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New Clause—(Special Provisions For Calling Up Of Farm Workers)

Volume 437: debated on Friday 9 May 1947

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The Minister shall by regulations provide that—

  • (1) where a number of farm workers are employed on any particular farm arrangements may be made to ensure that all workers on the said farm are not called up in the same year.
  • (2) in the case of part-time service farm workers are so far as practicable called up at a time convenient to the harvest in their locality.—[Sir Ian Fraser.]
  • Brought up, and read the First time.

    I beg to move, "That the Clause be read a Second time."

    I thank you for your Ruling, Major Milner, and for calling this new Clause. It is, indeed, so different from the other Clauses to which the Parliamentary Secretary referred that I want, if I may, to emphasise the difference in my brief opening remarks. This Clause does not call for exemption. It does not suggest or imply that farmers or farmworkers would wish for exemption from the responsibilities which will fall upon all citizens. I have made inquiries, and I find that farmers, large and small, and farm workers, while they do not like compulsory military service any more than anyone else, would not wish Parliament to contract them out of their proper responsibilities, and I want to emphasise that my new Clause does not propose that. If we find ourselves voting against the Clauses which propose to exempt those engaged in making coal mining machinery, farming, or food distribution, I hope many of us may feel that we would be equally dis- posed to vote for my new Clause for the very reason that it does not ask for exemption, but does, nevertheless, ask for consideration of some of the farmers' difficulties.

    What are the particular difficulties of the farmer? I have read the Bill, and I cannot see in it any security against the danger that when the Bill first comes into operation, all the farmer's men who happen to be between the ages of 18 and 26 may be called up, and may be called up on the same day. It may be said that this could occur in any small business. But the farmer's business is a very different one. First of all, he works in a remote part. There is no chance of his substituting any labour whatever, at any price, even if he can find it, which is most unlikely. Even if he is prepared to pay a fantastic price for it, it is not there. If men were encouraged to go to him there is nowhere for them to live. Therefore, he is in a very special position. If the six, eight or ten young men on a farm. were called up at the same time, food production on that farm would stop altogether.

    Another anxiety which the farmer has, which is not shared by others, is whether the young men who have been called up will, after a year, return so readily to the land when they have seen wider spheres and different kinds of life. That does not apply to others. I set forth these two reasons as being reasons why we should take special care to embarrass the farmer as little as possible when we invite him and the farm worker to do, as I know he is willing to do, his duty in this matter. I ask fur this Clause to be embodied in the Bill so that there will be imposed upon the Minister a duty to introduce regulations which will stagger the call-up of farm workers by arrangement. The farmer and his farm workers will stagger the call-up over the first few years; and when that period has passed, of course, each new batch of young men will be called up in the following years.

    The next part of the Clause relates to the subsequent periods of years during which the man is a reservist. It may be said that national service is so important an issue that it is for the nation generally to adjust its life to the circumstances of national service. But the harvest cannot be adjusted, whereas the dates for service can be. There is some obligation—which my hon. Friends will develop and argue—upon the Government to see whether, without substantial detriment to the efficiency of the Forces, the call-up for a fortnight or three weeks in the year cannot be so arranged as not to interfere more than is necessary with the harvest. While I am sure the rural areas would wish to do their duty on level terms with others, let this Committee never forget that if there is no food there will be no England for us to defend.

    11.15 a.m.

    I rise at this stage, not for the purpose of cramping any discussion but to put the Committee in possession of information which I think will enable them to come to the right conclusion. I shall ask the Committee to resist this new Clause. However, I think I ought to make the position quite clear, and when the hon. Member for Lonsdale (Sir I. Fraser) has heard the explanation I think he will feel that the position he put forward in his argument is met. I am authorised to say that the deferment of men in the main agricultural occupations already operating in 1947 will be continued throughout 1948, and men so deferred will not be called up later. Therefore, the first part of his argument, that all the men between the ages of 18 and 26 would be called up in 1949, falls to the ground. The intention is, that in 1949 only the age group reaching the age of 18 in that year will be called up. Thus, the first part of the new Clause is met completely by that announcement.

    That is the intention, but where is it in the Bill? I should like to be assured that it was a statutory provision.

    These are not matters for statutory provision. Deferment is not a matter of statutory provision, but is a matter generally, and has been, ever since we have had the military service Acts, a matter for administration. I am indicating that this is how the administration will work. I am giving this pledge on behalf of the Government, and I hope this pledge will satisfy the hon. Member and all hon. Members of the Committee that this is what will happen in practice.

    The Parliamentary Secretary mentioned "main agricultural occupations." As far as I know, that has never been clearly defined. Does it include, for instance, horticulture, market gardening, and so on? There is already some confusion, and I think it most important for the Parliamentary Secretary to make the matter clear now.

    I think the hon. Member will agree that it excludes local gardeners.

    I am corning to that. It includes market gardeners, those people who are producing food, but it excludes those people who are producing agricultural articles which are not food. I hope the hon. Member will be completely satisfied on that point.

    From the statement of the Parliamentary Secretary it would appear that there will be two classes of deferment. First of all, those who are above the age group will be automatically deferred. Would those in the age group to be called up, be open for deferment?

    I was coming to that point. Those who are genuine apprentices—and this point is being dealt with later on under another new Clause—will, of course, be entitled to apply for deferment in agriculture. Like all other industries, they will be entitled to apply for the advantage of deferment. Therefore, the point of staggering the call-up does not arise. I think the hon. Member for Lonsdale will agree that what I have announced does meet the first part of his new Clause.

    With regard to the second part, dealing with the problem of part-time training, in the Debate on the Address the Prime Minister gave an undertaking—it is really a matter for the Service authorities, but I thought I had better deal with it while on my feet—that the period of part-time training shall cause the least inconvenience to the agricultural industry. I hope the Committee will accept the undertaking that has been given by the Prime Minister on behalf of the Government. The hon. Member for Lonsdale will know that county territorial committees would probably be brought into consultation on the question of part-time training. On those committees there will be representatives of local industry, who will be able to bring to bear a very great influence in deciding the date and place when training shall occur in the case of men engaged in agriculture or other seasonal industries. I hope the Committee will consider the new Clause in the light of this statement, and, in view of the assurances that have been given, I hope the hon. Gentleman will agree to withdraw the new Clause.

    Although the Parliamentary Secretary has, to some extent, met the position, as between today and 1949, he has said nothing about the inconvenience to come after that time. As far as one can see, men employed on the same farm, may be of the same age, and may become liable to call-up at the same moment after 1949 as much as before, and I cannot accept, and I am sure my hon. Friend cannot accept, the Parliamentary Secretary's assurance that all the difficulties which we have put forward have been met by this statement. I should like to ask the Committee to imagine the position on the small farms. My hon. Friend has mentioned the position on large farms that employ a large number of men. But I think that the small farm is more typical of agriculture in this country.

    Let us take the position of the small farm worked by the farmer and his son and one man, the son and the man being of the same age. There will be absolute disaster if both are called up at the same time, most certainly if the farm is in an isolated area, where it is not possible to obtain substitute labour, and where it is quite impossible to obtain accommodation for workers even if the labour were available. The position today, in which the county executive committees command cohorts of prisoners whom they can move about the country by lorry, and can convey home again at night, is a temporary and artificial position. By 1949 that army of prisoners will have left this country, according to statements that have been made. So I feel that the difficulties after 1949 will be just as acute, in spite of all the assurances that the Parliamentary Secretary has given us.

    Again, there is the question of part-time service. Not for one moment do I wish to belittle the Prime Minister's words to the House, but I think we should be much better off if we could see those assurances translated into regulations, as we should like to do under the terms of this new Clause. No amount of planning, not even by the right hon. Gentleman's super-planner, can alter the seasons, or alter the work in agriculture which results from the seasons. So it does not need any great imagination to think of the disaster that will happen to the small farms, where those employed on them are called up at the time of lambing, or at hay time, or harvest. I would remind hon. and right hon. Gentlemen opposite, for the benefit of the advisers who may arrange the call-up, that the work is not the same in all parts of England in the same month. Speaking as an officer in both the old Territorial Army and the new, I do appreciate too the difficulties that we have had and will have on the farms in trying to reconcile civilian interests with the interests of military service. It is obvious that military needs, in a crisis must come first. But, again speaking as an officer, I cannot estimate that great value will be derived from military training by men who are called up knowing that disaster is falling upon their families because work, which ought to be done at that particular season, is being missed, as a result of some futile regulation from some office in London, and the refusal of this Committee today to accept the reasonable proposals put forward in this new Clause.

    I was influenced to a large extent in putting my name to a new Clause which appears later on the Order Paper proposing to exempt agricultural workers, by the fact that the present position in agriculture is likely to continue for some years to come. I am inclined to accept the assurance of the Minister in regard to the call-up of farm workers. The point I want to emphasise to the Committee is that the agricultural industry is dependent to a large extent upon a vast amount of auxiliary labour: No number of prisoners of war can make up for the practical farm workers on the farms of this country. I take the further point, that I regard food, in the present emergency, as of equal importance with coal. I am glad the Minister has given us this assurance that, so far as the call-up for a few years to come is concerned, every consideration will be given to the work on the farms.

    The hon. Member for Lonsdale (Sir I. Fraser) referred to the fact that farmers and farm workers are not unpatriotic. I want to add to that. The farm workers have never sheltered behind any regulation to avoid doing military service. During the war they stayed at their work because of the importance of their work. I am sure that when this Bill becomes an Act of Parliament the farm workers will not feel relieved—just as they did not in the war—at not being obliged to do military training. By being told to stay on the farms they will have the assurance of the House of Commons and of the public that they are performing, in that way, real service to the nation. I am inclined to accept the Minister's assurance in regard to the call up, and I think that that will meet the position for the time being.

    The assurance we have just had certainly helps, but I should like to ask the Minister one question. I assume that the term "agriculture" includes horticulture. The supply of fresh vegetables in this country is obviously of very great importance. I have great sympathy with what has been said by my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland (Mr. Vane). One has to remember that, in farming, people have to plan ahead, in regard to the farm itself. The other day a young fellow came to me and said, "I have just bought with my savings a small holding. Do you think I am going to be called up within the next few years? I have one or two young friends who are going to work with me, and we all want to know where we are." People like that want to have a clear view of their prospects for some years ahead, in order that they may work the land as profitably as possible for the sake of the community. I should like to add that there is among the young people in the farming communities great enthusiasm, whether they are agricultural workers or young farmers, and a desire to do their best to get the country through the difficulties with regard to food, in which, as the people all fully understand, we are now placed.

    I support the point made on the question of part-time service. I am sure the Minister realises that the character of the labour force on the land has altered very much as the result of the war. Agriculture is very much more mechanised. The number of regular farm workers is only just sufficient to maintain what one may describe as basic mechanised agriculture, month in month out. We rely on a pool of labour at the peak periods. It enables the final operations resulting from the cultivation of the regular workers with their machinery, to be undertaken. We do not want to have a pool of labour of that kind as a permanent feature in the farming industry. The labour problem is, therefore, going to become much more acute than ever it was before the war—the problem of getting the extra labour that will be needed—because we intend to continue with a mechanised agriculture, to grow more food at home. I think it will be extremely difficult to stagger the call-up for the part-time service of farm workers when this pool of labour ceases to be as big as it is now, without doing damage to the food production of the country. Therefore, I think the Minister would be well advised, as soon as possible, to issue to the farmers some statement on how it is proposed to carry out the Prime Minister's undertaking, I am sure that it would be of great value to the industry if this were done.

    11.30 a.m.

    I agree with what has been said by my hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham (Mr. Eccles), but it is a little difficult to feel complete reassurance, because we haw not the advantage of the presence of the Minister of Agriculture here to say that he is quite happy about this position. I am sorry the right hon. Gentleman is not here, because I am a little concerned about this matter. The Parliamentary Secretary has said that there would be arrangements for consultation between the industries and the County Territorial Associations. I should have thought that, in view of what he said, it would have been possible for him to put something of that nature, outlining the structure for building up the arrangements for part-time service, into the Bill itself. I think that would give us great reassurance. Obviously, it is not possible for him to indicate a cut-and-dried procedure, but it should be possible to say what sort of general structure would be set up, so that such consulta- lions could take place. I ask him to consider that point.

    I appreciate that the assurance which the Parliamentary Secretary has given will assist us, but I should like to know whether he has any estimate of the number of men involved in the 18-year-old call-up in 1949. As I understand this Bill and the Government decision to reduce the period of service from 18 months to 12, there must be in the background some idea of how many men are to be called up. I am perturbed about this matter, because this decision is not being based on the needs of agriculture. If it has been worked out on the basis that, by calling up a certain number of men who become 18 in 1949, the overall needs of the Forces would be met, it appears to me that the agricultural interest has not been considered at all. I think it is only right that we should try to obtain an assurance from the Government that they will consider the agricultural interest as being nearly as high in priority as the means of defence. If we have soldiers to defend the country, but no food with which to feed the people, we shall not be much better off. If there is one industry which should have the same priority as defence, it is agriculture. For that reason I hope the Minister will give us some indication of how many men agriculture must produce each year, in the years following 1949.

    There is one other point. I ask the Minister to bear in mind the special position in regard to land drainage. There is a great deal of work to be done in the coming years, and it is already difficult to secure people like pumping engineers and the men who run pumping engines, because they are being called up. There are also some ancillary trades—

    On a point of Order. This discussion is taking place on a new Clause which proposes that workers 'on the same farm shall not be called up in the same year. This discussion is very much wider than that, and, I should imagine, would be better if it took place on another new Clause which is to come later.

    The Parliamentary Secretary this morning mentioned a certain group of men to be called up in 1949. I was only asking that some consideration should be given to the needs of land drainage before the group is called up.

    I do not think anyone who has spoken on this new Clause has put forward any suggestion to the effect that it is designed to allow farm workers to avoid national service. I think the whole discussion has proceeded upon the basis that it is in the national interest that there should be some special provision in the case of those employed in agriculture. For myself, as representing an agricultural constituency, I am quite certain that the last thing which those engaged in the agricultural industry, whether farmers or workers, desire, is to avoid fulfilment of their national obligations.

    I now come to what the Parliamentary Secretary said in reply to the speech of my hon. Friend who moved this new Clause. The hon. Gentleman did not really go much further than he went in his statement in Committee on 6th May. He then said:
    "Here, again, the position is one of considerable difficulty. It is not intended to call up agricultural people this year and next year. It may be that, in 1949, when this Bill comes into operation, there will have to be block deferments—one does not know."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 6th May, 1947; Vol. 437, c. 259.]
    When 1949 comes, that will be the critical period. The German prisoners will have gone. Is it the case that the Ministry of Labour has no plan in mind with regard to dealing with that problem at that time? Today, the Parliamentary Secretary said that there would be no call-up until 1949, and he added to his previous statement in this respect. He said that, after 1949, only those reaching the age of 18 will be called up, or will be liable to be called up in that year, and that the same will apply in 1950 and 1951 Only those reaching the age of 18 in those years will be liable to be called up. I ask the hon. Gentleman whether, among those 18-year olds, there will be the possibility of deferment. The hon. Gentleman went on to deal with the question of genuine apprenticeships. In regard to farming, a genuine apprenticeship is a difficult matter to determine, and, while I recognise the difficulties and the way in which the hon. Gentleman has endeavoured to meet the point, I would like him to say, in development of his original statement, whether, under the heading of "genuine apprenticeships," there will be included those young sons of farmers who are learning the industry, who are working on their fathers' farms, and who are genuinely learning agriculture, even if there is nothing in the nature of an apprenticeship between them and the farmers. I should like an assurance on that point.

    In regard to the actual terms of the new Clause, with which the Parliamentary Secretary did not deal in any detail, it must be recognised that there is a strong case for not calling up the farm workers employed on a particular farm at the same time in the same year, and I should like to know whether the machinery of deferment is not clogged up by red tape and is sufficiently flexible, and speedy, to make it easy to obtain deferment speedily, in the cases in which such deferment should be granted speedily, without those to whom it applies having to travel many miles at inconvenient times to make representations before a remote body which would have to adjudicate on the conditions in a particular locality.

    Subsection (2) of the new Clause is also of vital importance. There, again, the practical effect which one wants to see achieved must be to enable applications to be dealt with extremely promptly, and extremely favourably, in the appropriate cases. In conclusion, I would like to ask the Parliamentary Secretary to give a further assurance, in relation to areas such as those I represent—where the whole system of agriculture has changed from pasture to arable, where the manpower shortage is even more acute than in many other parts of the country, and where it will be even more serious when the prisoners of war go home—that particular regard will be had to the nature of that change in granting deferments to young men attracted to the agricultural industry. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will be able to meet those points when replying to the important discussion on this new Clause.

    With due respect to the Chair, I think that this discussion has gone far outside Subsection (1) of the new Clause. The only point involved is whether or not all the farm workers on a given farm, if they are all 18 years of age, shall be called up at the same time. I would give an immediate assurance on that. In the case of a farm which cannot be carried on because all the workers on it are in the same age group, and are liable to be called up at the same time, the farmer and the farm workers affected will have the right to make representations to the agricultural executive committee for the deferment of one or more of those men. That is apart from the question of apprentices. That procedure would function quickly, and I think it completely meets the point put forward. County executive committees are composed of representatives of the agricultural industry, and the National Farmers' Union is actively represented on them. I can assure the Committee that there will be no difficulty at all about dealing with cases of this type. There are just one or two other points oil which I should like to say a word. I said that horticulture—

    I am sorry to intervene, but will the Minister undertake that those dealing with the matter will bear in mind that there are cases in which people grow both flowers and vegetables, either at the same time or in rotation, and that it is very often the best way to use the land for the benefit of the community?

    In so far as those people grow food, they will be entitled to make their representations to the county agricultural committee, and the matter will be considered on that basis. We cannot say that everybody engaged in horticulture will be deferred, but those growing food will certainly be entitled to deferment.

    11.45 a.m.

    I come next to the difficulty with regard to part-time training dealt with in Subsection (2) of the new Clause. On this, I can do no more than stress the undertaking given by the Prime Minister. On the point of issuing a statement in the form of a White Paper, I will certainly consider that, and see if it can be associated with the other White Paper promised last evening, at a different stage of the Committee. With regard to genuine apprenticeships, I should prefer to defer what I have to say on them, until we come to the new Clause dealing with that matter. Indeed, I think that it would be out of Order to speak on them at this stage. The other new Clause is intended to cover a very wide field, and it would be out of Order, before it is reached, to deal with the whole matter on the two narrow points of the Clause we are now debating. In view of the undertakings which I have given, I hope the hon. Gentleman will withdraw the Motion.

    The Parliamentary Secretary has repeatedly said that there will be the right to make representations. Of course, that right exists today. The whole point at issue is not the right to make representations, but what attitude will be adopted towards the representations made. I hope that such representations will be listened to sympathetically, and will receive a speedy answer. In the past, the rule has been applied pretty strictly, and there have been many difficulties in obtaining deferment for people engaged in agriculture, even where the cases appeared, at first sight, to be pretty strong. I rise again merely to ask the Parliamentary Secretary to go a bit further than saying that there will be the right to make representations, and to say that instructions will be given to see that applications are speedily investigated and dealt with on a broad and sympathetic basis.

    I will certainly give that undertaking, but I must warn the Committee that we cannot agree to give deferment to a young man of 17 years of age who goes into agriculture, or whose father buys him a plot of land and registers him as an agricultural worker. We cannot agree that such a person should be enabled to escape his obligations. But, with regard to the genuine agricultural workers, I give the undertaking that their representations will have sympathetic consideration, and that the recommendations of the county agricultural committees will be accepted. With those assurances, I think that we have completely met the points put to us.

    I thank the hon. Gentleman for the assurances he has given, but my hon. Friends and I feel that a right to apply for this or that is not enough, and we would like to see written into the Bill an obligation on the Minister to stagger the call-up in such cases. In these circumstances, I feel—and I hope that my hon. Friends will agree with me—that we should carry this matter to a Division.

    Question, "That the Clause be read a Second time", put, and negatived.