Orders of the Day — Distribution of Manpower

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 19th March 1947.

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Photo of Sir Archer Baldwin Sir Archer Baldwin , Leominster 12:00 am, 19th March 1947

I hope the hon. and gallant Member for Workington (Captain Peart) will excuse me for not following his argument except to say that I agree fully with what he said about lack of co-operation between Government Departments, and that no Department suffers more than the one he helps to administer—for instance, when the Chancellor of the Exchequer decides to assist Denmark in the purchase of feedingstuffs and the Minister of Agriculture is doing his best to obtain those feedingstuffs.

Last night the Prime Minister broadcast to the nation and he said that our lives and jobs depend on the three great industries of coal, transport and power. I do not imagine that the B.B.C. will be wise enough to ask me to broadcast in reply. If I had the opportunity, I would like to remind the Prime Minister that he missed out the most important industry, and that is agriculture. As a matter of fact he did say as an afterthought: Then we come to agriculture … we must have more workers on the land. That is becoming rather a commonplace. We hear on all sides that we must have more workers on the land, but neither the Prime Minister nor, so far as I know, any other Minister has said how those increased workers are to be found. I would remind the House that for about 12 months we heard of the shortage of workers in the mines. No notice was taken of those warnings until we drifted into a fuel crisis. The same warnings are now being given with regard to the shortage of workers in agriculture, but no serious attempt is being made, so far as I can see, to meet that problem. Are we to drift on in this dream world until we come to a food crisis? Are we to wait until the "tick" on which we live has been exhausted, or are we to face up to the fact that food production in this country is the most important problem with which we are faced? The problem, therefore, is that before we can get this increased food production, we must get more men.

I was interested in the speech of the hon. Member for West Renfrew (Mr. Scollan) when he came all out for the direction of labour. It is a thing that I have said has to come some day. He has put it over in a forthright speech and, in my opinion, it was a much more honest suggestion than that labour would be directed by being starved of material in a certain district. The honest way is to direct labour if it becomes necessary, but that at the moment is not a practical proposition, so I do not propose to enlarge on it. Therefore, we have to think of some other method of getting farm workers on to the land. There are two ways: first and foremost is the provision of homes with urban amenities, built in the countryside and not necessarily in the villages.

There are great differences of opinion in this House as to where cottages should be built. In my constituency 14 cottages were built in the village, but only one was allocated, after a great struggle, to a farm worker. Those cottages therefore will not help agricultural production in that area. Cottages should be put close to the farms so that men will not have to walk miles to their work.

I ask the Government seriously to consider the fact, which has been outlined in the Hobhouse report, that 100,000 cottages now need reconditioning. It was a great mistake to do away with the Housing (Rural Workers) Act. I know that was done because of pressure by Members of the party opposite, who stated that no money should be spent upon tied houses. If hon. Members will refer to the report in question they will see that only 12,000 of the 100,000 houses that need reconditioning are tied cottages.

The next matter which is of great importance is wages. It is high time that the agricultural industry was given a different status from that which it has had during the last 100 years. For too long has agriculture been looked upon as the lowest form of life instead of as the premier industry of this country. I am sorry that the Minister of Agriculture raked over the ashes of the past and put many of the present difficulties down to the misdeeds of Tory government. I was sorry that he raised that party spirit, which had hitherto been kept out of the Debate. Since it has been raised, I would only remind him that the present position is the fault of no party.

Our present difficulties are due to the fact that this country has for more than 100 years looked upon industry as the only thing that mattered and upon agriculture as a nuisance. Between the wars, more than 250,000 men left the land. The exodus was greater in the period 1929–31 than at any other time. It must be remembered that the agricultural worker is entitled to some recognition of the fact that for the last seven or eight years he has worked with a minimum of absenteeism, for the lowest wages of any industry, and without any strikes. That is a record even better than that of the steel workers to whom the hon. Member for Bolton (Mr. J. Jones) referred. In passing I would say how delighted I was to hear that speech from the hon. Member. In my opinion it will rank with some of the big speeches that have been made in this House. It was factual, and honest-to-goodness commonsense.

The raising of the wage of the agricultural worker will be accepted as necessary by all hon. Members. Whether we are to provide the money by increasing the prices of the produce is entirely another matter. It is high time that food were put upon a more economic basis and that some of the increase was pumped into the agricultural industry so as to raise it to the position of the highest industry in the land. Until that is done, no effective improvement of conditions in the countryside can take place. The price reviews that have taken place do not admit of our doing what we want for our men, and will not assist in increasing output. The industry has a claim for more consideration, yet wheat has actually been reduced by is. per cwt. for the harvest of 1948. Instead of a reduction, we should put up the price of wheat to £25 a ton for the next three years.

There is no shortage of labour in this country.