Order of the Day for the House to be put into Committee read.
Moved, That the House do now resolve itself into Committee.—( Lord Denham.)
On Question, Motion agreed to.
House in Committee accordingly:
(The EARL OF ONSLOW in the Chair.)
Duty of Agricultural Wages Board to fix national minimum wage.
1.—(1) The Agricultural Wages Board shall, after consultation with the agricultural wages committees and after considering general economic conditions and the conditions of the agricultural industry, fix a national minimum wage and, subject to the provisions of this Act, the minimum rates of wages fixed by the agricultural wages committee for every county shall be such as to secure that no man of full age employed whole time by the week or any longer period in agriculture shall receive, in respect of any week, less than the national minimum wage so fixed:
moved, in subsection (1), after "minimum wage," where those words first occur, to insert "for a week of a specified number of working hours." The noble Lord said: It seems a contrast to come from the great matters about which we have just been hearing to matters affecting very humble folk, as I invite your Lordships to do in this Amendment: but they are very important humble people and I am sure that we all recognise their value. The Bill before your Lordships, as we are all aware, is to enable a National Wages Board to prescribe a national minimum wage for agricultural workers; and that meets, I am sure, with approval from every side of the House. There is, however, in my judgment and in the judgment of the representatives of the workers concerned, a very serious insufficiency in the Bill, because there is no definition of what is meant by a "week." I would remind your Lordships that the former National Wages Board not only had power to fix a minimum wage, but also power to prescribe, and did in fact prescribe, hours which related to the week. It would really be quite absurd to give a body power to prescribe wages for a week, unless they were, at all events within reasonable limits, empowered to say how many working hours that meant.
I hope that the Government will agree to accept this Amendment, though, seeing that I drafted it myself, I am not going to maintain that the precise words are such as will commend themselves to the Parliamentary draftsman. But the Amendment is clear enough. It says that the Board shall have power in prescribing the national minimum wage for a week to say how many working hours should represent a week for that wage. After those hours have been worked there would be payment for overtime. As I say, the former Board had that power, and there is no reason whatever why this Board should not have it. There are just as gross county variations in respect of hours as there are in respect of wages, and it would not be difficult to prescribe that a working week should consist, let us say, of not less than so many hours and not more than so many hours. An elasticity of that kind is a thing that it would be quite reasonable to expect.
I would remind your Lordships of the gross inequalities in hours which at present exist, and which ought to be dealt with by this Board, just as the Board are being asked to deal with gross inequalities in wages. It is true the last available figures I have on this matter are two years old, but still the contrasts remain, although the actual numbers may have altered. For instance, in 1937, in twelve counties the minimum or standard wage was 32s. for a week of fifty-two to fifty-four hours in summer, and fifty to fifty-two in winter. But then you got some counties where the standard was deplorably low. For instance, in Montgomery and Merioneth 32s. 6d. was the wage for sixty hours. In one county the wages of a wagoner are 39s. for sixty-one hours a week in summer and fifty-eight in winter. The West Riding of Yorkshire, which is supposed to be a very progressive district—at all events Yorkshiremen always pride themselves on the fact—has a very distinct tendency in the wrong direction as far as this is concerned, because it is there laid down that the wages of a wagoner shall be 39s. for the "customary hours" of sixty-seven and a half in summer and sixty-three in winter. Thus you have variations from forty-eight to sixty-seven.
The main purpose of the Bill is to produce some measure of standardisation in wages, whilst allowing a great measure of latitude to counties with respect of variations above that minimum. There is no reason at all why the same pro- cedure should not be applicable in respect of hours of work. At all events, it clearly is necessary that the Board, besides having the power to prescribe the national minimum wage, should also have the power to prescribe, within reasonable limits, for how many working hours that national minimum wage shall be paid. That is what I am asking in this Amendment. I beg to move.
Page 1, line 10, after ("wage") insert ("for a week of a specified number of working hours").—(Lord Addison.)
The noble Lord, Lord Addison, has moved an Amendment and has argued that the Corn Production Act in 1917 did create a Central Board, which had the powers with which he is seeking to clothe the Central Board now being set up under this Bill. But of course it is quite clear that the Central Wages Board which was set up under the 1924 Act had no such powers. The noble Lord says that the national minimum wage is really meaningless unless it has attached to it a provision as to the hours to be worked each week. I think it all depends on the extent to which your Lordships will have confidence in the powers that are given under the terms of this Bill to the forty-seven county committees. After all, those powers are very great indeed, because after the national minimum wage has been fixed practically all the rest of the work has to be done by the forty-seven local county committees. The very variations quoted by the noble Lord, I should have thought, go to prove how much better able are the county committees to deal with such variations than would be a Central Board sitting in London.I think I ought to remind your Lordships of one statement I made when I moved the Second Reading—namely, that this Bill is one which embodies the greatest common measure of agreement that could be obtained between the farmers on the one side and the agricultural workers on the other, and to that extent it can be called a compromise measure. But a definite balance did arise out of the long discussions that took place between the two parties, and this Bill embodies that balance. I think it would be a pity now to break that balance, founded as it was upon a measure of agreement. In the view of the Government not only the Central Board but the county committees have duties in regard to the fixing of minimum wage rates. After they have heard what the national minimum wage is, they fix for each county the county minimum wage, and thereafter, bearing in mind what the national minimum wage is, it is their duty to fix the conditions for all workers—for the women and girls, for the skilled men like horse-keepers and cowmen—and also to fix harvest rates and overtime rates and to deal with the question of hours, I do not know whether the noble Lord charges the Government in any sense with being guilty of a breach of faith in this matter. I would be glad to hear if he does.
I will reply later.
Because I am quite ready to meet that charge if it is made. But to my mind we ought first to realise that it is the higher wage per week which is the important thing, and, secondly, that when you are dealing with agriculture you are dealing with a set of circumstances totally different from those which could be found in any other industry. After all, let me give your Lordships the case of a shepherd working at this time and during the last many weeks in the lambing season. Take, indeed, the case of any horse-keeper or cowman dealing with livestock. There is no question of so many hours a day or, necessarily, so many hours a week. It is common form, I am instructed, throughout England, that shepherds who have notoriously a terribly hard time during the lambing season, nevertheless get, besides a bonus for the work they do at that time, an even rate of wages all through the year in order that the wage they get when times are not so busy should compensate them for the time when, literally, they cannot call their souls their own either during the day or night. It is a question, I would submit, of give-and-take in the agricultural industry.Of course, as the noble Lord mentioned, hours have always varied, and vary immensely, as between counties. I do not know whether I agree with his number, but thirty-one out of the forty-seven areas work longer hours in summer than in winter, although an even rate of wages is, with the exception of one county, paid throughout. This question of having a longer term of hours in summer than in winter is altogether inconsistent with the fixation of rigid hours, or even of the margin of hours which the noble Lord suggested to-day. There is a tendency, no doubt, throughout agriculture for hours to diminish, and I am going to submit to your Lordships that it would really be better to let that tendency find expression, first of all, as the result of the discussion and agreement which can be arrived at within the four corners of each county by the local county boards rather than by trying to get shorter hours, or even agreement as to rigid hours, imposed on the forty-seven county districts by the ruling of any Central Board. I hope the noble Lord will see his way to withdraw his Amendment, but, if he cannot, I am afraid I must ask your Lordships to resist it.
It was never suggested by me or meant in any way that there had been any breach of faith. The noble Lord asked me that question, and I reply to it at once. That was never suggested by me at all. But I am asked to say this, that whilst no accusation was, of course, suggested, the representatives of the workers did understand that the agreement included power for the National Wages Board to deal with hours. That was understood, so I am authoritatively informed. Whatever the understanding was, all I can say is that I am sure, if noble Lords did not regard the Government Whip, they would hardly be convinced by the reply just made. We know there are variations. There have always been variations, and there always will be. I am not suggesting they should cease to be. Of course shepherds will have interminable hours sometimes and shorter hours other times; and the standard hours which are now fixed by county committees apply to the ordinary agricultural workers, and separate groups of hours, separate schedules of hours, are provided for special workers. I am only suggesting that the power which is now exercised by county committees, and will continue to be exercised by county committees, shall be exercisable with regard to the prescription of standards by the National Board. I feel as certain as anything of this, that although the noble Lord may, for reasons the logic of which I confess I do not clearly follow, resist my Amendment to-day, it will not be long before the National Board will come along themselves and ask the Ministry to empower them to say what is, more or less, a standard working week. The one follows necessarily from the other. I am sorry at this time to have to inflict one's obstinacy on your Lordships, but my friends take such a strong view of this matter that, although there is only a handful of us, we shall have to divide.
I feel very strongly that in these matters there should not appear to be any marked divergence of opinion between one side of this House and the other. In fact, the condition of our oldest and most vital industry is such that I am sure the more we can put our heads together to enable some thoroughly satisfactory basis to be found, some plan to be formulated which is fair to all those engaged in the industry, and to which both sides of both Houses can agree, the better for this country and its security. Having said that, I do feel that there is some difficulty about the definition of the word "week." I am inclined to think that the noble Viscount on the Cross Benches (Viscount Ullswater), who presides over the Central Wages Board, may with my noble friend opposite consider that this is a question which may cause some searching of heart and of intellect on the part of the Central Wages Board. After all, in the past it has been left to the agricultural wages committee of each county to fix the datum line appropriate to the conditions of that county. In future the datum line has got to be fixed by the Central Wages Board. I find it a little difficult to understand how they are going to fix a datum line applicable to the whole country unless it is perfectly clear for what the worker is being paid—in other words what is the right interpretation of the word "week."I should have thought that the answer to my noble friend just now would have been that, so far as these varying conditions are concerned, that is adequately dealt with in the proviso to Clause 1, subsection (1). All these varying conditions are matters for consideration by the county agricultural wages committee. But, as the Central Wages Board are fixing a datum line applicable to a certain period or scope of employment, it is fair to ask what that period actually is. However that may be, I do not want to press this view for this reason. I know how extremely difficult it is to get through Parliament any provision which has not been agreed by the various organisations which have to consider these matters before a Bill is presented, and, as the noble Lord has made it perfectly clear that there has been an agreement outside the two Houses of Parliament, I for my part would not venture to suggest that it should be altered, at any rate in this Bill.
I would like first of all to say a word about what the noble Viscount has just said. He made a slip when he said that the Central Board had the duty charged upon them to fix wages; I corrected him by saying "datum line," and he agreed with the correction. If the Central Board had been charged in this measure with the fixation of a rigid wage, then I agree with the noble Lord that it really would have been idle to have said: "Well you can fix the rigid minimum wage but you must not have any say as to the number of hours to be worked a week." But that is not what the Central Board do, for the Central Board merely fix the datum line which shall be considered by the forty-seven county committees not only in relation to the hours worked but in relation to vastly more important things, not least of which is the very fixation of the minimum wage of each county, and then the wage of the whole range of skilled workers, of women, of juveniles, and the list of things that I have reported such as harvest rates and overtime rates. If you are going to trust the county committees at all, and trust them you must in view of the sixteen years' experience that they have had and in view of the grand work which they have done, then I submit that it is right that the counties themselves should have the last word as to the hours worked, hearing in mind always the rate of the minimum wage as fixed by the Central Board.But I must take up the challenge of the noble Lord when he says that there was a mention of this during the negotiations. There was none. There was no mention of this in the negotiations until this Bill was in draft, and it is remarkable, if the noble Lord and his Party attach so much importance to it, that the Amendment was not moved in another place. I am not impertinent enough to complain that the Amendment has been Moved here—not in the least—but I am trying to answer the argument that this actual Amendment is viewed as being very important by the agricultural workers. The two instances I have quoted, that the matter was not raised during the preliminary negotiations, and, secondly, that the Bill went through the House of Commons without an Amendment of this sort being moved, are relevant. I think I ought to mention why I asked the noble Lord whether he brought any charges of breach of faith. One of this morning's newspapers usually associated with the Party of the noble
|Addison, L.||Hare, L. (E. Listowel). [Teller.]||Holden, L.|
|Faringdon, L. [Teller.]||Ponsonby of Shulbrede, L.|
|Caldecote, V. (L. Chancellor.)||Cobham, V,||Hardinge of Penshurst, L.|
|Esher, V.||Illingworth, L.|
|Stanhope, E. (L. President.)||FitzAlan of Derwent, V.||Lawrence, L.|
|Hailsham, V.||Newton, L.|
|Argyll, D.||Hereford, V.||O'Hagan, L|
|Brandon, D. (D. Hamilton.)||Mersey, V.||Rankeillour, L.|
|Trenchard, V.||Roche, L.|
|Salisbury, M.||Rochester, L.|
|Cottesloe, L.||Rockley, L.|
|Lucan, E. [Teller.]||Denham, L.||Stanmore, L.|
|Onslow, E.||Desborough, L.||Templemore, L. [Teller.]|
Resolved in the negative and Amendment disagreed to accordingly.
moved, in subsection (1), after "employed," to insert "therein." The noble Viscount said: This is a drafting Amendment. My object in moving it is to make it perfectly clear in this Bill, as in the principal Act, that it is the county within which a man works which is going to be considered in fixing his rate of remuneration. I am one of those who live on the borders of two other counties and a large number of men within my knowledge live in one county and are employed in an adjoining county. I suggest that in order to make it perfectly clear on the face of the Bill it is only right to insert the word "therein" after "employed" so that the clause will read:
"The Agricultural Wages Board shall…fix a national minimum wage and, subject to the provisions of this Act, the minimum rates of wages fixed by the agricultural wages committee for every county shall be such as to secure that no man of full age employed therein—"
Lord has two headings on two columns which I have in my hand, one entitled "Fraud" and the other entitled "Hours fraud on farm workers." I only wanted to know whether the noble Lord associated himself with that sort of thing, because those headings were followed by long articles not written in very wise terms. I am very glad to think the noble Lord did not associate himself with them.
On Question, Whether the said words shall be there inserted?
Their Lordships divided: Contents, 6; Not-Contents, 29.
that is, in that county—
"…shall receive, in respect of any week, less than the national minimum wage so fixed."
It is purely a drafting matter, but I cannot help thinking that it ought to be perfectly clear from the Act itself that it is the wage as formulated for the county in which the man works which is the remuneration which he will receive. When I look at the principal Act I find that the first time the fixation of minimum rates of wages is mentioned it is made perfectly clear in Section 2 that the minimum rates apply to "workers employed in agriculture in the county for which the committee act" As it is made perfectly clear in the principal Act, it would be right and proper to make it perfectly clear to everyone who reads the present Bill when it becomes an Act that the same rule applies.
Page 1, line 13, after ("employed") insert ("therein").—(Viscount Bledisloe.)
I can assure your Lordships and the noble Viscount that this Amendment is not necessary. I am advised that this Bill and the principal Act are to be read together. In Clause 2(2) of the Agricultural Wages (Regulation) Act, 1924, as the noble Viscount said, there are these words:
This Bill supplements and adds to—and in some places takes from—the powers of the principal Act, and it would be tautological, I am instructed, to put in this word when it is made so clear that the wages to which the decision of the county wages tribunal refers apply to all men employed in the county irrespective of whether they live in the county or over the border in another county. I hope that with that explanation the noble Viscount may see his way to withdraw the Amendment."Any such minimum rates may be fixed by a committee so as to apply universally to all workers employed in agriculture in the county for which the committee act…"
After what the noble Lord has said, and realising the extreme competence of the official draftsmen of the Ministry of Agriculture, I do not desire to press this Amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 1 agreed to.
Clause 2 agreed to.
moved, after Clause 2, to insert the following new clause:
"Section six of the principal Act which authorises the Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries to direct the reconsideration by an agricultural wages committee of any minimum rate which has been fixed by them shall have effect subject to the substitution of the words 'Agricultural Wages Board' for the words' an agricultural wages committee'."
The noble Viscount said: This is a matter of somewhat greater moment, in my judgment. We had a definite assurance given us before this Bill received a Second Reading that wages should be related to prices. That assurance was given not only by the Minister of Agriculture but by the Prime Minister to the representatives of the county war agricultural committees about three weeks ago. I would draw your Lordships' attention to the fact that provision is made in Section 6 of the principal Act for the Minister to interfere in such cases as the wage may appear to him to be
improper, bearing in mind the datum level and all the local conditions. That section of the principal Act enables the Minister to
"direct an agricultural wages committee to reconsider any minimum rate which has been fixed by them, and thereupon the committee shall reconsider the same and notify to the Minister the result of their reconsideration."
Now the datum level of wages is no longer left to the county wages committee but is going to be decided by the Central Wages Board. If that datum level is to be accurately fixed in the light of the assurance we have had from the Government, and particularly from the head of the Government, surely it is for the Central Wages Board in fixing the datum level to bear carefully in mind the prices that are obtainable for agricultural produce. I want to be perfectly certain that that assurance given by the Government is going to be implemented not only by the present Government but by any Government which may hereafter follow.
It is an assurance of enormous importance to the agricultural community, an assurance which is being discussed to-day by every class of the agricultural community in every county, and the fear is expressed—no doubt unfounded, or possibly unfounded—that when the present Government have passed out of being that assurance may not be implemented by those who follow. The surest way of securing that the undertaking shall be honoured is for the Minister of Agriculture as representing the Government to be in a position to direct, not as in the original Act the agricultural wages committee, but the Central Wages Board if necessary to reconsider their decision. The importance of the intervention of the Minister has been immensely intensified by the undertaking recently given on the part of the Government, but the intervention of the Minister is going to be of relatively small importance if it is only an intervention as regards a decision of the county wages committee, rather than an intervention as regards the decision of the higher authority which will fix the datum level of wages throughout the country, based upon these conditions which we were told will be taken into account.
We all have the greatest confidence, I am sure, in the noble Viscount who for many years has so efficiently acted as Chairman of the Central Wages Board. He will forgive me, perhaps, for paying this tribute to him on this occasion in this House. But we are not sure that he is going to be in that position for all time, and in case he is replaced by someone with less knowledge of and less sympathy with the agricultural community and every class of it, I cannot help thinking that it is most desirable to reintroduce, as applicable to the Central Wages Board, this power of the Minister of Agriculture to give a direction in relation to wages.
After Clause 2 insert the said new clause.—(Viscount Bledisloe.)
May I, on behalf of the Government, take this opportunity of joining in what my noble friend has said with regard to the invaluable work which the noble Viscount has done at the head of the Central Wages Board for so many years past? I think I can persuade the Committee and the noble Viscount who moved that, provided the Amendment is not accepted, all that he wants will in fact happen. If his Amendment should be accepted, it would have one or two unfortunate results. To start with, let us look at Section 6 of the principal Act:
That is a valuable provision which would go if the noble Viscount's Amendment were accepted. We want to retain that Section 6, because it may well be that whoever is Minister of Agriculture at the time may want to call the attention of one of the county committees to the minimum rate for the county which has been fixed by the county committee and ask them to reconsider it, or ask them to reconsider any of the other things that they in the county area have decided upon. Therefore, I submit to your Lordships, we must retain Clause 6 unimpaired. Why do I say that all that the noble Viscount advocated will be given effect to provided that this Amendment is not passed? I say it for this reason. If the Committee will look at subsection (2) of Clause 1 of the Bill, they will find these words:"The Minister may direct an agricultural wages committee to reconsider any minimum rate which has been fixed by them, and thereupon the committee shall reconsider the same and notify to the, Minister the result of their reconsideration."
Two things are to be derived from that form of words: first, that there is nothing to stop, at any right moment, the National Wages Board from reconsidering, whenever they think it proper to do so, the national minimum wage. But those words that I have quoted go further: they refer to the principal Act, where, under paragraph (c) of subsection (1) of Section 8, the Minister himself is given power"The Board may at any time, and, if regulations are made under the principal Act requiring them to do so, shall at such times as may be prescribed, reconsider and, if they think fit, alter the national minimum wage for the time being fixed, and the foregoing provisions of this Act shall apply with inspect to the reconsideration and alteration of the national minimum wage in like manner as they apply to the fixing of that wage."
And he can make regulations to that effect. The present Bill, in Clause 1(2), says that if the regulations made under the principal Act by the Minister direct the Central Board to reconsider the minimum wage, then the Central Board must do so. Three things, therefore, will happen if this Amendment is not accepted. In the first place Section 6 of the principal Act will be unimpaired, so that the powers of the Minister, valuable as I think they may prove to be, will be retained—powers to have recourse to the county committees if and when he thinks fit. Secondly, you have the right of the Central Wages Board at any time and from time to time to reconsider the national minimum; and thirdly, the duty of the Board to reconsider the minimum wage when directed to do so at any time by the Minister of Agriculture. But that all depends upon this Amendment not being accepted, and I hope the noble Viscount will withdraw it."for requiring a committee, if so directed by the Minister, to reconsider any such order as aforesaid made by them and to notify to the Minister the result of their reconsideration."
If, as I understand, that is the position, I am bound to say—although I paid a tribute to the draftsman when I moved the last of my Amendments—that I feel that in this particular case there is some rather ambiguous draftsmanship. But I want to be perfectly certain, and I gather from the noble Lord who represents the Ministry of Agriculture here that he is able so to assure me, that this Bill, read in the light of the principal Act, does enable the Minister to give directions, not merely to the agricultural wages committee of a county but also to the Central Wages Board. If that is so, I am prepared to withdraw my Amendment. I should like to ask the noble Lord who has just spoken a question. I notice that the particular subsection which he cited, in Clause 1 of the Bill, says:
prescribed, presumably, by the Minister of Agriculture—"The Board may at any time, and, if regulations are made under the principal Act requiring them to do so, shall at such times as may be prescribed"—
But in that case there have to be regulations as a condition precedent. However, I do not want to press that matter. I understand from the noble Lord that the Minister does retain the power to give directions, not only to the local county committees, but also to the Central Wages Board which in future will fix the datum wage."reconsider and, if they think fit, alter the national minimum wage.…"
I want to be absolutely frank with the noble Viscount. I thought he fell into the error, in the letter which he very kindly sent me indicating the form of the Amendments which he was going to move, of supposing that the last word lies with the Minister. The last word on each occasion lies, on the contrary, with the Central Board. The Minister may say to them, "Please reconsider the national minimum"; they do reconsider the national minimum, but they will not change the national minimum unless they, the Board, feel that it is right to change it. In exactly the same way, under Section 6 of the principal Act, if the Minister should approach one of the county committees and ask them to reconsider one of their decisions, the last word does not remain with the Minister but with the county wages board in each case. I felt it was only frank to say that, in order that there might be no doubt at all in the mind of the noble Viscount.
Might I intervene to ask the noble Lord if he would, between now and the next stage, really look into that point again and verify it? It seems to me that the Minister, under the prin- cipal Act, can only make regulations in accordance with that Act; he cannot make regulations vesting himself with some authority which is not provided for in that Act. In this particular case the noble Viscount, if I understood him aright, wants the Minister to have power to ask the Central Wages Board to reconsider the matter, and the noble Lord says that he is satisfied that the Minister under these regulations has such power.
So I am informed.
I hope he is right, but I am not quite sure, because it seems to me that a regulation made under the principal Act can only be made in accordance with the terms of that Act, and it does not seem to me to give power to make regulations which would do that. But so long as the noble Lord will look into the matter, I need not say anything more.
I will gladly promise to look into it, but I should like to assure the noble Lord that I have spent a considerable time this morning being instructed on this matter, and I would remind him that the last clause of this Bill makes it quite clear that this Bill and the principal Act shall be cited together and read as one Act.
I do not desire to press the Amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Remaining clause agreed to.
Bill reported without amendment.