HC Deb 30 May 1823 vol 9 cc598-602
Mr. Attwood

presented a petition, numerously signed, from the Manual Weavers of the town, and neighbourhood of Stockport, complaining of great distress, and petitioning the House for relief. The distress which the petitioners suffered, arose from the extremely low rate of wages; and the remedy which they proposed for this was, that the House should fix a minimum on the rate of wages. They complained also of certain improvements in Machinery, the effect of which had been to reduce the quantity of employment of those who wove by hand, and which threatened to leave a large population without any means whatever of support. He perceived that the petitioners ascribed their difficulties, in part, to a hard and oppressive conduct adopted by their employers, and he was sorry to see that opinions so erroneous and so injurious to their own interests prevailed amongst the work men. He was sensible that the petition generally, as it respected fixing by law a rate of wages, and as it complained of improvements in machinery, was but little calculated to obtain a favourable reception in the House; and he wished it to be understood, that he was not the advocate of the views of the petitioners on these subjects: but he considered their prayer to be worthy of an attentive consideration, because it proceeded from men in a state of great calamity, which extended not alone to those who had signed that petition, but to a large and important population, through out the seats of the cotton manufacture. Whatever he thought of some of the opinions of the petitioners, he was convinced of this, that when they complained of the means of subsistence being taken from them in consequence of improvements of machinery, and applied to the House for compensation, they raised a question of great extent and difficulty, and which was, not; to be met by the common assertion, denied by no man, nor denied by the petitioners, that all such improvements were beneficial to the wealth and interests of the community at large.

Mr. Philips

said, that after all the inquiry ho had made with respect, to the condition of the weavers of Lancashire at the present, moment, he was inclined to think that they had greatly exaggerated, the statement of their distresses. The cotton-spinners' wages were, it was true, very low; but the price of provisions was so extremely moderate, that they could live comfortably on those wages. That was undoubtedly the case when he was last in Lancashire; and the fact was proved by the reduction of the poor-rates, as well as by the reduced number of applications for private charity. With respect to machinery, he would now re-assert what he had formerly staffed namely, that where machinery was used the wages were the highest. Where cotton machinery was introduced, the comforts and wages of the artisan were improved. They were paid more for managing machinery, than for the mere labour of their own hands. He would contend, that no means were so effectual for the benefit of the manufacturing class, as the introduction of machinery; and if parliament were foolish enough to comply with the prayer of those who wished to discourage machinery, they would inflict the greatest possible injury on the public, and especially on the petitioners themselves. If a minimum of wages were established, so far from the weavers being relieved by such a project, they would at one time of the year have no employment at all. The most prudent course would be, to leave the trade perfectly unshackled, and open to the arrangements of the parties immediately concerned—those who employ labour, and those whose labour was so employed [Hear, hear!]. In his opinion, the sale and purchase of labour ought to be as unrestrained as the sale and purchase of any other commodity.

Mr. Curwen

was convinced, that if a> minimum of wages were established, it would produce great mischief. Four on five years ago, when several petitions similar to the present were laid before the House, a committee was appointed to consider of them. Delegates from, the operative manufacturers, and other individuals conversant with the subject, were then examined; and he believed not one person attended who did not go away perfectly satisfied that such a system: would be most mischievous Amongst the members of the committee, there was not the slightest difference of opinion.

Mr. Grey Bennet

said, a very useful publication on the subject of machinery, written by Mr. Cobbett, had been extensively circulated throughout the manufacturing counties, and would, he hoped, effect a change of opinion no. Jess extensive; Those who had not read that work ought; to read it; because there was no publication, which, for a rational and practical view of the subject, could be compared with it. He had learned, more, from it than from any publication of the kind ho had ever read.

Sir J. Coffin

said, that if the use machinery were abolished, two-thirds of the manufacturers of this country would be reduced to starvation.

Mr. Ricardo

said, that much information might, undoubtedly, be derived from Mr. Cobbett's publication, because that writer explained the use of machinery in such a way as to render the subject perfectly clear. He was not, however, altogether satisfied with the reasoning contained in that pamphlet; because it was evident, that the extensive use of machinery, by throwing a large portion of labour into the market, while, on the other hand, there might not be a corresponding increase of demand for it, must, in some degree, operate prejudicially to the working classes. But still he would not tolerate any law to prevent the use of machinery. The question was,—if they gave up a system which enabled them to undersell in the foreign market, would other nations refrain from pursuing it? Certainly not. They were therefore bound, for their own interest, to continue it. Gentlemen ought, however, to inculcate this truth on the minds of the working classes—that the value of labour, like the value of other things, depended on the relative proportion of supply and demand. If the supply of labour were greater than could be employed, then the people must be miserable. But the people had the remedy in their own hands. A little forethought, a little prudence (which probably they would exert, if they were not made such machines of by the poor-laws), a little of that caution which the better educated felt it necessary to use, would enable them to improve their situation.

Mr. Maxwell

differed from those who were of opinion that a low rate of wages was serviceable to a country. The reverse he conceived to be the fact; be-cause, from the circumstance of low wages, a great degree of crime and discontent were engendered; and when that was the case, great expense must be incurred in the prosecution and punishment of offenders. He trusted that the right hon. gentleman at the head of the Board of Trade would pay some attention to this petition. The population of the country, whether agricultural or manufacturing, should, he thought, be protected as much as possible from the effects of machinery; since it was that population by whom the taxes were paid.

Mr. Philips

instanced the fact, that the wages of the artisan were more liberal where machinery was used than where it was not used, as a proof that its introduction was not hurtful to the weaver.

Mr. Ricardo

said, his proposition was, not that the use of machinery was prejudicial to persons employed in one particular manufacture, but to the working classes generally. It was the means of throwing additional labour into the market, and thus the demand for labour, generally, was diminished.

Mr. Maxwell

presented a petition of a similar nature from certain inhabitants of Middlesex. He observed, that if wages were higher, the working-classes would be able to consume a greater quantity of produce of every kind; and they must all acknowledge, that to devise a mode by which the consumption of produce would be extended, was a great desideratum.

Ordered to lie on the table.