the Agriculture Bill to your Lordships' House? He said this—
Indeed I go further. I say it is not designed primarily as a measure of agricultural reform, but as an essential provision for national defence which is shown to be necessary as a result of the lessons of the war. This I will endeavour to make good to your Lordships.
I could give many other quotations, but.I will not do so.
I will, however, give.one quotation dealing with the question of the subsidy. What did Lord Lee of Fareham say with regard to this? He said—
Some alarm has been expressed in certain quarters that these guarantees possibly may become effective, that the country may be called upon to pay them, and that thereby they will become a serious financial burden. If necessary that must he faced. Certainly these guarantees are not put into the Bill as mere camouflage which could under no circumstances ever cost the country anything. If so, they would be merely deluding the farmer into thinking that he could ever get assistance from them.
What declaration could be stronger by a-Minister and a member of the Cabinet? The Government did anticipate a heavy financial burden, and they were quite ready to face it.
The noble Earl has stated in his speech to-day that Part I of the Bill is only a small part of the measure. But what did Lord Lee of Fareham say as regards that? My own contention ware that, as originally introduced, it was an important part and that you could not destroy one part without destroying the rest. Lord Lee of Fareham said this—
At the same time I must make it plain that, the scheme and the whole policy of the Bill rests upon three main legs. It may be possible slightly to lengthen or shorten them, but if any one of them is drastically cut so as to make the structure topple over, then obviously this Bill cannot survive.
What statement could be stronger than that? The noble Earl was not then in a position to judge on this matter and he is perfectly free to say that he entirely disagrees with Lord Lee. I do not think, however, that it is a sufficiently good answer for the Government, having made pledges, to say to the Minister that he
must leave, and that they are, therefore, free of those pledges and call reverse their declared policy.
I have quoted Lord Lee of Fareham. May I also quote to your Lordships what was said in another place on the Second Reading? The then Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, who has now succeeded as Minister of Agriculture, said—
This Bill represents the definite reconstruction policy as regards agriculture of the Government, not as a temporary war measure, but as the permanent policy of the country.
The Act of 1920 was a compromise agreed to by the three classes interested in the land. But it was put forward to them as a question of national importance, and We have always found that landlords, farmers and labors, have been ready to subordinate their own particular interests to those of the country as a whole, when it was shown that it was necessary. The noble Earl has referred to the position of landowners under the Bill.
No doubt landowners did assent to more interference with the management of their estates, but as regards that point the noble Earl, speaking on the Second Reading of the. Bill, said—
I ask you briefly to consider what in plain English are the main provisions of the Bill. How do they affect the landlord? The landlord under this Bill will be told what rent he is to receive; the landlord under this Bill will be told whom he is to evict; the landlord under this Bill will be told what repairs and improvements he is to execute.
We all know what a strong opponent of that Bill the noble Earl was. Not content with voting against the Second Reading, and making the best speech in your Lordships' House against it, he did not think the Amendments made in Committee improved it at all, and on the Third Reading went into the Division lobby against it, sawing that in his opinion the improvements were not worth the paper they were written on.
The noble Earl has referred to the control of cultivation by the agricultural committees, and says it was desirable that they should go. That was simply put in as a sort of makeweight, generally in the interests of good farming and good agriculture, and in order to assist landlords in the matter. I know a good many landlords who said that it was a great advantage to be able to go to these agricultural committees, whose duty it was to see that
The land was properly cultivated, instead of having to go to the tenant himself and making a complaint. The position of the semi-land courts is quite different now, when the subsidy is withdrawn, front what it was before. Undoubtedly, the subsidy did have an effect on a man who wished to sell a farm or to remain in a farm, and it made some difference in rent. The noble Earl speaking on the Bill as it affected landlords, said—
There is also a very dangerous clause in this Bill, and one which I believe has never occurred in any system of nationalisation before. What does it say? It says that the owner of the property is not to be the judge of what are suitable repairs to his buildings or land; he is not to be the judge of what is an improvements to his property. A third party a Cover/intent agent, is to be the judge of what repairs are necessary and what improvements are to be carried oat, not at the nation's, expense, but at the man's expense whose land it nationalized I never heard of such a proposition.
I know he will say that in Committee it was provided that either House of Parliament could object to these Regulations. But I must remind him that the Government has twice attempted to put these provisions into force, and it is only because your Lordships rejected the Motion that they were thrown out. I can tell your Lordships that the Minister of Agriculture has actually said that it is their intention to bring them in again, and I have been told by the Minister of Agriculture himself that he would defeat me in your Lordships' House in the future. I admit that is plain speaking, but it is the fact.
I would like to refer to the position of the farmers. The farmers assented to the establishment of wages boards in return for the corn subsidy. There, again, I must quite the noble Earl. He said—
The tenant under this Bill will be told what rent he has to pay; he will be told how he is to cultivate his land, and he will be told what wages he has to pay his labor.
The noble Earl objected strongly to these provisions of the Bill. With regard to the labors they assented to this Bill only because they had a wages board; otherwise, they would not have agreed to the interference with their hours of labour and their conditions of employment and wages.
Then, the noble Earl—I hope he is not tired of hearing the quote him, but he is so very effective in his criticism and brings these points home with greater force than I could do it myself—went on to say—
The labourer is going to he told what wages he is to receive, and how many hours he shall work. Well, my Lords, it is pretty strong. When the noble Lord says, You should accept this Bill because you may get something worse,' I ant doubtful if you can get anything much worse.
I will now turn for the moment, to what the noble Earl said regarding compensation for disturbance. I am obliged to allude to that because the noble Earl who challenged me said I was responsible, as indeed I was, for the Act, of 1906, after it had left the Standing Committee in another place—and I am very glad I was responsible for it.
§ But there is a great difference between compensation under the Act of 1906 and compensation under this very advanced Bill. The difference is that in the former the compensation was only the cost of a removal and the tenant could only claim damages against his landlord if it could be shown that his action had been inconsistent with good estate management. If it were shown that the landlord had acted in a way that was inconsistent with good estate management, it was right that the landlord should have to pay something. He did not, however, have to pay one year's or two years' rent, but simply to compensate the tenant for any loss which he had to incur in moving. That seemed very fair and proper. The noble Earl seems to think that it is no advance at all, under present conditions, that a landlord may turn out a man and not only have to pay the whole cost of removal but to pay one year's or two years' rent. I cannot make out how the noble Earl can say that my measure is so extreme as the measure of which he now so strongly approves and which only last December he voted against.
§ THE EARL OF ANCASTER
I did not say I approved; I said it was with no great sorrow that I was here proposing the repeal.
§ LORD, STRACHIE
I have quoted enough, I think, to show the House that the noble Earl not only disliked Part I of the Act, but, that he 'would like to see the whole Act destroyed. There is one other point with which I desire to deal, because it is exercising the minds of agriculturists very much at present. I refer, of course, to the wages boards which the noble. Earl seemed to think would occupy a very large part of the discussion of this Bill in Committee. What happened on the Third 139 Reading of the Agriculture Bill in another place? The Parliamentary Secretary for the Ministry of Agriculture, Sir Arthur Griffith-Boscawen, said—We have made the wager hoard permanent. The wages hoard is not a popular body with farmers, but in my opinion it has done most excellent work.I give that quotation because I think I can show your Lordships later on that Sir Arthur Griffith-Boscawen has entirely altered his views upon this matter. What was the position of this Bill when it was introduced into another place, and until after it had passed its Second Reading? As far as wages boards were concerned the Bill was entirely a voluntary measure merely providing that conciliation boards were to be set up. But after it left the Standing Committee, on Report, compulsion was introduced into the Bill. The existing wages boards are to remain for two years or; as the noble Earl has told us, until other bodies are set up. I think the noble Earl might have explained to us a little more fully how these bodies are going to be set up. If, at the end of two years, nothing is done, of course I agree that then there can be no wages boards at all; but why introduce into an Act of Parliament something that may be sterile and abortive from the very beginning?
I think the noble Earl will recognize that so far as the National Farmers' Union are concerned, they will not approach this question of wages hoards in any but a hostile spirit. What did the National Farmers' Union do at their council meeting on July 20? They unanimously passed this resolution—That That this Council reminds his Majesty's Government and the Agricultural Committee of the House of Coin nuns of the promise to farmers of complete economic freedom in the event of the withdrawal of the guarantees provided under Part I of the Agriculture Act and demands its fulfillment both in the letter and in the spirit. The Council further sees no reason to exclude England and Wales from the freedom proposed to be granted to Scotland in this connection.It is very remarkable that this Bill has been so altered in Committee and Report, so far as Scotland is concerned, and that Scotland should have been put hack into exactly the position of freedom that England had before the Bill went through the Standing Committee. The National Farmers' Union of Scotland and the Chamber of Agriculture in Scotland demanded that they should have freedom to deal with this matter. I know it may be 140 said by the noble Earl that in Scotland the farmers were unanimous, and that the Agricultural Labourers' Union did not dissent. But I cannot see why there should be this difference between Scotland and England.
Another thing that we have not been told by the noble Earl is how these wages boards are to be selected. All the indications given in the House of Commons were that the wages boards were to be selected by the employers from the National Farmers' Union, and, of course, on behalf of the workers, from the National Agricultural Labourers' Union and from the Workers' Union. I would point out to the noble Earl, who is always ready to say that he looks after the protection of landowners, that that does not seem very fair from the point of view of the landlord. No landlords are to have anything to do with these bodies, if the National Farmers' Union is to be allowed to have a say in the matter. Although at one time men who were not members of the National Farmers' Union sat upon these wages boards, later, upon representations by the National Farmers' Union those who were not members of that Union were turned off the wages boards, and their places were taken by members of the Union. I want to know if this is the way in which the business is to be done in the future. If the National Farmers' Union is to represent the employers, it seems to me to be a very unfair arrangement, because there are a very large number of landowners, and, no doubt, in the future, with the increasing numbers who will have. to farm their own land, there will be many more, who ought to be properly represented on the wages board. I cannot see why the landlord should be left entirely in the cold in this matter. I cannot see why there should be no consultation with such a body as the Central Chamber of Agriculture, or with the Central Landowners' Association, It seems only fair and proper that they should have some say in the matter of setting up these boards.
I also notice that there is no limit as to the time in which a decision setting up a rate of wages given by the wages hoard is to hold good after it has received the sanction of the Minister of Agriculture. It is conceivable that you might have a wages board which would agree upon a rate of wages this month, and that three or four months afterwards, although con- 141 ditions might entirely change, the rate of wastes could not be altered, once it had been laid down, until the Board agreed, and it may be very difficult to get the hoard to agree. I cannot see why you want to have arty compulsion at all in tins matter. I should like Io quote what was said upon the introduction of this Bill. I would remind noble Lords that when this Bill MIS introduced, the intention of the Cabinet and the Government, who had no doubt thoroughly considered tins question, was that there should be no compulsion. There was the same section which now will apply only to Scotland, a very proper section if I may say so, saying that, conciliation boards ought to be set up, as far as possible, entirely of a voluntary nature.
What did Sir Arthur Griffith-Boscawen say of this Bill? He said—The Prime Minister in first introducing the policy in February, 1917, said: Before I come to actual prices which we guarantee I was going to say that there are ten or three corollaries to a guarantee of prices. The first is that if the Government guarantees prices labor must also be guaranteed.'Sir Arthur, commenting on this, went on to say—''That is to say, that if there are to be guaranteed prices, then and only then is there to be a wages boardThe Government have absolutely gone away front that proposition, and have simply contradicted what was said by Sir Arthur Griffith-Boscawen. He said—We propose that there shall not be a guarantee of prices, if so it follows clearly from that that the wages board shall disappear at the same time.Then, I have stronger arguments against the wages board which are given me by Sir Arthur Griffith-Boscawen upon this Bill. He said—The wages board was intended to mix minimum wages. In practice… it has fixed standard wages, rigid standard wages, applicable to all alike without any regard to questions of fitness or skill. That has had a fatal effect. The minimum wages are actually maximum but in addition the question of hours is introduced. When minimum wages become standard wages, you introduce the whole machinery of rigid factory hours on the farm. That is exactly what has happened.The noble Earl must know that that is a question about which the farmers feel very strongly. The effect 4on the wages hoard has been to introduce these rigid 142 factory hours to the great harm and great detriment of agriculture in this country.
One other quotation, and this shall be the last. On this Bill, Sir Arthur Griffith-Boscawen said—I am certain that one effect of the wages board has been the introduction of rigid hours which are quite unsuitable to farming. There is another point. The wages board is coercive. It relies on prosecutions.…You rely on coercion, inspection, espionage and police court prosecutions. If there is anything which is wanted in this country both in the factory and on the farm, it is good will, and you will never get good will on the farm so long as you rely upon coercion.What stronger words can be used to condemn the wages hoard in this Bill? Undoubtedly, whatever the noble Earl says, there is compulsion in this Bill. Representatives of the employers and the employed meet together and pass certain rates of wages. Those rates of wages, if confirmed by the Minister, will then become compulsory upon the whole of the area for which that body is constituted. But how are you going to select the employers? They are to be selected by the different organizations, and only at the request of the Minister. The Minister may request anybody he likes, because he does not put into the Bill that the National Farmers' Union or the Central Chamber of Agriculture should be responsible to the landlord. He has a right to elect any self-constituted body he pleases. They may agree with the workmen upon a rate of wages with which the majority of the people totally disagree, and if he sanctioned that agreement those wages, passed by the minority of the people in the district, would be compulsory upon the whole majority in that area.
What we want to see is the Bill as originally introduced, where it gave perfect freedom of contracts between employers and employed. Why should there not be once more a return to conciliation boards which, I am quite sure, the noble Earl would much prefer? There is one thing upon which farmers are agreed that is that conciliation boards, if formed should be entirely voluntary, with no compulsion whatever, and that there should be no interference by the Government, with power to alter their decisions or to make them compulsory in any way. There must be give-and-take in this matter both for employers and employed. The Government made an awful mess in deal- 143 ing with the coal trade in fixing wages. They brought this country almost to bankruptcy. The noble Earl has said that if it had not been for the coal strike and the difficulties arising therefrom, we should not have had this Act repealed. I notice Sir Arthur Griffith-Boscawen said exactly the same thing in another place, so that evidently there is the full sanction of the Ministry of Agriculture upon this matter.
What we want to see is no Government interference, but collective bargaining by employers and employed. That is the proper way to do it, and much the most sensible way. Wages and hours of labour must and can be only what any industry can bear. The Government in the past have shown by their reckless interference in the coal trade what lamentable results happened. On the other hand, we have seen what happened in the case of the railways where they had conciliation hoards without Government interference. Those voluntary boards have produced peace and contentment, and wages have actually been reduced without any objection whatever. Those are the reasons why I say this Bill is not desirable, and why I say it is partial and lop-sided. It interferes with a measure which was introduced in the interests of the nation. I beg to move.
§ VISCOUNT MILNER
My Lords, as one of the most strenuous supporters in this House of the Corn Production Acts of 1917 and 1920, I cannot let this occasion pass without entering my strong protest against the repeal of their principal provisions, including the most important portions of the Act which we passed here less than a year ago. It would be elaborating the obvious to dwell on the extraordinary character of the whole procedure which the noble Lord who has just spoken has already sufficiently emphasized, on the phenomenal change of mind by which the very authors and principal supporters of the measure, passed here not much more than six months ago, have now become its executioners.
For my own part, I have been unable to undergo a similar remarkable process of conversion. To my mind, the reasons which seemed so strong in favour of the 144 Corn Production Act of last year, appear even stronger to-day. Having counted the cost from the outside, and having made up my mind that the magnitude of the object justified the cost, I cannot go back upon myself, because the contingency which this Act was always intended to provide against, and which was always foreseen as a possibility, has actually arisen. I can only suppose that those who find it so easy to go back upon themselves in the matter can only have believed, when they assented to the guarantees, that they were never going to be called-upon to implement them.
The noble Lord who has just spoken has dwelt with considerable force upon the injustice which the repeal of so large a portion of the Act of last year, while leaving the remainder intact, may inflict, upon the landowner and farmer. I think an equally strong case could be made out for the plight in which the sudden reversal of our policy is going to leave the agricultural labourer. But, strongly as I sympathise with all classes interested in the cultivation of land, it is not principally on their account that I deplore the reversal of the agricultural policy of the last few years. What counts with me most is the interest of the nation as a whole, including that urban majority which, although unfortunately it is so indifferent to the fate of agriculture, is nevertheless going to be so deeply affected in its own highest interests by any injury inflicted upon what, after all, is our most fundamental industry.
The grounds on which this extraordinary volte face is justified are mainly two. It is said that we cannot afford to pay the money which the maintenance of the present law would involve. That was the ground on which the noble Earl, introduced the measure to-night, principally relied. There is another argument also, which has been less stressed here to-day, but which certainly has had a good deal of effect in another place and which I have seen dwelt upon considerably by many exponents of public opinion, and that is that the attempt to direct the conduct of agriculture in the interests of the community was a mistaken attempt; that we should do better to leave the industry entirely alone, to leave the farmer to sink or swim as he can, handling the land, as he, must do in that case, solely with an eve to what he believes to be his own immediate personal advantage. Per- 145 sonally, I think that both these arguments are bad. I deplore equally the abandonment, of the guarantees and the extinction of the agricultural committees, which, so far as my experience goes, have had a valuable effect in raising the general standard of agriculture.
On the point of economy, I very greatly doubt whether the saving, even from the narrowest point of view, the purely Exchequer point of view, is going to be anything like so great as many people suppose. In the present economic chaos prevailing throughout the whole world, I absolutely defy anybody to say what the course of corn prices is likely to be in the next three or four years. It may perfectly well be that after having given a blow to the cultivation of corn in this country, which will deprive us of a. considerable amount of our home-grown supplies, we shall have to pay such a price for imported corn as would have made any guarantee, if maintained, a light burden, or no burden at all. The extent of that burden in future years is absolutely problematical, but the blow which this sudden reversal of policy is going to give to agriculture in this country is nothing problematical—it is a certainty, and it may well be irreparable. What is certain is that in face of the total uncertainty as to the course of prices throughout the world in the next few years, the farmer, left entirely to himself, will and must play for safety; that less and less capital will be put into the land; and that instead of our having more arable land, a good deal of land that is now arable will tumble down again to grass, and to bad grass at that; that instead of having more production from the soil in this country we shall have less production; and that we shall have to import increased quantities of food from foreign countries, and the enormous bill which we shall have to pay for that importation will become heavier and heavier every year.
We have had many debates in this House about waste. There is no form of waste that I know of at all comparable, in its evil effects, to the waste of our own natural resources. Going up and down England, to-day, a man must be blind who is not struck, as every competent foreign observer invariably is struck, by the poor use which we make of so much of our land. It seems to me absolutely inevitable that, a consequence of what we are now doing, 146 the amount of land which is poorly farmed or not farmed at all will considerably increase. I may say that I have always held, and still hold with ever-growing conviction, that apart entirely from all the other considerations affecting the case—considerations of national security, of national health, and the maintenance of a. large and vigorous agricultural population—it would, on pure grounds of national economy, pay this country well to devote, a good many millions to the raising of a general standard of agriculture.
"A general standard" I say advisedly, because it would be unjust to ignore what many individuals have done and are doing, with little encouragement, in spite of the enormous burdens which agriculture has to bear, to cultivate the land with an eye to the maximum of production in the interests of the community. But you cannot expect the majority of men struggling for an existence from the land, to do that. With no pressure upon them to farm better, and no inducement offered to them to farm better, they will be bound increasingly, faced by the burdens resting upon them, to farm low, to spend as little as possible upon labour or anything else, in order to get a small but at any rate a safe return. That may be the right, or it may be the only possible, course for the individual, but it can never be to the advantage of the nation, which has so vital an interest in getting the maximum production from its own soil.
I must say it seems to me extraordinary that the necessity of increasing, by every means in our power, the productivity of the soil of this country, seems to be treated as a secondary consideration. It is to my mind a primary consideration, the greatest of all considerations, from the point of view of our present economic and financial position, and we need protection in this country to-day far more than we have done in the immediate past. Our manufactures no longer hold that commanding position which they once held in all the markets of the world. It is evident to everybody who looks at the course of the exchanges only that we have an increasing difficulty in paying by our products for all that we are obliged to buy. When there is so much that we must buy from foreign countries in the shape of raw materials—because we cannot, by any human possibility, produce it here ourselves, it being against the course of nature—surely it is the height of im- 147 providence to weight the scale against us in international barter by also neglecting to produce here, thereby increasing the amount which we are compelled to import from foreign countries.
It may seem at first sight a very simple way of saving money to strike off so many millions which might have to be paid under this guarantee for the maintenance of our agriculture, but let us consider the hidden waste which may be lying behind that apparent gain. One effect of it will be—a certain effect, by increasing the amount which we have to pay to foreign countries, and especially to America to depreciate the dollar value of the £, and thereby to add, year by year, enormously to the cost of everything that we have to buy from America—cotton, every bit as much as corn. Besides that there is the increase—a matter of no small consideration—of the immense burden of our indebtedness to that country. That is one effect of a loss of productivity in the soil of this country. Another is the depreciation in the value of land, which, in a few years, may very well affect the Exchequer, and affect it more permanently for evil than a considerable expenditure in the next few years, resulting in a restoration of British agriculture to its former productive position, could possibly do. I venture to predict that we shall pay dearly for the millions we think we are going to save.
And I should like to ask: What are we going to do with the thousands of men—who may very easily be a couple of hundred thousand in a few years—whom the policy of never minding if the land does tumble down to grass is going to throw out of employment? We have two million unemployed in this country already. What are we going to do with this additional number? It is quite true that we may reasonably hope that the revival of trade will gradually absorb a considerable proportion of those at present unemployed. But can any reasonable Man be sanguine enough to think that within any measurable time it will absorb them all? There will be no room in this country for the displaced agricultural labourer, unless indeed, as is very likely, he displaces someone else. In any case, these unemployed, whether displaced agricultural labourers or others displaced by them, will have to be maintained by the country, for all your economy. And what is the ridiculous position that will be reached? That, not haying been 148 able to afford to help the farmer to keep these people employed, producing something, you are going to have to maintain them, all the same, producing nothing. More doles for the unemployed—the most lamentable form of waste in the name of economy.
So much for the purely agricultural side of the matter. May I, in conclusion, very briefly say one word on another aspect, not less grave? I had hoped that one of the lessons of the war—it is true we seem rapidly forgetting all its lessons—had been to teach us the true position of agriculture in the life of a. nation. I had hoped that we had learnt that it was something more than just one kind of business by which people might make a living, and that it was something absolutely vital and essential to the life of the State that the people engaged in it, whether landowners, or farmers, or labourers, must be regarded as engaged in a form of national service. It is true that this can be said in some measure of every great staple industry. Every great staple industry ought so to be regarded, but none is so vital or so fundamental as agriculture. I had hoped that we had learned that, whilst the men engaged in agriculture owed a special duty to the community, on the other hand they Were entitled to special consideration in return for the faithful discharge of that duty; that if, on the one hand, they might be pressed to conduct their industry on lines which might not appear to them to be most immediately profitable, but which were regarded as the most advantageous to the community, on the other hand, they were entitled to be protected from being ruined in the process.
That is the true conception, as I think, of the position of agriculture in the national life. It is a. measure, imperfect no doubt, but still not by any means wholly inefficient, embodying that true principle, which is now being ruthlessly scrapped. I believe that we shall have to return to it. I believe that we are marching straight to such a crisis in our agricultural industry, and that we shall be forced once more to turn aside from the individualist go-as-you-please doctrine, which is at present sweeping before it, and has carried the Government off its feet. I believe that we shall have once more, and before very long, to engage in special measures for the preservation of the most fundamental of our industries. But how much may be lost in the interval, 149 and how much it may cost us to bring the land, which is now going to depreciate once more, to its full productive use, is more than any man can say.
§ THE EARL OF SELBORNE
My Lords, I beg to move the adjournment of this debate till Thursday next. There are many members of your Lordships' House still desirous of speaking on tie Second Reading, and we have not vet reached a stars; of business which makes it imperative for us to take the Committee stage of this Bill next Thursday. Therefore, I hope the Government will agree that the proposition is a reasonable one.
§ Moved, That time debate be now adjourned till Thursday nest.—(The Marl of Selborne.)
THE FIRST COMMISSIONER OF WORKS (THE EARL OF CRAWFORD)
My Lords, I confess I should be sorry if that Motion were pressed. May I remind your Lordships of this? We desired to put the Bill down for Second Reading last week, but at the request of many noble Lords opposite it was postponed until to-day. In postponing it my noble friend, Lord Ancaster, said that he hoped the Second Reading would be given on Tuesday because, our proposal being to take the Committee stage on Thursday—
THE EARL OF CRAWFORD
—our proposal being to take the Committee stage on Thursday, he naturally desired to see as many Amendments as possible upon the Notice Paper. Having deferred to your Lordships' desires on Thursday afternoon last, the noble Marquess, Lord Salisbury, and the noble Lord, Lord Buckmaster, asked that the Motion about in autumn session should again take precedence. We agreed, and the result is that we now reach a rather inconvenient moment in a very important Bill. If the Bill is postponed until Thursday, I am afraid the Committee stage must be postponed until next week. It is rumoured in the House, with what truth I do not know, that the projected debate oft Ireland to-morrow may be postponed. If that is so, would it not be better for your Lordships to finish the Second Reading of this Bill to-morrow, so that we could go on with the Committee stage on Thursday?
§ THE EARL OF SELBORNE
I do not mind that. It depends, of course, upon what is on the Order Paper for to-morrow.
THE EARL OF CRAWFORD
If the Irish debate is not taken, there is very little on the Order Paper for to-morrow. The Earl of Arran's Question about compensation for destruction of property in Ireland is postponed, I understand. Lord Newton has a Question about the Inter-Allied 'Military Commission which, he informs me, is not likely to take more than a few moments. Lord Dawson of Penn has a Motion on an interesting technical subject which, however, I do not think is likely to last very long. That is all there is on the Paper for to-morrow, apart front the Irish question and the stages of the Finance Bill.
THE EARL OF CRAWFORD
I merely repeat that it would be much more convenient, in my opinion, if we could take the concluding stages of the Second Reacting of this Bill to-morrow.
§ THE MARQUESS OF SALISBURY
My Lords, I may take this opportunity of saying that in pursuance of an invitation which I threw out last week, when. I gave Notice of the debate about Ireland, to noble Lords sitting in all quarters of the House to make any representations they might wish to make to me in reference to that debate, I have received many representations, and it has been thought better that I should postpone the Irish debate which was down for to-morrow. I do so all the more readily because I shall have an opportunity within a very few hours of conferring on the subject with many of my political friends. In those circumstances, the Irish debate will not stand in the way of any arrangement which the noble Earl may make as regards the Second Reading of this Bill. I think it is only right to say that I happen to know that Lord Dawson lays great store upon his Motion, and it would not be fair, in his absence, if we assumed that it is not a substantial matter. I do not know how long it will take. I think perhaps I would suggest that the House might meet a little earlier to-morrow. I imagine that Lord Dawson's Motion will not take very 151 long, and, at any rate, one may hope there will be time left to conclude this stage of the Corn Production Acts (Repeal) Bill.
§ Motion to adjourn the debate till Thursday, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Moved, That the debate be now adjourned till to-morrow.—(The Earl of Selborne.)
THE EARL OF CRAWFORD
Normally, we meet at a quarter to four o'clock tomorrow. I do not think it is much good meeting a quarter of an hour earlier.
§ THE MARQUESS OF SALISBURY
I think the noble Earl is right, and that the House should meet at the usual time to-morrow.
THE EARL OF CRAWFORD
Lord Dawson has informed my noble friend, Lord Onslow, that he does not mean to move his Motion to-morrow.
§ LORD PHILLIMORE
Lord Dawson told me a short time ago—an hour ago—that he intended to move it, and he urged me to be here.
THE EARL OF ONSLOW
I have just had a conversation with Lord Dawson, and I understood from him that he intended to withdraw his Motion to-morrow for certain reasons. He has only just left the House; I think it was about ten minutes ago. He explained to me that certain noble Lords had promised to be here. Unfortunately, he is not here now, but I think I am correct in saying that the debate will not take place.
§ On Question, Motion agreed to, and debate adjourned till to-morrow accordingly.