HL Deb 29 June 1921 vol 45 cc853-8

LORD ABINGER had on the Paper a Question to ask His Majesty's Government under what authority inspectors are visiting farms, and are requiring the occupiers to measure fields, and to give other information involving loss of time, and consequent loss of money to the farmers; and whether such inspectors are instructed, and if so, on what authority, to question farm hands as to the amount of their wages, and the hours and conditions of their employment; and whether it may be expected that upon the proposed repeal of Part I of the Agriculture Act, 1920, these inspections will cease., thus causing a. saving of public monies?

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the Question, perhaps, requires a little explanation. Many farmers have approached me, complaining bitterly that they have been worried and harassed by having to fill in forms, interview inspectors, and answer many questions which seem to them unnecessary. In one particular instance the first set of inspectors arrived at the farm when time farmer was absent. They, of course, behaved in a most courteous manner; but, although the farmer was away, they demanded to see the wages book. It is a farm of about 1,000 acres; and the girl who was there saw no reason why the wages book should not be handed to them. The Government inspectors could find no fault with it. But surely such a principle is wrong? They have no right to go to any farmer and get the wages book without his consent. These inspectors then went on to the farm, asked the workmen whether they were satisfied, what hours they worked on Sunday, and other questions. That may be very interesting information to Government inspectors, but to my mind it savours much more of a political agitation, and I fail to see why tenant farmers should be taxed in order that Government inspectors may wander around the country playing the part of political agitators, which any trade union steward could do equally well without any Government expense. I maintain that it is beyond the scope of Government or county inspectors or any kind of official.

In addition to that, the unfortunate farmers are being asked to give, on a twenty-five inch ordnance survey, particulars of the plans of their farms, crops, haystacks, etc. That is rather a large order. I do not know whether it is done by order of the Ministry of Agriculture or the county agricultural committee. A short time ago there was a Bill before this House called the Law of Property Bill; a very great Bill to my mind, because it fulfilled three principles of statesmanship— namely, progress, justice and experience. To that Bill I put down an Amendment, to the effect that the ordnance survey should be used as the standard map for all transactions connected with land. The Department explained that this would involve a large expense to the country and that it could not be tolerated for a moment in connection with that measure. What was my surprise, a few weeks after, to find that the unfortunate farmers are being asked to fill in such particulars on a 25-inch ordnance survey map!


My noble friend means "from" not "on" a 25-inch ordnance survey map.


From a 25-inch ordnance survey map. That entails expenditure in the shape of purchasing plans, and it involves the unfortunate farmer in the employment of a land surveyor at great expense, because, as everybody who has any connection at all with farming knows, to set down the various crops in detail, as is here required, is an enormous business. And when it is done, it is of absolutely no use at all, except to statisticians in Government offices, because crops change very frequently on many farms; there might, for instance, be hay stacks on a certain farm in one month which will have disappeared a short time later. I fail to see, therefore, why such expenditure should be imposed upon the unfortunate farmer. I hope that the noble Earl who represents the Ministry of Agriculture in this House will see the Question very much from my point of view. I saw his answer to a question the other day concerning the Chequers estate. I regret I was not present, but it was to the effect that he hoped Chequers would be made into a paying concern for the benefit of, and as an example to, agriculture. If that course were pursued, and these overhead charges and unnecessary inspections omitted, I think the farmers would be generally satisfied and bless the noble Earl. I beg to ask the Question standing in my name on the Paper.


My Lords, I will deal first, if I may, with the noble Lord's Question on the Paper. The form of claim which is prescribed by subsection (2) of Section 3 of the Corn Production Act, 1917, for a payment which may become due under Part I of the Agriculture Act, 1920, in respect of wheat or oats grown this year, requires that the area claimed for shall be the ploughed area actually under the crop, and in verifying these claims it may be necessary for officers of the county agricultural committees to check a certain proportion of the claims by inspection of the fields on which the crops have been grown. No inspector of the Ministry of Agriculture has been authorised to require a farmer to measure his fields, and, so far as the Ministry is aware, the officers of the county committees are not doing so, as no lists of claims have yet been handed by the Ministry to the committees. If my noble friend will give me instances where inspectors have been visiting farms and requiring the occupiers to measure fields and to give other information, I will have further inquiries made.

As regards visits of inspectors to farms to inquire as to the amount of wages paid to farm hands and the hours and conditions of their employment, I might explain that Section 14 of the Corn Production Act, 1917, empowers the Ministry of Agriculture to appoint officers for the purpose of securing a proper observance of Part II of the Act, which prescribes the minimum rate of agricultural wages. These inspectors are placed under the direction of the agricultural wages boards, and their duty is to investigate complaints of the nonpayment of the legal minimum wage. They have statutory power, under the same section, to require the production of wages sheets and other records of wages, and to demand from any person any information required by them in the course of their investigations. They are instructed to give notice to the employer before visiting a farm, and to interrogate workers during their working hours only with the consent of the employer. Apart from specific powers under the Act, it is obvious that no investigation into a complaint could be satisfactory if the inquiries were restricted to one of the parties concerned. The statutory authority under which farms can be inspected is contained in Section 13 of the Corn Production Act, 1917. In the event of the repeal of Part I of the Agriculture Act, 1920, both classes of inspection will cease, as the guaranteed prices will no longer be operative, and the agricultural wages hoards will be abolished.

I may say, in reply to one or two observations which fell from the noble Lord, that legislation such as the Agriculture Act of.1920 undoubtedly involves expense and trouble. I was always aware of that fact, and I know that a great many of your Lordships were also aware of it. As I have already said, if Part I of the Act is abolished, that expenditure and trouble will come to an end. I should like also to answer that part of the noble Lord's remarks which concerned the measuring of land. I do not think the inspectors have really any reason to do that at the present time. The noble Lord will understand that when a farmer sends in his claim for the acreage of ploughed land he has under wheat and oats, he has to send it in correctly, or he is liable to prosecution. May I add that farmers should hasten to send in their forms? They are coming in extremely slowly, and those people who send in no claims will probably get no money. With regard to the question of ordnance maps, I always knew of the difficulty; the trouble is that, on the 6-in. ordnance survey, the acreage of a field is not marked, and in order to get the acreage, it is necessary to have recourse to the 25-in. ordnance survey map.

Then again, a difficulty arises when there is a very large field, only a portion of which is under wheat or oats. It then becomes a question of finding out how much of that field is under oats or wheat. There are only two ways of doing that— by guessing, or by measuring. The farmer, if he does not find out how much of that field is under wheat, lays himself open to a penalty for sending in a false return. I do not think inspectors have done any measuring, except, perhaps, in order to assist the farmers in certain cases. Of course it might be possible, when these claims come to be checked, that the inspector would have to measure how much of a field is under wheat and how much under oats, so that he may check the farmer's claim. I have always realised that there was a big difficulty in filling in these acreages, but I do not think the noble Lord has really any very great reason to complain that there is undue interference on the part of the inspectors of the Ministry of Agriculture, beyond what was necessary under the Act.


I desire to thank the noble Earl for the full answer he has given to my Question. With regard to the observation that Part I of the Agri culture Act is coming to an end so soon, I think that that will please everybody and that there will be no further trouble in the matter. I see how the difficulties may have arisen. I will give the noble Earl, if he wishes, particulars of the farm which I mentioned. I dare say it was merely a misunderstanding on the part of the inspector, or the farmer, or both, that caused the trouble. Seeing that everything is coming to an end, the trouble will cease; the farmers were not, however, very clear about that.