HC Deb 01 June 1820 vol 1 cc768-71
Mr. Littleton

now rose to bring forward his motion, for leave to bring in a bill, to amend the laws in existence, for obliging the persons who employ labourers and workmen to pay their wages in money, and not in goods or other equivalents. The hon. member shortly explained the object of his intended bill; namely, to relieve the labouring poor in manufacturing districts from being obliged by their employers to take their wages not in money but in groceries and other articles of consumption, upon which the employer had a profit, and whereby the labouring man was deprived of his option in disposing of his earnings to what he conceived the best advantage for his family. The oppressive effects of this system were felt by vast numbers of the working classes in various manufacturing and mining districts, as a heavy grievance which ought to be removed. He was aware that there were already statutes in force imposing heavy penalties upon employers who should thus deal with their workmen. But how was the poor labouring man to appeal for relief? If he resorted to a magistrate for redress against his employer, an appeal was immediately had from the decision of the magistrate to the quarter sessions. But how was a poor labouring man to afford a journey of 30, 40, and sometimes 60 miles to the quarter sessions of his county, bringing with him his attorney and his witnesses in support of his claims? The thing was impossible, and so long as the law was in its present state the grievance, which was a very heavy one, must remain unredressed. The hon. member was aware that his bill, in endeavouring to effect much and general good, might be attended by some partial evil. Hp understood there were many respectable employers of the poor in extensive mines and manufactures, who, so far from wishing to derive any profit or take any advantage, by paying their labourers in goods instead of money, did for their advantage lay out large sums; in purchasing by wholesale quantities of flour, groceries, and other articles of constant consumption, in order to dispose of them to their labourers at the lowest price, and never to force on them such commodities in payment for their labour, but at their own option; but the general grievance of which he complained was so severely felt, and so many affecting statements had reached him from various parts of the country, since he had given notice of his intention to propose his bill, descriptive of circumstances so extremely oppressive, that he felt it his duty to bring forward the measure, even at the risk of some partial evil, with a view to remedy so general a hardship. He concluded by moving, "That leave be given to bring in a Bill to render more effectual the Laws for securing to Labourers the due Payment of their Wages."

Sir J. Mackintosh

would not object to the introduction of the bill, though he thought the hon. gentleman would effect a more beneficial object by moving for a repeal of all former enactments that interfered between master and workmen. He was convinced that the best remedy for the evils complained of would be, to abolish all restrictions. He reserved to himself the right of opposing this bill in its future stages.

Mr. Robinson

entertained great doubts as to the beneficial tendency or good policy of legislative interference in the agreements between master and workmen. Restrictions of the kind now proposed had existed for a long time, and it might be a delicate question, whether they ought immediately to be abolished; but he had no difficulty in saying that if we had to begin again, he would not countenance such a policy. He would not oppose the introduction of the bill, but neither would he pledge himself to its future support.

Mr. Wrottesley

expressed his satisfaction that the attention of the eminent individuals who had just spoken had been called to the subject.

Colonel Wood

hoped that time would be allowed to spread the knowledge of the measure throughout the country before the bill passed into a law, as he had received notice from Wales that there would be petitions against it from those connected with the iron-works in that quarter.

Mr. Hume

said, the present law was evaded, but he would rather that the fifteen restrictive acts should be repealed, and a perfect freedom of making agreements allowed between master and workman, than that new enactments should be made which would likewise be evaded. He strongly objected to the continuance of the combination laws, the repeal of which would go far to satisfy the bulk of the labouring poor.

Mr. Baring

regretted that such a motion should have been made. He was aware of the good intentions of the hon. mover, but he thought the question of such importance, that a committee ought to be appointed upon it. He hoped the hon. mover would see the propriety of altering his motion to that effect.

Mr. Littleton

could not help feeling some doubt on the subject, after the opi- nions which he had heard. He thought, however, that he had better persevere in his motion at present. As long as the existing laws remained it was necessary that they should be rendered effective. He had no objection, at a future stage, to move for a committee to inquire into the expediency of repealing those laws altogether.

Mr. W. Smith

agreed with the general principle of leaving trade free, although the practice was against that doctrine. He thought a motion for a committee would have been better; because, if the allegations were proved, that would support the necessity for the bill. If not, there would have been good grounds for repealing the acts altogether. At any rate, he could not agree to a denial of a consideration of the subject.

Leave was given to bring in the bill.