§ Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.
§ THE MARQUESS OF LINCOLNSHIRE
My Lords, I address your Lordships this afternoon with a certain amount of disappointment because I had hoped that this Bill would have been looked upon as non-contentious. I bring forward this Bill with no intention at all of trying to score a point or even to pose as the great friend of the agricultural labourer. The House, I am sure, will believe me when I say that I bring it forward only because I have felt very keenly for many years on this very important subject. It came to the front about three years ago when the Labour Government came into power. We all hoped then that one of the first things that they would do would be to achieve something to ameliorate the condition of the agricultural labourer. Mr. Noel Buxton, who lives amongst these people and knows them in one of the most poorly paid counties in England, brought in a Bill of which he moved the Second Reading in a speech of great ability and 329 power. It was then that he made a terrible statement, which, I believe, has never been contradicted or denied, that in Norfolk, when an agricultural labourer has 25s. paid to him, when ho had paid for his cottage, 2s. 6d. to 3s., and when he had paid for the necessities of life, all that is left to him, if he has a wife and four children—and almost all these men have families—is the average sum of one farthing a meal for himself, his wife and his children. That is a state of things which is too horrible to contemplate.
Mr. Buxton brought forward his Bill, as I say, in a speech of great power, but there was much disappointment, not only among land reformers but also among the labourers themselves, that no minimum wage was fixed and that these arrangements were to be made locally and to be undertaken by people who, being on the spot, were supposed to be the best authority for dealing with them. When the Bill came up to your Lordships House the Liberal Party moved an Amendment in order to try to get a fixed minimum wage. We were unsuccessful, and Lord Parmoor, who was leading the House in the Labour interest, gave two reasons why the minimum wage should not be adopted. He said that his first reason was that an overwhelming preponderance of labourers were against it. I doubt that very much indeed. One of my old political friends was George Edwards, the labourers' representative, and I think that if Lord Parmoor had had a conversation with him he would hardly have wished to repeat the statement he made on that occasion.
Lord Parmoor said that he would speak not from fancy but from fact. He said that there were two counties in England with which he was very well acquainted—one was Buckinghamshire and the other was Yorkshire. It struck me, as he said that, that there were a large number of other counties in England with which the noble Lord did not profess to have much acquaintance, and therefore I supposed that it would be useless to ask him why, in the County of Norfolk, on land which is very much better than the land in the County of Buckingham, where he lives, farmers could not pay the wage which he himself pays—for the noble Lord sets a great example and, I believe, pays his labourers 38s. a week and gives them a cottage. 330 I wondered why the farmers in Buckinghamshire, on worse land, growing the same stuff and going to the same markets, could pay so much more than the farmers in Norfolk, where the land is very much better. Everybody knows that the land between Norwich and Lynn is a very fine stretch of land, much better than the land in Buckinghamshire. But, since the noble Lord professes to have no knowledge at all of affairs in that part of the country, I will not press that point.
Referring to Yorkshire, then, the noble Lord said that all the Yorkshire people were against the minimum wage because, if they had a minimum wage, it would at once bring down their own wages, which naturally are very high in that County. I am not a Yorkshireman, either by birth, accident or inclination, and I cannot give any answer to that, but the statement at once brought up Lord Gain-ford, who is of the family of Pease, which is as well known and as much honoured in Yorkshire as is the name of Buxton in Norfolk. Lord Gainford at once repudiated in the strongest language what he went so far as to call a libel on the people of the County in which he lived. But I suppose that Lord Parmoor's argument had great effect, for he led his supporters and the supporters of the great Conservative Party into the Lobby against us and we were beaten hip and thigh. The Bill was carried in its original form and the men of Norfolk had to settle down to another winter of anxiety, privation and discontent.
Then the curtain went up on Act 2, and things certainly looked a little happier and rosier, because the returns from the different counties had come in and the result was exactly what we had to a great extent hoped it would be. There was a minimum wage in every county in England except three, granted by those persons who are acting in water tight compartments. There was a leakage in the other three compartments. Since the principle of the minimum wage has been adopted all over England, all that we respectfully ask is that the minimum wage should be extended to the other three counties. We upon these Benches then brought in a Bill which was the exact counterpart of that which I have the honour to present to your Lordships. When we brought in this Bill people asked what was the use of having it. They were tired of the agricultural 331 labourers, who, they said, had had their innings and must now make the best of things. But, after all, if there are only three counties left out, they are three of the greatest agricultural counties in England and the area of these three counties is 'bigger than most people suspect. The area of Norfolk, Suffolk and Berkshire is something like 2,600,000 acres, which represents 4,000 square miles. That is to say, it represents a piece of land as big as a road one mile wide running through the whole of Africa from the Cape to Cairo; and I think the House will admit that this is a pretty tidy piece of land.
Lord Bledisloe, who was the "star" of the occasion and to whom was entrusted the task of providing arguments to knock out this Bill, said that he could not agree to the minimum legal wage because he was all in favour of purity in politics and clean legislation. Naturally he had the whole House with him there. We all agree that this is one of the essentials in any man who ever hopes to occupy great positions under the. Crown. Character and consistency are the essentials of a leader, and without them no man can ever hope to take the foremost place. But I ask my noble friend one question. Is it not a great deal to ask us to believe that the giving of 3s. a week to a certain number of badly-housed, badly-clothed, badly-fed men would be in the least likely to take us back to the bad old days of which we read in history—the days of Walpole or Bolingbroke? I submit to my noble friend that although we can believe a great deal we really cannot be expected to swallow that.
Well, we went to a Division and that Division had a certain amount of significance. Whips were sent out by both sides last year on this question, and I think 119 noble Lords answered to the crack of the, whip. When the Division was taken 67 Peers voted with the Government and 22 Peers on the Liberal side voted in favour of the Bill. What is significant is that there were 19 Peers, and Peers of great importance, representing a great deal in this House, who walked out of the House. Of course they would not vote against their side and you will not find their names in the Division List. Besides that, where were the great representatives of the landed interest? Where was the Duke of Devonshire, the 332 Duke of Buccleuch, Earl Fitzwilliam, the Marquess of Lansdowne, and Lord Anglesey? None of these noble Lords were present on that occasion, and, as I have said before, if we had been permitted to vote according to our wishes most of the Peers who walked out would have voted in favour of the Bill.
There was another winter of discontent, and now we come to the present time. About six weeks ago the labourers of Norfolk, emboldened, I think, by the sympathy expressed everywhere for these men—because there is no doubt about it the land question is coining rapidly to the front, and England is beginning to see. what is the importance of the land question—applied to the county committee. The arrangement under the Act was that labourers and farmers should be represented on these county committees. It is all right, of course, when there is the pressure, such as exists in other parts of England, of other industries wanting employees, but in Norfolk there are not the ordinary effects of supply and demand. These labourers very respectfully asked the Norfolk County Advisory Committee to give them 3s. 6d. or 3s. more to help them in their trouble, and the answer was, "No, no, no, we will not have anything to do with it." There was, of course, a deadlock. The six labourers' representatives were on one side, and the six farmers on the other. Of course, there are three independent members on the Norfolk County Committe, including an independent chairman—a man above all suspicion, and on whom the whole thing rests.
I do not know the names of the two independent members of the Norfolk County Committee, but I know their professions. One is a brewer and the other is a chemist. The chemist, I happen to know, is a Liberal, and a county alderman, and I have not the slightest doubt that when these two men voted one voted with the labourers and the other voted with the farmers, and there was again a deadlock. Then, of course, they had to depend upon the chairman. What happened then? The whole of the labourers and their wives and children in the County of Norfolk, living on something like 2,000 square miles, depended upon the vote, the ipse dixit, of the chairman, and the chairman of the Norfolk County Ad- 333 visory Committee is the superintendent of a private lunatic asylum. That is the exact state of affairs now.
I am trying in the best way I can to bring the case of those poor men before your Lordships' House, and you must go into the Lobby and vote one way or another. That is the way to try a great question involving the fate of these men, women and children under this Bill. At the present moment they are entirely at the mercy of the master of a madhouse. I hope your Lordships will excuse me for speaking in this way, but I feel so strongly upon the matter that when I wake up in the middle of the night, and think of the misery of these poor people, I cannot get to sleep again. I would ask your Lordships to consider who and what are the men that are being treated in this way. What did they do in days gone by, when almost the crack of doom sounded in England, and my noble friend Lord Oxford and Asquith, from his place in Parliament, told the House of Commons, and through the House of Commons the nation, that we had got to fight not only for our existence but for the honour and liberty of the country. What did these men do then? I do not say that they did better than anybody else. That would be nonsense, for they could not do any better. But they proved themselves worthy descendants of men who formed part of the "thin red line" in days gone by. Those men came forward to fight for you, and to fight for me, and to fight for our children, and to fight next to those gallant sons and grandsons of your Lordships whose memorial we are shortly going to put up in the Gallery close by. I do not say they did better than anybody else, but think of what that Sandringham Company of Territorials did. They were ordered to advance at Gallipoli in smoke and fire and flame, headed by their agent, and those men went into the fire and flame, and everyone of them perished. Not one was ever heard of again. Is this the way to treat men who served the country like that?
I apologise to the House for speaking in this way, but I ask noble Lords opposite—not to vote against the Government, far from it, I am a very strong Party man myself. But I ask them not to go into the Lobby on this occasion. 334 Do follow the example of the Lord Lieutenant, Lord Leicester, the descendant of old Thomas Coke of Norfolk, whoso name is handed down with such affection because he looked after the men and the women on his estate—do follow the example of Lord Leicester, and remember that not one single landlord in the eastern counties, not one (if there is one I apologise to him for taking his name in vain) who went into the Lobby in the Division last year. Lord Albemarle and Lord Iveagh and Lord Bristol—you do not find the name of one of them voting for the starvation wage. I am sorry if I have spoken with too great warmth, but I do from the bottom of my heart hope that the House of Lords will be true to its own instincts, and that noble Lords will not go into the Lobby on this occasion, but will help those who wish to do their best to put an end to a state of things which is not only a disgrace to the community, but a national danger and a national crime. I beg to move the Second Heading of this little Bill.
§ Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(The Marquess of Lincolnshire.)
§ LORD BANBURY OF SOUTHAM
My Lords, I beg to move, That the Bill be read 2a this day six months. I should like to say that as far as I understood the speech of the noble Marquess the chief reason why he is anxious to introduce this Bill is that the agricultural wages committee in Norfolk have decided by the casting vote of their chairman, not to increase the wages in that County. Thai is an argument which might be advanced by people like myself, who are entirely against any interference between grown men in their affairs, but I should like to ask the noble Marquess what he expected when he supported a Bill which provided that, when six farmers and six representatives of the men met and could not agree, the casting vote was to be in the hands of the chairman. The chairman has given his casting vote, and it happens to be against the men.
This Bill proposes to fix by Act of Parliament a minimum wage of 30s. One of the arguments of the noble Marquess was that in only two counties, in England is less than 30s. paid. I understand that in Norfolk in the summer the wages are 29s. a week and 335 in the winter 28s. In Suffolk in the summer they are 29s. 6d. and in the winter 28s. Now it may be held that there is not very much harm in this Bill because it would only affect those two particular Counties, but in passing a measure of this sort one has to consider the effect upon the community, and not only upon one section of the community. I do not suppose that the noble Marquess would be at all influenced by any remarks that I may make, but I observe that he stated that character and consistency in a leader were among the chief things that a leader ought to possess. I propose to quote to him certain statements which were made by his own leader, the noble Earl, Lord Oxford and Asquith. I heard with very great pleasure the noble Earl when he made the statements which I am now going to quote. They were quite my sentiments, but they were delivered in very much better words than are at my command to express such wise and sensible views.
The noble Earl's remarks were made on the Coal Mines (Minimum Wage) Bill in March, 1912. A Mr. King had moved to fix the minimum wage at 5s. a day—curiously enough, the same minimum which the noble Marquess wishes to fix. This is what the noble Earl said:—In my opinion and in the opinion of the Government it is undesirable to name a figure in the Bill, and I say that in the interests of all parties. I say further that I am not disposed to set the precedent of fixing a figure of wages in an Act of Parliament. If you once put in an Act of Parliament, as expressing the considered judgment of Parliament, a particular wage as a minimum wage that would be treated as a maximum. There is another point of view."—and I would call the attention of your Lordships to this particular sentence—It is this. If you once put a figure like this into an Act of Parliament is it not perfectly clear to those of us who know about electioneering that it must become the subject of agitation—I do not want to use offensive phrases—and of bidding and counter-bidding in constituencies where a particular class of workers are affected. It is the most natural thing in the world to go to a constituency and say, 'Well, 5s. is not enough; suppose we say 6s.' That would have most demoralising results. These seem to me two very serious considerations—so serious that the Government is unable to accept the Amendment.Sir Edward Grey—another of the leaders of the noble Marquess—supported the 336 noble Earl, and the Amendment was withdrawn. On the Report stage it was again moved, and the noble Earl, Lord Buxton, then Mr. Buxton, another leader, opposed it. It went to a Division, and it was defeated by 326 votes to 83.
I do not think I need say anything more. You have the opinion which the noble Earl, Lord Oxford and Asquith, gave when he was the Leader of a great Party, in the most serious manner, in the, most excellent language and expressing the most excellent sentiments. As the noble Marquess said, character and consistency are the greatest attributes of a leader and, therefore, I feel certain that if your Lordships divide upon this Motion the noble Earl, Lord Oxford and Asquith, will be in the same Division Lobby as myself. I content myself now with moving the Amendment which stands in my name on the Paper.
Leave out ("now") and at the end of the Motion insert ("this day six months").—(Lord Banbury of Southam.)
§ THE EARL OF OXFORD AND ASQUITH
My Lords, I should have waited until I had heard what the Government had to say regarding this matter but for the speech of my noble friend opposite which is something in the nature of a personal challenge to myself and ought, therefore, to be taken up without delay. First of all, may I state the ground upon which I shall certainly vote in favour of the Motion for the Second Reading of this Bill? That there ought to be a minimum wage in agriculture is now, I think, a proposition which is the common property of all Parties in the State. I am not aware that in any quarter of this House or of the other House that proposition would be disputed.
So far as I am personally concerned, I am not always anxious to vindicate my consistency, but since it has been impugned upon one point let me, first of all, make it clear upon another. Thirteen years ago, or very nearly thirteen years ago, in the month of December, 1913, being then at the head of the Government, I stated in outline and in public the proposals for land reform which we had then in contemplation and which, but for the outburst of the War in the following year, would certainly have assumed, I will not say legislative form, because 337 that would have depended a great deal upon the dispositions of your Lordships' House, but certainly the form of legislative proposals.
Let me add, parenthetically, that I need hardly assure your Lordships that I am not going into the general question of land reform at this moment, but I have always thought, or at any rate for a great number of years, that the proper way to approach the question was to approach it from the bottom. In other words, you must start with the position and prospects of the men who till the soil. You must secure for them, to use what has now become a cant phrase in other departments of production, as a first, charge upon the product of the industry, a sufficient remuneration to enable them to live decent and humane lives. I do not believe that proposition is now disputed in any quarter. I said then and I repeat to-day, that around the condition of the agricultural labourer hangs the whole future of the agricultural community. And the conclusion I came to was that this is a case in which the State must step in and secure a minimum wage. When I say a "minimum wage" I mean a wage such as will ensure a labourer of average industry and prudence reasonable conditions of living. I do not believe that proposition is controverted in this House or anywhere else. Indeed, the legislation which has since been passed and to which my noble friend referred just now is a recognition that that is so.
Now, is a wage lower than the figure prescribed by this Bill, 30s. a week, a wage which it will be contended by anybody satisfies those conditions? The noble Lord who has just addressed the House has great practical acquaintance with the land. He knows as much about the land as he knows, if I may venture to compare the different departments of his knowledge, about the City of London, and I know that, subject to the unstable conditions of the industry and notwithstanding the malign interferences and intrusions of politicians, he is a model landlord and, I hope, a prosperous one.
§ THE EARL OF OXFORD AND ASQUITH
That is not his own fault I am sure. It is probably due to one or other of the two obstructive forces to which I have 338 just referred; I will not say in what proportion or in what degree. But I have had the privilege of sitting opposite the noble Lord in various places for the, past forty years and I know well that he is a man of the most humane instincts and I am sure they are not limited to the animal creation. But does the noble Lord tell me, and will he tell your Lordships' House, that, under existing conditions, the minimum sum provided by this Bill—namely, 30s. a week—is more than any man now engaged in the tilling of the soil ought to receive? I do not think he would say, No.
§ LORD BANBURY OF SOUTHAM
No. But the noble Lord will excuse me if I interrupt him further to point out that in the debate from which. I quoted he himself said that 5s. a day was the proper sum to give the miners at that time.
§ LORD BANBURY OF SOUTHAM
He said that the result would be so disastrous to the community that it must be swept aside.
§ THE EARL OF OXFORD AND ASQUITH
I am coming to what I said about the coal miners; but the noble Lord has not answered my question or, if he has, he has answered it in the sense I expected him to do. It is a striking fact, and one which cannot fail to produce its influence upon the, mind of every reasonable man, that except in three counties in England at this moment under the machinery which the law provides the wages paid to the agricultural labourers equals or exceeds, and in most cases substantially exceeds, 30s. a week. That is certainly so in a great many cases. It is only in three counties that a wage below that figure is at present paid. This is not a Bill to provide for the future. It is limited in its scope to that particular point and, under the conditions which now prevail, it does not appear to me to be arguable that a man ought to be employed in tilling the soil of this country at a lower wage than that.
The noble Lord seems to think that I am guilty of some inconsistency in maintaining that position to-day in regard to this particular matter because of what I said about the Coal Mines Regulation 339 Bill in the year 1912. I have not refreshed my memory about it, but I am perfectly sure that this quotation is accurate. I have a very distinct recollection of the conditions in which we were then working. We were then fixing for the first time as the result of a prolonged and most disastrous industrial disturbance the principle of a minimum wage for the coal mining industry, as we all know now, one of the most varied in its local conditions of any of the industries of this country. The method by which we proceeded was the method which has been followed to a large extent even to-day, and was followed for a great many years, of setting up district boards which would regulate the minimum wage in particular localities in accordance with the special conditions, infinitely varied as they are, under which that industry is carried on. There were people who thought that it would be desirable to put in those two figures of 5s., I think, for men, and 2s. for boys, in that industry under those conditions. I thought, and the Government thought, that would not be an expedient course for the reasons stated in the quotations that the noble Lord has made from my speech. I think so still, without in any way anticipating future legislation in regard to this the most vexed of all problems, the proper scale of remuneration in the coal industry. I shall be very much surprised, if, whatever arrangement is ultimately proposed and sanctioned by Parliament, it is not recognised that the diversities are such as to make it undesirable to name some specific figure of universal application. I am not proposing to do so. I should not propose to do so in the case of any of the other industries of which I can think.
But here we are not dealing with the general question of the regulation of agricultural wages. We are dealing with a specific case. As regards the remainder of the country, we are perfectly prepared to leave things—I do not say as they are, but at any rate to leave things without any immediate and exceptional legislation. But here you have in three comparatively limited areas, but areas of very great importance to the production of the country, this exceptional standard of wages, which everybody acquainted with the facts and conditions of the industry recognises to be below the minimum that an agricultural labourer, to 340 carry on his work efficiently and live under decent conditions, ought to receive. The question, and the sole question, which is raised by my noble friend's Bill is whether your Lordships will put that state of things right and enable these men, without interfering in any way with the operations of the wages boards in the various counties and areas of the country, to be in such a position that they may be able to feel that they are receiving the minimum which both the conscience and the judgment of those who are acquainted with their conditions I believe are unanimous in declaring they ought to receive.
§ LORD ERNLE
My Lords, I have one qualification for addressing you on this particular question, and that is that I am the chairman of an agricultural wages committee, and that I do not recognise in what I must call the travesty of the proceedings of a wages board that has been given to us by Lord Lincolnshire a true account of what really passes in those discussions. I may make one correction. Perhaps the noble Marquess will say that it is all in his favour. It is no longer three counties that are below the average of 30s., it is now only two—namely, Suffolk and Norfolk. Those are the two principal arable counties in the whole of the United Kingdom, and it is for that reason, and probably for no other, that the wages there fall slightly below the level of all other agricultural counties. I should like to say, after studying that point very carefully, that I believe it is the utmost that a farmer can pay on arable land, and that to push the arable farmers of Norfolk and Suffolk further on that point would be to drive the land out of cultivation. I regret to have to say it, because in most other parts of England the farmer can lay the land down to grass. I do not absolutely know what he can do if you put the wages in Norfolk and Suffolk up beyond that point.
I should like to see 30s. paid everywhere if that was possible, for this reason. Most of the wage earners in agriculture make on an average about 36s. a week or more. The average wage of the agricultural working man is really not 30s. but more like 36s., but it is the man who gets the fewest additional hours who is the man you want to help, because his case is that of the man into whose cottage the least money comes in the week. Therefore I do think there is that 341 to be said in favour of a minimum wage. On the other hand, I am perfectly sure that if you once fix a minimum wage there will be a tendency in all the counties gradually to reduce wages to that level, and there will be a strong temptation to prevent any rise whatever in the future. If you once fix the minimum wage it becomes, if I may quote the noble Earl's language, which I am afraid is absolutely true, the maximum wage, and it becomes the maximum wage for several years to come. Therefore I think that on principle a minimum wage is not on the whole a. wise thing to adopt.
May I point out this? I think the noble Marquess, on the last occasion when he brought in this Bill, charged those on the other side of the House with having stolen the clothes of the Liberal Party in the matter of the policy of small holdings. He himself has the honourable distinction of having his name identified with the movement for all time, but I think, in the form in which he proposes a minimum wage, it is quite evident that his clothes are going to be reversible ones. He can wear them outside in or inside out—that is to say, he can go into the farmers ordinary and say to the farmers: "I have secured you a 60-hour week at 6d. an hour": or he can go over the way to a meeting of the labourers and say to them: "I have got you a 30-hour week at 1s. an hour." You cannot fix a minimum wage in the way that the noble Marquess proposes to do it. It ought to be fixed at so much an hour, and then when you have the number of hours, you can fix the wage. But the noble Marquess in his Bill proposes 30s. a week; so you get 30s. a week, whether a man works 60 hours a week at 6d. an hour, or whether he works 30 hours a week at 1s. an hour. It is hardly reasonable that we should be asked here to give our sanction to a Bill that enables persons to use it in a double fashion, and to say to the farmers: "We get you a 60-hour week at 6d. an hour," and to the labourers: "We got you a 30-hour week at 1s. an hour." A Bill in this form, I regret to say, I shall have to oppose.
§ THE PARLIAMENTARY SECRETARY OF THE MINISTRY OF AGRICULTURE AND FISHERIES (LORD BLEDISLOE)
My Lords, let me say at once, speaking not only for myself but on behalf of the Government, that we most fully sym- 342 pathise with the intention of the noble Marquess in re introducing this generously intended Bill, but we feel bound once more to oppose it because we are confident that it will not carry out what it is designed to effect. We are doing our best, and evidencee of it will become apparent during the present Session of Parliament, to create a better outlook and fuller opportunity for the advancement of those unfortunate people who in an industrial sense are on the lowest rung of fortune's ladder. The moving and eloquent appeal of the noble Marquess on this occasion, as last year, has reached our hearts even if it has not succeeded in convincing our judgment.
The noble Marquess referred to the unfortunate case, the very recital of which must have distressed your Lordships, which was described by the Minister of Agriculture in the Labour Government, Mr. Noel Buxton, but if Mr. Noel Buxton is quoted at all in this connection I must point out, as I did when the same Bill was before your Lordships only eight months ago, that Mr. Noel Buxton emphasised very strongly in the House of Commons the undesirability of fixing a minimum wage by Act of Parliament. The noble Marquess referred to Norfolk, where, as in the case of Suffolk, the wages of the unskilled agricultural labourers are nearer the minimum that would be fixed by this Bill, and he quoted Norfolk by contrast with Buckinghamshire. I want to say in that connection that on the thin soil over chalk in Buckinghamshire, with which the noble Marquess is familiar and also the noble and learned Lord opposite, Lord Parrnoor, there is that great distinction to which Lord Ernle referred just now; in the one case you can at least lay down land to permanent pasture, but in the case of the poorer sandy soil of Norfolk this is impracticable. That does constitute some difference between the two.
I regret that the noble Marquess referred to the position of the gentleman who presides over the district wage committee in the County of Norfolk. I was wholly unaware before he spoke as to what his particular profession was, but your Lordships will agree that it in no way affects the impartiality of his judgment or the reasons which convinced him that it was right to cast his vote in a 343 particular direction. I should like to remind your Lordships and the noble Marquess that that gentleman was selected by the wage committee themselves, not by the Minister of Agriculture or by a Tory Government. He was selected by the wage committee themselves, formed, as your Lordships are aware, except for the two additional independent members, of an equal number of representatives of employers and employed.
I hesitate to deal with the arguments put forward by the Earl of Oxford and Asquith. I cannot attempt to compete in dialectics with so distinguished a statesman, but I should like to say that so far as propoals for land reform are concerned I believe, and I think every member of the present Government believes, that you have to approach this problem from the bottom, to use the noble Earl's own words, or what I believe to have been his own words; to secure for the workers, the agricultural workers, at least a subsistence wage which shall be a first charge on the industry. So far we are at one with him. But the question is how heavy a charge, in this connection can the industry bear and how can its amount best be calculated? It is on that footing alone that we probably should join issue with the noble Earl.
We dealt, with this subject only eight months ago, and I hope I may be allowed to give rapidly our reasons—I will put them shortly; I can but reiterate them—for opposing this Bill, which is the selfsame Bill which was rejected toy this House by three votes to one in June last. I then fully explained our reasons for opposing the Bill in the best interests of the workers themselves, reasons which were emphasised by the Minister of Agriculture in the Labour Government, by Lord Olivier, by the Earl of Kimberley, and by other undoubted champions of the best interests of the agricultural worker. These reasons put shortly are, first, that the fixing of a minimum wage is now vested by Act of Parliament in district wage committees, who have, or should have, the fullest knowledge of local conditions, and of what is necessary for the efficiency and comfort of the workers on the one hand and of what the industry can afford on the other in the respective areas where they operate. 344 On the whole the statutory machinery set up by that Act is working satisfactorily, smoothly and equitably.
Secondly, most counties have a minimum wage which is appreciably above that which is sought to be fixed by this Bill. In fact, it would only now directly apply, if it becomes an Act of Parliament, to two counties, the County of Berkshire, as Lord Ernie pointed out, having already a wage equal to that which is fixed as a minimum in the Bill. But, as Lord Ernie also pointed out, it would probably have the effect of depressing wages where the wages are already higher, in some cases substantially higher, the tendency being for a minimum wage to become also a maximum wage. Just to show how different the wages are of so-called unskilled workers in certain areas—I say so-called, because I do not believe an efficient agricultural worker is unskilled—let me give some figures. In East Lancashire the minimum wage is 42s. in Glamorganshire, 37s. 6d.; in the Holland Division of Lincolnshire, a purely agricultural area, 35s.
In the third place, no fixed limit of continuous application is fair either to the industry or to those employed in it. This is, after all, in our judgment the most important consideration. The value of a money wage depends upon its purchasing value for the time being, and that value is constantly changing. The proposed limit might, and probably would, be out of date in a very short time. I might remind your Lordships that the average pre-War wage, in the years 1913–14, for unskilled agricultural workers was 18s. per week. The average wage to-day for similar labour is 31s. 5d. per week, and in money value, curiously enough—that is to say, in their purchasing capacity—the pre-War average wage and the current wage are exactly equivalent. That, if I may say so, is a very marked illustration of the absurdity of trying to fix any particular figure as representing for all time equivalent value for the agricultural worker.
What the industry can afford to pay depends upon all sorts of varying factors, such as the price of agricultural produce on the one hand and the cost of raw materials, rent, rates and taxes, on the other. The rates of minimum wage, as fixed by the Act of 1924, are 345 based mainly upon the cost of living and the value of agricultural produce. That is to say, in their actual working, it is the cost of living and the value of agricultural produce for the time being that are taken mainly into account. I should like to make it clear to your Lordships that, judged from both these points of view, the position of the agricultural worker has materially improved during the last few years. I have in my hand a document which I hope that your Lordships will study, because it is most 'intensely interesting, and I should like particularly to commend it to the noble Karl, Lord Oxford and Asquith. It is a Report of proceedings under the Agricultural Wages (Regulation) Act, 1921. and I take from pages 58 and 59 certain figures which apply, in each case, to the month of August in the years that I shall mention.
In the month of August, 1917, agricultural wages were 39 per cent. higher than they were in the datum or basic year, 1914; the cost of living was 80 per cent. higher than the normal; and the prices of agricultural produce were 97 per cent. higher than the normal. It is quite clear that the agricultural worker at that time was not getting the full benefit of the improved value of agricultural produce and that he was suffering from a relatively increased cost of living. In 1920 and 1921—the same figures apply to August in both years—the agricultural wages stood 160 per cent. higher than the datum level, instead of 39 per cent., as in the year 1917, the cost of living was "140 per cent. higher, and the prices of agricultural produce were 160 per cent. higher than the normal. In 1922 the standard of agricultural wages was 76 per cent. higher, the cost of living was 81 per cent. higher and the prices of agricultural produce were 67 per cent. higher than the normal. In 1923 agricultural wages stood 56 per cent. higher than the datum level, the cost of living 73 per cent. higher and the price of agricultural produce 56 per cent. higher. In 1924 agricultural wages were 56 per cent. higher than the normal, the cost of living 71 per cent. higher and the prices of agricultural produce, which, of course, had been steadily falling, stood at 59 per cent. above the datum level. The position last year, up to the end of July, shows this material improvement 346 from the agricultural workers' point of view: Agricultural wages stood 75 per cent. higher than the normal as contrasted with 56 per cent. the year before, although the cost of living was only 73 per cent. higher and the prices of agricultural produce had fallen to 56 per cent. above the basic figure. That is, if I may say so, a very strong illustration of the danger of fixing any particular figure in an Act of Parliament without relation to those governing factors which so materially influence the capacity of an industry to pay and, indeed, the comfort of the workers employed in that industry.
§ THE EARL OF OXFORD AND ASQUITH
If I do not interrupt the noble Lord, may I ask one question which seems to me to follow from the figures which the noble Lord has given? He has told us, I am sure quite accurately, that the average agricultural wage in the year 1913–14 was 18s., and I think he added that it is now 31s 6d.
§ THE EARL OF OXFORD AND ASQUITH
And he told us that, measured in proper terms of converted values, the one was roughly equivalent to the other. It follows therefore—does it not?—that the proposal in this Bill to give these two counties a weekly wage of 30s. means putting them, measure for measure, below the average wage of 1913.
§ LORD BLEDISLOE
I am afraid that the noble Earl has not followed the trend of my argument. Taking those two figures by themselves, of course, that would be a relevant and convincing argument, but I am trying to point out to the House that you have to take into account other factors as well: the value for the time being of the agricultural produce out of the profit of which the wage has to be paid, and such factors—and very important factors they are—as the cost, which in recent years has been very high, of the raw materials required by the farmer in order to obtain that output.
I do not wish to take up the time of the House in reiterating what I have said on former occasions, but I should like to remind your Lordships, particularly in view of that which the noble Earl has just said, that the cost of living figure to which 347 I have made particular reference is not based only on the cost of living in rural districts, but preponderantly on the cost of living in urban areas, which is materially higher than in most of the rural districts of this country. It includes clothing, rent, which is relatively low in the rural districts, if it exists at all so far as the agricultural worker is concerned, rates, which the agricultural labourer seldom pays; and, as was pointed out, I think, by the right rev. Prelate the Bishop of Norwich when this matter came before the House last year, harvest money has to be taken into account, and we have to admit that it is a very considerable item in the purely agricultural counties where cereals are largely grown. Harvest money amounted, for instance, in Suffolk to£6 3s. 4d.which is the equivalent of nearly 2s. 6d. per week spread over the whole year. These, no doubt, are material factors which the district wage committees have taken into account. Let me say this in conclusion. We do not pretend to consider that 28s. is a satisfactory remuneration for a really efficient British worker, but we do feel that any attempt to stereotype any limit by Act of Parliament is bound to defeat its own ends.
§ EARL BEAUCHAMP
My Lords, I am no more anxious than the noble Lord opposite to repeat the arguments which I ventured to address to you a year ago on this very Bill, but having regard to the fact that it is the same Bill as last year, it seemed to me only proper, in preparation for this debate, to read the discussion which did take place in the month of June last. As in duty bound I began by reading the speech which was made by the noble Marquess the Leader of the House, and it was with some alarm that I read the reference which he made on that occasion to myself. He said, referring to me:—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.He further went on to say:—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.In some trepidation I turned up the remarks which I made, to see what could possibly justify this attack upon myself, and your Lordships will be surprised to 348 hear that in the course of my remarks there was no mention at all of the Conservative Party and so far as I can see there was no attempt then, any more than now, to fasten this accusation upon the noble Marquess or his friends.
I will venture to read what I said. I said:—I cannot doubt that if this question wore put by itself and wholly apart from any legislative enactment, there would be only one opinion upon the subject.Meaning that I was quite sure that if we could separate it from the political questions of the day we should all think that 28s. a week was not enough. That is exactly the reverse of what the noble Marquess has charged against me. I went on to say:—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.I venture to think that that is the real issue between us, and I cannot help thinking that a more proper line of answer to an argument of that kind is how far it is possible that Acts of Parliament should alter economic laws, and how far it is right and proper to interfere with the natural working of economic laws by Bills such as is now before the House.
While I am sure we all congratulate ourselves upon the fact that the three counties have now been reduced to two, surely we who believe in this Bill may say that that is a great additional argument for having this Bill passed into law. The noble Lord who spoke last has, if I may say so, a little bit confused one issue. He told us that 18s. was the normal pre-War wage, and that 31s. 5d. was the present average. Of course it is quite obvious from that that in these counties they are now getting less than they were before the War, translated into money values.
§ LORD BLEDISLOE
And similarly they had less than the average before the War: that is, the average for the whole country.
§ EARL BEAUCHAMP
That is not the point I am going to try to make, which is this. The noble Lord went on to tell us that he was anxious to impress upon the House the importance of taking into consideration at the same time the cost of agricultural produce. Surely, a little earlier in his remarks, he said that the first charge upon the industry should be the wages of the agricultural labourer, and the certainty that he was getting a sufficient wage to lead a humane and decent life. Therefore I think we should not have too much regard to the noble Lord's figures dealing with the cost of produce. What is really of importance is the actual wage which the labourer is getting translated into money values, as compared with the wage which he was getting before the War, translated into the money values of those days. Let us fix our minds upon that rather than upon the secondary consideration, which is the price the farmer gets. Of course, we on this side do not think that, this Bill is the only way in which we can benefit the agricultural labourer. I had the honour of presiding over a Convention lust week, to which Lord Bledisloe made a somewhat slighting reference in the course of his speech in a debate recently, at which unfortunately I was unable to be present. I can assure the noble Lord that we came to far-reaching conclusions as to the way in which the farm labourer may well be helped, conclusions which were agreed upon unanimously by the Conference, and of which he. will hear a great deal more in the course of next year.
§ THE LORD PRIVY SEAL (THE MARQUESS OF SALISBURY)
My Lords, I do not rise to make a speech at this late hour, but as the noble Earl has referred to 'some observations which I made nine months ago, perhaps he will allow me to say that I am extremely sorry that my observations have weighed upon his mind all these months, and that he has felt so acutely the charge which I made of partisan oratory. If the noble Earl had risen in his place at that time and repudiated the charge of course I would have withdrawn it, but I am quite satisfied even now to welcome his admission that there is no desire on the part of the Conservative Party to favour low wages in the agricultural industry. That is what I said then, and what the noble Earl has admitted now. There is on further observation. The truth is that 350 the present Act is working very well. It is quite true that there are a very small number of counties still below the 30s. limit. There ware three counties last year, and there are only two now. That is to say, the operation of the Act is moving in the right direction. Why have the Liberal Party no faith in democratic institutions? Here is a system under which you have a democratic body which is called upon to settle what an industry can bear in the way of wages in the different counties of England; that body contains proper representatives of the interests involved, with an impartial chairman at the head, and it is working in such a way that in every district except three last year the wages were above the limit fixed by the noble Marquess who is responsible for this Bill; and the proper process is going on. The three have been reduced to two. When the noble Marquess brings in his Bill next year probably the two will have been reduced to one, and in the year after there will probably be none. That is the working of democratic institutions, and I commend them to the Liberal Party.
THE EARL OF KIMBERLEY
My Lords, we have heard a great deal about my own county to-day, and I think I do know something about it. The fact is that this discussion has rather wandered away from the real thing. The real thing which you want to cure—and I do not know how to do it—is that agricultural labourers have to pay different rents for their cottages. You see one man working, it may be for a small proprietor, and paying 3s. per week. On the same farm there is another man who only pays£4 per annum for perhaps a better cottage. I will tell you something which happened in the first week of November. I am chairman of the bench of magistrates at petty sessions, and the case I mention relates to an iniquitous law, which ought never to have been passed. A farmer wanted to evict a man because he wanted another man to work in his place He could not get rid of him, so finally he prosecuted him. He had a very able solicitor to prosecute for him. This man was a weekly servant and a weekly tenant, and for the cottage he paid half-a-crown a week, which was deducted from his wages. And the case went on until at last they finished. I said to the man: "Don't you want to say anything?" He said: "No, my Lord." I 351 said: "Do you want a cottage?" He said: "I have got one." I said: "Where are you working?" He said: "I am working not very far from where I used to work." I said: "Are you married?" and he said "Yes." "How many children have you?" He said he had four. I said: "Your rent is half-a-crown?" He said: "Now it is half-a-crown, but when the wages were put up from 28s. to 29s. I had to pay another 6d." And if you put up all the wages to 30s. to-morrow they will have to pay another 6d. in the same way. That is what I want to try to make clear, and I think it is most important.
The other curse, though it is dying away, is that of letting farms with a certain number of cottages, all at an inclusive rent. I have one, I found out, but I could not get rid of that man except by giving him notice to quit. I have got rid of them all except that one, and my cottages, which are of the best kind, are let separately as cottages at£4 a year. With regard to this proposed minimum wage, I never would consent to have a minimum. I think it is the maddest thing in the world. You will never know when
§ Resolved in the negative, and Amendment agreed to accordingly: Bill to be Read 2a this day six months.352
§ it is to be a minimum and when it is not to be a minimum. Norfolk is a large County, and I think I know every yard of it, but I look upon it as a County of oases, and there is a lot of very poor land, almost desert. You hear people talking the biggest rubbish, saying that all this land ought to be cultivated. I would not cultivate some of that land if you paid me£10 an acre to do it. You cannot lay down a lot of grass there as you can elsewhere. One thing that I bitterly regret is that my noble friend Lord Lincolnshire spoke in the way he did about the chairman of the Norfolk Committee. That gentleman has only just ceased to be Lord Mayor of Norwich, and he is looked upon as being one of the ablest men we have had for a very long time. He was asked to take this post, and I believe that he will be exceedingly valuable in that position. I do hope that your Lordships will reject this Bill, and that there will never be a minimum of this sort established.
§ On Question, Whether the word "now" shall stand part of the Motion?
§ Their Lordships divided:—Contents, 23; Not-Contents, 60.351
|Lincolnshire, M. (L. Great Chamberlain.)||Aberconway, L.||Morris, L.|
|Anslow, L.||Pontypridd, L.|
|Bethell, L.||Rathcreedan, L.|
|Beauchamp, E.||Saye and Sele, L.|
|Chesterfield, E.||Buckmaster, L.||Shaw, L.|
|Oxford and Asquith, E.||Charnwood, L.||Southwark, L.|
|Hemphill, L.||Stanley of Alderley, L.|
|Cowdray, V.||Marshall of Chipstead, L.||Stanmore, L. [Teller.]|
|Leverhulme, V.||Meston, L.||Terrington, L. [Teller.]|
|Cave, V. (L. Chancellor.)||Plymouth, E. [Teller.]||Hanworth, L.|
|Spencer, E.||Harris, L.|
|Salisbury, M. (L. Privy Seal.)||Hawke, L.|
|Bertie of Thame, V.||Hunsdon of Hunsdon, L.|
|Marlborough, D.||Burnham, V.||Jessel, L.|
|Sutherland, D.||Cecil of Chelwood, V.||Kilmaine, L.|
|Wellington, D.||FitzAlan of Derwent, V.||Lambourne, L.|
|Knutsford, V.||Monk Bretton, L.|
|Lansdowne, M.||Novar, V.||Monteagle, L. (M. Sligo.)|
|Airlie, E.||Annaly, L.||Oranmore and Browne, L. (L. Mereworth.)|
|Ancaster, E.||Atkinson, L.|
|Clarendon, E.||Banbury of Southam, L.||Ormonde, L. (M. Ormonde.)|
|Dartmouth, E.||Biddulph, L.||Oxenfoord, L. (E. Stair.)|
|Eldon, E.||Bledisloe, L.||Ponsonby, L. (E. Bessborough.)|
|Grey, E.||Carson, L.|
|Kimberley, E.||Clinton, L.||Raglan, L.|
|Lucan, E. [Teller.]||Cottesloe, L.||Redesdale, L.|
|Midleton, E.||Cunliffe, L.||St. John of Bletso, L.|
|Morton, E.||Dynevor, L.||Swansea, L.|
|Northbrook, E.||Ernle, L.||Templemore, L.|
|Onslow, E.||Fairfax of Cameron, L.||Wavertree, L.|
|Gage, L. (V. Gage.)||Wittenham, L.|
§ [From Minutes of February 24.]