§ Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.
§ 4.2 p.m.
§ THE PARLIAMENTARY SECRETARY OF THE MINISTRY OF AGRICULTURE AND FISHERIES (LORD DENHAM)
My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be read a second time. I ought to remind your Lordships that this Bill refers only to England and Wales and not to Scotland. The object of it is to give a minimum wage to agricultural workers, which shall be fixed by a Central Board and not as at present by the forty-seven local county committees. Before I come to the terms of the measure itself, may I say a word or two about the history of this agricultural wages question? It was during the Great War that agricultural wages were first the subject of statutory regulation, and it was in 1917 that the first Corn Production Act provided the earliest machinery. It was that Act that set up for the first time a National Wages Board. Your Lordships will remember that, before 1914, the general level of agricultural wages was somewhere in the neighbourhood of 18s. a week, but by 1917 that level had increased to some 25s. a week, and as a result of the Corn Production Act of 1917 the Central Wages Board fixed a minimum wage of 30s. a week. Then came some time of prosperity for agriculture, so that by August, 1920, agricultural wages had risen to the figure of 46s. a week. That was followed by a slump in certain prices, and wages were reduced 113 from 46s. to 42s. by, be it noted, the action of the Central Wages Board itself.
Then came an event which is not likely to be forgotten by anybody who has ever been concerned with agriculture. I refer to the repeal of the Corn Production Act in 1921. With the repeal of that Act, the National Wages Board disappeared, and there followed the melancholy general slump in agriculture which all of us so well remember. By 1924 the level of wages had fallen to 28s. a week, and then came the Wages Act of 1924, when the Labour Party were in office. I should like to say a word or two about that Act, because it is that Act which has governed the whole question up to this moment. Your Lordships will remember that there was a considerable controversy, in the first place, as to whether the Labour Government were right in their suggestion that a Central Wages Board could deal with the problem better than the forty-seven county committees. Parliament in its wisdom decided in favour of local autonomy, and as a result each of the forty-seven county committees was given the duty of securing for each able-bodied man in agriculture such wages as would promote efficiency and maintain him and his family in reasonable comfort.
I should like, if I may, to pay a tribute to all the men from the Agricultural Workers' Unions and from the Farmers' Union who have devoted the years that they have to working on these local county wages committees. Their tasks have been intricate and difficult, and they have shown splendid public spirit in the work that they have done. But if that testimony is at all justified, your Lordships may well ask me: "Why do you propose to-day by this measure to alter the present state of things, or at least to vary the relations between the county committees on the one hand and the Central Wages Board on the other?" I will explain how that has come about. Early in September, after the war broke out, the representatives of the Agricultural Workers' Union approached my right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture and put in a claim for a Central Wages Board, basing that claim on three main arguments.
In the first place they called attention to certain defects giving rise to anomalies which in their opinion attached to the forty-seven county committees. They 114 said: "Why ask forty-seven county committees to do what could be done equally well or better, in our submission, by one Central Board?" and they instanced the effect of the variations of wages county by county. Incidentally, I may say to your Lordships in parenthesis, that today there is a variation between 34s. in some counties and 43s. in other counties—a margin of 9s. The second point the agricultural workers made to my right honourable friend was this. They said that more and more to-day the factors which go to the fixing of agricultural wages depend upon national rather than on local conditions, and as instances they mentioned the legislation which has provided the country with a series of marketing boards, the price insurance schemes and the granting by the Government of subsidies. Above all, they based their claim on the fact that in war-time farmers Could look to the Government to supply them not only with guaranteed markets, but with guaranteed prices as well. They said that the farmers in getting these guaranteed markets and prices were able to obtain some measure of economic security from the Government by central action, and they claimed—and it was a very reasonable claim—that the workers they represented in agriculture should have a chance of sharing in that economic security.
The farmers, too, put their views before my right honourable friend. They said that the majority of their great organisation was opposed to the principle of establishing a Central Wages Board, and they based their case on the following argument. They said, in the first place, that if a Central Board were to be established they feared that there would be too great a uniformity not only on the question of wages but on the question of hours. They said, and with some truth, that the conditions varied immensely from county to county, that it was not possible accurately either to compare the North of England with the South or the East of England with the counties in Wales, for instance, and they went on to say that the circumstances of each individual farmer varied immensely in his capacity to pay the rate of wages at any moment because of such things as his proximity to a market, the type and size of the farm that he might have in his possession, and so on. But I think that principally what troubled the minds of the 115 farmers was the feeling that they would be unable, very likely, to pay the rate of wages if the minimum rate of wages were to be decided by a Central Board.
Perhaps I ought to say, because I remember it so well, that they added that they were doubtful about their ability to pay now, and how much greater would that inability to pay be if after the end of this war there were to follow the same disastrous slump as succeeded the last war! So they said to my right honourable friend: "If you are, in forthcoming legislation, to establish a Central Wages Board, then please have a definite sliding-scale ratio which will govern prices and wages, so that if prices go up wages can go up, but if prices go down, wages can go down." I shall have a word or two further to say about that in a minute. The result of all this was that a series of meetings was held, and, whilst this measure that I have in my hand cannot be said by anybody to be an agreed measure, it at least, I think, contains the greatest common measure of agreement that could be reached between the parties.
I have said a word about the point of view of the workers, and a word about the point of view of the farmers, and now I want to say a word or two about the point of view of the Government, and especially of the Ministry of Agriculture. In our opinion, agriculture has been losing men from the land far too long, and the rate of wages obviously is one of the main causes of that. It is idle to suppose, especially in war-time, as your Lordships must realise, that the wages which agriculture can afford to pay can possibly compete successfully with the rate of wages paid to the men who are raising the factories, workshops and aerodromes that are springing up all over the country. There is an irresistible attraction to men on the land to go off and get higher wages and perhaps better conditions; yet never in the history of this country, I suppose, were men wanted so badly to remain on the land as to-day. We in the Ministry of Agriculture are forced back to this consideration: What on earth is the good, with all the enthusiasm in the world, our putting forward great schemes for food production, asking the farmers of the country to plough up 2,000,000 acres of their grass, if almost everywhere there is the same 116 cry: "We have a shortage of men; we cannot compete with the shortage of labour"? Therefore the Government came to the conclusion that wages must go up, and if wages must go up prices must go up in order to give the farmer something to pay the wages with.
I want now to call your Lordships' attention to a very important statement which was made by my right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture in another place on December 14 last. I will venture, if I may, to read to your Lordships about two sentences from that statement because I attach the greatest importance to them. My right honourable friend said this:While it is the producers' job to produce, it is the Government's job to see that conditions are created which will enable the producers to deliver the goods. The Government recognise, therefore, that if the desired increase in home production is to be secured, a higher level of prices will be necessary for agricultural products generally.A little later he said:…the Government, for their part, recognise that in fixing agricultural prices regard must be paid to the need for a reasonable wage to the worker.That was followed not long afterwards by a most important statement by the Prime Minister. I was present myself at the meeting on February 28 when he addressed the chairmen of all the county war agricultural executive committees. I know that some of your Lordships were present at that meeting. What the Prime Minister then said is equally or even more important. He said this:My colleague, the Minister of Agriculture, made a pronouncement on the subject last December. He said if the increase in home production that we want is to be obtained, then the prices must be such as would give a reasonable return to the farmer and enable the farmer to pay a fair wage to the worker. I want to say again this afternoon that the War Cabinet endorse that declaration by the Minister of Agriculture.No one, of course, can say at any precise moment what is the correct range of prices which ought to be established three months hence, or four months hence, and much less after the war is over. Hence the Prime Minister's undertaking was in general terms and not in the terms of a specific figure, but I submit that no Government could give a more binding undertaking than that which was given that day. It is incumbent on the Government to try and do their best to avoid the vicious spiral which might easily 117 occur, wages chasing prices and prices chasing wages, and, above all, they must try to avoid what happened in the last war when prices were allowed to rocket sky-high to an extent and to a level that could not possibly be maintained after the war. What we want to do now is to arrange a fair level of prices in order that we may have a fair level of wages.
Here I will, with your Lordships' permission, read another sentence from the Prime Minister's other pledge which he gave on that day, February 28. It is very important, because it deals with the possibility of an after-war slump. The Prime Minister said:."… I think you will agree with me that it would be dishonest if I were now to give you a definite and specific pledge as to what will happen at the end of the war. I am not in a position to do that. All I can say to you is that I can tell you what is in my mind now, and I say this, to begin with, that the Government are determined, if they are in office, that agriculture shall not a second time be allowed to collapse like it was the last time. I say that without hesitation, and in full confidence, because it is founded upon our conviction, the conviction that we all hold, that a prosperous agriculture is just as important to this country as a prosperous industry. And therefore I say we simply cannot afford to let agriculture down after the war, and so far as we are concerned we are fully determined on that point.Summing up, you have three points of view—that of the farmer who says he fears that, much as he would like to pay higher wages, he will not have the capacity to do so; the point of view of the agricultural worker, who demands that wages should be higher and more in harmony with the wages paid in other industries; and the point of view of the Government, who say that agriculture must no longer be the Cinderella of the industries and that we must try to bring about such a position that the farmer, who after all is the pivotal man, shall have such a measure of prosperity as will enable him to pay a decent level of wages to the workers and to derive a decent measure of profit for himself.
Now I will come to the Bill. Clause 1 gives the Agricultural Wages Board the duty of fixing a minimum wage, and the first thing to which I should like to call your Lordships' attention is the fact that that minimum wage is not to be an automatically operating wage but is to be more in the nature of a datum line. How wise is that provision. If, for instance, it 118 were said to the Central Wages Board that they must fix a rigid minimum wage which would be applicable to all counties, one of two mistakes might follow. The Central Wages Board, bearing in mind the low rate of wages paid to-day in some of the counties, might be over-impressed by that fact and fix too low a national minimum. On the other hand, the reverse might equally well happen. Bearing in mind that some counties have a minimum wage of 43s. the Board might give overemphasis to that and fix a national minimum which was too high.
What will have to be done before the national minimum wage is fixed is that the Central Wages Board will have to consult the forty-seven county committees who have had vast experience in the last sixteen years and will have to consider also the general economic condition of the nation and the particular economic condition of the agricultural industry. Therefore there will be a new division of responsibility between the Central Wages Board and the forty-seven county committees. Your Lordships will notice that the precise method as to how the Board should consult the county committees is not laid down. The Board may possibly invite suggestions from the county committees, or on the other hand they may fix a wage themselves and then ask the county committees for their views. Very wisely, as I think, the Bill lays down no precise method. I can assure your Lordships that this does not mean delay, and I can assure you also that the great benefit to be derived from these county committees with their experience of sixteen years will not be wasted but will be utilised.
As to the second duty of the Central Wages Board—that of considering the general economic condition of the nation and the particular economic condition of the agricultural industry—I would submit that this will provide the best link between wages and prices, and will ensure to the farmer, in the best way, his capacity to pay any minimum wage which may be fixed, either centrally for the nation or locally for the counties. Let us try for a moment to picture the first meeting of the Central Wages Board after this Bill reaches the Statute Book. I can well imagine the representatives of the workers, in their desire to get wages fixed 119 as high as possible, pointing out to the Board the rise in the cost of living, how generous in their opinion is the level of prices fixed by the Government for the farmers, and how vital it is for the workers to get wages which at long last will have some harmony with the wages offered in other industries. I can imagine the representatives of the National Farmers' Union saying to the Board that prices are not so high as they wanted or as they had hoped, and that the Wages Board must take into consideration the fact that costs of production have gone up enormously. That is the type of argument that no doubt will be used. Only after hearing all those arguments will the Central Wages Board determine what wage shall be adopted as a datum line for the whole country. Therefore I submit that when the farmers say that they can only visualise a Central Wages Board if there is a definite link between prices and wages they are arguing on a faulty basis because whilst prices must inevitably be the most important consideration which will be taken into account by the Central Wages Board, prices cannot be looked at in vacuo, but must be considered with the background of all other matters relating to agriculture.
The Central Wages Board, having consulted the forty-seven county committees and considered the economic condition of the nation and of the agricultural industry, will then proceed to notify the county committees of their decision of what shall be the minimum wage. Then each of the forty-seven county committees will proceed to fix, first, the level of the minimum wage for that county as a whole—that is provided in Clause 2 (1)—and secondly, the minimum rates for all other classes of agricultural workers together with hours, benefits and advantages, overtime and similar questions. Then they can do one of three things. Let us assume the national minimum wage to be 40s. They can say that they will have that 40s. for their county, but if your Lordships look at Clause 2 (3) you will see that they can go beyond that minimum wage. Here are the words in the Bill:…but without prejudice to their power to fix for workers of any class rates higher than are necessary to secure compliance with the provisions of this Act.They can do that without let or hindrance, and if necessity should arise 120 —I hope the occasions on which it arises will not be very many—they can (here they have to ask the permission of the Central Wages Board) fix a minimum rate for the county below the national minimum.
Let me say a word or two in explanation of this part of the Bill. In another place many speakers complained that no mention was made in the Bill of women workers. They seemed to imply that some slight was thereby put upon the 40,000 women and girls who are employed on the land. But if that be so, a greater slight is put on the 95,000 young men who also are not mentioned in the Bill, but who will have their wages decided by the local county committees. The Bill is right in laying down that the Wages Board should take into consideration first and foremost the wage rates of the biggest proportion of those employed in agriculture—that is, the adult male workers who number 395,000 out of the 606,000 workers in the industry. Therefore for this Bill to work successfully it is important—if I may sum up—that the Government should from time to time reasonably and accurately fix prices in order to give the farmer the capacity to pay. Of course the Government should continue as they have begun, helping agriculture by subsidies or in any other way they possibly can. This is all-important, for your Lordships will realise that no precise figure for a minimum is mentioned in the Bill, and that the Central Board, according to Clause 1 (2), is given the duty to reconsider the minimum from time to time and either raise it or lower it or say that no change shall take place. The Government, of course, for their part will aim, as I say, at the great target of ensuring for the farmer, who is the pivotal man, such measure of prosperity as will enable him to pay reasonable wages to his workers and get a reasonable margin of profit for himself.
In this democratic country the ability of any Government to put into effect any policy depends and always must depend in the last resort upon the will of the people. It is especially worthy of note in this regard that representatives of the Agricultural Workers' Union have often emphasized their willingness to help in any scheme for securing that the farmers shall have a square deal. But they have gone further: their unions have stood 121 always for fair prices for agricultural products, and the representatives of the agricultural union have pressed upon the Trades Union Congress this policy with eventual success. According to the latest statements emanating from the Trade Union Congress, never again shall we have cries of "Hands off the people's food!"; "Cheap food for the people!"—cries which have characterised the political campaigns not only of certain politicians but also of certain sections of the people in days gone by. So now the farmers not only have the Government's assurances which I have read out to your Lordships, but they also know that the Trades Union Congress is behind any effort to place farming on a sound footing.
I hope that the opportunity will now be given to the farmers to pay that reasonable rate of wages which they have always, I know, wanted to pay if only they could afford to do so. If, then, as we hope, the new powers of the Central Wages Board will bring agricultural wages into closer harmony with the wages that are paid in other industries, the result must be to retain upon the land those splendid types of agricultural workers who, born and bred in the countryside, have too often in the past been allured away by the better wages and the better conditions to be found in other industries. I feel sure that noble Lords on both sides of the House will be prepared to agree with me that, taking the long view, farmers not only have no reason to fear the operation of this short but very vital measure, but will have very good reason to look back upon the institution of a national minimum wage as an important milestone upon the progress of the oldest and most essential industry towards a permanent, sound and efficient basis of security and prosperity. I beg to move.
§ Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a—(Lord Denham.)
§ 4.34 p.m
§ LORD ADDISON
My Lords, I am sure it will not be expected that the Party which I represent should object to the main principle of this Bill, which we have advocated for a great many years. There is always joy in Heaven, of course, over a sinner that repenteth, and I am glad to see that this has happened once more. There have been numerous previous occasions when the Government have seen fit to adopt some of our ideas. But, of 122 course, when all is said and done, my Lords, the fact remains that, vitally important as the Bill is—and I support every word the noble Lord said—it deals only with one item of agricultural policy. And I may say that—quite inadvertently, no doubt—he was a little less than just to the Party I represent, in that he failed to mention that Party. We have for many years past advocated an agricultural policy which should contain a price system for the producer upon which he can rely and which will be fair and efficient and enable him to pay decent wages. We have never departed from that policy, and therefore I am sure that the House will expect us to support the main principle of this Bill.
Agriculture owes a great debt of gratitude to my noble friend behind me, Lord Noel-Buxton. Although he did not get all he wanted—we very seldom do—in 1924, the Bill that he introduced has been a great steadying influence in agriculture and has enormously assisted agricultural workers in every county. The argument which he addressed to us then, and which I hope he will repeat to-day, in favour of a Central Board was very well put, if I may say so, by the noble Lord himself. It is necessary that there should be a central body that should take cognisance of all the circumstances and have power to prescribe at all events a minimum. When we get into Committee, with entire friendliness I may perhaps be required to move an Amendment in order to clarify the meaning of certain words in the Bill. It is only a small point on the Bill. The object of Clause 1 (1) is to secure that no man of full age employed whole-time by the week or any longer period shall be paid less than the minimum wage. I should like to know, and I think we ought to have some guidance, what is meant by the term "the week."
§ LORD ADDISON
Certainly: page 1, lines 13 and 14, Clause 1 (1). The hours vary from county to county just as much as the minimum wages, and it is desirable that, when this body is fixing or considering a minimum, we should have something to guide us on whether they regard sixty hours a week as a minimum, or forty-eight, or what it is—what is meant by the expression "week." How- 123 ever, I only just mention the point in passing; I have some other matters to speak of. I am sure we recognise on all sides that it is high time that this country took an action of this kind as an item of its agricultural policy. The exodus which has gone on from the countryside, apart from the low standard of wages, has often been increased by the discreditable hagglings that have taken place in many of the county committees—hagglings over pennies and twopences and so forth—and have discredited the whole thing. The industry has often been very badly represented by its spokesmen. I confess I am glad that the noble Lord stood out against the argument which, as far as I understood, was addressed to him at some meeting by somebody on behalf of the National Farmers' Union against the national minimum: that there might be some districts that could not pay, and that there might even be individual farmers—the noble Lord's words—who might find it difficult to pay the minimum. We must have an industry and we must have an agricultural system under which every competent farmer can pay sufficient wages to keep his workers in decency and comfort. If he cannot, there is something wrong either with the farmer or with the industry. We cannot accept, therefore, the argument of the National Farmers' Union that we should trim our legislation down to the level of the most incompetent farmer.
§ LORD ADDISON
I have heard this argument many times. I know that it was not put in that way, but I am protesting against it. I am speaking because I have heard it so many times. It is high time that we began to look at these matters from a national rather than from a parochial point of view, and that is why I offer this sincere welcome to the principle of this Bill. The attitude which has been represented at different times up and down the country on some of the local committees was very aptly expressed by the honourable Member for the Don Valley in another place. He said this the other day, and I must be allowed to quote it because I think that it is so appropriate:The farmers love their employees,.ߪthey[...] appreciate their skill and their love of animals: indeed, they think there is no better 124 class on earth, and they are prepared to give them anything except a decent wage.That represents very accurately the kind of argument which I myself have read about in years gone by in the papers as having been advanced in some of the county committees. We shall be emancipated from that kind of thing now, I hope, and it will be for the good of us all and certainly to the advantage of the industry.
The present position of agriculture, of course, is the penalty that we are paying for our past neglects. We all share the responsibility. This drift has been going on for fifty years. I am glad that the Government are urging that we should plough up two million acres, and I hope that when that is ploughed up they will ask us to plough up another million or two; but the two biggest difficulties in the way, which I think the noble Lord will agree that most county committees are finding, are first of all the shortage of efficient and experienced labour, and secondly the great declension of the experience of farmers in many parts of the country in arable cultivation. In the county in which I live, for instance, I have heard of one estate of 9,000 acres that has gradually drifted down to grass, and on the whole estate there was only one horse-plough—that is all. It means that we are confronted there with a shortage of implements, and we are confronted, of course, with an immense shortage of people who know how to use them, because the labourers have gone; they have simply dwindled away and are no longer there. It is up to us to support the efforts that the Government are making to get mole drainage done, for example, but I was told the other day of farmers who have good schemes and who are prepared to contribute to them but who cannot find the men who are skilled in doing the work. That applies to many of the numerous branches of agricultural work—thatching, draining and all sorts of other operations, all highly skilled, where the men have just dwindled away. That is going to be our big difficulty. It is very easy for a skilled man to go, but it is mighty difficult to replace him. That is, I am afraid, going to be our difficulty during the rest of the war period and afterwards.
I think that some of those who apprehend trouble arising out of the national 125 minimum wage would be well advised to read the most interesting figures that were quoted in another place in the debate on the Second Reading of this Bill by the honourable Member for the Forest of Dean, who I happen to know is a highly skilled and most competent farmer. His books, he said, show that in working a dairy herd his labour costs were 28 per cent.; for feeding cattle, 25 per cent.; for sheep, 23 per cent.; for the production of wheat, 35 per cent. He went on to say that the increase of the minimum wage to 40s. a week would mean in his county a rise of 2s. and he said that the burden was trivial; it would amount to about £10 a year per man for the whole of his herd, and it was a very much smaller increase in costs than had been experienced lately by the increase in the post of feeding-stuffs of from £2 to £3 a ton. The increase in the cost of feeding-stuffs to which everyone has to submit—for quite good reasons, I dare say—will be a far bigger burden on the farmer than the increase in many counties to a minimum wage, to take the figure given by the noble Lord, of 40s. a week.
I am afraid that farmers as a class have not been accustomed to keep very accurate books, and not many of them really know how big an ingredient in their costs labour is. Our experience in the last war with regard to munitions, when we obtained by cost accountants an exact analysis of costs, was that it was really most astonishing to find what a small proportion of the costs in regard even to a very complicated machine were represented by labour—much smaller than one would have expected. I am quite sure that that is so also in farming operations, if they are skillfully conducted. I hope that the noble Lord and his Department, having introduced this Bill as an item, and an important item, in affording safeguards and security to agricultural workers, will very soon set about the fashioning of schemes for augmenting the supply of labour on the land. I am quite sure that although we have had a winter of almost unprecedented adversity so far as ploughing is concerned, as this increased acreage of ploughed land comes under tillage, it will mean, and is meaning, a rapidly increasing demand for labour. In every county I think it will be found that in many occupations there is a large number of men who have an 126 agricultural bias. For instance, I know a county where there are some large brickyards, and almost all the labourers in the brickyards came from farms. The same thing applies in many other counties. The problem is to entice a sufficient proportion of this labour, a great deal of which is unemployed in some places even now, back to the land. But more than all we shall want training. I hope that county committees will be given every possible help—as I believe they are going to be given help—to organise groups of workers, and I am sure that the Ministry will see that standard arrangements are adhered to so far as wages and conditions are concerned.
Finally, I think there is hope that the Government will not lose sight of the desirability of dealing with agriculture not so much by bits and pieces, but by some comprehensive scheme of policy. I believe that that is the only way in which after the war we shall be saved from a repetition of the disaster of 1921. The disaster of 1921 was not so much the repeal of the War Acts on the Statute Book as the presentation to the industry of a vacuum in place of them, because no alternative policy had been thought of or prepared beforehand, or at all events such as was prepared was stampeded out of existence, as I happen to know, by what was called the economy campaign. But at any rate, now is the time when the Government, if they can, should set about casting agricultural policy in such a form that we shall get sufficient continuity. I believe that the debates in this House and elsewhere show that there is a very large measure of agreement among people who understand these problems as to what the essentials of a vital and lasting national policy are. There are some differences on questions of ownership of land, but there are very large numbers of matters on which there is substantial agreement, and it is, I believe, above all things desirable that we should try to work towards the formulation of a policy which will not be interrupted when the war ends, because we shall only replace during a generation or two, even under the best circumstances, the great amount of agricultural skill and the multitude of agricultural workers which we have lost from the land. We shall have to restore the tradition, and above all make life in the homes worth living, so 127 that the children will not have to go away. That means that the policy must be thought of, not in terms of a year or two, but in terms of a generation.
§ 4.53 p.m.
§ LORD GAINFORD
My Lords, on behalf of the Liberal Party I desire to say that we are thoroughly in sympathy with the principle of this Bill, and we hope it will rapidly reach the Statute Book. There is one point I want to emphasize—namely, the importance not merely of retaining the agricultural worker on the land by giving him an adequate wage, but of doing something to encourage more workers to go on to the land, because unfortunately, from one cause or another, there has been an enormous exodus of agricultural workers from the land in recent years. The food of the country in a time of war is absolutely essential. The more we can produce the better it will be for the nation, and the easier it will be for us to secure victory against our enemy.
I have had my attention recently called to the inducement to which the noble Lord who introduced the Bill referred at the commencement of his speech—namely, that there were attractions offered to agricultural labourers and to other workers to enter into arrangements with contractors and others who are erecting factories, munition works, aerodromes and so on throughout the country. I know of a case where hundreds of miners have been induced by one of the Government Departments to leave a colliery on account of the higher wages offered through Government Departments. It seems to me that when we require the production of every possible ounce of coal in order to supply our munition works and produce the munitions of war, it is absurd to attract away a large number of colliers by the offer of higher wages. Similarly, for Government Departments to offer higher wages to induce men to leave agriculture is fatal to the national interest, but I am afraid that is being done at the present time. I have before now in your Lordships' House drawn attention to the way in which even county councils and others offer high wages to men merely to trim the high roads of this country, cut little grass edgings away and sweep them up, and pay them 5os. or more a week, and 128 take them from the farms, where they might be employed at a lower wage doing very much more valuable work.
The only suggestion I have to make to His Majesty's Government is that they should try to induce the Minister of Food, who I am sorry is no longer in his place, and the Board of Agriculture to get into touch with the Ministry of Labour and prevent them from allowing men to leave these most vital industries in order to produce other materials which they in their wisdom think are also essential. I believe food is the most essential of all, and therefore it is most desirable that the men who know something about agriculture should be retained in that industry. That is the main point on which I rose to address your Lordships. I trust that the Minister of Labour will see that the men, many of whom are now unemployed, will be directed to agriculture, or at any rate will be employed by the various contractors, instead of taking men away from such a vital industry as agriculture.
§ 4.58 p.m.
§ LORD NOEL-BUXTON
My Lords, my noble friend Lord Addison very truly said that the project which is before us to-day is only part of any agricultural scheme as properly viewed, and as viewed by the Labour Party. Yet it is a proposal of very great importance, and the noble Lord in charge of the Bill has not exaggerated that. The Bill undoubtedly pays a great compliment to the Labour Party and perhaps, as I was the Minister responsible for the Bill in 1924, I may for a moment recall the background to this plan which is before us to-day. Sir Reginald Dorman-Smith put the case in a nutshell in another place when he said:We are losing far too many of our best land workers, and the main reason is that wages are low, very low, as compared with wages in other industries.The Corn Production Act of 1917 represented the first attempt to do justice by State action to the agricultural labourer. It is curious that there had not been previous attempts, or successful attempts. There were at the beginning of the last century, at the time of the Napoleonic wars, proposals to regulate agricultural wages, but they were defeated in favour of the plan to subsidise wages out of local rates, and not till 1917 did we see another Governmental proposal.
129 The noble Lord, Lord Denham, has referred to the disaster to agriculture represented by the repeal of that Act. It was a disaster of the first class, and perhaps as memorable to farmers as to labourers. The farmers were let down in unparalleled fashion, particularly those who had bought their farms, often with borrowed money, because of high prices and were suddenly stranded. That experience explains the hesitation and fear they feel to-day. That is a great difficulty the Government have to get over, because when we learn from the noble Lord the reassuring things the Prime Minister said the other day, I seem to remember almost exactly the same words during the last war. The most specific promises were given that agriculture would never be down, and we remember who were the Ministers who said these things. That is a very practical difficulty, but the Government have landed themselves in that difficulty and must reassure the industry by some new means if confidence is to be obtained.
The labourers, of course, were frightfully let down. Following 1921 there was the most cruel fall in wages, and in many counties where the wage had been over 40s. it fell to 24s. When I brought in the Bill in 1924 I remember being obliged to quote certain cases where farm wages had fallen in some instances—I do not say in many—to 20s. There followed two years of neglect which must be recorded. That was the situation in which the Labour Government found themselves when we came into office at the beginning of 1924. We naturally proposed the restoration of the National Board, but in Committee we found that no majority existed for that proposal nor for a minimum wage of any kind. Many were inclined to drop the Bill altogether. To have dropped it would certainly have served an electioneering purpose. It would have been very easy to throw the blame on other Parties, to let the grievance increase, and probably to secure the Labour vote on a greater scale at some subsequent election. But perhaps I might claim that statesmanship prevailed, and we decided on compromise, to make the best of the situation and attempt at least to deal with the major evil.
The result was the present Act, which has worked with a great measure of general satisfaction now for a large 130 number of years. I remember when the Act was passed farm labourers in Norfolk, who had been, of course, following their union leaders in supporting the idea of a minimum wage and a National Board, coming to me in almost desperate anxiety and asking, "Can you promise that in a short time the minimum wage will have got up to 30s?" It took some years before the lowest paid counties did get up to 30s. but happily they all did in course of time, and the situation was saved from disaster. To have done nothing would have meant a greater flight from the land than we have seen, and greater difficulty now that we are at war. The noble Lord has stated the urgency of the matter and it cannot be overstated.
It is very urgent from the point of view of national economy, and it is also most urgent from the point of view of what we might call justice. It is an extraordinary thing that a low wage in agriculture is a kind of tradition which is not based on reason. No one argues that an agricultural labourer is worth less than what is called a common labourer in many other trades. Indeed the agricultural labourer is very often a highly skilled man, a man you cannot replace by what is called a common labourer. None of your Lordships would dream of paying an under-gardener in some counties what is considered the traditional and proper thing for a farm labourer, much less would any of your Lordships pay an under-gamekeeper anything like the wage which, for some extraordinary historical reason, it is thought natural farm labourers should be paid. Yet it has been thought right, and in some circles it is still thought right, that the farm labourer's wage should be radically different, fantastically different, from the wage paid to large classes of men whose work is not more difficult or more laborious.
There is just one point I should like to urge on the Minister, and that is the great necessity of seeing that when the Act is passed it is carried out. The Minister will find that though he can fix a wage by law, it is not so easy to get it paid. Evasion after 1924 proved widespread, and I remember bringing before your Lordships' House about 1932 the question of continuing the appointment of inspectors for the purpose of adequate administration of the law. In 1929, after five years, we found that evasion was 131 so amazingly prevalent that we appointed a large number of inspectors to carry out the work of administration on a special system. The Coalition Government dropped that system, and my noble friend Lord Denham will need all his energy to see that the law becomes the law. If the shortage of labour is urgent now, what would it have been if the Agriculture Wages Act had not been passed by the Labour Government? Let us wish all success to this Bill. It is a tardy Bill, but it certainly stands for national safety, and it stands for justice to farm labourers.
§ 5.9 p.m.
§ VISCOUNT BLEDISLOE
My Lords, I rise particularly to emphasize the fact that the agricultural land owners of this country, to which class I am proud myself to belong, have viewed with considerable distress for many years past the very low rate at which agricultural workers and estate workers have been remunerated so far as their money remuneration is concerned. On behalf of the Central Landowners' Association, of which I am the sole surviving founder, I should like to say that we welcome this Bill so far as it ensures a reasonable remuneration to the more skilled and competent agricultural and estate workers of this country. I should like, indeed, to congratulate the Minister of Agriculture on his courage in introducing this Bill at this time. Equally I should like, if I may, to congratulate and thank the noble Lord who introduced the Bill in this House for what I may call the invigorating optimism with which he foreshadowed a happier rural aspect than has been encountered in England and Wales for at least three generations past. What gives me hope, after entertaining some apprehension on the matter, that the leaving of the fixation of a minimum wage to a central authority is a proper course, is that the mere fact that it is a central authority will throw a much greater responsibility on the Government for the time being to see that the industry is maintained in a sufficiently prosperous condition to enable it to pay the wages which this Bill appears to adumbrate.
There is only one respect in which the speeches of noble Lords opposite have a little bit disappointed me. My noble friend who introduced this Bill repeated, 132 I think not for the first time, the assurance not merely of the Minister of Agriculture, but what was of far greater importance, of the Prime Minister of this country, that the industry of agriculture would not be let down after the war, and that prices would be sufficiently maintained, so far as it was possible for the Government to ensure it, to enable all sections of the agricultural community to obtain a due reward for their services. But the difficulty is that Prime Ministers come and go, and there is no certainty whatever that the Prime Minister who has given the country that assurance will be the Prime Minister in command of the Government after the war. Now where I am disappointed with my noble friends opposite is that I had hoped that they would come down to this House to give an assurance that if the Labour Party came into office after the war they would be prepared to endorse the assurance that has been given by our Prime Minister. On that footing I should feel perfect confidence in regard to the operation of this Bill and in the contemplation of a much more prosperous era for our most important and most vital industry.
§ LORD ADDISON
May I interrupt to say to the noble Viscount that if he reads the Labour Party's statement of policy he will find it expressed just as clearly and just as emphatically as the Prime Minister expressed it, and that statement was formulated not in a time of war?
§ VISCOUNT BLEDISLOE
If I may take that sympathetic interruption to mean that so far as my noble friend Lord Addison is concerned he at any rate will use his influence to see that that assurance is implemented in days to come by the Party he represents in this House, I admit that that is the most I can expect, at any rate in the course of the present debate. There is another class that I suggest has served this country faithfully and well in the rural areas for many generations past and of whose resources no account is taken in this Bill. Quite frankly, I refer to the landowning class, many of whom sit in this House. They are to-day a relatively impoverished class of the community, but upon them depends the immense responsibility of maintaining the equipment of the majority of the farms of this country. That equipment has seriously deteriorated during the 133 last twenty or thirty years and is to-day not in a condition to enable the tenant farmers to obtain the maximum output of food for the nation during this period of great emergency.
What I think one is entitled to ask is this, that pending the time when some scheme of nationalisation is put into operation, the ultimate effect of this Wages Bill, or any attempt to assure the farmer or labourer a better reward for his national service, shall not operate in the direction of further deterioration of farm equipment owing to the inability, through the non-maintenance of rents, on the part of the landowner to do his part in the process of maintaining the output of the food of the land. Your Lordships are bound to bear that factor in mind. We are reluctant as politicians to refer to it, but two-thirds of the capital equipment of the agricultural land of this country is in the hands of the agricultural landowners, and therefore it is only fair to say that if the machine is to work equitably it must not, in the national interests, work in the direction of the further deterioration of that industrial equipment without which the farms of this country cannot furnish the public with what they require. The agricultural industry in this country—shame to all Governments!—is to-day a mendicant industry. It has to go cap in hand to Government after Government and ask for subsidies, ask for some artificial system by which the wage rates shall be increased, owing to the obvious inability of the profits of farming to render such an increase or even maintenance possible without Government intervention. It does no credit to this country that agriculture, its most vital industry, is a mendicant industry.
I, for my part, look forward to the time when the leaders of all Parties can get together and say that in the national interest agriculture must be put upon a sound footing, and enabled, by ordinary economic process, to yield a profit to the agricultural employer comparable to what is obtained in any other industry, reasonable remuneration for the worker, and at least sufficient for owner of the equipment to get some low and yet reasonable rate of interest upon his capital expenditure. I look forward to the time when such a plan will be evolved, I hope during this war, and in the light of the 134 serious menace which we continually have to face as a nation owing to the decadence of our most vital industry. I hope that the Government will take their courage in both hands and point out to the public what is due to the industry, and enable it by more natural means to subsist on a level of welfare, if not prosperity, which will be comparable with that existing in other industries in the country.
The noble Lord who introduced this Bill went so far as to say that no more should we hear the cry: "Hands off the country's food!" I hope we shall not; but let me just remind my noble friend that for at least sixty years the people of this country have been having food at less than its true value. This applies more particularly to those industrialists who employ large masses of labour, who, during that period, have paid relatively low rates of wages because the food of their employees has been so cheap. That is not a healthy condition and that is not a condition which men of vision and statesmanship have any business to allow to continue in the days to come. I hope that we shall all, to whatever section of the community we belong, make up our minds that that condition shall not subsist after this war, but that the security of the nation shall be laid on the firm and sound foundation of the prosperity of the countryside and of a reasonable reward to all, be they labourers, farmers or landowners, who are doing their best to pull their weight in the national interest.
§ 5.21 p.m.
§ LORD HASTINGS
. My Lords, I feel sure your Lordships will forgive me if I should say anything which any noble Lord has said before because I found myself under the necessity of keeping an engagement while the noble Lord, the Parliamentary Secretary, was speaking. Therefore I have not had the advantage of hearing those who have preceded me in this debate. The introduction of this measure is not only one which I should not propose to oppose, but it so happens that it has been my ambition for a very great many years to see the status—not only the wages but the status—of the workers on the land raised to one which is at least comparable to that of the workers in industry. If this measure should contribute to that end I shall be one of many who will welcome its success, for if there has been one thing more than another which has gravely disturbed 135 all those whose heart is in the land, it has been that those who produce the food of the country should be regarded as being on any lower plane than those who merely eat it.
With that preliminary I should like to say that personally I am disappointed with this Bill, because if we are to have a Central Wages Board at all, I conceive that it ought to do more than this Bill is going to allow it to do. The mere fixation of a minimum wage—hedged about as it is with the opportunities of both raising and diminishing that wage—is really a very trifling power. It strikes me that in these days, when the agricultural worker is represented by a powerful union, the existence of a Central Wages Board should give the opportunity of negotiating with that union on many other subjects than that merely of wages. Hours were mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Denham, in the earlier part of his speech, which I heard, and doubtless hours can be and have been in the past always negotiated by the county committees. But now, in time of war, let us take this matter of hours into consideration.
In the spring time of the year there is nothing more urgent than that every man should work all the hours of which he is physically capable on the land. It is quite true to say that there is nothing to prevent employer and employed agreeing on what hours shall be worked, and truly there are many instances to-day where overtime is being readily paid by the employer and the employee is with equal readiness giving longer hours. But that does not apply universally. Where there is disagreement, on a large or minor scale, between employed and employer, it may be that employees are not willing to give longer hours and it may also be that the financial misery of the employer does not enable him to pay overtime wages. If there was a Central Wages Board which could come to an agreement with the trade union of the labourer as to what hours he should work, or the minimum hours he should be reasonably permitted to work, incentive would be given to all those farms where agreement has not been reached and the country would be enormously benefited by such agreement having been reached.
There is one aspect of the matter to which, if your Lordships will allow me. I 136 would like to draw attention, even though it is quite possible that attention has been drawn to it already. I do not propose to elaborate it at any length, but I would like to say that it would be the greatest error to suppose that agricultural workers are employed only by farmers. I have no doubt the noble Lord, Lord Denham, in the course of his speech, addressed himself to the question of the correlation of prices and wages. He must have done so. I can take that for granted. In so far as the actual cultivator of the soil is concerned—that is to say, the occupier, be he owner or tenant—he may look, I hope, with confidence to a price scale which will compensate him for the wages which he will find himself under the necessity of paying under the direction of the Central Wages Board. Quite obviously that must be so, for as no man can produce at a loss, any contrary view would merely ensure that the country's food supplies would discontinue to be grown. I therefore can take that as a sine qua non.
But it should be understood by the House that the minimum rate of wages fixed by an agricultural wages committee—and still more by a Central Wages Committee—is the minimum rate for rural workers of every kind. That is quite rightly so and I am not making any complaint about it. Whatever minimum wage the agricultural worker is to enjoy is going to be the minimum wage of every rural worker, whether he be woodman, sawyer, maker of bricks, bricklayer, carpenter, blacksmith—and dare I in this House mention a gamekeeper? All these classes will have their wages based as to the minimum upon the wages fixed by the Central Wages Board. As it is the obvious purpose of this Bill to raise the wages of the agricultural worker, so, automatically, the wages of every rural worker will be raised throughout Great Britain. How are those wages going to be paid? Here I make bold to say that there is not a landowner in this kingdom who does not look forward to the prospect of the rural worker enjoying a higher standard of life than that which he now enjoys. Nobody wishes to keep him down. It is to the advantage of the countryside that all should be prosperous. But the wages have to be paid and as I am quite certain that the rural landowner employs in the 137 aggregate practically the same number of agricultural workers and rural workers as does the cultivator of the soil, it may be well to inquire how those wages are going to be paid.
It is well known that in the ordinary way the agricultural landlord pays for the maintenance of his estate out of rents and the ordinary man might say that if his expenses are greater rents must be put higher. Anyone with experience of landowning, however, will know that the problem is how to collect existing rents, not how to raise them. There is nothing as far as I know any Statute which prevents landowners raising rents, but even if a landowner wished to do that, it would take about eighteen months to do it and it would be difficult to do, because his greatest difficulty is to collect the low rents at present fixed. So where are these wages coming from? It is not for me to propound a solution for what I believe is an almost insoluble problem, but I should like to warn this House that, in doing what they feel to be right towards agricultural workers, the Government may be bringing about just that which is most undesirable at the present time: the diminution of the money available for the maintenance of those agricultural houses and premises without which agriculture cannot function properly. The difficulty of maintaining estates has been for a number of years past, and is at the present time, very great.
I was surprised that my noble friend Viscount Bledisloe did not refer to this matter in the course of his speech, because I know that he feels deeply on this subject. Already the burden of cost has risen beyond the capacity of the landowners to carry it, and if that burden of cost is to be raised by increasing wages—and that, of course, is the most effective way of raising it—then it will be so great that the landowner will not be able to play his very important part in the triune which make up the agricultural community. It would not be right, I think, on the occasion of the passage of a Bill of this kind if that subject were burked. It has got to be faced, and it would be of no use telling landowners later on that they were not playing their part or performing their function when, by reason of action taken to benefit the 138 actual workers upon the land itself, with the other hand by Acts of this kind the landowner is prevented from playing his part and keeping up those buildings without which the farm cannot be farmed. It is going to be a very serious problem, with which this House will have to deal. It is not put forward by me in any Party spirit; I am not even at the moment upholding the landowner against anybody else. I am merely trying to present the problem which is bound to arise, and to arise universally.
Before I sit down there is one other matter to which I would refer. I think it is generally recognised in this House and in another place, and indeed all over the country, that one of the greatest essentials, not only to prosperous agriculture but to a comfortable countryside—if I can use those words, which I think are the most impressive—is that the housing in the country should be both good and adequate. Does the House realise that at the present time the cottage rent which an employer of labour can charge his employee, or can charge a tenant farmer for occupation by his employee, is limited, except, I believe, in two counties, to 3s. a week? Many of us in this House have had a great deal of experience in maintaining rural houses, because very few landowners to-day are not ambitious to improve their housing. We all know how wretched it is. But at 3s. a week, which is the limit of the rent, how can we do anything? And I would point this out to your Lordships, that from that 3s. have to be deducted the rates. Does anybody realise that the owner of the cottage let at this exiguous sum actually pays the rates? He does, and when that is done and his collection charges are met, what is left—not for himself, that does not matter; but what is left for the maintenance of the buildings in repair? It cannot be done, and it is an absurdity. Nothing contributes so much to the deterioration of rural housing as this absurd limitation of cottage rents. It would be to everybody's interest if the Central Board could deal with a matter of that kind. The worker in the countryside—not only the agricultural labourer—ought to be in a position to rent a house at such a figure as will enable the owner of that house to keep the chimney-pot on it and the house in decent repair. Until that is done, we shall make no headway.
139 The anomalies which exist to-day in the countryside in this matter of housing are really absurd. Where an employer has a certain number of cottages and puts his own men in them, those men pay 3s. a week. But he may not have enough, and one or other of his men will be hiring a cottage in the village from some small proprietor of cottage property. Such men will pay up to 8s. and 9s. a week for those cottages. The discrepancies which exist between the position of one man and of another are absurd—men who are doing the same work may pay a weekly rent varying from 3s. to 8s. for their houses. That is really ridiculous. That is one of the kind of subjects that ought to be dealt with by a Board that could deal with it centrally, and discuss it with the Farmers' Unions, the landowners, and the trade union representing the employees.
One word in closing. It came out: "discuss it with the landowners," and that is what led me to think of this. The landowner, after all, represents a very important section of the agricultural community. He contributes the capital, whether he is the owner who lets land to a tenant, or the owner who occupies the land himself; he contributes the capital without which the land cannot be fanned. He is not represented on this Central Wages Board. I know that in the past no claim for representation has ever been made. I am not sure that on the county wages committees representation direct by landowners would even have been desirable, but I do think that, when you are having a Central Wages Board set up which in the nature of things is going to have to deal with a great many more things than this wretched little Bill entrusts to them, the landowners' organisation ought to be represented, so that these questions which I have endeavoured to raise as briefly as I could in your Lordships' House should be dealt with there and discussed, and any action taken by the Central Wages Board should be at least taken with full knowledge. I thank your Lordships for having allowed me to intervene.
§ 5.36 p.m.
My Lords, there is still one phase of this Bill which has not received treatment yet, and that is the position of the women workers. The 140 noble Lord who introduced the Bill did refer lightly to the subject, and suggested that, inasmuch as the position of younger workers was not specifically dealt with by the National Wages Board, so it was not necessary to deal with the women workers. But I think that is taking rather a narrow view, especially at this present time. I am speaking now of the full-time, able-bodied, reasonably aged women, to the tune of some forty thousand odd, who now work on the farms and whose numbers we desire very much to increase during the present crisis. These women and their representatives say, and can say quite fairly: "You class us with the boys, you class us with the old men. The Bill, it is true, says that in fixing our rate you must have regard to the national datum line; that is laid down, but there you leave us."
It is quite impossible for those who are trying to draw women into the industry as hard as they can to say to any given girl who may turn up: "Now you can be sure of your 35s."—or whatever sum it may be. The result of that in actual practice is, I am told, that parents are very much hesitating to let their girls go into the industry, and there is no doubt whatever that the supply of those girls is most necessary if we are to carry on during this war. To those who do not live in the country it is almost unbelievable how denuded of labour we have already become. I do think that this particular facet of the question ought to receive more careful consideration, and I rather hope that the word "worker," or some general word, may be substituted for the word "man." That is all I have to say, except to join in the general welcome that the recognition of the agricultural worker has at last taken place by means about which for the moment I am not concerned to argue.
§ 5.40 p.m.
§ LORD DENHAM
My Lords, I should like first of all to thank your Lordships for the general reception which this Bill has had, and especially would I thank those of your Lordships who have made such interesting speeches and who have raised so many points, every one of which will, I can promise, receive very careful consideration by the Government. The noble Lord, Lord Addison, rejoiced that at long last those of us who are in the Government had been converted to the faith; but it is not, I think, necessarily 141 true that what is found to be necessary today was best for the country sixteen years ago. However, I do not want to dwell on that point, because I am delighted that he gave such a strong welcome to the Bill, and it was only natural that he should refer to the fact that his own Party's measure of 1924, to which I tried to do full justice, did in fact centre, as it was originally introduced, on the very principle which is the centre of this Bill.
The noble Lord went on to say that the hours of agricultural workers ought to be taken into consideration by the Central Wages Board, and he hinted, I think, that he was going to put down an Amendment to that effect. We shall, of course, go into that matter at greater length when we see the terms of the Amendment; but in passing I should like to say that in our view the question of wages is one which through the years has varied from county to county, and we think that it can best be left to the consideration of the county wages committees, always bearing in mind that those county wages committees will have the datum line of the national minimum wage as their guiding principle.
The noble Lord then spoke of the difficulties of the county agricultural committees, first of all as regards shortage of labour and secondly as regards the inexperience of a great number of farmers who have no recent knowledge, at any rate, of arable farming. No one, of course, can speak with greater authority than he can, because we all know, or at least I know, the splendid work that he has been doing as chairman of the county war agricultural executive committee in Buckinghamshire. It is perfectly true, as he says, that there is this shortage of labour. He went on to express the hope that the Government will set about some schemes to augment the supply of labour. I can assure the noble Lord that the Government are daily exercised in that direction. The Women's Land Army has now increased to over 6,000 actual trained workers, and, as he probably knows, a Women's Auxiliary Land Army is also being formed.
The Ministry of Labour is in constant contact with the Minister of Agriculture in order to try to obviate the difficulty which has been referred to by more than one noble Lord, the difficulty of men being taken away from instead of being 142 persuaded by the Ministry of Labour to remain on the land, or indeed to go on to the land if they are not there already. In addition to this, the Government are sending round to the county war agricultural executive committees instructions about the formation of gang labour. I dare say that the noble Lord, Lord Addison, will have already received the instructions which have gone out. That will be, I think, an interesting development, and probably a most helpful one. Moreover, concrete plans have been set on foot and are now nearing fruition whereby schoolboys of all ages, or at any rate of all ages that might make them useful in agriculture, are being mobilised, not only in the holidays, but also, perhaps, for two or three days or two or three half-days in the week. I read only this morning in the newspapers that the City of Birmingham has already planned to mobilise 12,000 schoolboys in order to add to the army of workers who are looking after the prospects of the harvest in that part of England.
The noble Lord went on to say that what he wants is a comprehensive policy for agriculture, and not merely bits and pieces, and he concluded by saying that we must have continuity. I entirely agree when he talks about continuity, and I rather agree with what my noble friend behind me said, that that is the essence of all that the Government are doing to-day, that no longer must we fear any relapse after the war, but that whatever Government are in power we must be assured that there will be continuity of policy.
The noble Lord, Lord Gainford, blessed the Bill, for which I am grateful, and talked about the competing attractions of the wages of other industries, and of course that is perfectly true. Cases have come to my notice where wages of £4 and £5 a week, mostly on piecework, have been offered to agricultural workers in order to induce them to leave the land. I touched upon that in my original speech. He asked us to get into touch with the Ministry of Labour, and I can assure him that everything is being done week by week in that regard. The noble Lord, Lord Noel-Buxton, also rejoiced at our conversion to the true faith, but he seemed to question our pledges to avoid a post-war slump. I should like to ask him again, as I asked the House 143 originally, what more can an honest Prime Minister say than the Prime Minister did say to that great meeting of chairmen of war agricultural executive committees on February 28 last? No Prime Minister can know whether he will be in power at the end of a war, and no Prime Minister can commit a future Government; but I submit to your Lordships that the words of the Prime Minister's pledge which I read out were as conclusive as they could possibly be of the Government's intention to play fair and square with the whole agricultural industry.
The noble Viscount, Lord Bledisloe, welcomed the Bill on behalf of the Central Landowners' Association and commented on my invigorating enthusiasm, but I could not but be enthusiastic about this measure. It is a measure which, as the noble Lord, Lord Hastings, pointed out, affects all the three parties in agriculture, and I think that the passing of this measure will be a landmark in our agricultural history. The noble Viscount finished his speech by talking of agriculture as a mendicant industry. Well, this Government are not solely responsible for that. It has been said in the course of the debate this afternoon that probably all Governments have been to a certain extent responsible in the past. What I venture to suggest to your Lordships that we must do to-day is to look forward with complete serenity and enthusiasm to the future, in order that, in spite of the mistakes of the past, we may now build on firm and sure foundations.
Then there was a most interesting speech, as there always is, from my noble friend Lord Hastings, who welcomed the Bill as calculated to raise the status of the agricultural worker. The ambition to raise the status of the agricultural worker is, I can assure your Lordships, dear to the heart of the Government. He was disappointed, he said, with the Bill because in his opinion the Central Wages Board was not given enough power. In framing the Bill the Government could have done many things. They could have framed the Bill precisely as they thought the Bill should be framed, or they could have taken the line which in fact they did take, which was to try to found the Bill upon the greatest possible measure of agreement which was to be found as existing between the agricultural workers on 144 the one side and the farmers on the other. The noble Lord went on to say that the central minimum wage will react on all other wages paid to men in the countryside, and that all will rise, and he queried how the wages would be paid and where the money was to come from. This is a most interesting aspect of this great question, and while the Government recognise that the standard of life of all who live in the countryside will probably be raised as a result of this Bill, they will, anyhow, give very serious consideration not only to this point, but also to the most interesting points my noble friend raised about rural housing and about the possible representation of landlords on the National Wages Board.
Then my noble friend Lord Phillimore raised the question of the women workers. I do not know that I need add anything to what I said originally on that question. I think it will be worth while watching to see what will be the outcome of the new harmonious relations which are to be established between the Central Board on the one side and the county wages committees on the other. It is my firm belief that the county wages committees, acting on the datum line given to them by the Central Wages Board, will play fair not only by the women workers but by the juveniles and every other class, and with every other question which will come up to them for consideration and settlement. Again let me thank your Lordships for the kind reception you have given to this Bill. The Government attach great importance to it, and I hope that it will have a speedy passage to the Statute Book.
§ On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.
§ House adjourned during pleasure and resumed by the LORD CHANCELLOR.