HL Deb 14 October 1941 vol 120 cc231-8

had given Notice that he would call the attention of His Majesty's Government to the need for immediately increasing the minimum wages paid to agricultural labourers; and also move for Papers. The noble Earl said: My Lords, it is with some trepidation that I venture to address your Lordships, because I can lay no claim to the gift of oratory for which this House is so well renowned; but I must ask for your indulgence, since the subject matter about which I want to speak is, as I am sure your Lordships will agree, of great importance. Farming has, I am afraid, been a neglected Cinderella for many years. She has only now been recognised as the most desirable of her productive sisters, and I can only hope that her Prince Charming, in the form of the Minister of Agriculture, will not be laggard in his attentions.

In 1936 there were about 3,000,000 fewer acres of land in cultivation than in 1921. That is not an encouraging picture of British agriculture. About half of those acres, I understand, were put down to grass; the other half have been built on or have become derelict. At the same time, it is a sad thought that medical evidence has shown that a large proportion of our population was undernourished and in vital need of food in those years; but if food was necessary in those days, how much more is it necessary to-day! It is, I would suggest, absolutely vital to us both for victory and for existence. We can well congratulate ourselves on the amount of food which is coming in across the Atlantic; we can be proud of the life-line kept open by the very gallant work of the Royal Navy, the Royal Air Force and the Merchant Navy, and we can be very grateful for the most generous help which has been given to us by the United States of America; but to rely on this life-line being kept open without interruption would be madness. If we want to survive, we must build up the agriculture of this country, and we must establish what will probably be for us the most important front of any.

The difficulties of the farmer have, I think, always been under-estimated. He has to contend with many incalculable factors, like the weather. Rain can never be depended upon, and the crop which he has carefully nursed may well be killed in one night through an unseasonable frost. Blight and disease may attack his crops and his herds. Not only that, but the general shortage of capital suffered by the agricultural community before the war has added greatly to his difficulties. Capital outlay was impossible; some of his machinery became obsolete, and, as a result, and owing also to the burden of tithes, which fall only on the agricultural community, and of debts and mortgages contracted as a result of these difficulties, many acres went out of cultivation, and herds were very often dispersed, to the great loss of this country.

Probably the greatest cause of the low-ness of the wages of agricultural workers was the poverty of farmers before the war, and this difficulty was increased and exaggerated at the beginning of the war, when industrial wages rose quite considerably. During the first nine months of this war, in fact, approximately 70,000 persons left agriculture, either for better-paid industrial work or for the Services. While this was happening, however, there was a great drive for increased cultivation, and many additional acres were brought into cultivation, which had to be coped with by a very much diminished supply of agricultural workers. For example, I am told that in Norfolk during the two war years over 70,000 acres have been brought back into cultivation. In Devon, where over a thousand agricultural labourers left the land either for industry or for the Services, as many as 214,000 acres have been broken up, which is a magnificent achievement. The agricultural labourers have taken on this extra work and have done their best to perform what they look upon as their duty to their country, but I cannot be surprised that deep resentment is beginning to be felt among them in that they feel that their case has been neglected and that they have become the subject of definitely unfair treatment.

With all this harder work, with the fact that the machinery of agriculture is producing far more than it used to do, it has been estimated that agricultural efficiency increased by 50 per cent. between 1925 and the beginning of the war, and it is still increasing. But, with all that, the minimum wage in many parts of this country still remains at 48s. While industry is earning increased wages the agricultural minimum remains at the very low figure of 48s. But this is made worse by the artificial differences existing between different districts, for which, as far as I can see, there is no justification. In certain parts of England an agricultural labourer may look over the hedge and see another agricultural labourer doing the same job, in the same climate, under the same conditions, and yet getting perhaps 5s. or 6s. or 7s. more a week for it. For example, I understand that in Norfolk the county wages committee has increased the minimum wage to 54s. In Essex it is 54s. In Cambridgeshire it has gone up to 55s., and yet in Suffolk, adjoining, it is still 48s. Of course, it may be argued that different conditions justify different wages, that in certain counties where the soil is wetter and the work heavier for the labourer it is only fair that he should have a higher wage by way of compensation. But so far as I can see, this has not really been carried out, and it seems to me an arbitrary system. In any case what I am asking for is not a uniform wage but a minimum wage, which I suggest should be £3 a week throughout the whole country.

There is no reason why, if there is particularly difficult work, hard work or extra skilled work, the wage should not be increased, but at least that minimum wage would ensure that the agricultural labourer would have fair treatment for the extraordinarily important work which he is now doing. If the farmer cannot afford to pay this, surely it is the duty of the Government to ensure both that the farmer can make a reasonable profit and that he pays this minimum wage. I think great injustice is done unintentionally to the agricultural labourers by so many people who consider them as unskilled workers. In reality the work is highly skilled, it needs great adaptability. They have to cope with all sorts of problems, very often on the spur of the moment. If you took a garage mechanic and put him on the land, and told him to hoe a field of turnips, milk a cow, or lay a hedge, you would soon find that he was at a loss, and the skill needed would become apparent. That is one of the reasons why the Women's Land Army, which has done magnificent service, cannot really fulfil the functions of the men who have left the land. I should like here to make one suggestion, and that is that there should be a statutory alteration of the size of the sack of wheat. The sack of wheat, I think I am right in saying, all over the country weighs just over 150 lbs. This is a very heavy weight to handle even for a fit, strong man. It can be done, but it is very tiring. But in the case of an older man it is very difficult, and almost dangerous for him; in the case of women it is impossible. These sacks could be cut in half and one side sewn up, so that no more material would be needed. I think it would save a great deal of time on some farms where lorries are kept waiting because the stronger, younger men cannot be had to unload these sacks.

The life of the agricultural labourer is a very hard one. He has to be out in all weathers, and his day is from 6 o'clock to 5 o'clock, though more often it turns into 5.30 or 6, and in harvest times later. He is forced to work overtime in order to keep even his very low standard of living going. It is true that rents are low, but as against that you must remember that housing conditions are in many parts deplorably bad. Cottages that were built many years ago by people who cared little what conditions their labourers lived in, are still being used, often without light or water. I can remember one case some time ago of a labourer who after his day's work, had to put on a yoke, take two buckets, walk 200 yards to a well, wind up water from nearly 100 feet, fill those buckets and bring them back to his house. On washing day he had to do this twice and you can imagine how little these two buckets of water are to a house where there is a woman, perhaps a young baby and other small children. Conditions are getting better, but they are still, I am afraid, very bad in some districts. In many cases they have been worsened by the arrival of evacuees from the towns, who have been used to totally different conditions. These people find it extremely hard to adapt themselves, and in consequence make life even more difficult for the labourer's wife, and therefore for the labourer.

It is true that wages have risen, but I suggest that they have not risen nearly enough to compensate for the lower purchasing power of the pound. It is very difficult accurately to assess the changes in living costs, but certainly the official cost-of-living index shows that costs are up twenty points since a year ago. The agricultural price index since 1937 is up 53½ Per cent., and since June, 1940, it is up 24 per cent. This clearly raises difficulties for the labourer. If anyone will take an imaginary budget for a labourer with a wife and perhaps two or three children, take into consideration food, clothing, insurance, and all the other essentials, and try to make a weekly budget of 48s. or, for that matter, even £3 a week, he will see the difficulties. In addition the labourer is now often asked to go out at night after his work to do fire-watching, which is unpaid, or else to use what leisure he has for training himself to be an efficient A.R.P. worker or else to join the local Home Guard and patrol with them. I am sure this House sympathizes with the agricultural labourer to-day. I can only imagine that the reason why his condition has not been bettered is the fear of His Majesty's Government of creating an inflationary rise in prices, with higher wages leading to higher prices, higher prices leading to still higher wages, and so on.

I recognize that the spending power of the community must be limited so that work goes into war supplies and necessary exports, that wages are more easily controlled than prices, and therefore that wages must be controlled. I do not feel that this is a time to go into the question of economics, but I submit that the agricultural labourer's wage is so far below the normal skilled wage in industry that it should not come into the picture at all. It is one thing to keep down the standard of wages, but to penalize this small but important community would be creating such an injustice as to endanger the whole scheme. We are all united, I know, in our desire to win this war, to crush Nazism, and to stop that creed from ever again dominating and humiliating the people of this earth; but it will not be easy, it will need work, courage, sacrifice, and, above all, thought and organization. I beg His Majesty's Government to consider and to plan the system of agriculture in this country so that not one acre may be wasted, not one unit of man-power lost, and that the necessary supplies for our defence may be there in our hour of need. I beg to move for Papers.


My Lords, I should be lacking in my duty if I did not express to the noble Earl our appreciation and congratulations on the first occasion on which he has addressed this House, and I am certain your Lordships will join with me in hoping that he will take further part in the discussions which we carry on. The question which the noble Earl has raised is one which, I am quite certain, has the sympathy of all members of your Lordships' House, and it is, of course, one which is vital to a prosperous agriculture. My right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture made a very fair and balanced statement about it in a full debate which was held in another place a short while ago. In case the noble Earl who has placed this Motion on the Paper feels that it is the Government, and possibly in particular my Department, which is shelving the problem connected with this question, I can assure him that nothing could be further from the truth. It is a matter which we are always considering, and if I can add nothing to what my right honourable friend said on August 7, I would assure my noble friend that it is not because I am either unsympathetic to, or in disagreement with, the views he has expressed. It is due to the fact that the minimum agricultural wage, which is 48s., is to be reviewed by the Central Agricultural Wages Board in a very short time, early next month, and it would be improper for the Government, having set up an independent body to fix the minimum wage, to seek to influence its decisions.

As your Lordships are aware, the Government's policy in relation to wages and wage fixation has been laid down in the White Paper on "Price Stabilization and Industrial Policy." This laid down the principle that it is best to leave the various wages tribunals free to reach their decisions in accordance with their estimate of the relevant facts. The Government regard it as the duty of both sides in industry to take all possible measures to avoid inflation. This has been done and is being considered at this moment. The existing machinery for fixing agricultural wages has been reviewed and revised by Parliament since the outbreak of war. It takes the form of county agricultural wages committees, which are responsible for fixing agricultural minimum wage rates, subject to the national minimum wage fixed by the Central Agricultural Wages Board. A motion was tabled last April by the representatives of the agricultural workers, and put before the Board, proposing an increase in the national minimum wage from 48s. to 60s. per week. Mary meetings and many full discussions took place, but no agreement could be found between the workers' and the employers' representatives. In July the Board gave a fairly clear indication of their intention to increase the minimum wage, but left the determination of the amount of the increase till later in the year.

In the meantime, as the Board pointed out, there was no intention to prevent county agricultural wages committees from dealing with applications for wage increases in their areas. As the noble Lord said, and as most of your Lordships know, a great many counties in this country have increased the minimum wage. I should like to stress the fact that while 48s. is the minimum national wage, there are means, which I have just described, by which that can be and has been raised. In view of the Government's expressed policy in wage matters, it would clearly be wrong for my right honourable friend to intervene, especially as this matter is to be discussed and a decision, I hope, arrived at early in November. We must remember that an increase in the national minimum wage raises many other issues, and may well produce unforeseen repercussions. I should like to take this opportunity of expressing our thanks to the agricultural workers of this country for the amazing way in which they handled the harvest this year under very trying and very difficult conditions. As my right honourable friend has stated it is the Government's aim to ensure a prosperous agriculture after the war with a decent standard of living for all agricultural workers, I feel it is better, therefore, to step carefully now than to prejudice the future by rash actions.


My Lords, I think it would be as well if from this side of the House expression was given first to our congratulations to the noble Earl on his maiden speech, and, secondly, to make it quite clear that the sympathies of this side of the House also are with agricultural labourers, and that we regret as much as any of your Lordships that for the moment the agricultural labourer seems to have been to a certain extent the victim of circumstances and policies not directly affecting agriculture itself. I would go further and would join with the noble Earl in laying it down that the principal plank in our agricultural policy ought to be that the agricultural labourer receives a wage corresponding to that earnable in industry. I use the word "corresponding" in order to cover the various conditions in which the agricultural labourer works, and the differences between those conditions and the conditions of industrial workers, but I hope we are all agreed on both sides of the House that there can be no satisfactory solution of the agricultural problem unless the agricultural labourer does receive a corresponding wage. The noble Duke who answered for the Government has made it plain that it would be wrong for the Ministry which he represents to intervene on this occasion, but I do think the noble Earl has given us the opportunity of saying once more what we all feel upon this matter.


My Lords, I wish to express my great appreciation of the kind way in which my very simple speech has been received by noble Lords in this House, and also for the attention of the noble Duke opposite to my Motion and my views. I am very glad indeed to find sympathy on both sides of the House for what I have advocated. At the same time I cannot help feeling regret that some steps cannot be taken more immediately for the alleviation of the case of these men, who, it must be remembered, are now compelled to remain on the land and who are undoubtedly suffering a genuine grievance. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.