HC Deb 12 February 1824 vol 10 cc141-51
Mr. Hume

said, he was well aware that the subject he was about to bring forward was one of the greatest importance, and attended, perhaps, with more difficulties than any he had hitherto ventured to touch. His object was no less than to submit to the House the propriety of appointing a committee to take into consideration the various laws which intimately concerned, in fact, the major part of the population of the empire. Two years ago, after presenting a petition signed by 15,000 persons, in London only, besides several other petitions from the country, he had given notice, that he should bring forward this question in the session that had last expired. He had found, however, that the subject had already been partially taken up by others, and that it was surrounded with more formidable difficulties than he had at first anticipated. At the end of last session he had given notice that he would, early in the present, fulfil his undertaking; and he had done so by the advice, and in hopes of the assistance, of a distinguished individual, whose recent loss the kingdom had to deplore [hear, hear!]. The late Mr. Ricardo was so well acquainted with every branch of the science of political economy, formerly, and until he had thrown light upon it, so ill understood, that his aid on such a question would have been of the utmost value. When he remembered the manner in which his lamented friend had always delivered his opinions, and the candour of moderation he invariably displayed towards his opponents, he might boldly assert, that there was not a member on any side of the House, who would for a moment deny the extent of the loss the country had thus sustained [hear, hear! from all parts of the House]. The general interest of the community wan the single object he ever had in view, and through good report and bad report, he had pursued it with the meekest spirit of humility, and the most liberal spirit of inquiry. With regard to the principles which Mr. Ricardo was so capable of expounding, now that time had worn away many of the ruder prejudices against them, he might say, that not a few of those opponents, who had long theoretically resisted his doctrines, would at this time, though perhaps somewhat unwillingly, allow, that many of his predictions had been fulfilled. It was doubtless presumptuous in him to touch matters which his late friend had already so ably treated; and he only had given notice originally of his intention to bring this great subject under the consideration of the House, in the hope and expectation, that he should have enjoyed the benefit of his aid and counsel.

He was well aware that ministers, during the last session, had manifested a disposition to simplify the more complicated laws, and to repeal others which, though venerable from their antiquity, were no longer suited to the altered circumstances of the country. He therefore introduced the present question under favourable auspices; and, although it certainly was involved, that difficulty ought not to prevent the House from entertaining it for the public benefit. It would not be forgotten, that one of the most important measures to which Mr. Ricardo had directed his attention, was the Spitalfieldsact, and those who were friendly to the principle of the change he suggested, still did not wish to remove the restriction, until it was seen what parliament intended to do on the subject of the emigration of artizans. In some points he (Mr. Hume) fully concurred with those adversaries of its repeal, and he was not less satisfied, that it was the duty of the House to take care that the question of the emigration of artizans was fully, and by no means hastily considered [hear, hear!]. His proposition was more comprehensive than he had originally intended it to be. It had been his design to review, in the first place, the laws preventing artizans from leaving the country; and, in the second instance, to consider how far the laws restricting the exportation of machinery ought to be continued, modified, or repealed. At the request of various members on all sides of the House, he had since agreed to add a third branch of inquiry, by no means the least important; namely, those statutes which interfered with contracts between master and servant, commonly called the Combination laws, they would be found to be more widely extended than was generally supposed. He hoped that at this time of day it was unnecessary for him to dwell upon the advantages of an inquiry of this kind; but it might be satisfactory to some hon. Members, to state a few of the circumstances, that would be fully established by investigation, and on which would mainly rest the arguments in favour of a change in the present system.

As to the first head of inquiry, he had no hesitation in asserting, that every law ought to be repealed which shackled any man in the free disposition of his labour, provided that free disposition did not interfere with any vital interest, and thereby endanger the political existence of the state. As far as possible every man ought to be allowed free agency. He could not express his notions upon this point in any language so appropriate as that employed by Dr. Adam Smith, when adverting to the question of labour. His words were. "The property which every man has in his own labour, as it is the original foundation of all other property, so it is the most sacred and inviolable. The patrimony of a poor man lies in the strength and dexterity of his hands; and to hinder him from employing this strength and dexterity in what manner he thinks proper, without injury to his neighbour, is a plain violation of his most sacred property." As the law stood at present, a gentleman of property might go over to France, or to any other country, and there spend his whole substance, or he might annually draw his income from England Scotland, or Ireland, and disperse it abroad without the slightest responsibility. Now, laws, to be just, ought to be general; but the poor man, whose whole wealth consisted in the art he had learned, and the strength he enjoyed, was unable to apply that art and that strength to the best advantage. By law, he could not go abroad, where greater encouragement might be offered. He was liable to be stopped on his road: and if any man before a magistrate ventured to depose that he had reason to believe that a certain artizan intended to go abroad, that magistrate might imprison the artizan, until he had given good security that he would not quit the country. He was thus unjustly deprived of those rights which others of more property, but of less intrinsic value, enjoyed. Such a principle at the present day could not be defended; though the time had been, when the sound doctrines of political economy were not understood, and when a permission to artizans to emigrate was looked upon as injurious. In despite of all penalties, it was now found, that artizans could not be restrained: a fine of one, two, or even five hundred pounds was insufficient to restrain them. If the mechanics were starving, and population redundant, the law was still inexorable; and he was compelled to remain in wretchedness in his own country, instead of being allowed to earn an honest subsistence abroad. Of late years, emigration had been recognised: nay, it had been countenanced by the legislature. Large portions of our redundant population had been sent to the Cape, to America, and elsewhere; because it was found that the labour of these people could not be beneficially applied in Great Britain. He maintained, that it was grievously unjust not to allow artizans to make the best use of their time and their talents, by removing to countries where they could find employment. This was certain, that the individuals would never think of leaving their native country, unless they were induced to do so by increase of wages or a general improvement of their condition; so that all those of the same class whom they left behind would be in a better situation by their absence. This was an unchallengeable, and most satisfactory conclusion. The restrictive laws had long existed; but of late they had only existed to be violated; and it was the business of parliament to take care that such acts as were not, and ought not to be obeyed were repealed.

The second branch of inquiry might appear to many of a more doubtful nature; namely, the propriety of allowing machinery to be exported; but it would be found on inquiry, as a part of our commercial system, to give way before the sounder, more liberal, and more enlightened principles of late years adopted. Perhaps this division of the subject might require more time and more testimony than either of the others; but every facility would, of course, be afforded, both to those who opposed, and to those who supported the modification of the law; and it would be for the House at large finally to decide upon the important question. He was quite satisfied that the change ought to be made: it was well known that machinery was now exported, and that great establishments had been raised in various parts of the world. Why then, instead of clandestine exportation, should not this country become the great manufacturer of machinery, thus adding to the rest a most important application of ingenious industry? The rude materials were cheap; and upon no branch of trade was there so large a profit; so that, by a change of system in this respect, we should at once employ capital, engage industry, encourage ingenuity, and promote even the general commerce of the nation. If, therefore, it could be shown, as he had no doubt it would be shown, that the policy of our laws had compelled foreign states to erect manufactures of machinery at a very high rate, and that they would willingly purchase machinery from us if they could do it free from danger, the valuable addition which would be so made to our commerce would be a sufficient reason for making some alteration in the present system. He could not help mentioning another strong inducement to the taking of some such measure. There was scarcely a single mechanical improvement that was not immediately protected by a patent. To obtain that patent a specification of the improvement discovered must be made out in such clear terms, as to enable any other machinist to understand it. Our own manufacturers could not, it was true, infringe the patent; but the Patent-office was open to the world, any foreigner that chose might obtain a copy of the specification; and, on returning to his own country, might take advantage of the skill of English workmen, to carry into effect the directions it contained. Thus, in fact, by our present restrictive law, we deprived ourselves of the profit we might otherwise acquire by the manufacture of machinery. He hoped he had made his intentions on this head sufficiently clear.

On the next branch of the subject, which related to what were usually termed the Combination-laws, he intended to be very brief. For many years past, the country had been burthened by a system of laws preventing the labouring classes of the community from combining together against their employers. Their employers, who, though few in number, were powerful in wealth, might combine against them, and might determine not to give them more than a certain sum for their labour. The workmen could not, however, consult together about the rate they ought to fix on that labour, without rendering themselves liable to fine and imprisonment, and a thousand other inconveniences which the law had reserved for them. The masters, on the other hand, could combine against the men; they were comparatively few in number, possessed every advantage of power and station, and could, at any time, agree among themselves, what rate of wages they would allow. The master shoemakers, the master saddlers, and many others, had adopted resolutions for this purpose; so that, in fact, the operators were completely at the mercy of their employers. Of course, this gross inequality in the law had been a source of perpetual dissatisfaction. Some of those persons, who were well satisfied with the state of things, without knowing exactly what that state was, professed to feel pride that, in the eye of the British law, all were equal—that high and low, rich and poor, were alike protected. It might be so theoretically; but, practically, and, in many instances, the case was directly otherwise. In this instance, the men were not protected against the injustice of their masters, while the masters were protected from the combinations of the men. It was said, that if these laws were repealed, there would be nothing but rioting and quarrelling between the masters and the men; but this he denied, on the authority of persons conversant in trade, who informed him, that a strike for wages never took place, except in cases where the men found their wages insufficient for their support, or under other circumstances of severe extremity. They were compelled to strike; so that the masters brought the evil upon themselves. It was also very important, in relation to this point, to mention, that it was the decided opinion of the hon. and learned member for Peterborough (Mr. Scarlett) that if all the penal laws against combinations by workmen for increase of wages were struck out of the Statute-book, the common law of the land would still be amply sufficient to prevent the mischievous effects of such combinations [hear, hear!]. The hon. and learned member had promised to be in his place to state this opinion, and he was sorry to observe that he was absent. However, among lawyers he believed there was no doubt upon the point. It was of great importance to consider, therefore, whether these needless laws, creating so many heart burnings, and so much discontent, might not be safely abrogated. If the common law was adequate to all useful purposes, why had not these statutes been repealed long ago? The common, but not the very sensible, answer was, that it was difficult to deal with the subject; but he doubted whether so much difficulty would be found as was anticipated. It was clear that the workmen liked the present system; for at a meeting of the Spitalfields' weavers within the last fortnight, it had been carried by acclamation, that they were content that no change should be made. If there were any gentlemen who were aware of any disadvantages that would result from the sweeping away of the whole system of combination laws, he hoped they would take the trouble to lay them before the committee. He was fully aware of the difficulty of the subject, and of the prejudices which they would have to encounter in the examination; but he trusted that they should be able to overcome them all, if they met with the assistance of his majesty's ministers, and especially of that right hon. gentleman the president of the board of trade, who had taken such an effective part in removing the restrictions by which the commerce of the country had been long fettered. Without that assistance, he was aware that they could do nothing; but with it he was sure that they could effect a great and lasting benefit to the community.—The hon. gentleman concluded with moving,

"That a select committee be appointed to inquire into the state of the law in the United Kingdom, and its consequences, respecting artizans leaving the kingdom, and residing abroad; also, into the state of the law, and its consequences, respecting the exportation of tools and machinery; and into the state of the law, and its effects, so far as relates to the combination of workmen, and others, to raise wages, or to regulate their wages and hours of working; and to report their opinion and observations thereupon to the House."

Mr. Huskisson

rose, not for the purpose of opposing, but of concurring in the present motion. He wished, however, to have it distinctly understood, that he held himself at liberty, on every part of this subject, to form his opinion upon the evidence which might hereafter be submitted to the committee. He acknowledged that, in much of the general reasoning of the hon. member for Aberdeen, he fully concurred. On the first head of the proposed inquiry which related to the granting permission to arti- zans to go abroad, he must confess that he entertained but little doubt. It appeared to him, that from the moment that the policy of our laws, no matter how numerous or how long enacted, was called into question, the onus of proving their necessity rested with those who undertook to maintain them; and when he spoke of necessity, he used the term in reference to the great and paramount interest of the community, and not to the convenience of any body of individuals, who either had, or fancied that they had, an interest in the employment of our artizans. He said, that every man was entitled to carry that talent which nature had given him, and those acquirements which his diligence had attained, to any market in which he was likely to obtain the highest remuneration, unless it could be shown that there was some paramount and overwhelming necessity against it. With respect, therefore, to the law on this subject, the question was, first, whether it was necessary, and then whether it was just and practicable? With regard to its necessity, he did not feel himself called upon to say a single word more than this; namely, that it had led to nothing else but perjury, as any man might now go abroad, who chose to swallow the customhouse oath. It was not just; because, the severe penalties it contained prevented those artizans, who had failed in turning their acquirements to advantage abroad, from returning back with them to their native country. He knew that at this very moment there were many manufactories in France, in which not merely the workmen, but also the masters who employed them, were British-born subjects; and he also knew, that many of the individuals so engaged abroad, would, in the fluctuations to which their trade had been exposed, have willingly returned to England, had they not considered themselves proscribed by this very law. He therefore repeated, that upon this branch of the subject he himself entertained but little doubt; he thought, however, that it ought to undergo investigation, if for no other reason, at least for this—that it would tend to remove many idle prejudices which at present prevailed regarding it.—With regard to the free exportation of machinery, he agreed with the hon. member, in thinking, that public opinion was more divided. For his own part, he had no hesitation in stating, that in general he concurred in the opinions which the hon. member had expressed upon it; and he would further observe, that if it were determined to permit the emigration of artizans, it would be more difficult than ever to prevent the exportation of machinery, as the machinery was in general of their invention. He could wish the attention of the committee to be directed to this point—can this part of the law be made effectual? He knew that at this very moment, machinery of the most cumbrous nature was exported from the country; and he agreed with the hon. member, in saying, that with the superiority which our artizans possessed over those of other countries in the manufacture and erection of machinery, we ought to take into consideration the demand for it which would be immediately created by allowing it to be freely exported. On that part of the subject, however, he wished to reserve himself until he had heard all that could be stated by those who were most interested in it; at present he had a strong opinion, that the country would be much benefitted by such a measure as the hon. member for Aberdeen appeared to contemplate.

With regard to the combination laws, he must observe, that it was a question of great extent and of great difficulty, and one which would require great industry, on account of the complicated system of law which it would be necessary to unravel. From the best attention which he had been able to bestow upon it, he was convinced, that the laws against combinations had tended to multiply combinations, and that they had greatly aggravated the evil they were intended to remove. From the moment those laws were made, the workmen saw the injury which they inflicted on them, and immediately began to consider by what means they could be best evaded. It was no slight objection to those laws, that they created between the employer and the employed, relations diametrically opposite to those which ought to exist, for they created jealousy, ill-will, and discontent, instead of that feeling of good-will that was calculated to make each party stand by the other in any period of mutual distress. To relieve itself from the numerous applications which the House received in periods of distress from the manufacturing interest, calling upon it to interfere between the masters and the men—to remove from the Statute-book some laws which were too oppressive to be executed, and others which it was impossible to execute—he thought that this inquiry ought to be instituted. He had not studied the question sufficiently to be able to say, that if all the combination laws were removed from the Statute-book, the common law would be able to meet all combination; but he should suppose that if a workman engaged to finish a given quantity of work in a given time, and did not finish it, there must be some law to punish him for his breach of engagement. So, too, in case of a conspiracy to deter individuals from working at a given rate of wages. It would be incumbent on the House to look narrowly into the subject: strong prejudices existed regarding it in the manufacturing districts, many of which had been engendered by the law itself, and ought therefore to be carefully and tenderly removed. He could not conclude without thanking the hon. member for Aberdeen, whose industry and diligence could be exceeded by no man's [hear, hear] for having undertaken this arduous task. He was not at all surprised that the hon. member for Aberdeen, in proposing this inquiry, should have regretted the loss which the House had sustained by the death of his valued friend, the late Mr. Ricardo—a gentleman, whom he had also had the pleasure of reckoning among his friends. There was no man who esteemed more highly the acuteness and ability of Mr. Ricardo than he did, and no man who more sincerely lamented his loss. In all his public conduct there was an evident anxiety to do what he thought right, to seek the good of the country, and to pursue no other object; and his speeches were always distinguished by a spirit of firmness and conciliation that did equal honour to himself and to his country. In conclusion, he remarked, that he was convinced that the diligent inquiry of the committee would produce a report which would enable the House to retain what was useful in the laws to which the motion referred, to clear from the Statute-book such of them as were useless, unnecessary, and impracticable, and to substitute in their stead such amendments as would best promote the commercial interest and glory of the country [Hear, hear.]

The motion being agreed to, Mr. Hume named the following committee, observing that he should be happy to receive the assistance of any other members who were disposed to attend it—Mr. Hume, Mr. Huskisson, Mr. C. Grant, Mr. S. Bourne, Mr. Attorney Genetal, Mr. Grey Bennet, Mr. Dawson, Mr. D. Gilbert, Mr. Bernal, Mr. F. Lewis, Sir H. Parnell, Mr. G. Philips, Mr. P. Moore, Mr. Littleton, Mr. Stuart Wortley, Mr. Birch, Mr. Pares, Mr. T. Wilson, Mr. Egerton, sir T. Acland, and Mr. Hob-house.