HL Deb 09 June 1943 vol 127 cc933-40

EARL MANVERS rose to call attention to anomalies arising from the insurance of school children employed in agriculture; and to move for Papers. The noble Earl said: My Lords, so many of your Lordships are interested in agriculture that you will not, I am sure, grudge me the few moments necessary to ventilate a farmer's grievance. As the House is aware, owing to the shortage of labour an understanding has been arrived at between the Ministry of Agriculture and the Board of Education whereby children, subject to their parents' consent, may be employed in agriculture. The purpose of this arrangement is not to help the farmers to make profits but to ensure the adequacy of the country's food supply. Nevertheless, the arrangement has been beneficial both to the farmers and to the children. The farmers have been able to obtain much-needed assistance at certain busy times of the year. The children have gained experience in agricultural matters. They have obtained an insight into the food situation which will probably stand them in good stead in later years, and they have undergone a process of education in a matter which cannot fail to concern everyone in this country. At the same time, these children have been enabled to earn satisfactory wages.

Some small trouble has arisen, however, on the subject of the insurance of the children engaged in this work. The rate of one penny per boy-hour which has been fixed in certain counties has proved unduly onerous. The children, I understand, get a wage of 5d. an hour, and one penny per boy-hour is added for insurance. The wage bill is thus increased by 20 per cent. Now the farmers claim first of all that they are already covered against accidents to casual labourers and that the war agricultural executive committees can easily satisfy themselves on this point. They also claim that the children, as a matter of fact, run no risk; that they are not employed with stock or machinery, and, therefore, they are in no danger of injury. Further, the farmers for whom I speak claim that in any case the rate of one penny per boy-hour is very high in comparison with the rate in certain other parts of the country, such as the Isle of Wight and Shropshire, where a much lower rate is charged. In Shropshire, I am informed, the agricultural committee has effected an insurance with the Royal Insurance Company for 10,000 boy-hours at the rate of 2S. 6d. per 100 boy-hours. That is to say, the charge is 3/10ths of a penny per boy-hour, as against one penny in the part of England from which I come. I am told, moreover, that in Shropshire there have been neither accidents nor claims.

I need not tell your Lordships that before troubling the House upon this matter I made a certain amount of local inquiries. I was told that there are farmers on the war agricultural committee in Nottinghamshire, that these farmers had agreed to the rate of one penny per boy-hour as being a fair rate, and that therefore there was no more to be said. But the answer to this may well be that farmers are not actuaries, that the rate of one penny is a good round figure, easily calculated, and would appeal to them for that reason, and that they have no more idea than you or I how far that penny per boy-hour will stretch in the matter of insurance. I am told that the penny covers not only insurance but also printing, stationery, forms and cards, teachers' out-of-pocket expenses and medical expenses. I am informed, too, that it covers payment to the children in respect of defaulting farmers. Your Lordships may or may not think it right that a defaulting farmer, if any such exists, should have his liabilities met by his trade competitors.

In order that the House may be convinced that the matter is really seriously felt, I propose to read just one short letter which has been received by my agent from a much respected tenant. He says: Will you kindly inform Earl Manvers that I consider that the rates for insurance charged for employers' liability in this country are most excessive—namely, 1d. per hour? I consider that this risk could be covered under casual labour by my own insurance company at approximately one-tenth of the rate charged by the education committee. Assuming that I employ twelve children on my farm for six days at four hours per clay the premium is 24s. a week. The usual premium charged by the tariff companies to cover all the risks to which an adult agricultural worker is exposed, including machinery and the working of horses, etc., is about one-tenth of the rate charged for these children, who are exposed to hardly any risk whatever. Your Lordships will perhaps ask how the Government come into this matter. In war-time, as we know to our joy, the Government have their finger in nearly every pie. There is a Board of Education circular, No. 1622, of February 19, 1943, which in paragraph 7 cites this arrangement of 1d. per hour with approval, and almost recommends it for universal adoption. We shall no doubt hear the view of the Ministry of Agriculture in a few moments from the noble Duke, the Duke of Norfolk, who has kindly undertaken to reply for the Government, and whose sympathy with the farmers is so well known. I beg to move for Papers.


My Lords, I should like first of all—and I feel it would be the wish of your Lordships that I should do so—to thank the noble Earl for raising this very important matter of the insurance of children in the agricultural industry. I welcome the fact that he has done so, not only because I hope to elucidate one or two points which are not quite clear, but also because I wish to take this opportunity of making an announcement which I trust will be of general interest. I must say, however, that I was slightly surprised at the line which the noble Earl took in his remarks, because it is my own impression that the farmers have been very gratified by the help which they have received from school children throughout the country, and that they are particularly indebted to the local education authorities and to the county war agricultural committees for their cooperation. I do not think that many of them have found the cost of insurance too great. In my Department we have received many representations urging us to see that proper protection is granted to the children who are employed, but we have had very few suggestions that the costs to the farmer are unduly heavy.

The noble Earl's remarks referred mainly to the special scheme designed for dealing with organized parties of children, and I think that perhaps I had better first of all say a few words about that scheme. Early in this war, the Ministry of Agriculture held discussions with both the public and the secondary schools as to how best to employ the children. Twin ideas arose. One was for the holding of holiday camps; and the other was for working parties to work half days during term-time. Both these schemes were whole-heartedly accepted and adopted by the great majority of schools throughout the country, and since that time the help which they have given has definitely increased year by year. It was accepted from the start that the farmers, under any scheme such as this, would incur liabilities. There has always been some doubt as to the amount of compensation which would be payable to a school child who was only an occasional wage-earner, and I will come back to that point in a moment. There are cases where it might he open, from the legal point of view, for the farmer to be held not liable; for instance, it might be said that there was no contract of employment, or that the child was not covered during his journey from his home to the farm. There is also the point that when these boys and girls are in holiday camps they run certain risks of injury which could not possibly come under the heading of injuries incurred when working for the farmer.

The Ministry, therefore, approached the Accident Offices Association with the idea of trying to arrange a special policy under which these children should be employed, and they arranged for a special accident policy to be taken out on behalf of the schools. The cost of this policy was to be borne by the schools, or taken out of the earnings of the boys, or paid by the farmers. The scheme was to cover not only the actual hours of work but also the time spent in the camp. It was never intended that the cost of this special policy should be borne by the State. The scheme has, in the last year, become much more widely adopted, owing to the increase in the number of children working in agriculture. There have been for years many areas in this country where children have been employed in agriculture, especially for the planting and lifting of the potato crop. In 1939 the potato crop was only half what it was last year, and last year the casual labour available had been greatly reduced. So the schools were asked for more help, and they were asked to adjust their holidays as best they could to enable them to make these special arrangements. At the same tame arrangements were made to safeguard the various employments which these school-children took up.

In Nottinghamshire, the county which noble Earl has mentioned, and also in some adjoining counties, a special insurance policy was taken out in order to cover all the various schemes under which children were employed. It is perfectly true, as the noble Earl said, that 1d. per hour was charged to the farmer for this insurance. Although the noble Earl knows the county better than I do, I can say that we have had very few complaints about the charge. This charge, however, was not intended only for the insurance of the children; it was also a contribution to the cost of complete organization which arranged for parties of these children to be taken to the areas where their work was most needed, and under this arrangement both the farmers and the children were well looked after. As the noble Earl said, this scheme was mentioned in the circular issued by the Board of Education this year and was given their blessing. Neither the Board of Education nor the Ministry of Agriculture is committed in any way to this penny per hour, and neither the local education authority nor the county war agricultural committee wishes in any way to make money out of it. But the scheme had then only started. As it progresses I am quite certain that various counties will make reductions, and I am pleased to tell the noble Earl this afternoon that Nottinghamshire has decided to reduce this penny per hour to a halfpenny.

I think it will be agreed that the plan is a sound one in principle. We consider, however, that more must be done to make quite sure that the children who are engaged in agriculture are properly looked after and insured against any risks. The question therefore was discussed with the County Councils' Association representing the local education authorities and other interested bodies. All the difficulties were examined in detail. Some of these people frankly said that they thought the State should produce an additional policy, that is, one additional to those under which the rights of the boys are protected under the Workmen's Compensation Act. But that would raise wide and very difficult questions. The Government are fully prepared to see that the children are safeguarded, but they feel that the scheme should work on the basis of the Workmen's Compensation Act.

As I have already said, one difficulty relates to the adequacy of compensation legally payable to boys who are employed only in occasional work, and I am told that even with adults it is not always very easy to assess compensation. You may have boys and girls employed in this industry for a very few days in the year and for a very few hours at a time, and it would not always be easy to see how to get an exact result. What is actually needed is an assurance as to the amount of compensation where compensation is due, and for that reason the Government have decided to put forward a proposal that boys and girls of the ages of 12 and 13 should, for compensation purposes, be regarded as if they were children of 14 and upwards working full time in agriculture. This scheme is not intended in any way to extend the legal liability of the employer. The State will be responsible for making up the compensation payable after the amount which has been paid by the employer. The result, therefore, will be that the total compensation paid to children of 12 or 13 will be the same as that paid to children of 14. Similarly, the amount paid to boys and girls of 15, 16 and 17 will be the same as that fixed by reference to the wage rate of those normally employed in agriculture, which brings the whole matter of compensation on to the same basis and on to a definite footing. The Government feel, moreover, that where children may not have a contract of employment and may be moving from their homes to their work and working in this industry for the national effort, they should not be deprived of a safeguard in this respect.

There are one or two observations I should like to add. While the Government have given so much consideration to this matter of insurance, I would stress that it is not because we consider the risks of employing children in agriculture are great; in fact, the reports of accidents received for last year were remarkably small in number. Put at their worst, I do not consider that school-children working in the fields are running any more risks than they are when playing football or games in the street. But it is not unreasonable that they should be given some sympathetic treatment, as will be the case under this Government guarantee. This, however, does not detract at all from the farmer's own legal responsibilities and liabilities. Everyone usually takes out a policy which covers his employees under the Workmen's Compensation Act. Farmers must continue to do this, and they must also see that the policy covers both the casual and the regular worker. If for some reason they are not insured, they will not be free from their liabilities. The Government's guarantee is only to cover the difference between the compensation payable by the farmer and the optimum payment. This scheme will make it less necessary for the schools to take out policies. But in the case of holiday camps, policies will still be necessary. There is nothing to stop any school or any individual farmer taking out any further policy which may be thought desirable. But I think there is no need now for the local education authorities or the county war agricultural committees to have a feeling that they have any further moral obligation to the children. I believe that these arrangements will prove satisfactory to everyone, and in particular to those who are responsible for the welfare of these children.

In conclusion, I would like to take this opportunity, on behalf of His Majesty's Government and of the farmers of this country, of extending to all these children very sincere thanks for the work which they have undertaken during these past years; to the parents for allowing the children to be away from their homes, possibly at the cost of inconvenience to themselves; and to the local authorities, whose help we appreciate. Having extended these thanks, I have little doubt that the children will respond by helping to a greater extent in the harvest that is upon us.


My Lords, I thank the noble Duke for his courteous and interesting reply. I am satisfied that the matter is in good hands, and I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.