HL Deb 23 June 1925 vol 61 cc699-727

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, it will be within your Lordships' recollection that the measure which this small Bill seeks to amend was brought in last year in the House of Commons and entrusted to Mr. Noel Buxton, the then Minister of Agriculture. He made a very remarkable speech, with which I need not trouble your Lordships, but which showed what a ghastly state of things existed in some of the counties of England, and particularly in the two Counties of Norfolk and Suffolk. The only reference that I desire to make to that very remarkable speech is to recall that Mr. Buxton stated, on his authority as a Minister, that at ale standard rate of agricultural wages in the County of Norfolk, of which he was one of the representatives—namely, at the rate of 25s. per week—an agricultural labourer who had a wife and five children, after he had paid his rent and secured the ordinary necessities and decencies of life, could count on being able to spend only ¼d. per meal for himself, his wife and his children.

This statement, so far as I know, has never been challenged, much less contradicted. All of us who have for a good many years done our best with regard to agricultural reform thought at once, and were happy to think, that a Labour Party was in power, because we believed that with a Labour Party in power such a horrible state of things would not be permitted to last for ten minutes, and that a Bill would at once be brought in giving some hope to these unfortunate people and providing them with a certain rise in wages of 5s. per week. Some of us hoped that the rise would be 10s. a week. But we listened to the speech and listened to it with disappointment. We were told that the policy of the Labour Government was to do nothing at that time—to do nothing to help these people over the winter—but to postpone anything that could be done for eight or ten months and to entrust the settlement of these questions to county councils. We were told that the best way to manage the situation was to do it piecemeal, according to the wants and emergencies of the different districts.

The Bill passed the House of Commons and came up to your Lordships' House Here there was a little glimmering of a hope that some alteration in the Bill might be made. Lord Parmoor, who was in charge of the Bill, was Leader of the House at that time. He is well known in the county in which I live to be a most liberal employer of labour. He gives 38s. 6d. a week and a cottage to his ordinary labourers. We also had on the Government Bench at that time Lord Olivier, who was for some time Permanent Secretary of the Board of Agriculture and who, of course, knew what he was talking about. We also had some hopes of the Earl of Kimberley, who for many years has been so strenuous a supporter of the agricultural labourer in the County of Norfolk, in which he has so large a property. But all these hopes were vain. The Liberals divided against the Second Reading in the House of Commons and voted in favour of an Amendment, which was moved by their Party, to give a minimum wage of at least 30s., but it was of no avail. Our efforts were fruitless and the Labour Party sentenced these unfortunate men who had returned them to power and by whose votes they had become the Government—these men who, in the day of the crisis in England, volunteered of their own accord to go and fight for the country—to another wretched winter. These men asked for bread and the Government gave them a stone.

The unexpected happened, as it always does—the Labour Government fell. I suppose, with the exception of Lucifer and the late Lord Brougham, no body of persons, celestial or terrestrial, ever fell so fast or so far. They were replaced by a Conservative Government which came in with a very large majority. The question now is exactly the same as it was then. I very respectfully ask my noble friend Lord Bledisloe—I am sure he will permit me to call him so—what the Government intend to do in the present circumstances. I think it is very plain that the Labour Bill, passed last year, was not a success and that some great alteration must be made. In the days of Queen Victoria it was always customary, on the morning of Parliament's meeting, for the different newspapers to print a leading article in which there was put a sort of forecast of what the Queen's Speech would be. If it were permissible to do that in regard to the gracious Speech from the Throne, perhaps I may be forgiven if, to save time, as I know your Lordships are anxious to come to a Division on this question, I venture to anticipate the noble Lord and to state what I believe are his reasons for objecting to my Bill, which, I understand, is objected to.

I do not think for one moment, knowing him to be a hard-headed, progressive man, that he will attempt to revive the old shibboleth of the danger of one Party outbidding the other. We used always to be told that about every attempt that was made to fix wages. One Party asserted that the other wanted to outbid it, and that on that account it could have nothing to do with the reform. But there is such a thing as healthy rivalry, and the country, in days gone by, has been indebted for many things that were done in its interests to the leaders and members of the great Tory Party. I hope noble Lords opposite will not object to my using that word. It is a very fine word, full of old tradition, and I use it with all respect. It seems to me that all the best work done by the Tory Party was done by them when they were fortunate enough to find the other people bathing and to run away with their clothes.

I will give two brief instances of what mean. In the year 1866 the great Mr. Disraeli ousted the still greater Mr. Gladstone from power because he ventured to bring in a Reform Bill which was said to be a danger to the community; yet the very next year—I remember it well, because I happened to be in the House of Commons at the time—Mr. Disraeli brought in a Bill which went so far beyond that for which Mr. Gladstone had been turned out of office that it alarmed even that great Liberal and farseeing statesman Mr. John Bright. And, coming to later years, we have had another example of this. The noble Earl, Lord Birkenhead, who as a convert runs St. Paul very close, was able, by his ability and eloquence, to persuade the great Unionist Party not only to accept Home Rule but to accept Sinn Fein as well. I am the last person to complain of that because what we want is to get things done, and if the right thing is done we should not grumble because we did not do it ourselves or because we were able to assist some other person to do it.

There is another real danger about which I do not expect that the noble Lord will say very much—not of people bidding against each other to increase wages, but, as things are going now, of a reduction of wages. I know nothing about other trades, in which wages may or may not have been reduced, but I am perfectly certain that it would not be safe or humane to reduce the wages of agricultural labourers. That, however, has already been attempted. Not very long ago, even with the miserable wage of 25s. a week, such an attempt was made in the County of Norfolk and it looked as if it was going to succeed. A strike was averted by the common sense and the courage of my hon. friend Mr. Barry Gosling, one of the most respected leaders of the Labour Party, who went down there and stopped the strike. Great service was done on that occasion also by the right rev. Prelate the Bishop of Norwich, who I am very glad to see in his place; his advice and help at that difficult time were beyond all praise.

If the noble Lord who represents the Ministry of Agriculture is going to oppose this minimum wage, what will be say and what can be say? I think that the first thing he will do will be to say: "Oh, the great disappointment to us all is that the agricultural labourers would not agree to my proposal that the farmers, the landlords and the labourers should meet round a table and come to some satisfactory conclusion," but, knowing what we know of what happened, how could the noble Lord expect anything else? Look at the way in which the agricultural labourers have time after time, Session after Session, been treated by the various powers that be!

I will take one instance. The great Victory Government was returned in 1918. It was going to make the crooked paths straight and the rough places plain, and after they had been a year in office they announced that they were going to do something for the agricultural labourers. They told them: "Now, look here, this is what we are going to do for you. We pledge ourselves to give you for the rest of your lives, for ever and ever, amen, 46s. a week minimum wage to enable you to live decent lives as Englishmen ought to do." The men could not believe it. But the Bill did become an Act of Parliament. You can imagine these poor men going back to their miserable homes and thanking the Almighty that in His great mercy He had vouchsafed this great boon to them. But in six months that Bill was repealed and the unfortunate labourers were thrown—I will not say to the wolves, but back upon the inexorable laws of competition. Their wages fell from 46s. to 25s. a week, a reduction of a guinea, and in addition to that an attempt was made to reduce them even more.

It is not so very many years ago that in the north-eastern portion of Norfolk an organised attempt was made by tenant farmers to reduce the wages to 10s. a week. Think what 10s. a week is, with 2s. 6d. or 3s. to pay for your cottage! It means a shilling a day left for a man, his wife, and his family. That disposes of the complaint that the agricultural labourers, "urged by their leaders, who do not think anything of the men's advantage, but only of their own advantage," did not come and meet at the round table conference, as was proposed by the noble Lord.

The noble Lord might have had a great opportunity. He might have said: "Oh, well, I hope noble Lords will not listen to Lord Lincolnshire. I hope you will all look at it from this point of view: We cannot do anything at the moment, but the Minister of Agriculture has got a very large scheme at the back of his head, or up his sleeve, or somewhere, and you must give us a chance of getting it through. I am not empowered to say what the scheme is, but it is a scheme that will put a great many people on to the land, and I should be very sorry if noble Lords listened to these evil counsellors and did anything to jeopardise the chances of the agricultural labourers in days to come." That would have been a very telling thing for the noble Lord to have said, but unfortunately he was blown out of the water by the Prime Minister himself. For the Prime Minister went down to a huge gathering of the Conservative Party at Welbeck, and had to confess that he really could not say anything about agriculture, but that he was hoping for the best. It was another instance of the "jam to-morrow" speech, a promise that some day, somehow, something will be done for these unfortunate men.

Being unable, therefore, to adopt that attitude, the noble Lord will probably refer to the opposition of the Farmers' Union. Now, I do not profess to understand farmers any more than I understand the binomial theorem, or women, or where falling stars go to, or what evil genius prompted the Chancellor of the Exchequer to tax the silk stockings which make our female relations look so attractive. I do not want to pretend in any way to know more than anybody else, but I think I can claim to know some little thing about farmers because, for fifty years of my life, I depended for my livelihood and that of my family entirely upon agricultural land. Up to 1918 I had not a stock or a share, but I have been able to live fairly comfortably. As regards farmers, I have always found them a most friendly and easy sort of people to get on with, so long as they were treated fairly, and on the 25,000 acres that I had for over half a century I only changed nineteen tenants, except in the case of death. That shows that farmers are not the sort of men they are made out to be, who wish to lire in the middle of a starving population and to grind down their labourers as much as they possibly can. For the simple reason that some of their colleagues, Who are very indifferent farmers, who only just make a bare living out of the land, who are no good to them- selves, to the country, to their landlords, nor to anybody else, cannot pay more than in, certain amount, everybody is to cut down his labour bill to the extent that I have already mentioned!

What else is there left for my noble friend to say? He may have had some very good reasons for opposing the Amendment I ventured to move to the Labour Party's Act of last year, but I cannot think of anything else at the moment, and I suppose he will have to fall back upon statistics and general averages. Perhaps he will say: "You know that Lord Lincolnshire made a great deal too much out of it. There is a good deal of exaggeration in all that he says. After all, this Act is going on fairly well. Very good men have gone on to these county councils and, on the whole, there is not very much to complain of. Of course, some counties are still complaining; but in a general way there is not very much to complain of."

My noble friend said that he really could not see that there was any very great difference between the Conservative agricultural policy and the Liberal agricultural policy. I do not want to take up the time of your Lordships' House by going back to Sir Robert Peel and the hungry forties and all that kind of thing, but before I conclude I should like to call your Lordships' attention to the difference between the two policies in the first ten or twelve or thirteen years of the present century. From 1900 to 1905 a Conservative Government was in power. Those were the closing years of twenty years of resolute government which was going to do such great things for the country. It did not do very much for agriculture. I remember very well, in 1903 or 1904, our dear old friend Lord Chaplin standing up in the House and saying, Ore rotundo, in his magnificent way: "Agriculture, the greatest of English industries, is within measurable distance of great, if not supreme disaster." There was another Minister for Agriculture who gave the reason, the late Lord Onslow. What he said was: "I do not wonder very much at that, because during the last five years"—that is from 1900 to 1905—"agriculture has only been discussed in the House of Commons for six hours."

Then the Campbell-Bannerman Government came in. Sir Henry Campbell- Bannerman said at once that "the first thing we must do is to deal with the land. The great thing to do is to restore the confidence which we have so entirely lost. The farmers have lost heart and the landlords have lost confidence and we must restore it." In six years we passed something like twenty-four Agriculture, Acts. We brought forward twenty-three or twenty-four Agriculture. Bills and all but one of them were placed on the Statute Book. The first thing we did was to help the tenant farmers. We brought in a Bill which gave them, I do not say security of tenure, but compensation for disturbance and power to farm as they liked by doing away with all the old restrictions which hampered farmers in those clays. Then we brought in a Small Holdings Bill, which was passed into law. It has been acknowledged by everyone to be a very great success and has enabled agricultural labourers to take up nearly 200,000 acres of land, equal to a piece of road it mile wide running from London to York. We brought in various other Bills, and I do not think it is in any way possible to say that there can be no difference between the Conservative agricultural policy and The Liberal agricultural policy.

The only other thing that I can think of is that my noble friend will shake a reproving finger at me and say: "The noble Lord" — myself — "must not imagine that he or his friends behind him or the Party to which he belongs, or what is left of it, are in any way the persons to claim a monopoly of sympathy with or anxiety to do the best they can for the unfortunate agricultural labourer." Far from it. You must remember that, though very hard things have been said about the House of Lords in days gone by, there was one thing for which nobody could find fault with us at all—the management of our agricultural estates. Can that be said now? It is only a year ago that certain tenant farmers on the estates of some members of this House—not many I will admit, but some of the farmers—were paying this terrible starvation wage in the County of Norfolk and other counties. I hope I shall be corrected if I am wrong, but there were several landlords who were farming their own land and I am afraid that in some cases the wages paid on their estates were not very good. From the bottom of my heart I hope that this state of things in those counties will not be allowed to continue.

I made an informal request to the noble Marquess the Leader of the House to know whether it would be possible that this should not be made a Party question. Several supporters of the Government have told me that they think it is right that there should be a minimum below which the wages of agricultural labourers should not fall. They go so far as to say that 30s. is not enough. They add "Of course, we cannot vote for you if it is made a Party question." There is no stronger Party man than I am, but I think we might draw the line here, and it would be a glorious thing if the Leader of this House could be induced to take off the Party Whips, and allow members to vote as they pleased. In those circumstances I think it would astonish many people to find how many Peers would vote for a living wage for agricultural labourers. I apologise for having spoken at such length, but I really do feel, from the bottom of my heart, great anxiety about this matter. These low wages among agricultural labourers ought not to be allowed to continue. The Government are so strong that they can do this if they like, and then the House of Lords, of its own free will, would have put an end to a state of things which is not only a national scandal, and a disgrace to our Christianity and civilisation, but also a national danger and a national crime. I beg to move that this Bill be read a second time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(The Marquess of Lincolnshire.)


My Lords, we have just listened to a most eloquent and impassioned appeal to your Lordships on behalf of the agricultural labourers of this country. The noble Marquess, whose eloquence and genuine sympathy in this respect no one will dispute, described me just now as a hardheaded and progressive man. I am glad that in speaking on this subject he did not describe me as a hard-hearted man, because I can assure him, speaking for myself and I am sure for every member of the present Government, we are deeply sympathetic with the class on whose behalf he has made so stirring an appeal, and if we could, consistently with the welfare of the industry which employs these men, and indirectly with the welfare of this country, support such a proposal as is embodied in this Bill, we should be only too glad to do so.

The noble Marquess has been at some pains to anticipate my reply to his speech. Ho has given me a wondrous number of heads upon which to found ray reply. I may tell him, quite frankly, that with one exception not a single one of the arguments which he, by anticipation, put into my mouth, had ever entered into my head. The only argument which did occur to me as worthy, possibly, of your Lordships' consideration, is that legislation of this kind conduces to some extent to political corruption. I cannot believe that it is in the best interests of our politics to have rival candidates at Election time, in every rural constituency, seeking to outbid each other by a promise of a minimum wage for the agricultural labourer or by a promise of supporting legislation for such a minimum wage, as a basis for political support. That is an argument which was put forward with great force by leading members of the Labour Party when they opposed an Amendment to the same effect that was moved in Committee on the existing Agricultural Wages Act of last year, and it is one which I not only feel perfectly justified in using, but one which I am confident will have some force amongst men of honour, who value the purity of our political life.

I was somewhat astonished to hear from the noble Marquess that the attitude of the Conservative Party in these matters of what is often called social reform, is to find the Whigs bathing and then run off with their clothes. I speak with a very clear conscience on this matter, because I have watched with the greatest possible care the agricultural record of the Liberal Party for many years past, and I say without any hesitation that the argicultural clothes of the Whigs, in this respect, are extraordinarily scanty; in fact, there is very little for us to steal. I know the noble Marquess has referred to old times of political history, when such measures as the Agricultural Holdings Act, 1908, and Small Holdings Act, 1908, were passed. There is certainly a great deal to be said for the latter of those two Acts, but I think, in the light of modern agricultural opinion and our more recent experience, we may say that the passage in succession of many Agricultural Holdings Acts of the character then submitted to Parliament, was a matter with which we should not, today, altogether agree. I think it is somewhat irrelevant to the matter before the House, but there is a growing volume of agricultural opinion that those Acts tended to give security, if not fixity, of tenure to the bad farmer as well as to the good; and when the noble Marquess tells us that for seventeen years and more he failed to interfere with any tenant on his large estates, I begin to wonder whether, in the benevolence of his heart, in taking that course, he altogether conferred a benefit upon the agricultural industry, or upon this country.

At any rate the noble Marquess, during the last two-thirds of his speech, was not altogether relevant to the subject-matter of his Bill. When he lays claim to sympathy—for progress and sympathy—on the part of the Whig Party in matters agricultural, I am bound to say that for my part I wish that they could have seen their way during the last fifteen years—and they have been in power for a good part of it—to follow the tradition of Coke of Norfolk, the greatest Liberal in agricultural science that ever lived, whom I am bound to say from the records we have of him would have been the last man to introduce such a Bill as this into the Imperial Parliament, and I am proud to think, especially when I know that the Bishop of Norwich is proposing to speak upon this Bill, that his mentor, his chief spiritual guide shall I say, was a member of my own family, a great Liberal, who was then occupying the position which the right rev. Prelate now occupies.

The main reason why we cannot approve the terms of this Bill is that we have only recently passed into law the Agricultural Wages Act, which came into operation last autumn. I think the noble Marquess did scant justice to the Party opposite when he suggested that, although the then Minister of Agriculture dilated in the summer upon the unfortunate condition of many of the agricultural workers, he took no steps to remedy that condition until the autumn or the winter. The Bill, in fact, was introduced in the summer and it was in operation in the early autumn, and as that Bill has only recently been passed we see no sufficient reason for passing legislation now amending or repealing its provisions.

That Bill, as your Lordships know, set up county wage committees throughout the country, subject to that small control which is effected by means of a Central Board, the operations of which are supervised by the Minister of Agriculture. The only matter at issue at any time—it was an agreed Bill in its final stages—between the Labour Party and ourselves upon that Bill was the question as to whether there should be a Central Board with full revising powers. We thought that most undesirable and calculated to destroy the efficacy of the working of these county committees, who were best acquainted with all the facts and conditions prevailing in their own districts. This Act has been in operation now for something like nine months. On the whole it is working admirably, and in the second place—and I should interfering with it at the present time.

The Bill which the noble Marquess has introduced this afternoon provides for a minimum wage of 30s. per week. To that we answer, in the first place, that we think it is undesirable to interfere with the discretion of those who are fixing wage rates in the various counties to-day, and, in the second place—and I should like to draw your Lordships' attention to this fact—that in almost every county in England and Wales the minimum wage rate is already higher, in some cases considerably higher, than the limit provided in this Bill. The only three counties which have not already as high a wage rate are Norfolk, Suffolk and Berkshire, where it is 29s. per week. In certain counties, as I have indicated, the wage is a good deal higher than 30s. In the eastern area of Lancashire the minimum wage is 42s. per week, or nearly 50 per cent. higher than the amount provided for in the Bill. In the northern area of the same county it is 37s. 6d. per week; in Glamorganshire it is 37s.; in the West Riding of Yorkshire, 36s.; and in the Holland division of Lincolnshire, 36s. In many other counties it is considerably in advance of 30s. per week.

Therefore, the Bill would have very little effect in raising agricultural wages, and we have reason to think that it might, and probably would, have the exactly opposite effect of depressing wages in a good many counties where the wage rate is already considerably higher than 30s. There is always a tendency for the minimum wage to become the maximum wage, just as in the time of food control during the War, of which I had considerable experience, the fixing of a maximum price for food almost invariably had the effect of making it a fixed price, making it the minimum as well as the maximum.

So far as the Government are concerned, our view is that the agricultural worker should receive the highest wage which is economically possible, but there is no use in fixing a standard which the farmers cannot afford to pay. If the wages are fixed at an uneconomic level, farmers, whether they like it or not, must dismiss many of their men in order to avoid payment. It is fully admitted, and I should be the last person to deny, that the agricultural worker is not paid in this country on a scale commensurate with his skill or the importance of his work. But that not the fault of the farmer; that is due to conditions over which the farmer has no control whatever. If the agricultural industry were a really prosperous industry and capable of paying a much higher remuneration, we would do our best by legislation, or otherwise, to see that a larger remuneration was provided out of the gross profits of the industry for the benefit of the workers. But of all the industries in this country, I do not think any of your Lordships will deny, agriculture is the most unsheltered, and surely if you are going to provide by legislation a shelter for workers in an unsheltered industry the first effect is to injure the industry itself and make it still less capable of employing men and paying a reasonable remuneration.

The noble Marquess referred to the Corn Production Act, and to the Agriculture Act., which was so rapidly scrapped about six months after it was introduced by the Coalition Government in 1920. Although it may not be quite relevant, I must say that I sincerely hope that this sort of Government policy will not be repeated in the future. There has been nothing more disastrous in the whole of my agricultural experience, which is a long one now, than the bringing in of a Bill full of, shall I say, boons and blessings for an industry which above all requires security for its success and its stability, and then repealing the whole thing about six months after its enactment. It is much better to have no agricultural policy at all, both as regards the farmer and the workers, than a vacillating and fluctuating policy which is liable to be thrown on the scrap heap shortly after it becomes effective.

I think your Lordships ought to remember what actually took place on the occasion when the late Minister of Agriculture had to give the opinion of the late Government upon exactly the same proposal, when it was sought to incorporate it in the Bill of last year. I cannot possibly express the chief objections to this Bill in better language than he used. He said this:— On the principle of the thing, however, I am entirely opposed to a rigid money limit, on logical grounds for one thing. The cost of living is always changing, and the limit will become out of date possibly in quite a short time. It is a most inadequate means of dealing with the problem. Secondly, I think it is very dangerous from the workers' point of view. If a standard be set up, it will be used and quoted, as it has been for instance, in regard to railway wages already. It has been argued against a rise in one case not long ago that agricultural wages are very low, and that, therefore, the standard had soma effect on industrial wages. It would be most dangerous from the point of view of different classes of men. Thirdly, that fact is reflected in the very divided opinion of the workers concerned on this point, and. however keen I were, if I happened to be keen on the thing in principle, I should feel the greatest difficulty in supporting it, because a very large proportion of the men are vehemently opposed to it. I do not think that I could better express what I know to be the view of a large section of the men themselves upon this matter.

Possibly, I think probably, I employ more agricultural workers than any member of this House, and I am glad to think that the workers in my district, not through my benevolence but through economic causes, receive very much higher wages than are provided for in this Bill. I am absolutely certain that, at any rate in the West of England, this proposal would be most unfavourably received amongst the workers themselves. I am told that whenever such a proposal as this has been made in Scotland the Scottish Workers' Union have vehemently opposed it as being contrary to their best ultimate interests, and I believe that to be the attitude which all the more level-headed men employed in the industry would take in different parts of England. I venture to hope, for these amongst other reasons, that your Lordships will not support this Bill in the Lobby. It is perfectly true that it is intended to benefit the agricultural worker, but we believe that, until the industry of agriculture is far more prosperous than it is at the present time, it is calculated to have exactly the opposite effect.


My Lords, my respect for the noble Marquess who moved this Motion, and my admiration for him as a former head of my own Department, is so great that it has been a matter of considerable pain to me to receive little lectures from him from time to time on this subject. He began by saying that when the Labour Party came into office last year he, being aware of the fact that Mr. Buxton had spoken sympathetically of the conditions of agricultural labourers, expected, as did Naaman the Syrian in regard to Elisha, that he would immediately "strike his hand over the place and recover the leper"—that he would give the agricultural labourer a living wage.

The noble Marquess and many others of us live in the country and are chiefly in contact with agricultural labourers, and we are very keenly aware of the great hardships of their lot. Many other Members of Parliament are equally in contact with town workers and are just as well aware of the terrible hardships of their lot. That is to say, not only the agricultural labourers but many other classes of workers in this country are living on wages which are below the poverty line, and on that account some members of the Labour Party have taken the line which the noble Marquess takes in favour of a national minimum wage, providing that nobody shall be employed at wages lower than are sufficient for the proper and decent maintenance of a family in reasonable comfort. The Labour Party, when they came into office, did not put on their programme the national minimum wage, and they could not accordingly put forward as a section of their programme an agricultural minimum wage, or a minimum wage for any particular section of industry, not only on the ground that it must at once have given rise to most invidious controversies, but also on grounds of principle which I shall venture to endeavour to make clear to your Lordships' House.

Our view with regard to the conditions of industry is that proper conditions as regards wages, hours and so on, should be a matter for determination by the whole body of persons employed in each particular industry, subject, if necessary, to sanction and support by the State, but that it is not the business of Parliament to say that this or that rate of wage shall be the minimum paid in any one particular industry. So far as the great artisan industries of the country are concerned, they have trade organisations and trade unions and they establish the conditions of their industries, so far as economic factors permit, by collective bargaining with the other persons concerned in those industries. We say that this is as far as we could get in regard to the regulation of wages and conditions in present circumstances. It is true that in regard to such an important industry as the mining industry, u e have gone a little further than that and there have been, if I may use the expression, pourparlers with regard to the idea of establishing some kind of national regulation of the conditions of that industry, but I think that we have gone as far as that only in regard to the mining industry. With regard to other organised industries, we say that the conditions should be determined by the persons engaged in the industry.

The agricultural industry and a great many others of what are called the depressed industries have no sufficient organisation of the workers to put forward their position and claims, and consequently, in regard to those depressed and disorganised industries, the Government have already, a good many years ago, embarked upon the system of what are called trade boards—that is to say that, where there were not proper organisations representing workers and employers, so that they could come together and bargain collectively, there the State should do its best to set up some kind of intermediate organisation which would serve the purpose of a tribunal to determine what conditions were proper and possible in that industry. That has been done with regard to many depressed trades under the Trade Boards Act.

In regard to the condition of such an industry as agriculture, where we have vast numbers of men and women who are not organised in trades unions and have no collective means of expressing their opinions, the line that we thought best and most proper to take towards arriving at a system whereby the conditions of that industry might be determined by the persons employed in it, was to set up an organisation on the lines of the trade boards; that it to say, that we should have in each county—and the conditions of industry vary as between different counties—a tribunal having proper representatives of the workers, of the employers, and some expert advisers on behalf of the Government. We thought that this was the best and nearest approach to a proper tribunal for determining what were the proper conditions for that industry that we could, under our present social and industrial conditions, arrive at, and that it was sounder for the agricultural industry, as it was sounder for all industries, that we should work towards a better organisation of all classes of employers and employees in that industry, so that they might, in their own sphere, determine the proper and possible conditions.

We therefore established agricultural wages boards, and I am far from contending that they are altogether satisfactory. But I will say this—and I hope that we shall have confirmation from those who know the facts—that, so far as I am aware, the conditions of agricultural labourers have been considerably ameliorated by, the operation of those hoards. I know that in my own County of Oxford, where wages twelve months ago were 23s. and 25s. a week, they have now a minimum of 30s. a week. This was opposed by the farmers, but, on the whole, after their natural opposition, they have accepted it and are paying it. I have not heard of any victimisation or other evil results arising from the fixing of that minimum. That is to say, the agricultural wages boards are working, so far as the actual minimum wages are concerned, very satisfactorily, so far as I can ascertain from persons sympathetically interested in the matter.

Further, we have already established a joint council and tribunal, where masters and employees can meet and where the position of the employee and the master is made public and discussed by them in the best possible manner, all of which conduces towards the establishment of a better organisation for determining what are reasonable wages and conditions in agriculture in any particular part of the country. The Labour Party aims and works for the establishment of such a trade organisation, representing all classes employed in that trade, as shall lie competent to determine the conditions of the trade, and we are glad to have the testimony of the noble Lord opposite that in his opinion the agricultural wages boards are working satisfactorily to that end. Those are the reasons why we did not accept the principle of the noble Marquess's Bill, and we sincerely rejoice to find from the statement of the noble Lord that there are now only three counties in which the minimum wage is not paid.


My Lords, I shall not detain you for more than a very few minutes. My noble friend Lord Lincolnshire mentioned that he had heard something about me and labour in Norfolk. A good many years ago I used to support Joseph Arch, and when he passed away my friend George Edwards came on the scene, and finally sat in the House of Commons. With regard to the wages board, in my opinion it has been a very great success in Norfolk. The first board that met in the autumn was not a success particularly, but one or two members were absent. The board has, however, already fixed the- harvest wages in Norfolk at £12. If my memory serves me, I think that is 30s. or £2 more than it was last year, though I cannot off-hand give the precise figure.

But a minimum wage is absolutely insane. You cannot have a minimum wage. If you have a minimum wage you must have minimum rates. The difficulty with the agricultural labourer is that one man is paying £5 10s. for his cottage, while another pays £4. The other thing is that if you have, as you now have, constituted a board they can do what they like. It is very remarkable that the two members of the board appointed from the Board of Agriculture voted with the Labour Party for the £12. Those two members are not labour men and they are not Liberals; they happen to be Tories. All the more power to them. It is said that it is very likely the board may put up the wages again. When you talk about a minimum wage you must remember that it is the minimum wage of the man who is not employed as a horseman, or as a bullock feeder, or as a milker. All those classes of agricultural workers get more wages.

I am delighted to hear that my noble friend pays such high wages. I myself farm my own land. Nobody interferes with me. If I go away for two days I a rite out what the alternatives are. I do the whole of it myself. I paddle my own canoe, and have done so all my life. I pay exactly the wages that I have for many years paid, 32s. a week to everybody who works for me, and they live rent free. More than that, they are only allowed to work eight hours a day. I get more work out of those men in eight hours a day than my tenants get from men working nine hours a day. I never employ a man overtime. If you employ a man overtime you take so much out of him that you get from him work which ought to belong to the eight hours of the next day. No one works for me before eight o'clock in the morning, winter and summer. I will tell your Lordships why. I am very fond of small children, and I insist that the fathers shall have breakfast at home so that they can see what food their wives give to their children before they come to work. That plan answers very well.

I deny absolutely that there is any starvation in Norfolk. I admit that the wages are not high, but there are other things attached to a man's wages. There is, for instance, the overtime and the extra that the men get for hay. Within a considerable radius of me there is not a farmer who is not employing exactly the same number of men that he did before the War. We have difficulties in getting men. I wanted four extra men the other day, and I was told that I could not have them. It is, of course, no use my having men who usually work in brush works, and are out of employment. They do more harm than good. The agricultural labourer is a skilled man who knows a great deal about his work. I would never think of doing anything without consulting one of my men; he is not my bailiff, but he knows a great deal, having been born on the place. I should like to see the men paid higher wages. I think they will get higher wages, and I implore your Lordships not to have anything to do with a minimum wage. You will do more harm than good by it. Let the thing work out its own salvation. I do not think that I am opposed to the Farmers' Unions. I do not like them, but I believe they are perfectly honest in what they are trying to do. I am certain that the men who oppose them in Norfolk are only endeavouring to get more wages because they are convinced they ought to have them. I should rejoice exceedingly if they could be persuaded to raise the wages to the amount that I pay. If they do so, I do not think they will ever regret it. I hope also that your Lordships will oppose this Bill, which would do terrible damage to the peace and quiet of this country.


My Lords, I am much obliged to the noble Lord, Lord Bledisloe, for suggesting that I had inherited some of my notions from my great predecessor Bishop Bathurst, Bishop of Norwich, of whom Napoleon said that he was the only Bishop on the Bench of Bishops who was worth anything. I am afraid that we have fallen off in Norwich since those days. Another point of difference between me and the noble Lord is that I did not detect in his speech a statement of that friendliness between farmers and labourers in Norfolk and elsewhere which I believe has been re-established since the time, two years ago, when an unfortunate strike took place in the County. I believe they are all now working together as friends, and that the farmers are eager to do the best for their men, while the men are very loyal to the farmers. The spirit of co-operation and good will and friendship is, I think, in the agricultural industry much nearer at hand than it is in many town industries. The labourers and the farmers have very likely been at the same school. Labourers have risen to the position of farmers, and there are no great secrets in the hands of the farmers which the labourers do not know. It is a very open industry in that way, and that I think tends to a union of hearts. I feel sure, speaking generally, that the farmers and the labourers living in my district wish the best to one another.

I am sorry to find from what the noble Marquess said that this was a kind of privilegium the other way round. I mean this is not a desire to have a uniform wage in other directions where it seems to be agreed that the wages are very good, but only in that part of England which I have the honour to represent. I have made some notes showing that the state of the case in Norfolk is not really so bad as the noble Marquess suggested. The machinery by which these agricultural wages are fixed is really working very well. The minimum rate of wages for agricultural labourers for a week of fifty hours is now 29s. In the County of Norfolk it is customary to invite the men to work overtime during special seasonal occupations, such as marigold and sugar-beet growing, the hay harvest, and the root lifting period. In addition, a special sum is always given for the in-gathering of the harvest, and this special sum, if averaged over the year, would be the equivalent of an additional 2s. a week. Therefore, with the extra money which he earns during the year, the agricultural labourer is in receipt of a wage exceeding 30s. a week.

Again, one has to remember that the agricultural labourer has many advantages, involving lower proportionate charges on his weekly income. For instance, he pays a nominal rent, which the wages board has fixed at 3s., and his weekly rent covers also the hire of a garden, which may generally be taken at about one-eighth of an acre. The present, Act with its method of fixing agricultural wages is working well. Therefore I Fee no real need or occasion to press for the Second Reading of this Bill. But, though I think that in some ways it would be a pity to interfere, nevertheless I do support the noble Marquess in saying that I believe that stability is everything from the wage earner's point of view, and, of course, from the farmers' point of view as well.

Impressions, in my opinion, count quite as much as facts, and though I believe that, as I have shown, our labourers are receiving more than 30s. a week, yet I believe that it would have a very good effect upon them if they saw that in this House they were cared for, and that this House desired to guarantee them a wage, even though that wage is less than what they already receive. It would tend to the extension of that good will which, I believe, alone is going to save the cause of agriculture. Stability of outlook is the one thing that is wanted, and if that was secured there would be fresh trust and a fresh pride taken by the labourers in their work. What we need is a steady Government policy, a policy which, as the late Viscount Long explained in his place here not very long ago, would aim at improving agriculture as a whole, and would not take the side of farmer, or labourer, or any other interested party more than another. That, again, will tend towards a sense of security and good will. I think we may be very thankful indeed that the establishment of these local boards to arrange wages was set on foot by one Government and carried over by the next Government. That is the kind of continuity that we need all round.

The question of employment is really very germane to this whole subject. It is on very rare occasions that the genuine agricultural labourer finds himself unemployed. The question of including the agricultural labourers in the general scheme of insurance is, as your Lordships are aware, under the consideration of a Departmental Committee. In Norfolk responsible people have been looking into the conditions of employment throughout the whole County, and we find that there is no unemployment anywhere for the genuine agricultural labourer, who, as your Lordships know, is a very skilled person. Those who are unemployed in the general sense, and might often bear a. very useful hand at the busy times, as things stand will not come into agriculture, even for a short time, because they know that, if they do so, on the termination of their engagement they will lose their right to what is unfortunately called the "dole."

But there is really much more than wages in the whole matter. It really is a human matter, and touches human nature. It is not only wages that the men need. They want a true sense that others care for them, and that there is sympathy all round. I believe that contentment has been carried into the homes of agricultural labourers not more by wages than by the fact that now they get their Saturday half-holiday, and people are treating them in other ways as fellow creatures who need as much refreshment and recreation as other people do. That contentment is, I believe, due to those human factors, as well as to the mere cash basis. People are tending to see the other man's point of view.

In agriculture we need that immensely. There are various sides and, if they regard themselves as sides, and do not seek to pull together, then this sense of good will will be lost. We want the farmers and labourers, the tithe owners and tithe payers all to see eye to eye as far as they can, and that will give that spirit of stability which I believe to be so exceedingly necessary. No mart works at his best unless he has happiness in his work and a feeling that it will be continuous, and that it will be guaranteed to him. It is the haunting dread that someone is going to deprive him of what he most values that reduces him to distress and a spirit of ill will; and that means a spirit of pulling against the collar, and not of putting his heart into the whole subject. It is the mere suspicion of this ill will that I believe to be as bad in its effects as the ill will itself. Anything that makes a man feel confident is as good as the sense of his being well treated and the fact that he is going to be well treated. You want to emphasise the sense of trust in his trustworthiness because trustworthiness leads on to trust. When I read the other day what was said by the noble Earl, Lord Balfour, on his return from Palestine, I could not help thinking that, with a little adjustment, it might have referred to the greatest industry in this country. Your Lordships will remember that, in speaking of the necessity of working harmoniously, the noble Earl said that the end desired was actually coming, and he went on to add that it would be realised if agitators would leave the thing alone. That I believe to be the truth to-day—that the agricultural industry is much more trustful and, therefore, more hopeful than some of our agitators would lead us to think.

I do not know whether your Lordships will give a Second Reading to this Bill. Personally, I should be prepared to support the Motion for Second Reading, provided that it might be considerably amended in Committee. The Amendments which I think would be required are on these lines. It should be made clear that this is not merely a cash matter. It should also be made clear in some clause that in the 30s. are included those many other advantages which the agricultural labourer possesses. I do not think there is any comparison more false in the world than that of the wages of a man who works in a factory with the wages of a man who works on the land. There is really no parallel between them. I need not repeat what I have said, but the advantages in the way of extra enjoyments and perquisites in kind are found on the side of the agricultural labourer who, although his wages look so low, is not at all so badly off when you total up the extra things that he obtains. I support what the noble Marquess has said, first of all because I believe it would give the labourer the confidence that he was cared for. It would give him that certainty of outlook compared with the haunting dread that no one cares, which is the source, of his main distress to-day.


My Lords, anything that comes from the noble Marquess who moved the Second Reading of this Bill on the subject of agricultural labour has a ring of passionate conviction about it that is always striking in this House. What he has said to-day has had that ring of conviction, and it is, therefore, with great regret, that I find myself obliged to differ from him on this subject of a minimum wage. I speak, perhaps, in the unique position of chairman of an agricultural wages committee which is now working in the country, and I can endorse fully what the Bishop of Norwich has said about the growth of kindly feeling between masters and men. We find it illustrated again and again in our discussions about the minimum wage, and I believe that this fine old tradition of agriculture — the kindly feeling between master and man—is growing every day more deep. But where I differ from the right rev. Prelate is that I do not think the intervention of legislation to fix the minimum wage will give the labourer confidence, will convince him that if this is done to-morrow the Legislature may not intervene a week hence to sweep it away and reduce his earnings by law. We want to show the men that they must rely on the good feeling, not of this House nor of any one Party, but of their employers and on the general opinion of the country. I believe that to fix the minimum wage at the present moment would be very little short of a disaster to those local wages committees.

I am not so foolish as to say that we should feel ourselves severely snubbed or that we should resign. Of course, we should do nothing so foolish; but I think it is a pretty strong thing to set up a Government establishment like the wages board and, when it has been going barely seven months, to intervene by legislation to alter the whole of the terms on which it is working. For those reasons I will not delay any longer. I should like to move that the Bill of the noble Marquess be read a second time this day six months.

Amendment moved— Leave out ("now") and at the end of the Motion insert ("this day six months").—(Lord Ernle.)


My Lords, I shall not venture to detain your Lordships for very long before you proceed to a Division, but I think it as well that I should restate in the simplest form the exact question upon which your Lordships will be asked to vote. It is as to whether or not this House considers that a wage of 28s. a week in winter is really a sufficient wage for these agricultural labourers in Norfolk and Suffolk. I cannot doubt that if that question were put by itself and wholly apart from any legislative enactment, there would be only one opinion upon the subject. The only point at issue between noble Lords opposite and my noble friend who moved the Second Reading of the Bill is whether or not it is right to put this into an Act of Parliament, whether it is right or wrong so far to interfere with the work of these committees as to dictate to them the absolute minimum below which they must not go. That 28s. a week in winter is too low is really the principle upon which we ask your Lordships to vote, and to insist that none of these committees shall be allowed to go lower than that.

It is very difficult to consider this Bill without remembering its history. The interference, which is deprecated by the noble Lord, Lord Ernie, with the working of these local committees was part of the original Bill which is now an Act. It was proposed that there should be interference with the work of the local committees in the direction of fixing wages. All this Bill does is to insist that the wages shall not be too low. As some of your Lordships may remember, even while this Bill was going through Committee in another place, there was a by-election, which somewhat influenced, in our opinion, the action taken by His Majesty's Government at that time.

The right rev. Prelate appealed to my noble friend, and asked that there should be some amendment of this Bill if it reaches Committee. On behalf of my noble friend I am sure I may say that he will most favourably consider any amendment that may be proposed, in the direction suggested by the right rev. Prelate. Indeed, anybody who knows the work of my noble friend will recognise that he is only too ready to do what he can to ameliorate the lot of the agricultural worker, in the direction suggested by the right rev. Prelate. I confess that the argument which we have heard in the course of the evening, that the farmer is unable to pay so large a wage, does not appeal to me at all. If he is unable to pay 30s. in Norfolk and Suffolk, how is it that he pays a much higher wage in other parts of the country? The competition which takes place in Lancashire and other counties compels the farmer to pay a higher wage. It is not due to the fact that there is any difference of soil, but it is due rather to different methods of farming. I am quite convinced that the farmer is able to pay the higher wage mentioned in the Bill.

I quite understand, as mentioned by Lord Bledisloe, that the Scottish workers are opposed to the Bill. That is not unnatural, as they receive a higher wage. People are apt to be selfish, and if they are contented themselves are not ready to support legislation for the benefit of other people. They receive more, and do not look at the matter from the same point of view as those who are receiving a good deal less. It is, therefore, on that simple, broad principle, that 28s. per week, which is now being paid during winter in Norfolk and Suffolk, is too low, having regard to the great rise in the cost of living, that I venture to hope your Lordships will give this Bill a Second Reading.


My Lords, I think it is o necessary that I should say one word, in order to correct an impression which might be left by the speech of the noble Earl who has just sat down. He tried to fasten upon those who sit upon this side of the House the opinion that 28s. per week in winter was a good enough wage for the agricultural labourer. What possible right had he to make that charge, when he knows, and has been told, that except in three counties of England this Bill as it stands would have no effect whatever? Except in three counties in England, the wage for agricultural labourers already stands at 30s., and all the influence of my noble friends who sit around me, in a private capacity, is being used in a very contrary direction to the particular figure which the, noble Earl, for political reasons, is trying to attach to those who sit on these Benches.

The noble Earl is always fighting for Party gain, and trying to persuade the agricultural public that the Conservative Party is in favour of low wages. That is an argument quite unworthy of this House. The fact is that we oppose this Bill because a minimum wage fixed by law is, in our opinion, a bad plan in the interest of the labourers. As the representative of the Ministry of Agriculture in this House pointed out, a minimum wage tends to become a maximum wage, and therefore it is not merely that those few labourers who are now paid less than 30s. would get a slight advance, but that the vast number of labourers who now stand above 30s. would stand to have their wages reduced. That is the real argument which convinced His Majesty's Government that to assent to this Bill would be a mistake. We are not the authors of the Act of last year, but we co-operated in passing it into law, and the general result was to produce a, measure which was, in effect, an agreed one. Now we are going to leave it to work. So far as we know, it is working all right, but at any rate

no judgment can be arrived at within the very few months which have elapsed since it came into operation. We think it ought to be allowed to work, and we think that the direction in which the noble Marquess, with all his kindly zeal for the agricultural labourer, wishes to proceed, is a wrong direction. We believe that the plan which exists is working fairly well, and we propose to leave it alone. Therefore we shall support the rejection of this Bill.


My Lords, I would like to say a few words in conclusion, to thank the House for having permitted me to bring forward this Bill. I should also add that I think that the noble Marquess has absolutely and entirely misunderstood my noble friend, Earl Beauchamp. I never understood my noble friend to pass any censure upon noble Lords opposite. Far from it. All he said was: "Is it right that an agricultural labourer in these days should be given a minimum, or rather a maximum, wage of 28s. per week, out of which he has to pay 3s. for his cottage? Is it right that that state of things should exist even in three counties? After all, they are very important counties. The noble Lord says: "Oh! it does not matter. It is only in three counties. There are 49 counties in which they are getting 30s. and more. Let the other three go. We cannot possibly agree to a minimum wage." Therefore, these unfortunate people have to live practically on 25s. per week. I think that that is not a state of things which ought to be allowed in this country, and I most earnestly hope that some noble Lords, at any rate, will support me in my endeavour to get, I cannot say a living wage, but anyhow, something like a decent wage for these unfortunate people.

On Question, Whether the word "now" shall stand part of the Motion?

Their Lordships divided:—Contents, 22; Not-Contents, 69.

Lincolnshire, M. (L. Great Chamberlain.) Norwich, L. Bp. Marshall of Chipstead, L.
Mendip, L. (V. Clifden.)
Aberconway, L. Morris, L.
Beauchamp, E. Bethell, L. Pontypridd, L.
Chesterfield, E. Buckmaster, L. Rathcreedan, L.
Oxford and Asquith, E. Charnwood, L. Sandhurst, L.
Clwyd, L. Stanmore, L. [Teller.]
Hemphill, L. Sudley, L. (E. Arran.)
Leverhulme, V. Illingworth, L. Terrington, L. [Teller.]
Cave, V. (L. Chancellor.) Falkland, V. Hawke, L.
Finlay, V. Heneage, L.
Salisbury, M. (L. Privy Seal.) Haldane, V. Hindlip, L.
Hambleden, V. Howard of Glossop, L.
Sutherland, D. Sidmouth, V. Hylton, L.
Wellington, D. Younger of Leckie, V. Jessel, L.
Lawrence, L.
Bath, M. Southwark, L. Bp. Meldrum, L. (M. Huntly.)
Exeter, M. Merthyr, L.
Zetland, M. Annesley, L. (V. Valentia.) Monckton, L. (V. Galway.)
Askwith, L. Muir Mackenzie, L.
Bathurst, E. Atkinson, L. Olivier, L.
Bradford, E. Avebury, L. Oriel, L. (E. Massereene.)
Carlisle, E. Banbury of Southam, L. Penrhyn, L.
Clarendon, E. [Teller.] Biddulph, L. Ponsonby, L. (E. Bessborough.)
Denbigh, E. Bledisloe, L.
Eldon, E. Clanwilliam, L. (E. Clanwilliam.) Raglan, L.
Kimberley, E. Redesdale, L.
Lucan, E. Darling, L. St. John of Bletso, L.
Malmesbury, E. Desborough, L. Somers, L.
Morton, E. Dynevor, L. Somerleyton, L.
Northbrook, E. Ernle, L. Stuart of Wortley, L.
Plymouth, E. Fairfax of Cameron, L. Templemore, L.
Spencer, E. Faringdon, L. Wemyss, L. (E. Wemyss.)
Stanhope, E. Gage, L. (V. Gage.) [Teller.] Wigan, L. (E. Crawford.)
Yarborough, E. Harlech, L.

Resolved in the negative, and Amendment agreed to accordingly: Bill to be read 2a this day six months.