HL Deb 09 July 1924 vol 58 cc376-85

LORD STRACHIE had the following Notice on the Paper:—

To draw attention to the letter of the Minister of Agriculture stating that the Ministry will pay the travelling expenses and subsistence allowances to any representative of agricultural labour in respect of attendances at meetings of county agricultural committees, and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I desire to call the attention of the House to a letter sent by the Ministry of Agriculture on May 30 this year to all county councils. I will quote one or two sentences from that letter:— The Ministry realises that the discontinuance of the payment of expenses has made it difficult for representatives of agricultural labour to attend the meetings of the agricultural committee and its sub-committees, and that to that extent the committees have lost something of their representative character. It will be within the recollection of your Lordships that up to 1921 members attending agricultural committees of county councils were, without any restriction whatever, if they liked to apply, repaid by the Ministry of Agriculture their expenses both for sustenance and for travelling, either by rail or motor car. The Government of that day thought fit to cut off this allowance on the ground that it was extravagant and uneconomical. I draw your Lordships' attention to this circular, because I want to know why the Government, if they think it desirable to have larger attendances at the agricultural committees and to make it easy for members to attend, should simply set up a class distinction. They state the matter as follows:— The agricultural committee may, on application being made, pay as part of the expenses of the committee travelling expenses and subsistence allowance of members of the committee, or any subcommittee of the committee, appointed to represent the interests of agricultural labour thereon on such a scale, and in accordance with such conditions, as may be determined by the county council with the approval of the Minister.'' That is to say, you are to set up a special class upon these agricultural committees representing smallholders and agricultural labour. It seems to me that it is rather late in the day, and the last thing that I should have thought a Labour Government would do, to draw such distinctions.

When payment of Members was discussed in another place it was never suggested that only those Members who represented Labour, or who represented a particular class, should have their £400 a year, but any member of the House of Commons who liked to apply for it could get that £400 a year. As a matter of fact, although this was denounced by one of the Parties in the House—I think I am right in saying that the Chief Whip of one of the great Parties said that whenever his Party came back into office they would simply abolish that £400 a year—nothing took place, and it was generally accepted by all Parties in the House of Commons that they would apply for the £400. I happen to know this because at one time I was His Majesty's Paymaster-General, and it was my duty to pay members of the House of Commons, and during that Parliament there were only nine members of the House of Commons who did not apply. Therefore the principle was generally accepted, and it was taken entirely out of the range of Party politics.

But now we have a new system, apparently, set up on these councils, and only one class is to be paid. I think it is within the knowledge of this House that there are many farmers who ought to have their expenses paid quite as much as any of the smallholders or agricultural labourers, and, so far as I know, it has not been the farm labourer who has been prevented by expense from attending the meetings. The trade organisations take very good care that the farm labourers shall be represented At the same time, I think it will be desirable, when once you have admitted the principle of the payment of these expenses, that there should be power to pay the travelling expenses of all members of the county councils out of local rates. Of course, in this particular case the payment is to be made out of the Imperial Exchequer, a fact which makes it all the worse, it seems to me, to set up a privileged class.

I am told that the Labour Party do not approve of it, and think that it casts a sort of stigma upon them. Therefore, it will be very interesting to hear from the Labour Government on what ground they propose to pay the travelling expenses of the farm labourer but do not propose to pay the travelling expenses of the small farmer and perhaps, in some cases, even of the small squire, especially when attending the sub-committees; because I take it from another letter of the Ministry of Agriculture that they are very anxious that these sub-committees should undertake a great deal of work. If they wish that, it is all the more reason why they should not make this class distinction. I think it is very wrong indeed to make such a distinction at the present day, and I shall be glad to hear from the Ministry what is their reason for making it. I beg to move for Papers.


My Lords, I confess I rather regret that the Ministry of Agriculture should have thought fit to issue this letter, and I think the speech to which we have just listened will strengthen the argument which I wish to put forward, as to why I think it is a pity that the payment of a particular class who attend these agricultural committees should be legalised. I feel that once you pay one lot of people who attend these agricultural committees it is perfectly certain there will be demands for similar payment from other members who attend these committees. You cannot confine it to representatives of the labourers' unions. Naturally, the farmers' unions will ask for their representatives to be paid, and, so far as I know, the representatives of the Central Landowners' Association will follow suit. I am one of those—perhaps I am a reactionary—who hoped as long as possible that so far as the administration of county affairs was concerned it would still be an honourable duty which men would be willing to do for nothing.

There are a very large number of people, not only rich people, but people who are quite poor, who have in the past attended to county business and carried it out very well, and I think it is a very serious thing that you should begin with the thin edge of the wedge of paying everybody—because that is what I am certain it will gradually lead to—who takes any part in county business. The reason I say that is that if you once lay down the law that expenses shall be paid to certain persons who attend agricultural committees—which in many cases have practically nothing to do—it seems absolutely impossible that you should stop there, and not have to pay every single member of your education committees. I expect a great many noble Lords in this House are members of county councils, and they will know full well that the work of the education committees of county councils is about twenty times as great as, and a good deal more important than, the work of the agricultural committees. To begin by saying that certain members of these agricultural committees are to be paid their expenses is a sure way of ending by paying the members of other committees. You are, in fact, starting by the payment of certain members of the least important of any of the committees of the county councils.

I take a rather strong view about these committees because I think they are hardly wanted. In the old days the whole work connected with agriculture, so far as the county councils were concerned, was done by the smallholdings committers and the diseases of animals committees, and they are practically subcommittees of these agricultural committees. What the use is of having sub-committees and increasing the number of committees and of meetings I really cannot make out. I think that the only fresh work which has been thrown upon these agricultural committees is the eradication of weeds and the decision in particular cases whether a tenant can be turned out for bad cultivation. We all know that whenever such a case occurs, which is very seldom, it invariably means that the agent of the county council, and probably one or two farmers on the county council, go and inspect the farm and report whether the farm is in a bad state of cultivation and whether it would be fair to turn the tenant out for bad cultivation. Therefore, in my opinion these agricultural committees serve very little purpose, and really it would not very much matter if the labour representatives attended them or not. As the noble Lord has just pointed out, if the representatives of the agricultural labourers wish to attend it is open to the unions to pay them their fares, just as is done by other unions now.

This all arises out of the Act, I think of 1919, which set up with a great blowing of trumpets the agricultural council, which was to be a parliament for agriculture. The moment a question of policy has to be decided—I speak somewhat feelingly about this—you cannot decide it in the agricultural council but it has to be decided by the Ministry. Instead of starting to pay people to go and sit on them, I think the sooner the agricultural councils and the agricultural committees, their offshoots in the counties, are done away with, the better, for it would be a great saving of time and money to the country, and to individuals. Unfortunately, in the humble capacity in which I was at the Ministry I was never able to put my opinions into force. It is on these grounds—first, that the agricultural committees do exceedingly little and that they are not required; and secondly, that I am very much opposed to the payment, if it can be avoided, of people who are engaged in county work, people who, in this instance, are members of one of the least hard worked committees of the councils—that I regret that this letter has been sent. I may be a reactionary, but I should be sorry to see the day when people in the country refused to do county work without being paid for it.


My Lords, I am entirely in agreement—and I do not think the Government will take any other view—with the main principle which has been referred to by the noble Earl—namely, that a va6t amount of voluntary work is done on our local government bodies. The other point to which he referred, whether these agricultural committees are of value or not, is, I think, rather outside the terms of this Question. He will excuse me for not following him into that matter. The reason for these particular payments is a very simple one. Since the present law has been in force it has been found that, in practice, you cannot get the attendances of the agricultural labourer unless his expense" are paid. What is desired to be done here is to relieve the local authorities, who were making payments at one time for this attendance, and the amount has been placed upon the national Exchequer. What has been done has been approved by the local authorities, and approved, I think, in a special way by the county council authority in Somersetshire, which is the County of the noble Lord, Lord Strachie.

I must say one or two words now to show how exactly this matter arise. The noble Earl was right in going back to the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries Act, 1910—an Act still in force.


I thought it was the Agricultural Councils Bill, but it docs not matter.


It does not matter. I think I have the right name, but the date at any rate is 1919. Under that Act is was a requirement, a duty, that the county councils, other than the London County Council, which was excepted, should establish agricultural committees, and that every scheme constituting such a committee should provide for the payment by the Ministry of Agriculture of not more than one-third of the members of the Committee, and of any subcommittee to which the powers of the agricultural committee were delegated. The noble Earl may be opposed to it, but he had his opportunity when he was connected with the Department. Whatever his views may be, however, that is the existing obligation. When the present Government came into office the Minister found that in a large number of counties vacancies existed on the agricultural committees and the sub-committees. The numbers had not been kept up. He also learned that on every committee and subcommittee the labour representatives were inadequate in number. In the majority of counties the labour representatives still do not exceed one in twelve, and in some cases they number considerably less. For instance, in Somerset, out of a total of 45 members, only two are labour representatives. The Minister, therefore, gave instructions that, whenever vacancies arose, the possibility of filling them by nominating additional representatives of labour should be explored. That is to say, he intended and hoped that the representation of agricultural labour should be made a real and effective one.

When he desired to carry out this policy the Minister found that the cost of attending meetings was a serious obstacle in the way of securing the services of the most suitable men to act as representatives of the agricultural labourers on these county council committees. The 1919 Act authorised county councils to provide, in their schemes for constituting the agricultural committees, for the payment of travelling expenses and subsistence allowances of members of the committees or of any sub-committee of the agricultural committees. Between the passing of the Act and December, 1921, the majority of county councils made provision for the payment of travelling expenses and subsistence allowances, the cost being, for the most part, repaid to the counties from the Vote for the Ministry of Agriculture. As a result, however, of the recommendation of the Geddes Committee this arrangement came to an end at the beginning of 1922, and since that date about one half of the county councils have deleted from their constitutional schemes the clauses authorising payment of expenses. Even in the remaining counties it is understood that practically no expenditure is incurred in this way. Thus, since the Geddes Committee cut down the support given from headquarters, one half of the counties make no provision, and the other half make no expenditure.

In these circumstances the Minister was faced with the difficulty that, in order to secure that agricultural labour should be represented on county committees, the cost incurred by such representation must be repaid to them. In other words, it was a necessity, if we were to have the representation at all, and I do not think the noble Earl would desire to exclude this representation from the agricultural committees. At the same time, experience had shown that it was no use looking to the county councils to meet the cost out of the rates—that had been tried. The only way open to the Minister therefore was to obtain a grant from the Treasury for this purpose, and this he did. That is what is explained in the letter. In the conditions which I have explained the expenses could no longer be met from the county fund—which, I think, is right—and therefore provision was made out of the national Exchequer.

The reason why the Government has restricted the repayment from the Ministry's Vote to the expenses of representatives of agricultural labour only are these. First, that the interests of landowners and farmers have always been fully represented on the county councils and county council committees, without any provision for repayment of expenses—that is the knowledge and experience of everyone who has taken any part in county life; apart from the agricultural labourer there has never been any difficulty in the attendance of representatives—and, secondly, to have extended repayment by the Ministry would have very greatly increased the cost, with, in their view, no corresponding advantage. The cost of the limited repayment—and this is the question which the noble Earl asked me—is not expected to exceed £1,000 at the outside during the current financial year.

It is satisfactory to know: that, while in some counties the Minister's suggestion has been criticised, in other counties it has been very warmly welcomed. It is a great mistake to suppose that the noble Lord is representing the views of county councils generally. This proposal has been very warmly welcomed by county councils from the standpoint that they desire this representation and they know it cannot be obtained in any other way. Perhaps it is rather hard to give again the example of Somerset, but that is the one which has been supplied to me. In Somerset members of the agricultural committee, representing both landowners and farmers, spoke strongly in favour of the Minister's proposal, which was adopted unanimously by the committee. This is a practical question. I think the labourers ought to have representation. They cannot have it without the expenditure of this £1,000. I do not think there is in that the slightest trace of an idea of what is called class distinction. It is n simple fact that they cannot afford to attend unless their expenses are provided for. I hope your Lordships will consider that is the explanation. It is a practical one and, as I am told, a very large number of county councils welcome the suggestion. They want the representation and they see that it can be obtained in this way.


My Lords, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Parmoor, I think, would hardly expect that his answer to the noble Lord's Question will give satisfaction. It appears to me, if I may say so, to deal somewhat inadequately with the point that my noble friend Lord Strachie made—namely, that there is a very definite class distinction in the provision contained in the letter sent out by the Ministry of Agriculture. The noble and learned Lord quoted the County of Somerset as being one of the counties which have welcomed and approved this letter of the Ministry. But there are other counties in which the letter has been treated in a very different spirit and in which the labouring population themselves regard it as something of an insult. Labourers in the county with which I am particularly familiar have declined to accept the terms offered to them by the Minister on the ground that they see no reason whatever why they should be distinguished and earmarked, so to speak, from others serving on these committees. I agree very much with my noble friend Lord Ancaster, who said he hoped that service would continue to be given in the counties gratuitously, and I regret very deeply that any suggestion should be made from which will spring the payment of members of county councils for the many duties which they perform. If it has to come it is, surely, indefensible to give this payment to one class of the community only instead of offering it to the whole. Far from having met with the general approval that the noble Lord, Lord Parmoor, seems to think it has received, I can assure him that there are parts of England in which the letter is very deeply resented.


My Lords. I do not think it is necessary for me to press the Motion which I have placed on the Paper, but before I ask the leave of your Lordships to withdraw it, I should like to state that the noble and learned Lord is mistaken in thinking that there is no difficulty in getting very suitable men to stand for election to county councils or, after they have been elected, to continue serving on the ground of expense. In my own county members of the county council have often said that they have not been able to continue serving because of the expense of attending committees, and so on. I do not want the noble and learned Lord to think that expense has nothing to do with attendance at meetings of county councils. When he says that the letter has been welcomed by many county councils, I think he might have told us what those councils were. He mentioned the County Council of Somerset as approving the letter. They did not approve it wholeheartedly, because I hold in my hand a recommendation from the county agricultural committee that they may on application being made pay as part of the expenses of the committee, repayable by the Ministry of Agriculture, travelling expenses and subsistence allowance to members of the committee or any sub-committee of the committee being bona fide agricultural labourers or cultivators of not more than fifty acres of Land who attend such meetings as those to which reference has been made. The noble, and learned Lord would hardly view that as a satisfactory resolution to pass.

We know it is impossible for agricultural labourers in a large county like mine to travel forty or fifty miles. I cannot understand why he quoted with approval a resolution passed, not by the county council but by the agricultural committee. It has still to be confirmed by the county council. I should very much doubt whether it would be adopted unanimously. If I am present I shall oppose the proposal. It would probably affect the employment of agricultural labourers if they had to tell their employers in harvest time that they had to be constantly absent in order to attend meetings of the county council committees. I beg leave to withdraw my Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.