HC Deb 22 June 1819 vol 40 cc1290-3
Mr. Hume

rose to call the attention of the House to a petition of considerable importance. He believed much diversity of opinion existed, as to the facts stated in it; and many persons conceived that the present was not a proper period to entertain the subject but, the very reasons which led those persons to suppose the present an improper time to investigate the cause of complaint, were those which induced him to think that it ought now to be looked into. The petition was signed by a number of journeymen tradesmen, and mechanics of London and Westminster, who complained of the existing laws relative to combination, which prevented them from receiving the full remuneration for their labour. All laws, they observed, which interfered with the rate of wages, were hostile to the best interests of trade, and were the source of constant complaint and litigation. He conceived that those laws were mischievous. He would put it to the feelings of every gentleman present, whether it was just to give to the rich master the power of combining against the journeyman, and to punish the latter, if he attempted to procure what he conceived to be a fair remuneration for his labour? The common law of the land was sufficient to check, any improper conduct on the part of the labouring artisan; and he conceived a measure ought to be introduced for the purpose of altering or repealing the statutes that had been enacted on this subject.

The Petition was then brought up and read, setting forth, "That the petitioners are aggrieved by certain Laws against combinations of workmen, inasmuch as those laws have a tendency to deprive them of the fair use of their skill, and of a just remuneration for their labour; that those laws, instead of preventing combinations, have in fact deprived, the working man of every means, except those of combination, of making arrangements with his employer, and of every chance of raising his nominal wages, however inadequate they may be to purchase the quantities of necessaries he has been accustomed to receive for his labour; that those laws, by forcing working men into combinations, have destroyed all confidence between them and their employers, and have substituted in its stead universal distrust, jealousy, and oppression; that in proportion as combinations among classes of workmen have been more or less perfect, and more or less permanent, so has been the amount of the remuneration they have received for their labour, thus making the well-being of a very large portion of the people depend upon an absolute breach of the laws; that notwithstanding those workmen among whom the means of successful combination are most perfect, have received a larger compensation for their labour than those among whom those means have been less perfect, there has been for many years past a gradual dete- rioration in the condition of even those who have received the largest compensation; that, in the opinion of the petitioners, all laws which interfere with the wages of labour are injurious to the general prosperity of the country, of vast and continually increasing injury to the working man, of no advantage to his employer, but that they are a source of constant hatred, litigation, and oppression, among those whose real interest it is, that a mutual good understanding should at all times prevail; the petitioners therefore pray, That the House will cause inquiry to be made, and such relief to be given to them as may seem reasonable."

Mr. Ellice

stated, that he had great pleasure in offering his entire concurrence in, and cordial assistance to the measure of which the hon. member had given notice for the repeal of the Combination acts, a subject to which it had been his intention to call the attention of the House. He had been obliged, in consequence of the distresses of his constituents, to appeal to the feelings of the House, in favour of a measure they had suggested for their own relief, and which had been opposed, on the general principle, that it would interfere with free labour; and his only answer to that opposition was, that, although he admitted that any regulation, of the price of labour was contrary to principles which all acknowledged, it had been rendered necessary by the repeated violation of those principles, which had produced the distressing effects from which the manufacturing classes were now suffering. He had the greatest pleasure, therefore, in offering his cordial support to a measure which would be the first step towards re-establishing the principle of free labour; and he would cordially and zealously join the hon. gentleman in his endeavours to remove a grievance, of which the operative manufacturer had so much reason to complain, from its partial and oppressive influence.

Mr. Williams

felt indebted to his hon. friend for bringing this subject before the House. It had been the policy of master-manufacturers and tradesmen, for some time back, to reduce the price of labour, and he was convinced that these combinations were injurious to the best interests of the community.

Lord Ebrington

entirely concurred in the sentiments expressed by the hon. members who had preceded him; and hoped that some measure to remedy the evil complained of by the petitioners would be adoped.

The petition was laid on the table, and ordered to be printed.