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 William Morrison Mr William Morrison , Cirencester and Tewkesbury

I cannot say with what pleasure I hear the Government's policy vindicated and cleared from that charge. The hon. Member and I, perhaps, understand each other better now. The hon. Member also rebuked me because I had given only a sentence of my speech to the agricultural labourer. What was at the back of my mind was that the remuneration of the agricultural labourer and his employment rose and fell with the condition of agriculture itself. I consider him as an essential partner in the industry whose fortunes fluctuate with those of the industry itself. It was not because I disregarded his importance, but because I thought that a policy by which we hoped to benefit agriculture would be a matter of interest to him and carry him further forward on the road to prosperity.

There is one interesting thing to remember about agricultural wages in this country. During the depression of agriculture there was a severe drop in agricultural wages all over the world. In our own country there were reductions of a comparatively small character, but in Canada and the United States there were decreases amounting to 50 and 60 per cent. The full effect of the depression, so far as the effect on wages is concerned, was felt far more severely in countries which export their produce than it was in this country. It is difficult to be sure that comparisons of minimum rates up and down the country to-day afford an accurate picture of what is, in fact, being paid. I know that in many cases the minimum rates are being considerably exceeded by farmers in their anxiety to obtain workers and to retain good skilled men. I would not like the Committee to think that the minimum rates are those which are paid in all cases.

The hon. Member raised the question of the evasion of the statutory wages. I view that with as much disapprobation as he does. I am willing to admit that although on the whole the farmer does maintain the statutory wage, you get cases now and again of evasion with which we try to deal. The hon. Member's argument was that the fines that were inflicted for such evasions were so light as not to prove an adequate deterrent. All I can say is that the amount of fines imposed for any offence is a matter for the Bench, which very frequently takes into account the means of the person whom they call upon to pay the fine. Cases which have come before my notice personally were nearly all cases of farmers in very reduced circumstances who were extremely burdened by debt, and the men had stayed on with them without receiving the proper wages because they could not afford to pay them. They stayed on in some cases out of a desire to help to keep the farm going. To a farmer in that position who is brought before the Bench a fine which may appear to the hon. Member to be a very light one may be quite a considerable penalty.

I agree with what has been said about the importance of improving rural housing. It is important, if we are to retain on the land young men and women who wish to marry and settle down, to bring about an improvement in rural housing. I was asked what had been done in this matter. Housing is, of course, a matter for my right hon. Friend the Minister of Health, but he and I have been collaborating, and a special advisory committee on rural housing is sitting, and when we receive their report we shall know what we can do to improve the present state of affairs. Before they decide to settle down in the country men look for the sort of house to which they can bring a bride and raise a family in some decency, but before we start planning new tools with which to tackle this problem I would ask hon. Members to see what can be done in the rural areas by operating to a fuller extent the Housing (Rural Workers) Act. That this Act can be worked to the advantage of the rural community is proved by the success which has attended its operations in counties which have resolutely used it, Devonshire being a very fine example. I would point out that the Act has this peculiar virtue, that if a house is reconstructed under the terms of that Measure it is kept for a period of years in what I may call agricultural circulation; it cannot become the luxury house of a week-ender, but must be retained for an agricultural worker or someone in a like position.

The hon. Member attempted to controvert my general argument that Nature had much more to do than man with questions of supply and prices. He quoted a number of figures, which I did not get accurately, about Argentine beef, New Zealand beef and other com modities, though how New Zealand beef came into the question I do not know. The increases which he quoted in the case of the Argentine beef were in the nature of 40 per cent., 60 per cent., 70 per cent. and so on. When one compares such increases with the actual ad valorem incidence of the tariff, it is obvious that they cannot be attributed to the tariff, but must have been brought about by other forces of a more powerful character, and I think that the hon. Member's figures, far from invalidating my general argument, afford very valuable evidence in support of it.