Orders of the Day — Agricultural Workers (Rations)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 17th April 1947.

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Photo of Sir Archer Baldwin Sir Archer Baldwin , Leominster 12:00 am, 17th April 1947

On many occasions the Minister of Food has declared, that so far as food and distribution are concerned his policy is that it shall be fair shares for all. We on this side of the House thoroughly approve of that principle. It is in an attempt to show the Minister of Food that at the present time it is not fair shares for all that I am occupying the time of the House this evening. I am endeavouring to prove that farm-workers and their families arc a long way from getting their fair share of the rations which exist at the present time. On several occasions the Minister of Food has declared that the nation is being fed as well today as it was in prewar days, at least to the extent of, shall we say, 70 per cent. The Minister has said that the top class is getting a little bit less, the middle-class the same, and the lower class more. I do not know how the Minister has divided the community into those three classes. I think it would be somewhat difficult today to say which is the top class. I suggest that so far as food is concerned, the division is into two classes; one, the class which has the opportunity of feeding at restaurants, hotels and other catering establishments, and the other the class which has not the opportunity of feeding there. It is in that latter category that I place farm workers and their families.

I do not think the conditions under which farm workers and their families live are realised. It is sometimes thought they have the same opportunity of drawing their rations as the ordinary person who lives in the town. But I suggest that anyone who has the opportunity of going to restaurants, hotels, or other catering establishments can get all the food they wish to buy. There is nothing to prevent anybody in this great city of London, or indeed in this House, from getting four meat meals a day if they wish to make gluttons of themselves. I claim that before it is possible for this section of the community to obtain this abundance of food, better opportunities should be given to the farm worker to live at a better rate than he is doing at the present time.

If it is a question of supplies not being available for him, and if it is necessary to continue food rationing for a number of years, the Ministry of Food should adopt a different principle with regard to rationing. I believe that during and just after the last war it was compulsory for anyone who went to a restaurant to give up a coupon. If there is any shortage of meat, steps should be taken to see that those who have the chance of getting it should not gorge themselves with meat, thus making it impossible for the farm worker to get his share.

I want to make it quite plain that it is sometimes not realised that the farm workers and their families have no opportunity of going to a catering establishment during the 'week. They have not the opportunity of going to a fish and chip shop to supplement their rations. More than that, the housewife herself is at this disadvantage. If she lived in a town she could drop in at the butcher's every morning to see if there were a few oddments not on the ration. But the farm worker's wife does not get that opportunity; nor does she get the opportunity of going to the fish shop every morning to get a little extra fish. Her opportunity is once a week, when she goes to the local town, probably arriving lateish in the day, after the townspeople have had the chance of picking up the oddments in the butcher's shop. I do claim that that is not fair.

I know it is sometimes said that the farm worker has the opportunity to supplement his rations with pigs and poultry. Well, to some extent that may be so; but certainly during the last 12 months, since the feeding rations have been cut down for the small poultry keeper, that opportunity has not arisen. I know a few farm workers do still keep pigs, but if their pigs had to rely on the rations to which they are entitled, I am afraid their pigs would be rather lean, and it is only when the farmers themselves help the workmen out with some of their rations that the men are able to keep pigs at all. I did not want to be met with the statement that the farm worker is already getting extra rations. I have listened to that statement on too many occasions in this House, and I want to hear something fresh this time. I am well aware that the farm worker does get certain rations for what is termed "seasonal" work—bread, cheese, jam and tea; but he gets no extra meat.

I want to call attention to the method which is adopted before a man does get those extra rations. The farmer himself has to draw those rations. Strictly, he should hand them out to his men in the way of tea already brewed, and bread and cheese sandwiches, and so forth. But anyone who has had the practical job of distributing those rations knows that that method is very difficult. When one has men working in three or four different parts of the farm at once, it is entirely impracticable to expect the housewife to cut sandwiches, and to make the tea, and to send them to all four corners of the farm. What most of us do is to distribute the rations to the men as fairly and squarely as we can after measuring them on the scales. It was said in this House a short time ago that farmers had not been very co-operative. I think it was said that 20 per cent. of them had not drawn those rations for their men. I have some hesitation in accepting that statement, because I cannot understand that any workman who works for a farmer who refuses to draw his extra rations would remain in his employ for very long. If there are a few cases where the farmers do not draw those rations I think it is simply because of the difficulty in keeping within the law, and of acting as a sort of catering establishment.

I am asking that the farm workers and their families should be treated as fairly as the miners. I ask for them the same rations as were stated on 24th March to be allotted to the miners. I think that is the least one can expect, because even if the farm workers do get more rations they will not have the opportunity of going to a canteen as the miners have. It has been stated that the miner will have extra food at his canteens as well as extra rations for home consumption. On 6th March, the Prime Minister was asked a Question with regard to extra rations for farm workers, and his reply was: The environment and distribution of the agricultural community are so different from those of the mining community as to preclude the extension to them of certain measures proposed for increasing the supply of some foods and consumer goods to miners."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 6th March, 1947; Vol. 434, c. 645.] I look upon that as a very weak excuse. If it is possible to issue these rations to miners in their canteens, it should be possible to get them out to the farm worker. I want to make it quite plain that I do not grudge the miner his extra rations. Good luck to him, he does a dirty and hard job, and is entitled to all he can get. I claim, however, that the farm worker is entitled to just as much consideration as the mine worker. If it is fair for a man who is going to work a five-day, 40-hour week, it can only be fair that a man who does a seven-day, 70-hour week should be entitled to receive the same rations. There arc many farm workers who do 70 hours a week, and I think it is distinctly unfair that these men should get a piece of meat each week which they could consume at one meal, and, for the rest of the week, have to eat bread and cheese. I do not see that there is any difficulty about the provision of this meat. If there is, then the catering establishments should be cut down, and the meat made available to the farm worker.

It has been stated that it is a question of how much meat it will take to provide this extra. To give the farm worker an extra pound of meat a week would take 21,000 tons of meat a year, and the cost would be just over £2 million. Today £2 million is not a very large sum of money, and, if I may make a comparison, during the months of January and February, we imported very nearly 2 million pounds worth of grapes and pears into this country, and let it be remembered that three quarters of that importation was from the hard currency areas. I hope it will not be suggested either that the meat is not available or that the cost is too high, because, if we can afford to spend £2 million on grapes and pears in two months, I think we can afford to spend £2 million per annum on the farm worker and his family.

I think I should also say that the record of the farm worker of this country is not equalled by that of any other class of worker. For seven or eight years, he has worked cheerfully through very difficult times, with no strikes and very little absenteeism, and I think the community owes a great debt of gratitude to him. One way in which they could show their gratitude to him would be by giving him the extra rations to which he is entitled. I hope the Parliamentary Secretary will be able to give us some hope that these extra rations will be granted. If we do not get such a promise, I am afraid I shall be a nuisance on many occasions in the future until the Ministry does recognise the importance of this request.

We have to remember that one of the important questions facing this country today is that of the provision of food. We have been through a fuel crisis, and we are now facing a food crisis. We can produce the food we need if we get the men on the land. We have to face up to the fact that, very shortly, 130,000 prisoners of war will be returning to their own countries, and will have to be replaced by other workers. In a short time, the Essential Work Order will be done away with, and I am glad it will be, because I do not want any of my men to stay with me if they can get the chance of a good job elsewhere. The only way to get these men to their jobs is to make life more attractive in the way of extra food and extra houses in which they can live.