HC Deb 21 May 1823 vol 9 cc377-87
The Lord Mayor

presented a petition most numerously and respectably signed by many of his constituents the working silk-weavers of Sudbury, against the repeal of the act called the Spitalfields act, and which had for its object to regulate the price of labour in that trade. His lordship stated, that they were apprehensive the consequence would be, to reduce their means of subsistence, and consequently to increase the poor-rates. The act had been passed in consequence of great disputes between the masters and men, and since that period the silk trade had flourished, and the men had been satisfied. At all events, whatever might be the original policy of the measure, it ought not to be interfered with without great caution, and opportunity for all parties interested to be heard fully on the subject.

Mr. Calvert

recommended that time should be given to the petitioners to state their objections to the measure.

Mr. Ricardo

thought that this petition, coming from a district which was free, and praying that a restriction might be continued upon another district, was a most powerful argument in favour of the very measure which it opposed.

Mr. W. Smith

thought, that as the petition concerned the interests of a large body of industrious and ingenious men, their opinions and even prejudices ought to be attentively listened to.

Mr. F. Buxton

presented a similar petition, which, having lain for signatures only three days, had received 11,000, Females had not been permitted to sign, nor any person under the age of 20. It came from the journeymen silk-weavers of London and Middlesex. Its object was, to represent to the House the dismay and alarm which had been caused in the minds of the weavers of Spitalfields, by the bill which was appointed to be read a second time that day. It stated, that the journeymen weavers had derived great benefit from the effects of the existing laws, of which he thought they were competent judges, and which they said did not repress industry in any shape. It stated, that the poor-rates in the neighbourhood from which this petition came amounted only to 3s. in the pound; and it asserted, that the repeal of the present acts would increase them. If the right hon. gentleman who introduced this measure had been in his place, he should have requested him to postpone the further progress of the bill until the petitioners had been heard, as they prayed, by themselves or their counsel, at the bar of the House.

Mr. Hume

said, he regretted that the right hon. proposer of this measure was not in his place, to vindicate the broad and general principle upon which it was founded. He was willing to give the petitioners credit for very honest intentions, but he thought they did not understand the operation of those principles to their own advantage or disadvantage. They thought, for instance, that the existing law had been beneficial to them, when it had, in fact, been; for the last forty or fifty years, diverting the trade to Sudbury and to other places. He was satisfied that, in proposing the present measure, his majesty's ministers had conferred a benefit on the country at large.

Mr. F. Buxlon

admitted, that the pe- titioners did not pretend to understand political economy—a science, the principles of which appeared to change every two or three years. All they demanded was, to be heard; and no reason had been given why the complaints of eleven thousand petitioners, whose interests would be affected by this measure, should not be attended to.

Mr. Ellice

said, he agreed that all the restrictions on trade which had been alluded to had probably better be removed. But, how were they proceeding? They were, however, proceeding to remove a law which, as the workmen conceived, afforded them protection, while they allowed the Combination act, and the act against the emigration of artisans, to remain in existence, which statutes, as every one knew, operated severely against certain of the working classes. The weavers undoubtedly believed that the bill which was about to be repealed afforded them some protection; and they saw none of those evils which the master-manufacturers apprehended would flow from suffering it to continue in force. They were the persons chiefly interested; and he thought their call for some delay was not unreasonable. There were some restrictions, he was aware, on the master-manufacturer, with respect to the mode of carrying on his business, but these were very easily evaded. It was said, that the existing act was a deviation from general principles; but where it suited particular interests, the House frequently deviated from such principles. That was the case with respect to the corn-laws, and the laws affecting other branches of trade, by which the workmen were grievously oppressed. So that the mere deviation from general principles, in this particular case, was not of itself a sufficient reason for repealing the act. The workmen were seriously aggrieved by the emigration laws, which prevented them from carrying their labour to other countries, as the master-manufacturer was enabled to carry his capital. Let it net, therefore, go abroad, that the House would interfere with those acts which the workman thought beneficial to his interests, and not redress the grievances which grew out of measures which he felt to be oppressive. He would ask the right hon. gentleman (Mr. Huskisson), whether he could not, without interposing any great impediment to the progress of this bill, give a little more time for the con- sideration of this measure, and afford the petitioners the satisfaction of knowing that he contemplated the repeal of the Combination act, and of several other statutes under which they suffered very considerably?

Mr. Haldimand

said, he would support the bill introduced by the right hon. gentleman, because he believed if the existing acts were not repealed, the silk-trade in Spitalfields would be extinguished altogether in the course of a very few years. He stated this, not upon any general principle, but as a mere matter of fact. An allusion had been made to the petitioners, as not understanding political economy; but the resolutions and the petition which they had agreed to at a public meeting, contained some of the strongest principles of what he supposed they considered political economy that were ever promulgated. They approved of the doctrine, that the magistrate should fix the prices, and that no one should work for more or less than he settled. This was a monstrous proposition. The price was not to be determined by the number of labourers, as compared with the demand, but by the magistrate; who, it must be presumed, possessed some in tuitive mode of judging what was exactly the proper rate. Their observations on machinery were equally unsound; and their complaint, that, if the present bill were passed, the wages of the Spitalfields weaver would suffer the same reduction as had taken place in Coventry and else where, was really absurd. Their argument went to this—that the rate of wages there should continue the same, whether the price of provisions remained as it was now, became lower, or was doubled. Whoever drew up that petition had made out a better case for the repeal of the present bill, than those persons had done who had petitioned the House to effect that object. It was a remarkable circumstance, that since that bill had been passed, the rate of the weaver's wages had risen, but had never fallen. No instance of a fall had occurred, although the wages in other branches of the trade had been reduced. Some years ago the masters had called for the repeal of this bill; and he believed there were very few of them at present who did not wish for its removal.

Mr. Ricardo

said, in answer; to what had fallen from an hon. gentleman, that if they waited until they could, at one stroke, destroy all restrictions on trade they would never effect any useful alteration. The hon. member for Weymouth had observed, that the petitioners knew nothing about political economy, the principles of which seemed to change every two or three years. Now, the principles of true political economy never changed; and those who did not understand that science had better say nothing about it, but endeavour to give good reasons, if they could find any, for supporting the existing act. He most assuredly would not utter a word that could be injurious to the manufacturing classes: all his sympathies were in their favour: he considered them as a most valuable part of the population, and what he said was intended for their benefit. But, why should this particular trade come under the cognizance of the magistrate more than any other? Why should be interfere with this particular branch of the trade when many other branches of it were not under his control? The law only applied to the weavers. With respect to all other parties connected with the trade the magistrate had no jurisdiction whatever. Why should he have the power to fix the price of labour, more than the price of bread, meat, or beer? Delay was asked for. Now, he saw no use or advantage in delaying the measure. The hon. member for Norwich called on the House to delay the bill until next session. But, what reason had he given for the postponement? No one whatever. He merely said, "I think the existing measure is a very bad one for the workmen, but there is an extraordinary prejudice in its favour amongst the weavers, and therefore I would delay the measure until that prejudice is removed." Why, at the end of the next session they would be in exactly the same state as at present; the prejudice would be found to exist as strongly as before. He therefore hoped that his right hon. friend would proceed with the measure, and refuse any application for delay.

Mr. W. Smith

said, the reason why he called for delay was, to allow time for the prejudices of those who disapproved of the bill to subside, or be overcome. In conversing with some of the petitioners, he had found them prejudiced, but reasonable; and if delay were granted, perhaps those prejudices might be removed, and the bill be passed without opposition.

Mr. S. Wortley

concurred in opinion with those who pointed out the folly of these regulations; but, in doing them away, it would be well, if possible, to carry with them the feelings of those who now wished for their continuance; and he did not know of any mischief that could arise from the delay of a few months which could be compared with the benefit that would result from showing the petitioners that the regulations were, in fact, the worst that could possibly be devised for them. Why could not the subject be referred to a committee? He could state instances where inquiry before a committee of the House had effectually removed deep-rooted prejudices, which could not have been eradicated but for such inquiry. The restrictions on the use of machinery in the West Riding of Yorkshire, and the regulations with respect to the stamping of woollen cloth, were some years ago considered by committees of that House; and though the prejudice against any alteration was very strong, yet when the propriety of a revision of the law was made apparent, it was effected without opposition. Therefore it appeared to him that some delay was advisable.

Mr. G. Philips

wished the measure not to be hurried through the House. It ought to receive a calm and deliberate consideration. He thought the existing act was injurious to the workmen; but, on that very account, he thought delay ought to take place, because he was desirous that the necessity of the repeal should be manifested to the workmen themselves. It was said, that the combination acts were injurious; but it should be recollected, that there was now a bill before the House to put an end to them. No body of men had suffered more than the Spitalfields weavers; and, in his opinion, their sufferings had been chiefly occasioned by the law which the right hon. gentleman wished to repeal.

Mr. Huskisson

said, there was one singular feature in this discussion; namely, that not one of those who had taken a part in it, had contended for the principle of the bill which was about to be repealed; and yet, when not a single member was disposed to maintain the proposition, that the principle was a good one, they were asked to appoint a committee to investigate this subject. What would be the use of such a proceeding, when every man was precisely of the same opinion? He had heard, many complaints from time to time, that government would take no responsibility upon themselves, but left every alteration in the law to others; but on this occasion, where they could with great propriety assume a certain degree of responsibility, gentlemen were anxious that they should throw it upon a committee. They were required, either to grant delay to the next session, or to refer the subject to a committee up stairs. Now, with respect to delay, honourable gentlemen very much deceived themselves if they supposed that delay was likely to produce any alteration in the feelings of the petitioners. This was not a new matter of discussion and inquiry between those who now were petitioners and the government. He appealed to his right hon. friend who was recently at the head of the Board of Trade, whether this subject had not, year after year, been brought under discussion. It had been repeatedly considered by the operative weavers on the one side, and the executive government, anxious to do away an act which was obnoxious to the interests of the country, and to the welfare of the parties themselves, on the other. When the present act was passed, there was no silk-manufactory in any part of the country except Spitalfields; and if it had not been for the prohibition against the importation of silk, the law would not have remained on the Statute book for fifty years. But the case was now wholly altered. There were silk-manufactories in many parts of the country; and, if the present law were suffered to remain in force many years longer, the whole trade would be absorbed by them, and the manufactories of Spitalfields would be inevitably ruined. In that case, though they might repeal the law, that measure would come too late; for it was extremely difficult, when a branch of manufactures was once removed from a particular place, to bring it back again. Upon all these grounds he should feel it necessary not to hurry the bill through the House, but to press it forward consistently with the accustomed forms of parliament. At the present moment there was a dispute between the masters and the journeymen: the one body wanting to affix a certain price on particular articles; the other contending against it. Who, then, was to decide? Why, the magistrate, who knew nothing about the subject, and who might as well be called in to decide on a mathematical problem, relative to which two professors of that science maintained different opinions. With respect to the combination laws, and the law relative to emigration, he admitted that they required revision. That, however, was a very complicated subject; not a plain and simple one like the present. It might be fit for the consideration of a committee, but could not be assimilated to the subject of the bill which had given rise to this discussion. The bill which he had brought in did not affect the general laws of the land; but merely a law which applied to a particular district, and gave to it undue advantages which other places did not possess. It was one of those unwise departures from sound principles which ought to be got rid of as soon as possible. He should persevere in moving the second reading of the Silk-manufacture bill that evening.

Mr. Calcraft

was of opinion, that it would be unadvisable to proceed further in this business, without giving the petitioners an opportunity of being heard. Let them first be heard, and then the House could decide upon the merits of the case—that a course which, though it should ultimately prove adverse to the view at present taken by the petitioners of their interests, would, he had not a doubt, be acquiesced in by the parties at issue.

Mr. S. Rice

said, that he was requested by one of the most respectable persons engaged in the silk trade in Ireland, to express a hope that the bill would not be hurried in its progress through the House. The Irish silk-trade suffered regulations analogous to that carried on in Spitalfields, with the additional control of the Dublin society.

Mr. F. Buxton

called the attention of the House to the standing order, which precluded them from receiving any measure for imposing a new restriction upon trade, or altering any thing relating to trade, without its being previously submitted to a select committee. With respect to the disputes-among the workmen, he had the authority of Mr. Hall, who had resided forty years in Spitalfields, to say, that within his memory there had only been two instances of applications to the magistrates by the workmen.

Mr. Huskisson

said, that at that moment an application to the magistrates was pending respecting the price upon the manufacture of a particular article. With respect to the standing order, whatever was its wording, he could state, that the original intention of it was, that no new restriction should be imposed upon trade. If it were applied to such a case as this, which was to remove a restriction, an operation would be given to it the reverse of the original intention.

Mr. S. Worthy

contended, that the standing order was applicable to the present case.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

explained the origin of the standing order. A bill imposing certain restrictions on trade had found its way through that House to the House of Lords, where it was objected to, and the Lords came to a resolution, that no such bill should be agreed to, but after the reference of the subject to a committee. The House of Commons then came to a similar resolution. However the order might be worded, its object evidently was, to prevent the introduction of new restraints upon trade, and not the removal of those which already existed.

Lord Milton

thought the petitioners ought to be heard. In a case in which the interests of so many persons were concerned, it would not be right to dwell on what might be the original intent of the standing order. And after all, the repeal of restrictions on trade was, in fact, the introduction of a new regulation with respect to it.

Mr. Ellice

urged the propriety of postponement. It would be hard on the petitioners, if now, for the first time, the standing order was considered inapplicable to the present question.

Mr. F. Buxton

presented a similar petition from the tradesmen of Spitalfields, expressing their apprehension, that the result of the repeal of the existing law would be, the increase of the poor-rates, and praying the House not to pass the bill without the fullest examination. In his opinion, inquiry was indispensably necessary, to pacify the opponents of the repeal if they were wrong, or to do them justice if they were right.

Mr. Philips

thought the standing order bore upon the present question.

Mr. Wallace

was satisfied that, whatever was the wording of the standing order, it had no real application to the principle of this bill, and he should regret extremely to see it impeded upon such a pretence. If the House yielded to the present application, the result must be the loss of the bill for the present session.

Mr. Maxwell

thought it might he safely presumed, that the petitioners had good reason for their opposition to the present bill. He certainly hesitated to say, that he approved of the repeal. At any rate, he was persuaded it ought not to be an isolated measure; He was one of those who thought that some regulations respecting wages, and among others, that of fixing their minimum, would be serviceable to the community at large.

Mr. Huskisson

admitted, that if a doubt existed respecting the operation of the standing order, it ought to be considered before they proceeded further. It had not, however, been previously acted upon; and its effect, if used in the manner now proposed, would be, to paralyse all the proceedings of that House in matters of trade.

Sir J. Mackintosh

said, he rose, much against his inclination, to state his opinion with respect to the meaning and construction of the standing order, because he was decidedly favourable to the bill, and as decidedly opposed to any thing which might oppose its progress. But, unfortunately, they were bound to consider the orders of that House, according to their general and plain import. For himself, he considered the removal of any restraint upon trade as much a regulation of such trade, as the imposition of any restraint could be. He had heard his hon. friend (Mr. Maxwell's) observation, about a minimum of wages, with regret. If his hon. friend's view were correct, he ought to apply his minimum equally to prices and to rents; not that such an extension of the application would correct the principle. On the contrary, it would expose its absurdity.

Mr. Baring

rather preferred the formation of a committee. It did not follow that such a committee should enter into a protracted inquiry. With respect to the standing order, he saw nothing of absolute wisdom in it, and thought it ought to be repealed. With respect to the petitions, they did not weigh much with him. They came from a set of persons who were either labourers in the trade, or tradesmen and shopkeepers with whom those labourers dealt, and who would, of course, join in the prayer of their customers.

Mr. Huskisson

said, that though this standing order had been introduced on the 23rd of June, 1820, it had never been acted upon. He would, to-morrow, move, to refer the consideration of it to a select committee; and under these circumstances, he did not mean to press the second reading of the bill that night.

Ordered to lie on the table.