§ Sir M. W. Ridley
presented a petition, numerously signed by shipwrights and mariners of Kingston-upon-Hull, against the Combination laws, and praying that the petitioners might be heard before the committee appointed to inquire into the effect of their repeal.
§ Mr. Sykes
heartily concurred in the prayer of the petitioners. It would, indeed, be great injustice, if the committee now sitting up stairs, and taking a great deal of evidence from the masters, should take none from their journeymen. At present, these shipwrights and seamen were in a state of the most cruel alarm. 363 They believed that some measures were pending in parliament intended to limit the rates of their wages: they complained of the high price of corn and provisions, at the same time that they expressed their alarm about its being intended, as they seemed to suppose, to fix to them such low wages that it would be impossible for them to afford to supply themselves with corn. He had corresponded with the secretary of a society of mechanics at Hull, and had given it as his opinion, that the labouring mechanics had a right to congregate for the purpose of fixing the price of their own labour, although it would be illegal to attempt any coercion upon their employers. In consequence of this representation, above 800 or 900 men had returned to their work. He trusted that parliament would never attempt to prevent either the masters or workmen from combining for the purpose of fixing the rate of wages. Much anxiety and alarm would have been saved, if, instead of parliamentary interference, the subject had been left to the settlement of the masters and their workmen.
§ General Gascoyne
said, he had several petitions to present on the same subject. The petitioners stated, that no combinations existed among them now, of a character different from that which usually attached to former combinations. They complained of the necessity which the high price of corn imposed upon them, of demanding proportionate wages for their labour; and expressed an apprehension, that parliament intended to examine into their funds. Now, upon this intention, which he thought it would be exceedingly impolitic to act on, he had put a question to his right hon. colleague, and having received no answer to it, he was rather disposed to listen to the apprehensions of these petitioners. He could not go the whole length with the petitioners, as to the rights claimed by them. On the other hand, he did think that journeymen or seamen, if they thought they did not receive sufficient wages, had a right to strike, and carry their labour to a better market; but he could not allow that they had any right to dictate to their masters what men they should employ, or the wages they should give.
§ Sir M. W. Ridley
begged it might be distinctly understood, that in the committee up stairs, the question of benefit societies, to which the gallant general had made allusion, had never been discussed. 364 He considered, for one, that these combinations went much further than the mere regulation of wages; and if, as it was sated, they proceeded to dictate to the masters what hands should or should not be employed, there was an end to that free labour which these very persons were so interested to preserve inviolate, and a sufficient case for the interference of parliament.
§ Mr. Denman
rose to present a petition from the mechanics of Walsall, praying that the House would not re-enact the combination laws. As it hail been stated, that no intention existed to bring those laws again into operation, he should not say any thing on that subject; but he begged to call the attention of the House particularly to that part of the petition, in which the petitioners stated that they believed many of the allegations made before the committee now sitting were not true; and requested, even supposing that they were true, that the errors of the few might not be visited on the many. He conceived that a more just request could not be preferred to parliament. On a former occasion he had stated, that, in his opinion, the statutory provisions created by the combination laws, which had been repealed, were unnecessary for the punishment of the offence of combination, where it was so conducted as to call for punishment. To that opinion he still adhered. He thought that the common law of' England was quite sufficient to punish any substantive offence committed by the workmen against their employers. It seemed to him to be of importance that the House should not appear to prejudge this question, on one side or on the other; and therefore he had heard with great pleasure, on the preceding evening, the declaration made by several gentlemen, that they would keep their minds perfectly free from prejudice. But, he confessed he was a good deal surprised when an hon. member (Mr. Baring) spoke of the repeal of the combination laws, as a most crude and hasty measure, and one that was calculated to create immense evil. This, he conceived, was advancing a very hasty opinion on what had been done, and indicated a readiness to prejudge the question. The measure adopted, it should be observed, was not adopted in a hurry. A long and serious consideration was given to the subject, before the committee decided that those laws ought to be repealed. His opinion was, that, combina- 365 tion laws were very properly repealed; for they produced no good, but gave birth to much evil. There was one clause alone in the act for their repeal, of the usefulness of which he entertained any doubt: and that was the cause relative to summary convictions. How those who framed the bill admitted the power of summary conviction at all surprised him. He had formerly asked his hon. friend (Mr. Hume) a question on this point, and he had stated, that it was the unanimous wish, both of the masters and the workmen, that this power should be granted. Now, he thought the House should have paused, notwithstanding the wish of these parties, before they acceded to such a provision. When it was necessary to call for the interposition of the law at all, it should be through the medium of a judge and jury; according to the course pursued in the ordinary administration of justice. Another provision of this law was, that when a summary decision took place, the individual convicted should not be liable to punishment for the same offence, under the enactments of any other law, or by the common law. But, a workman committing an offence might bring it before a magistrate by means of a friendly information. If he refused to give judgment on the case, great evil and confusion must follow; end if he convicted the accused party, that party would receive a very slight punishment, for perhaps a very great offence. It was a mistake to suppose that the act provided, that offences could only be proved by two or more witnesses: that only related to summary convictions; for, if the offence were prosecuted at common law, it must be supported by witnesses in the ordinary way. He meant to give no opinion on the measure which ought to be, or would be, recommended in the committee upstairs; but, he entered his protest against the eagerness with which some gentlemen seemed to seize on any statements that were prejudicial to the character of the workmen. Those .individuals had a right to call on gentlemen to suspend their opinion, since they had not yet been heard before the House or before the committee; and the petitioners, in this instance, prayed that they might be heard, before any measure affecting their interests was determined on.
§ Mr. Hume
said, that the proposition for a summary process did not originate with him: so far as regarded himself, he 366 had nothing to do with it. But he must say, that, with the exception of one individual, the whole of the committee was desirous that provision should be made in the bill for granting this summary power; and that with the express sanction and desire of the workmen. He did not wonder that, out of doors, the operation of the repeal of the combination act was condemned, when he found the hon. member for Taunton stating, that, from the crude and hasty manner in which the repeal had been effected, much mischief had ensued. But, what would the hon. member say, when he told him, that not one statute which was directed against the use of threats or violence had been repealed by the act of the last session, with the exception of a single act? Under the forced construction of that act of parliament, which was denominated the Conspiracy act, any three or four workmen meeting together, for the purpose of inquiring into the state of wages, were liable to be severely punished; and more grievances had been suffered by the workmen in consequence of that measure, than it was possible to describe. Men ought to be at perfect liberty to meet and to consider what amount of wages they ought to receive, provided they committed no act of violence, or intimidation. If, therefore, the act of last session only repealed the act he alluded to, and admitted the men to meet peaceably for the purpose of adjusting their interests, what ground had the hon. member for the complaint which he had made? Under the act to which he had alluded, three or four men who were found sitting together with some papers before them relative to wages, had been most severely punished. One of them was imprisoned for a year, another for fourteen months, and the third for nearly two years. Surely such a statute should not be suffered to remain in force.
Mr. Secretary Peel
observed, that as this subject was now before the committee, he should offer no remarks on what ought to be done. It was infinitely better, he thought, to postpone any observations on the prospective measures, until the report of the committee, and the evidence on which it was founded, were laid before the House. He certainly never inferred from what the learned gentleman had stated, that it was his opinion, that the common law of the land was sufficient for punishing any offence which the workmen might commit in endeavouring to 367 control their masters. On that point, in his opinion, a very serious doubt might be entertained; and this was one reason for coming to a clear and plain understanding on the question. The second clause of the act of last session appeared to him to be most curiously worded. It seemed to repeal both the statute and the common law on this subject, and to declare to the workmen, that it was a very proper act to combine. It enacted that journeymen, or other persons, combining to regulate the mode in which a manufacture should be carried on; or to prevent persons from bringing home their work at a certain time; or to seduce persons to quit their master's employ before the term of their contract is expired, "shall not be subject or liable to any indictment for conspiracy, or any other punishment whatever, under the common or statute law." What, then, became of the position, that the common law was sufficient to meet and to punish those combinations? The common law, as well as the statute law, was here repealed. The clause did not say, " as summary punishment of two months' imprisonment may be awarded under this act, therefore those parties shall not be liable to indictment under the statute or common law." This he could understand. But here there was a total repeal of the statute or common law, without any modification. Let the House mark the situation in which this clause placed individuals. Suppose an employer, against whom his workmen had committed an offence, was not in a condition to take advantage of this summary process, which required two witnesses; why, in that case, the act of last session having repealed the common law, he must go without redress. This part of the bill, which removed the common law as it respected combination, should be altered. He could not but think that the whole was a very hasty and precipitate proceeding.
§ Mr. Scarlett
said, he had always been of opinion, that the House should have paused, and most maturely weighed the measure, before they agreed to the repeal of those acts. When his hon. friend the member for Aberdeen, consulted him on this subject, he stated it to be his opinion, and to that opinion he still adhered, that the common law provided sufficiently for putting down combination, properly so called. But, when he afterwards looked at the act which had been passed last 368 session, he found that the common law was repealed; for he saw nothing there to which it could be applied, except in cases where a breach of the peace had been committed. There alone could the common law be brought into action. This subject deserved much consideration. He would ask, were the workmen the proper judges of the benefit and expediency of altering the mode in which any trade was carried on? Were not the masters, who had expended their capital, more likely to understand what was most beneficial for all parties? And yet, under the state of the law as it new stood, the men might combine to regulate a free trade; and if they committed no breach of the peace, they might go free from any punishment whatever. This was a matter of deep and serious consideration, and he hoped the committee up stairs would pay due attention to it. They ought either to restore the common law to its original vigour or make some specific provision to meet this evil.
said, that after what had fallen from his hon. friends, he felt it necessary to request the attention of the House for a few minutes. He certainly still retained the opinion which he had expressed on the preceding evening; namely, that the sudden repeal of the combination laws, considering; particularly the terms in which they were repealed, had been productive of the greatest possible mischief. It was impossible not to see, from what was going on in the world, that instead of the system of combination being mitigated by that repeal, it had been extended to a degree which seriously threatened not only the peace of the country, but the destruction of all its great interests. No person, with his eyes open, could doubt this. Many of the workmen who had been examined before the committee up stairs were most respectable persons. More prudence, sense, and good conduct, he never raw displayed in his life, than was manifested by them; and the manner in which they gave their evidence proved how far information had made its way amongst that class of the community. But, they seemed to think it a praiseworthy thing to loin in those combined bodies, and to direct their masters how to carry on their trade. Now, surely, it could not be expected that men in business would submit to this. Whether the mere restoration of the common law would be sufficient to meet this evil, 369 he could not say. On that point he would give no opinion. It was, however, a matter of most serious importance. He had read the evidence, when he had not an opportunity of attending the committee; and he must say, the doubt on his mind was very great, as to the remedy which ought to be applied to the evil. The common law, it appeared, could only be resorted to where actual violence was committed; but the House must be aware, that many things might be done, short of violence, that were extremely injurious. Several of the witnesses had been examined as to the means they employed for preventing men from working where there were apprentices, or where any other circumstance of a nature obnoxious to their displeasure existed. They were asked, "When you struck, did you use any violence against those who continued to work?" They answered, "No." But when they were pressed, the answer was, "We made their situations uncomfortable." This was elicited from them; and certainly such a course of proceeding was a very strong grievance to the persons thus treated. He could assure the House that he had not prejudged this question. He had done any thing but arrived at a decision on it. He could not point out what ought to be done; but he was strongly convinced, that something should be done; at the same time that he was perfectly aware of the difficulties by which the subject was surrounded. Again, he must say, notwithstanding the rebuke he had received, that he thought the repeal of last year was a hasty measure.
§ Mr. Hudson Gurney
said, it had been most clearly proved before the committee, that the combination laws did not prevent the evils complained of. He could not, therefore, be of opinion, that the repeal of those laws could have had the effect of increasing combination.
§ Mr. John Williams
said, he would not pronounce any opinion as to the propriety of permitting the ancient common law of the country to be revived with reference to this subject. If it were true, that since the repeal of the combination laws there had been an increase of combination through the country, he could only draw one conclusion from the circumstance;— namely, that all legislative interference was vain. It appeared that offenders were still liable to punishment, where they broke out into acts of violence. Now, he did not believe one word of the state- 370 ment, that there was an increase of combination in consequence of the repeal of those laws. The right hon. Secretary and his hon. friend, when they spoke of an increase of combination, must have alluded to combination connected with acts of violence; because, the ordinary system of combination—the carrying on of correspondence between different bodies of workmen—had long been prevalent throughout the country. The right hon. Secretary must know, that the workmen, for the last twenty years, were in the habit of laying their heads together in the best manner they could, for the purpose of accomplishing an increase of wages. Therefore, if what the right hon. gentleman and his hon. friend had stated contained any thing new, it must refer to the fact, that combinations had recently assumed a more serious aspect than formerly, from the employment of force. If that were the state of the case, then, he said, that the law as altered left the power of punishing, under such circumstances, precisely as it was before the act of last session was passed. If this position were correct, then he came to this conclusion—that they might legislate as long as they pleased without effecting any good object. The evil must be cured by some good understanding between the men and the masters—by the adoption of good conduct and temper by both the parties. In his opinion, if the observations of the right hon. Secretary of state were correct, there was no use in legislating at all. He had had some experience in matters of summary jurisdiction in the county where they most prevailed, and his solemn belief was, that the habit of running to the magistrate on the heat of the occasion, where the act complained of was not of importance sufficient to allow the party to go into a court of justice, had not only done no good, but had produced much mischief, by increasing the irritation between the parties.
§ Mr. Sykes
defended the conduct of the last committee from the charge of precipitation, which had been brought against it, by the right hon. Secretary. He begged leave to warn the House how they legislated on this subject; since, so long as there was human society, combination would undoubtedly exist.
Mr. Secretary Peel
denied that he had attributed precipitation to the committee. They had sat for fifty days, which was a proof that they were not precipitate. 371 What he had said was, that the legislation on this subject was precipitate; and certainly he could not adduce a better proof of that fact, than by again referring to the clause, by which it was provided, that any combination to induce a man to leave his employer, before his term was expired, or to delay returning to his work, should not be punished by the statute or common law. What was the inducement used? It was the fear that the situation of the individual, who was to be acted on, would be made uncomfortable if he did not comply. He had never said that the combination laws were sufficient to put down the evil. He had known cases of combination, which the combination laws could not put down. Therefore, he did not call for their renewal: but, certainly, something ought to be done to check the evil which was now in active operation.
§ Sir J. Newport
said, the great ground of complaint was, that those parties not only regulated what they would take themselves, but wished to compel others to do precisely as they did. Now, this was any thing but freedom of trade. It was true they used no violence; but they resorted to such inducements as effectually prevented a free decision on the part of those to whom they applied. Let the House look to the extent to which this system was carried in Ireland. When any body of men combined there for wages, and wished to prevent others from working, they did not use their own individual force to effect that object, but employed branches of other trades who were not in immediate action, and made them the instruments for punishing those who refused to obey their orders. Such a state of things could not exist without doing material injury. Every person should be at liberty to demand the value of his own labour; but no individual had a right to say, "I will not work under such a rate of wages, and therefore you, though willing, shall not." He could not help thinking, that the clause which had been referred to contained very soft words, which would almost have the effect of inducing individuals to combine, and to withdraw themselves when they pleased from the contracts they had entered into. The system which was now carried on would not only be injurious to those who were forced to quit their employment, but to the interests of the parties who combined. if men combined, and demanded wages, 372 which, if the masters granted, he would be unable to supply his customers with goods at a reasonable rate, he must give up business; and thus, those misguided men would bring down ruin on themselves and families, by destroying the branch of manufacture in which they were employed.
§ Mr. Denman
expressed his concurrence in what had been said regarding the word inducement used in the report. He thought it far better to leave the matter to the old common law, since legislation appeared totally useless.
§ Mr. Scarlett
said, that in Yorkshire he had often been consulted en the subject, and had always advised the parties to proceed by the common law. He agreed, that none of the statutes, giving summary remedies, had answered the purpose for which they were intended.
§ Mr. Hume
was of opinion, that combination ought to be allowed, while it was unattended with violence or intimidation. The whole bar, in fact, conspired only to take a certain rate of fees. If any barrister consented to take less, he was immediately sent to Coventry by the whole profession. Such instances had occurred, and with one at Bombay he had been particularly acquainted.
Mr. Secretary Peel
said, it was quite obvious that some regulation was necessary. Not two hours elapsed in any day that he did not receive a communication on this subject. As a specimen of them, he would state the last which had just come to his hands. It was a set of resolutions adopted, on the 13th of November 1824, by the operative coal-miners, who, after appointing a regular delegated body, ordained, that no person should be allowed to work as a coal-miner, unless he had been engaged in the trade from the age of sixteen. This, and other resolutions, were said to be adopted in order "to support the welfare of the profession " [a laugh]. This was an abominable assumption of power, the effect of which was opposed to the interests of the country generally, and would eventually bring down ruin on the manufacturers themselves.
§ Mr. Hume
presented a petition from 6,000 operative mechanics of Birmingham, against any change in the Combination laws. He admitted that the proceedings to which the right hon. gentleman had referred, were extremely ridiculous, and might prove very detrimental to the interests of the parties, He felt satisfied, 373 however, that the good sense of the great body of mechanics would lead them to avoid such a course. He hoped that the time was not far distant, when a better understanding would be permanently established between the men and their masters.
Ordered to lie on the table.