Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries.

Part of Orders of the Day — Supply. – in the House of Commons on 7th June 1937.

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Photo of Mr Thomas Williams Mr Thomas Williams , Don Valley

I have never refrained from supporting agriculture when the Minister in charge has tabled the cost upon which the calculation has been based, but since no Minister has ever brought to the notice of the House the facts upon which any one single calculation has been made I have always been justified in refusing to vote blank. I refuse to believe that all the farmers of the country are bankrupt. The Minister of Agriculture, who reviewed for the first time the biggest of all Departments in this country, has my envy and my sympathy. If there is any truth in the statement that variety is the spice of life, then agriculture has been well sweetened in the last few years with the variety of the attacks made upon it. We have had long-term policies and short-term policies and temporary expedients. All kinds of approaches have been made to the problem; direct subsidies, indirect subsidies, duties, restriction on imports, voluntary agreements, trade agreements, and every known disagreement. Not only is the Ministry of Agriculture a huge Department, but it has charge now also of the Sugar Corporation, the Beet Commission, the Livestock Commission, Agricultural Supply Committees, Marketing Boards and Development Boards. Anyone would imagine that a Socialist Government had been in office for the last five years. Hon. Members opposite have talked a great deal about Socialism and bureaucracy, but really I do not know how they can do so in face of what the present Government have been doing in the last five years. They really cannot condemn any Socialist party for wanting to be bureaucratic and to govern from Whitehall.

Like the right hon. Gentleman the Member for North Cornwall I want to deal with one or two major factors affecting the industry but from a different point to that of the right hon. Gentleman, who, in 60 minutes—and let me say hurriedly that I enjoyed every moment—had but a single sentence to say about the workers in the industry. There are about 380,000 farmers and 640,000 employés, and in an hour's speech the right hon. Gentleman had but one sentence on the position of the workers. If the agricultural labourer regards himself as divorced from society and civilisation, from thought or interest on the part of politicians or anybody else, he is quite correct so far as this House is concerned. Therefore, it will be strictly inconsistent with my general feelings if I do not start immediately to deal with the position of the agricultural labourer. The Minister of Agriculture made a reference to the increase in minimum wages from 1929 to 1937, but he took care not to compare 1936 with 1930 when dealing with the cost of living. He took the period when wages were at rock bottom in the post-war period.

I want to suggest that existing wages are no compliment whatever to the Ministers of Agriculture who have been dealing with the industry for the past six years. If you compare wages in various counties to-day with what they were in 1929 you will find that in Cheshire the wages in 1929 were 35s. a week; to-day they are 34s.; in Leicestershire they were 34s. in 1929, and they still are 34s.; in Rutlandshire they were 32s. 6d. in 1929, and are still 32s. 6d.; in Holland-with-Boston they were 35s. in 1929, and are still 35s; in the East Riding of Yorkshire they were 36s. in 1929, now they are 34s. 6d.; in the North Riding of Yorkshire they were 34s. in 1929, and are 34s. to-day; in the West Riding of Yorkshire they were 36s. in 1929, and to-day are 34s. Therefore, throughout a period when there have been subsidies for wheat, sugar, milk, beef, and indirect assistance in the form of restrictions and customs duties, some counties remain where they were in 1929, while in others the wages are actually less.

I do not think that the Minister of Agriculture in his concluding observations did himself justice. He said that a successful agriculture depends on healthy land, and a healthy stock, but not a word about a healthy body of labourers. Clearly, the right hon. Gentleman must have had it in mind, it was simply an omission, but frequently we hear speeches referring to the employers, to the farmers, in the industry and totally ignoring the workers. Indeed, in these days few people can be found to think in terms of the man who does the job. I know, of course, that there is an Agricultural Wages Board in every county; no thinks, however, to the Conservative party that the Agricultural Wages Regulation Act is on the Statute Book. It was passed in 1924 when a Labour Government was in office.