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Agriculture (Volunteer Workers)

Volume 480: debated on Thursday 9 November 1950

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Motion made, and Question proposed. "That this House do now adjourn."—[ Mr. Sparks.]

9.59 p.m.

The last time I had the Adjournment Motion in this House, the Government were defeated, the House rose, and consequently it was not reached. I am in a more fortunate position tonight. I wish to raise the question of land volunteers. I think both sides of the House will agree that the nation owes a debt of gratitude to these men and women who year after year volunteer for land work. When there is so—

It being Ten o'Clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn.—[ Mr. Royle.]

When there is so great a shortage of man-power and food supplies are not very high, any service in this direction ought to be appreciated by the nation. These people, most of them young people, are office workers, and when they go into the fields new muscles are brought into play and they suffer untold agonies. Nevertheless, they show a public spirit and volunteer year after year.

I can speak with some practical experience of this kind of work because I myself gave a week of my holiday to help on the land. I remember that at the end of the first day there were six of us in a farmhouse. The farmer's wife said, "Well, boys, if you are not in by 10.30, the door will be locked and you will be shut out. "That was fair enough, because so far as I was concerned I was so tired that the only thing I wanted to do was to climb upstairs to bed.

On 12th July of this year, I received a letter from two of my friends saying that they had spent the first week in July at a holiday camp for agricultural workers. They had been sent to Chalgrove Camp at Towersey Manor, which incidentally is the residence of Sir Gifford Fox, who was a Member of this House in the last Parliament. That would have been fair enough had they been sent to help in food production, but for the full week they were engaged in cleaning out a room where cats had been kept, trimming grass verges and laying gravel on paths, and they did no real work at all in connection with food production. They were actually used to prepare for a party which was being given by Sir Gifford at the end of the week. At the end of each day they were paid by the head gardener at the rate of 1s. 6d. an hour.

I spent some time in the Library going through the files of the "Sunday Express" and I found on 9th July that the "Sunday Express" reported:
"On Friday Sir Gifford and Lady Fox entertained 400 guests to a dance at Towersey Manor."
What the "Sunday Express" did not say was that part of the preparations for this party included cheap labour supplied by the Ministry of Agriculture.

I was astonished at receiving this letter, and on 14th July I sent it to the Minister of Agriculture. I received no reply at the end of a fortnight and consequently took steps to put a Question on the Order Paper. The Question was to ask the Minister of Agriculture:
"If he has considered cases brought to his notice where the services of volunteers for 'Lend a Hand on Land Schemes' are used for other work than agricultural production; and what steps he takes to prevent this abuse."
The Question was not reached, and I received the following written answer:
"No cases have been brought to my notice this season in which it has been alleged that persons attending volunteer agricultural camps have been employed on non-agricultural work. The standing instruction is that a volunteer must not be put on non-essential work unless, owing to weather or other unforeseen circumstances it is quite impracticable to arrange work on food production."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 27th July, 1950; Vol. 748, c. 98.]
These young people were engaged, as I say, in trimming grass verges and laying gravel on paths when they might just as easily have been sent with the 24 other workers of the party at the camp to do agricultural work. The House will notice that the Minister said:
"No cases have been brought to my notice."
He had had a Question on the Order Paper and a letter from me giving these two cases and on 28th July I wrote to the Minister as follows:
"I am amazed at your answer to Question 59, which appeared on the Order Paper yesterday. To say that no cases have been brought to your notice is just ridiculous. Three weeks ago I discussed two cases with your P.P.S.… I should be obliged if you will investigate."
On 31st July I received from the Minister's private secretary the following letter:
"I am writing on behalf of Mr. Tom Williams to acknowledge your letter of 28th July following your Question in the House about the services of volunteers for 'Lend a Hand on the Land' schemes. I will bring this matter to the Minister's notice at the earliest opportunity."
That was on 31st July. Since then I have not had a word from the Minister. The Minister's lips have been sealed. I regret the necessity of bringing this matter to the Floor of the House, and I hope that tonight the Parliamentary Secretary will give some adequate information.

10.6 p.m.

I can speak with some experience of voluntary workers in agriculture. Very great work has been done by them. The hon. Member for Wood Green (Mr. Irving) is right to bring certain complaints before the House. I think that the great complaint of voluntary workers arises from the fact that they are put into hostels or, as they are called, voluntary workers' camps. I suggest to the Parliamentary Secretary that, if he wants this great work to continue, he should suggest to the N.F.U. and other bodies associated with farmers that they should, as far as possible, enable these voluntary workers to work on the farms and to live in the farmhouses or cottages. The hon. Member for Wood Green said he went to do this sort of work during his holiday. I do not think that he expected to be put in a camp and segregated from the industry which he was helping.

I was not put into a camp. I was put into a farmhouse with six others, and I enjoyed it.

I am very glad. I gathered that the hon. Member complained about the accommodation provided.

Then I certainly withdraw what I said. I wish to make it clear that these people make a big contribution to agriculture, especially at harvest time, and they should be encouraged in every possible way. They will be best encouraged if the Government insist that the people whom they help give them reasonable accommodation and conditions of service. Then I believe that the work they are doing will continue to play a great part in the agricultural industry.

10.8 p.m.

I wish to pay my tribute to the assistance given by these voluntary workers. I have been employing some myself for something like a month and they have done extremely useful work. I welcome this opportunity to pay my tribute. I ask the Parliamentary Secretary whether, in arranging hostel accommodation next year, he can cause a little more attention to be paid to the feeding arrangements. The one complaint of the workers who came to me was that, though they liked their work, they were not fed as well as they thought they ought to be.

If these people give up part of their holiday to work in the countryside, very often under rather uncomfortable conditions, the least they can expect is that when they finish work at night they should have a reasonable variety of food and that they should be helped as much as possible. If it had not been for the voluntary workers, a lot of work in the country would not have been done at all. If many of us thought that this system would not continue for another year, I am sure that we should not produce as much as we want to make available. It is not the slightest bit of good producing crops if we cannot be sure of securing the labour.

On the question raised by hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Major Hicks-Beach), I would say that it is very seldom that it is practicable for the voluntary worker to be billeted either at the farm or in the cottages. We find nowadays that the cottagers do not like taking in lodgers, and the farmer's wife in the farmhouse is usually so busy and overworked that she just cannot cater for them. The alternative is to provide better food and more comfortable hostels, and I hope that will be done.

10.10 p.m.

Before I come to the main point which my hon. Friend the Member for Wood Green (Mr. Irving) raised, I would like to deal with the point just raised by the hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Baldwin). The complaint about feeding is not, in fact, a general complaint at all in our experience. It is not without significance or interest, perhaps, that the letter from the constituent of my hon. Friend who raised this very complaint did, in fact, specifically say that there was nothing else wrong about the camp and that the food was very good. If the hon. Gentleman has any instances where he thinks the feeding has not been all that it might have been, he would help both us and his own folk best if he would let me have details of specific cases, rather than make a general charge which, in my experience and in that of most hon. Members, is completely unfounded.

As to the question of the variety of food, there has to be some limit to what we can do. There was a Report of a Select Committee a little while ago about alleged county committee losses, and a considerable item of those losses was, in fact, the running of these camps. It pained me very much that we did not have any help from the hon. Member for Leominster in rebutting these arguments at the time and, in the light of what he said, I hope very much that, if we get into that sort of difficulty again, we shall be able to count on his help.

In regard to the remarks of the hon. and gallant Member for Cheltenham (Major Hicks-Beach), I agree very much with everything he said. It would be very much nicer if all the people who come in to help the regular agricultural labour force could, in fact, be living either in their own houses in the countryside or be billeted in the farmhouses or cottages. We would much prefer it, but the point is that we run these volunteer camps only as a second-best help to the industry.

There is not, for a variety of reasons which we all know, accommodation easily available in farmhouses and cottages in which to billet these people. Wherever it is available, we ask for it to be used, and I am quite sure that on this point the National Farmers' Union will take note of what has been said. The only reason we run these camps is to provide the industry with this additional assistance, which otherwise would not be available.

May I now turn to the general complaint, and say right away that I am very grateful to my hon. Friend, in the light of all the circumstances, for the very restrained and friendly way in which he raised this issue? If I had been knocked about pretty heavily, I should have understood it, and I should have gone away with my head somewhat bloody, though I would have tried to hold it up. I should like to tender the sincere apologies of my right hon. Friend and myself for the mix-up that occurred over his original letter and the answering of it. I have explained to him personally—and perhaps need not go into the details now—that there was a failure of staff work, and I am very sorry for it.

As to the particular complaint, like my hon. Friend, I, too, pay the greatest tribute to the work which these volunteers do. They come in at a time when we are growing a large amount of crops, which make great demands, at harvest times and at other special times of the year, on labour, which, in fact, we could not meet from the regular labour force. The need for these camps and volunteers is as great now, in many ways—not in the total numbers, perhaps, but in the significance of the work done—as it ever has been. This year, the total number of volunteer workers at these camps will be about 115,000, and obviously that is an important and tremendous contribution.

We want to do everything we can to help them, but it is very difficult organising these camps. It is not easy in an industry which is dependent on a variety of factors, such as the weather in a particular week, the timing of the season and so on, to decide exactly how many extra workers will be wanted in any particular week in the season. The season may be early or it may be late, and it may be messed up by the weather, and one does not want to plan for more than are likely to be used, because that is costly, and, on the other hand, one does not want to have too few people available when the weather makes the work possible. Therefore, we are bound to be subject to difficulties in trying to hold the balance properly in the weeks when it is difficult to find useful agricultural work for all the folk who have come in to help at that time. What we ask our agricultural executive committees to do, made up as they are of far- mers, workers and people who are expected to know the situation in the county, is to work out as well as they can the sort of demand there is likely to be.

In the particular case raised by my hon. Friend, his two constituents actually went to the Oxfordshire camp in the week in which the Royal Show was held. We all know that we had a very wet season, but those who attended the show know that it was just about as wet as it could possibly be at that time. The mud was feet deep, the heavens opened and the rain came down. It was as difficult a week for agricultural work as it could possibly be. I am informed that because the weather messed up the haymaking which would otherwise have been going on, and because it messed up the hoeing which might have been done, it was very difficult in that week to find agricultural work for all the vounteers there.

In those circumstances, one could say to the volunteers, "Well, there it is. You know what has happened; we are sorry, but we cannot provide the work for you to do." In fact, however, we know that many of them come (a) to get out into the country, (b) to give us a hand, and (c) because it is a way of getting a holiday during which they can earn some money. Naturally, the volunteers who cannot earn money feel that they have been let down.

Therefore, we have the special arrangements which my hon. Friend quoted. Volunteers must not be used for nonessential work unless it is impracticable, owing to the weather, to arrange work of food production. That being so, we say that if we cannot find them work on food production, but can find them other work to do, we are prepared, in these limited circumstances and for a limited range of work, to allow them to take that work if, of course, they wish to do so. It is not our intention to provide cheap labour either for the gentleman mentioned or for anybody else. We offer them this alternative work so that they will not feel that they have come to the camp for nothing and have wasted their time.

As to the particular work which my hon. Friend's constituents did, I hold no brief for that at all. I would not seek to justify the work they did; but I think it is an awful pity that they did not immediately draw the labour officer's attention to what they were being asked to do. If they had told our labour officer what they were being asked to do, it is quite certain that he would have withdrawn their labour, and that the gentleman concerned would have been told that he could not have volunteer labour for that purpose. That would have been the end of it. They may have been found work elsewhere or it may be that there would not have been any other work for them to do. As I say, it is not our desire that volunteers should be used for such purposes, and I hope that any others who may be in a similar position will not hesitate to tell us exactly what has happened so that we can look into the matter.

I think that the only other thing for me to say is that this is highly valuable work, not only in the summer but in the late autumn months when we are having great difficulty in lifting the potato crop. I should hate to think that these two constituents of my hon. Friend, who have done good service for a number of years, should feel put off by this unfortunate experience. I hope we shall have them with us next year giving us their help once again. I also hope that others who can help us in this way will not be put off by anything which has been said tonight, and will understand that the service they can render is of the highest value to the country, and that they will come and give us a hand.

If it is any comfort to the Parliamentary Secretary to know it, may I say that these young people were an engaged couple when they were at the camp. They have since married. They are now Mr. and Mrs. Smith and will be volunteering again next year.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty Minutes past Ten o'Clock.