HC Deb 18 February 1830 vol 22 cc645-50
Sir J. Wrottesley

, in rising to present a Petition from a number of workmen employed at Bilston, in Staffordshire, against the practice of paying Labourers' Wages by goods, begged pardon of the House for the formal manner in which he was about to bring it forward. But the subject to which it related bore so strongly on the poor, that he felt himself bound to ask permission of the House to state it fully, and he trusted that Gentlemen would listen for a few moments to the observations he intended to make. The practice to which the Petition referred was one to which his own observation had been directed; but, in speaking of it, he would not confine himself to facts which came within his own knowledge; he would quote the principal points contained in the Petition which he had the honour to offer to the House. The Petitioners stated that the town of Bilston was connected with very large collieries and iron-works, for which very great rents were paid. They said, that a numerous body of men were employed there, who were chiefly paid in goods by their masters. They next stated, that if a workman sought for redress, he was immediately discharged. They complained that the masters resorted to various expedients to evade the law: they delayed to settle with the men sometimes for six weeks; and when the latter, in want of sustenance, applied to the masters, they supplied them with goods, thirty per cent above the market price. Other masters, they alleged, paid the workmen in money in one counting-house, with which they were obliged to purchase goods, the property of their employers, in another. They state, that as many months elapsed before the masters paid the bills which the workmen were compelled to run up with the shopkeeper, the latter forced the poor workmen to pay exorbitant prices. Under these circumstances, they called on the House to amend the law, in order to put an end to this ruinous prac- tice. He begged leave to state, in confirmation of what the Petitioners said, that he was convinced that every allegation made by them was perfectly true, and that the picture was not exaggerated, but extenuated. Previously to 1826 this practice prevailed to a certain extent. At that time, however, the payment of wages in goods was the exception, and the payment of wages in money was the rule; but now, he was sorry to say, the case was altered —the payment of wages in goods was the rule, and the payment of wages in money was the exception. It was not in his power to state the exact cause of this; but no person could deny that it was contemporaneous with the alteration of the currency. That was a subject, he believed, not very popular, because it was treated in a manner which prevented people from understanding it. In his opinion, it ought to be divided into four different parts—first, the Bank restriction; second, the standard of value; third, the alteration of 1826; and fourth, the influence of the Bank of England on the currency of the country. He was one of those who never complained of the necessity of returning to cash payments in 1819. He believed it was indispensable, and therefore he never raised a word of objection against it. He was of opinion that the standard of value was proper, though it might appear high at 3l. 17s. 10½d. per ounce of gold. But, though high, it was already settled, and he believed that any attempt to go back from that standard would be attended with far greater difficulties than would arise from continuing it. But he admitted that the time might come, the awful time, when the country might be obliged to make an alteration in that particular. He only contemplated that time when the nation should be so exhausted and so poor, that it would be compelled to compound with its creditors. That time, he was happy to say, was not yet come, and he hoped it was very far distant. But, the alteration of 1826 rested on entirely different grounds from that of 1819; and, in his mind, they could not allow the validity of those reasons on which the withdrawal of the 1l. notes was founded, while they suffered the existence of small bank-notes both in Ireland and Scotland. With respect to the small notes, the mischief occasioned by them was rather to be found in the abuse of the system than in the practice itself; and what system, he would ask, was not liable to abuse? But how had Government proceeded? They trusted the bankers at present with the issue of 5l., 10l., or 100l. notes, and yet they would not trust them with the power of issuing 1l. notes. With respect to the bankers, a statement had been made which ought to have considerable weight in discussing this subject. It was proved that seventy bankers, who had stopped payment in 1826, yielded, on an average, a dividend of 17s. 6d. in the pound. Then why were they reproached as having acted dishonestly. It had been stated, both in that House and in the House of Lords, that the business of this country had become too extensive for the Bank of England. It was said that the structure was too weighty for the basis on which it was placed. He knew that country bankers were prevented, at the present moment, from issuing paper in consequence of want of confidence in the Bank of England. Then, he said, abolish that monopoly, and form two more companies, with charters, and a limited responsibility. There never was more capital in the country than at present. Let it then be appropriated to our own use—do not let it go to foreign countries to increase the trade and industry of those who are now our rivals. He might be asked, what had this to do with the payment of labourers in goods? He would answer, that it had much to do with that subject. From the neighbourhood of the place whence that petition came, at least 1,000,000l. of paper currency had been abstracted in the last two years; and they could not afford to replace that circulating medium by introducing 1,000,000l. of gold. The consequence was, that they had been obliged to resort to barter. This was not confined to the large manufacturers of iron; for, such was the state of the currency in that country, that few persons would buy goods until they saw some means of paying for them without money. It appeared to him that they must repeal the measure of 1826, which would be the most efficient remedy for the distress so prevalent at present. He thought that the best termination which could be put to the disputes between the masters and the men would be to enable the labourer to choose his own master. He did not despond, bad as was the state of the country, and few persons had better opportunities of ascertaining its situation than he had. If this system of barter were continued, the terms should be obligatory on the parties. Something like a fixed rule should be established between the master and the man; because, if the former stipulated to pay in goods, and the price and quality of the article were not defined, there would be no means of judging what was the nature of the contract between the parties. His hon. friend and colleague had given notice of his intention to introduce a Bill on this subject. He should have his best assistance; but he was not blind to the difficulties which stood in the way; and he trusted that Parliament would not sanction any measure of this nature without great caution.

On the Motion that it do lie on the Table,

Mr. Herries

remarked, that as he and some of his right hon. friends had lately had some communication on the subject with those who were personally interested in it, he felt that it would not be right to allow the petition to be laid on the Table without making a few observations. He would, however, entirely disconnect the question to which the petition referred from the subject of the currency, with which the hon. Baronet had endeavoured, very ingeniously, but not quite satisfactorily, to connect it. In his opinion, the object which the Petitioners had in view would be better promoted by discussing the matter without reference to any other topic than the grievance complained of. Of the difficulties which would attend the removal of that grievance without an interference between the employers and the persons employed; of the difficulties which would attend the application of an adequate remedy without the danger of injuriously increasing on the manufacturer and the capitalist the price of labour —of these considerations, which were of such vital importance, it would not be proper for him, on that occasion, to attempt to enter; the more especially as the hon. Member for Staffordshire had given notice that it was his intention, at a very early period, to move for leave to bring in a Bill, by which it was hoped that the evils now complained of might be remedied. Under these circumstances it would be worse than idle to anticipate the discussions to which the introduction of that measure would naturally give rise. But, as the subject had been mentioned elsewhere, he would merely observe that his Majesty's Government had expressed to those who were deeply interested in the subject their perfect disposition to inquire into it, without, however, pledging themselves to the adoption of any ulterior measure. He would not go into the other question which the hon. Baronet had so unsatisfactorily connected with the present. His reason was, that the currency was a question which ought to be discussed not incidentally, but on a due notice given. The state of the currency, however, had no connection with the grievance complained of in the petition. That grievance had been complained of, and measures adopted for its removal at periods when no question existed as to the state of the currency. It had been complained of even so far back as in the reign of Edward 4th. It had been the subject of several Acts in the latter part of the reign of George 3rd; and it had been complained of in that year of supposed prosperity, 1825.

Mr. R. Gordon

protested against the inference attempted to be established by the right hon. Gentleman, that the question of Barter had nothing to do with the currency. He was sorry that the right hon. Gentleman, and others of his Majesty's Ministers, were so ignorant of the true state of the country, as to suppose that the system of Truck was to be considered apart from the question of the currency.

Mr. Littleton

doubted the policy or expediency of connecting the subject of the petition with the currency. It was his intention to bring the question before the House on Thursday, when he should move for leave to bring in a Bill to render more effectual the laws for the payment of wages in money.

Mr. Benett

contended, that the system of Truck was immediately connected with the currency. As matters stood at present, no manufacturer could continue to carry on business without obtaining a double profit, first as a manufacturer, and next as a huxter. He sincerely hoped that the hon. Member for Staffordshire might find it possible to carry his meritorious measure into effect.

Mr. Benson

trusted, that the measure relative to the payment of wages in money would receive due consideration from Government and the House.

Sir R. Wilson

said, the hon. Member for Staffordshire would be a public benefactor if he could put an end to the system Of Truck, which was similar to the practice prevalent in South America under the title of repartimiento.

Sir John Wrottesley

said, he found it quite impossible to disconnect the subject of the Petition from that of the Currency.

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