HL Deb 22 March 1933 vol 87 cc27-36

THE EARL OF LIVERPOOL had given Notice that he would ask His Majesty's Government whether, in view of the grave situation created by unemployment among the agricultural community, they would consider the possibility of an adjustment whereby the public assistance committees and the employers of agricultural labour could each contribute a share of the wages, and thus bring up the total emoluments of agricultural labourers where temporarily employed to the required standard as laid down by the agricultural wages board in each area; and move for Papers.

The noble Earl said: My Lords, the Notice which I have placed on the Paper relates entirely to unemployment amongst agricultural labourers, and it is at the desire of the Central Chamber of Agriculture and its affiliated associations that I bring the matter forward. Your Lordships are probably aware that the County Councils' Association have submitted to the Government certain suggestions as regards unemployment, and a special committee which was appointed suggested that the work to be provided should be of an economical and, if possible, productive kind. Further, they go on to speak of the rate of pay that should be provided by the local authority concerned, with the aid of such contribution as may be obtainable from any private individuals. It is with the last words that my Motion more or less has to do—namely, the contribution as between the public and the private individual. I do not want to be egotistical in any way, but, to show how anxious the men are to come back to work, I will quote the figures from the county council with which I personally am associated—namely, that of Kesteven, which, as you know, is one of the Ridings of Lincolnshire.

In the Kesteven area there are between 9,000 and 10,000 agricultural labourers, and on the 11th February there were 484 families concerned in agriculture who were unemployed. We decided, in accordance with the suggestions that came from three Ministries, that we would do our best to get as many men as possible back to work. With that object we set aside from the highways committee a sum of £3,000, and from the smallholdings committee of sum of £1,000, and in the time which has elapsed between the 18th February and 11th March we have got back to work 333 individuals at a cost of £425 to the county and a saving of £733 to the public assistance committee. Naturally, as your Lordships may say, it is only a transfer of figures between the various committees. At the same time we have got the men to do useful work whereas formerly they were being paid to do nothing. Perhaps I should go further and say that we estimate that the £4,000 that we have put aside for the purpose of getting these men back to work will last from the 18th March for another ten weeks, and we propose then to reconsider the question anew. By the time all the money has been expended we calculate that we shall have saved to the public assistance committee a sum of close upon £2,000.

My Motion is an adjunct, perhaps I might say, to what the county councils are doing, for presumably all county councils are working on much the same lines. I suggest that when a farmer requires additional hands he may come to, and work in conjunction with, the public assistance committees in order to bring the wages up to the statutory figure of the agricultural wages board. Personally, I feel that the question of the proportion of the money which should be paid by the farmer—I am coming to the safeguards later—should be left in the hands of the Ministry to decide. It is quite true that the Central Chamber suggested a division of fifty-fifty, but I am not in the least wedded to that figure. If the principle is adopted it would be put into operation for a limited time, and a limited time only. The Ministry suggests six months. My friends suggest not longer than a. year. It would be only an experiment, but in our view we should get a very large number of men back to work on the land. It would help the farmer. In cases where he could not afford to pay the full 30s. or 32s. a week, which I think is about the average, he would get his labour for a less figure, and at the same time the public assistance committee would be helped and thereby the rates of the county assisted.

There is one other point on which I cannot expect any answer from the noble Earl who will reply, but at the same time I should like to mention it because it is a corollary to all our difficulties as regards getting men back to work and so easing unemployment. Behind all employers of labour—I am only speaking in this case for agriculture, but it applies to every industry—there is this great debt. In order to carry on business during the last few years they have had to accumulate debt to an enormous extent. I am sure we all appreciate what is being done by His Majesty's Government at the present time to assist this particular industry, but behind the employers the loan charges are mounting. I know it is a subject which bristles with difficulties, but I should like to ask the Government to consider the possibility of providing means to meet the interest payable on overdrafts. The country, we know, made a tremendous effort in the conversion scheme and money now is down to 2 per cent., but loan charges still stand at 5 per cent. When money was at 5 per cent. the loan charge was 6 per cent. Therefore banks are getting the advantage of a margin of 3 per cent. against 1 per cent. Those who agree with me in the suggestions I have put forward to-day are very anxious on this particular question. They consider that co-operation between the public assistance committee and the farmers will materially assist in getting these men back into employment.

One other point that I must mention is the safeguard that is proposed. Of course, this scheme would only operate in cases where the farmer engages extra labour during the period decided upon, whether it be six months or a year.

Otherwise, a farmer could discharge all his present hands and put them on the public assistance committee. It was suggested to me that you could deal with this on the return which has to be submitted to the Minister of Agriculture on June 6 every year, but if the Ministry of Agriculture are sympathetic and are prepared to go into this scheme, I hope they will do so immediately, and in that case it would be necessary to have an earlier date than June 6. If it is to be of any use the scheme should come into operation as soon as possible and I think you would have to have some earlier date fixed on which to ascertain the figure of permanent employment of a farmer. I beg to move.


My Lords, I should like to support briefly the scheme put forward by the noble Earl, Lord Liverpool. I do not think there is any need to enlarge on the very grave position in regard to employment in agriculture. Living as I do in Suffolk, where employment among agricultural workers is at a low ebb and where there is snore unemployment than has ever been known before, I speak with some feeling on the matter. I have also had opportunities of meeting representatives from various parts of the country at the Central Chamber of Agriculture, and I know that they take a very keen and lively interest in the matter now before your Lordships' House. We all recognise that His Majesty's Government have done and are doing much in order to put the great industry of agriculture on its legs again, and we know that they have far-reaching schemes which in their ultimate effect no doubt will be of the greatest value, but I would appeal to them to look most carefully into this proposal with a view to its immediate adoption.

As the noble Earl, Lord Liverpool, has explained, it would be of a temporary character. In the first place, at any rate, it would be of an experimental nature. When one realises on the one hand the number of ordinary agricultural labourers, especially in the eastern counties, who are out of work, and when one realises also, as those do who live there, the amount of land that is going out of cultivation altogether and the number of derelict farms that exist at the present time, I am sure that noble Lords will agree that every step should be taken in the interests not only of agriculture generally but of these men in particular, to put them back into employment at the earliest possible moment, if not by one means then by another. Although the Government have a long-range policy which is at present being elaborated, I would appeal to them to see what can be done with regard to the scheme suggested this afternoon. I do not wish to dwell on the point of the great assistance that would be given in regard to rates in the counties, which has been so ably explained by the noble Earl, Lord Liverpool, but of course that is a matter which has a very important bearing on the subject. I hope we shall be able to secure the sympathetic attention of the Ministry of Agriculture and that steps will be taken to meet the views expressed. The urgency of the matter must not be lost sight of and anything that is done should be done at the earliest possible moment. The need is immediate and it is very great.


My Lords, the condition of unemployment in agriculture in the villages is of a most serious nature and therefore one is inclined to give a hearty welcome to anything that would relieve the distress among agricultural workers. Because of that we ought not to allow any rigid economic theories or pre-conclusions to prevent us from looking sympathetically at any plan proposed which might absorb these workers in the villages and restore them to their proper function of food production in this country. On the other hand it is very important that a wrong step should not be taken and, so far as we are concerned on this side of the House, we should like to see this plan in greater detail before giving any close assent to its proposals.

There would appear to be some considerable dangers attaching to it which the noble Earl who introduced the Motion shortly indicated. There would be the danger of a class of farmer leaving work that would ordinarily be done by regular workers so that he might get the advantage of public funds in the employment of special workers—that is to say, he would be inclined so to man œuvre his arrangements as to give himself a claim to come upon State assistance; and not only would the labourer be submitted to the alleged demoralisation of the "dole," but the farmer would become in that regard his associate. The noble Earl has suggested certain safeguards and if these safeguards were sufficient one's anxiety respecting the proposals would be lessened. But there was one safeguard I did not hear him mention. In my opinion, for what it is worth, if the State were in any case to give support to the farmer in the development and conduct of his industry, the State would have the right to insist upon efficiency in the farming. There would be other safeguards which your Lordships ought to see in greater detail if you are to give any enthusiastic assent to this proposal, but because of the urgency of the matter and because of our desire to get men to work, we should, I think, be right in suggesting that the Government should give this matter immediate and favourable consideration.


My Lords, the terms of this Motion must express a feeling that is in all our minds at the present moment—namely, whether vast sums of money which are going out in various forms of relief to men now in idleness could not be more profitably used in giving them employment. We must all consider that so necessary and so desirable that I feel sure the noble Lord, Lord Snell, really expressed the feeling of the whole House when he said that we must not allow preconceived ideas to influence us in any way. But there are certain considerations which it is only right to put before your Lordships. The first is that the adoption of this principle would mean the complete overhauling from top to bottom of fundamental principles underlying the Poor Law at the present time. Money could not be paid to the employer under existing legislation and if it were to be paid direct to the man, the man, as the law stands, must be destitute and not in full-time work. Not only would the law relating to public assistance in regard to those employed in agriculture have to be altered, but I think your Lordships will realise, after a moment's consideration, that it would be inconceivable at such a time of distress that we should be able to get through legislation of this character and restrict its effect only to agriculture. Moreover, I think we should also agree that the implications of this scheme are so important and fundamental that it would be very difficult also to restrict it and to keep it on a purely temporary basis.

We fully recognise that these points by no means constitute a final answer to the proposition before the House, but I do think they mean that we should submit the proposals to the most careful examination—I know the noble Earl would be the first to agree about that—before adopting them. The proposal of the noble Earl is one for the subsidisation of wages out of the rates and I venture to suggest, as the noble Lord, Lord Snell, has already suggested, that such a proposal might well in the end result in almost less employment, or less of a satisfactory character, than there is at the present moment. Inevitably the temptation of the farmer would be to cut down to the very bed-rock his permanent employment on the farm in order to avail himself of this cheap form of labour. In saying that one is uttering no charge against the farmer. In many cases the farmer to-day is destitute himself; he is fighting and struggling with his back to the wall; and it is only natural that he should avail himself of any form of assistance which the State or public authorities might place at his disposal.

I cannot help feeling that there would be objections to any form of this scheme whatsoever, but the particular wording of the Motion introduces almost a more dangerous principle. As you will see it is to be limited to agricultural labourers who are temporarily employed. That must of necessity encourage the increased casualisation of labour, one of the very worst tendencies that is going on at present in t he countryside. It is suggested that we could meet some of these difficulties by assessing a quota of labour normally employed on the farm, and the noble Earl, Lord Liverpool, has probably made the best suggestion for arriving at that point—namely, the June Returns. At the moment we are doing a good deal with quotas at the Ministry of Agriculture—wheat quotas, bacon quotas, and possibly many more in the future—but I think we tremble a little at the idea of assessing a quota of labour for each and every farm. There would be the difficulty of doing this if the agricultural industry was completely static, but let us realise to-day that it is not in a static condition.

Consider for a-moment the extension of one great industry in this country, the canning industry. Supposing you or I had an arable farm in a district within a few miles of a canning factory, and we were suddenly offered a contract for 100 acres of peas. It would mean an immense increase of labour on the farm. How is it going to be worked under that quota? It would be cheap subsidised labour, and it might be that my neighbour, who had undertaken a. similar contract the year before, before this scheme came into operation, would have no right to assistance. There is another point to be taken into account. In the whole of this country over 64 per cent. of our farms are under fifty acres in extent, which means that very little labour is employed. Are the tenants of the larger farms to have cheap subsidised labour with which to compete in the same market with these fifty-acre farms? I do not think that your Lordships will think that is possible or conceivable.

If I have to put a number of arguments against this scheme, and have attempted to point out its difficulties, I would like to assure the noble Lord that, in spite of all that, we are prepared to go into the matter very carefully, and to consider it further in any implications which have not yet been considered, and to consider any point which the noble Lord still feels that he can put before us; but I submit to your Lordships that surely the real problem that we have to face is the problem of the state of the industry—the problem not of the protection of certain goods, but a problem which may be summed up in supplies and prices. If the market can absorb the one hundred acres of extra peas to which I have alluded, then it is all right, but if the market is glutted, no scheme of this sort is going to help the situation.

I speak as one having very considerable faith in the agricultural policy of this Government, and I believe that many of your Lordships likewise have that faith. I would submit that not only is our policy a long-range policy but a good deal has been done already. Various sections of the industry have already received assistance, while in the very near future we hope to see the operation of the bacon scheme, the milk scheme, and many other schemes that are being worked out. I suggest to your Lordships that in so far as what we have done is incomplete—and we would be the first to admit that we were only beginning to deal with the prob- lem—the Bill Which will shortly be coming before this House will enable us to carry our policy a very great deal further than it has been carried already. I suggest to Lord Liverpool that by proceeding along the lines of our policy, of endeavouring to bring back prosperity to the industry as a whole and enable it to employ more labour on an economic basis, we shall be dealing with the subject in a much better way than that which the noble Earl suggests.


My Lords, if I understand the reply of the noble Earl, as I think I do, he has promised sympathetic consideration to my proposal. Therefore I shall go no further, to-night, beyond saying this, that he raised the point about how wages were going to be paid. That is a matter of detail, but what my Motion seeks to do is to get men back into employment. That is the real thing, and therefore it must be a temporary measure. The Government's Bill will not come into operation at once, and I want to get these men hack to work now. I do not think that under my scheme they will compete with the small farms, nor do I think myself that there are so very many dishonest men in the world. Still I agree that there must be safeguards, though I think it would be futile to put forward all the safeguards now. I thought possibly the Ministry might assist in that matter. All that I ask of the Government is that they should do all that they can to bring the agricultural labourer back on the land in this seasonal time, when extra labour is required, because the longer these men are out of work the more they will deteriorate, physically as well as morally, and from the point of view of the industry this should only be a temporary measure. I assure the noble Earl that there is a county council which has actually put this scheme in force. They will probably be surcharged for it. The noble Earl has promised to give sympathetic consideration to my proposal, and I trust that he will bring it before his colleagues. I beg leave to withdraw my Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.