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Allotments (Unemployed Workers)

Volume 256: debated on Tuesday 22 September 1931

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Whereupon Mr. SPEAKER, pursuant to the Order of the House of the 9th September, proposed the Question, "That this House do now adjourn."

On two or three occasions questions have been directed to the Minis- ter of Agriculture regarding the attitude of the present Government towards the provision of allotments in industrial districts, especially for unemployed persons, a provision originated by the Government which used to adorn the Front Bench opposite. The right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Agriculture has announced, to the surprise of the House, that this is one of the things which the present Government have decided to discontinue. I gather that he views any efforts of local authorities to make provision for allotments with every sympathy, that he lavishes upon local authorities as much sympathy as his right hon. Friend lavishes upon the unemployed. Surely this is one of the cases where sympathy without help is like mustard without beef. The fact that the right hon. Gentleman sympathises with the provision of these allotments makes it all the more astonishing that the Government are going to do nothing financially to assist local authorities. I represent a constituency which has more than 14,000 unemployed persons. The principal ground landlord is the Ecclesiastical Commission, and the men have made application through the county borough council for the provision of allotments. That borough council were in negotiation with the Ecclesiastical Commission, and the late Minister of Agriculture was helping them and the unemployed men in their efforts to obtain these allotments. A county borough which has for 10 years been in a most depressed state of unemployment cannot be expected to finance these schemes of national importance entirely out of local rates.

The right hon. Gentleman's predecessor during the past season managed to secure 64,000 allotments at a cost to the Exchequer of only £25,000. That seems to me to be work which in these times ought to receive the blessing and support of a party which desires to prevent the import of foreign food. Yesterday, when I put that point to the right hon. Gentleman, I noticed that a few hon. Members who were scattered about the back benches raised slight ironical cheers until they discovered that the right hon. Gentleman is not implementing one of the ways in which, at a very small cost, the import of foreign food could be prevented. These men who stand idle in the market place, whose whole lives are subject to depression because of nothing to do, would be well preserved physically and morally, as well as able to provide food for their families, if they had this opportunity for exercising their muscles and employing their minds, which are being ruined by the present state of depression and unemployment. We can only hope that in this matter the right hon. Gentleman will be able to persuade the Chancellor of the Exchequer that a little money spent in this way would be money well spent in preserving the moral of the people as well as in providing food for the population.

I saw the Secretary for Mines in the House a few minutes ago. The Minister of Agriculture might consult him about what happened on St. George's Hill at Weybridge during the Puritan period. His hon. Friend's great hero, Oliver Cromwell, took steps to protect the people who squatted on the land when the landlords would not open the land to them. We are not encouraging people to squat; while the present system lasts we desire to see even the Ecclesiastical Commissioners get their rents. But we suggest to the right hon. Gentleman that he cannot expect the hardly-hit industrial areas, and the still more hardly-hit industrial population, to be able to finance these schemes out of the revenues of the localities. This is another example of the way in which the old Tory doctrine of compelling these aggregations of poor people to pay for their own poverty is being carried out to-day. We have protested at Question Time, and we protest now against the change of policy that has taken place.

I understood that this part of the Act which the late Minister of Agriculture conducted through the House, was one of the things on which there was general agreement in the House, that here we had risen to the hights of a Council of State and, recognising the utility of this service, all parties had sunk their differences in trying to get this scheme started. It will be recollected that before the Bill reached the Statute Book provision was made whereby seeds and tools were available to the unemployed, and it was understood that no question would be raised as to the expenditure of the money, although strictly speaking it was not legal. In face of that the Minister of Agriculture and his colleagues have reversed the policy. I can assure them that they have inflicted very great hardship upon, and caused great disappointment to, a large number of men who are anxious and willing to work at this particular occupation. My views about allotments are like those of Mr. Birrell; I like vegetables but not so much that I would grow them myself. I think that men who, after five or six years of unemployment, with a consequent softening of the muscles, are prepared to break virgin soil and grow food for their families and their neighbours, are persons who ought to be encouraged by any Government that desires to see spirit kept in the people.

I would at least have thought that the petty saving that the Government will make was one that even this Government, with all its petty meanness, would not have had the heart to perpetrate. One of the events that will condemn them most will be this very piece of work. I assure them that the local authorities in these districts have been as much broken by the events of the past 10 years as the people themselves. It is useless to expect that in these great aggregations of poor people along the Tyneside, in South Wales, in Durham and elsewhere, where successive years of depression have depleted local resources, the localities will be able to shoulder these burdens. I hope that the Minister will tell us that he has yet hopes of being able to give the local authorities, not merely advice but financial help to enable them to deal with the problem. I hope that those authorities will be enabled to deal with it in an expanding way and that. the unemployed who will be increasingly brought into these districts by the policy of the Government, will have further opportunities of working for themselves, since they cannot work for employers, in circumstances which will enable them to provide their families with sound, healthy food.

I wish to address an appeal to the Minister. When the Government decided upon these economies, which we on this side deplore and abhor, I can understand that in common with the rest of the economies they should decide to circularise local authorities, more or less instructing them to withdraw the advances under the Land Utilisation Act which has been of such great assistance to unemployed men. But during the last two or three days circumstances have changed, and because of the changed circumstances I beg the right hon. Gentleman to reconsider the position. It is not that the cost of living may go up. It is already going up and the right hon. Gentleman must realise that, with the cost of living rising, the best thing to keep the people in a state of health and to prevent them going into a revolutionary state is to provide some means whereby the unemployed can get food for themselves by their own labour.

I was astonished to hear ironical cheers from the opposite side the other day when a reference was made to keeping out foreign foodstuffs. I was under the impression that that was the policy of hon. Members opposite. Here is one of the best ways of meeting the situation. At the beginning of the War we were forced to this measure. We asked everybody to turn up every bit of soil they had—their front lawns, their back gardens—and we would have asked them to turn up the roads if they could have done it, to grow food. Economically, we are going to be in the same position now if the pound declines any further. The people of this country are going to be in a bad position as regards getting food and the right hon. Gentleman ought to help in the way now suggested. One of the finest refutations of the argument that the unemployed will not work and cannot work has been the rush for allotments. Hon. Gentlemen may not like the fact that we have used it to refute the argument that unemployed people do not want work, but we have used it. I hope that the changed conditions, and the rising cost of living and the necessity of producing more food, will persuade the right hon. Gentleman that he can now, without loss of dignity, go back to the local authorities, and say that this is a moment when the Government feel that they should rescind the order, and allow people to have these allotments, on which they will not only grow food, but keep chicken, and thus get eggs and poultry, and do all those things which we thought formed part of the aims of Conservative Gentlemen and Noble Ladies opposite, namely, to get people back to the land.

Let us give them a taste for the land, and perhaps we shall be able, when things are better in this country, to induce that taste in the hearts of men and women to love the countryside and get back to the land. The allotment movement has been one of the finest things in this country since the War, and I beg the right hon. Gentleman, in the changed circumstances, to see his way to get the local authorities to go on with this good work.

I wish to join in the appeal made to the right hon. Gentleman that the movement, set up with the approval of all parts of the House—it was not even challenged, I believe, in Committee or in the House, or in the House of Lords—for giving the unemployed the opportunity of providing some of their own foodstuffs, should not be stopped. The Prime Minister has said that one of the inevitable results of the economies would be at any rate a temporary increase in unemployment. Everybody is clear that for the purposes of balancing our trade it is vital to produce as much food as we can at home. It has been calculated that the 64,000 unemployed men who last year were enabled to cultivate allotments under the arrangements made probably added about £500,000 worth of foodstuffs to the available supply, which, if they had not been produced here, would clearly have had to be imported.

Apart from the human side, there are very sound economic reasons at this moment. It would be altogether inconsistent with the Government's policy to close down this very valuable and useful piece of work, which is based on experiments made by the Society of Friends in their admirable work in South Wales, and I would add, at a time when inevitably, on account of the return to the Gold Standard, the price of food, and therefore the difficulties of living by the unemployed, apart from the cut in allowances, will go up.

I understand that when this arrangement first went through, the House voted, in December, something like £45,000 for a fund for the provision of seeds, tools and so on for allotment holders under the administration of the central committee which was then constituted, and with great devotion and enthusiasm started its work. In that fund, I gather, there still remains £20,000–25,000 of the original £45,000 and £15,000 which has actually been paid back by small instalments by those unemployed persons who were the first to be helped. It would be a scandal if that were now collared by the Government for general taxation purposes.

I can hardly believe that the Government really contemplate, on a Budget running into £800,000,000, stopping these experiments and grabbing £20,000, of which £15,000 has been repaid, into what was assumed to be a revolving fund, by the unemployed men themselves. The matter is not very clear, however, from the circulars that have gone out; £20,000 is a very inadequate amount for the work that is in hand and that could be accomplished, but it is better than nothing, and I hope the right hon. Gentleman has been able to stand up against the attempts of the Treasury or anybody else to take this very tiny nest-egg. In any case, here is a first-class piece of work which has been started with general approval and against which no kind of objection could be taken in principle or for party or other reasons. It is of real value to the community, and I hope that the Government will permit it to go forward.

The hon. Gentleman who raised this matter, the hon. Lady who supported him, and the hon. Gentleman who has just spoken, have appealed to me upon a subject in which, I am well aware, not only they, but hon. Members in all quarters of the House, have taken a great interest. Like every other Minister who speaks from this Box in the present circumstances, I find myself compelled to do things which, in happier times and in other circumstances, I should not have had to consider, in order to deny development to certain interests. But let me be quite frank with the House. I have taken over the duties of looking after the Ministry of Agriculture in England and Wales, and I have been directed to make certain specific cuts and economies in the Votes, in order to balance the Budget. The House is well aware that the origin of this movement goes back to the time when there was trouble in industrial areas. This is a problem, in the aspects in which we are dealing with it, which affects industrial areas and not rural areas. It is an excellent thing in itself. It is philanthropic in its intent and it has in its development been of great service. I should like to pay my tribute to the Central Allotments Committee under the chairmanship of the late Sir William Waterlow, who, with his colleagues, did so much to make this thing a success when it was being worked.

The facts are that under the efforts of the Allotment Committees some 64,000 men were placed and plots have been cultivated for the first time. It is rash to make any estimate, but something like 20,000 plots may have been cultivated under that scheme.

What about the financial position? The hon. Member for East Leicester (Mr. Wise) appealed to me to deal with the problem of a sum of money which, he said, remains over and might be made available. There was a Supplementary Vote taken in December, 1930, when some £80,000 was voted for this purpose. I think that it is true to say that in discussing this matter in connection with the Land Utilisation Bill, all Members were in favour of this scheme, and this money, which was voted for a specific purpose, for the cultivation period of 1931, which is passed, was granted by the House. Of that £80,000, it was found after some time that nothing like that sum would be required because the demand did not warrant it. £35,000 of that was surrendered to the Treasury in March, 1931, and that left £45,000 for the 1931 cropping season. Of course a considerable portion of the advances has been repaid. Those advances were made to enable holders to obtain seeds and implements on cheap terms, and the assistance given to them has, I am certain, been of great value to them. But the House must remember that this money was voted by Parliament specifically for the cropping season of 1931.

I was then faced with the problem, of I was going to operate the Land Utilisation Act in this particular, of having to come to this House for a Supplementary Estimate or make provision in my Estimates for 1932 for sums of money to be made available to carry out the work. As it is, I am confronted with the problem of cutting away moneys from all kinds of agricultural research operations which are of essential import ance. I have had to postpone such important things as the rebuilding of the Veterinary College in London, which is a matter of enormous urgency. Further, I have, most regretfully, had to reduce the grants for the breeding of pedigree animals, and for research work in colleges and for educational work all through the country. In these circumstances, I hope the House will realise that it is not because I am unfriendly in any way to small holdings that I take the line I am taking. We have been associated with small holdings since long before the War, though it is true to say that the War gave a great impetus to the movement, and I would say to those who are interested in small holdings that I hope that the powers which, still remain to local authorities to stimulate small holdings and allotments under other Acts previous to the Land Utilisation Act will not, be neglected.

The Society of Friends gave very valuable assistance in the past, and I am sure that assistance will not be withheld now. These are hard times, and they, like other philanthropic bodies, will no doubt find it extremely difficult to do all that they would like to do. If my Ministry can do anything to assist and encourage a continued interest in small holdings that help will be readily given, but so far as the provision of money is concerned I must say quite frankly that I find myself unable to do anything until we reach happier times when, no doubt, there will be a reconsideration of this as of other similar enterprises.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-nine Minutes after Eleven o'Clock.