HC Deb 25 April 1833 vol 17 cc596-606

Mr. Slaney moved for leave to bring in a Bill to enable manufacturers and mechanics to ensure themselves against temporary want of employment, by giving them facilities for creating a safe joint fund, vested in the public funds, or other approved and available security. He was well aware, that this was a sort of subject which did not interest any political or party feelings in its favour; but no matter which referred to so important a part of our population ought, in his opinion, to be without interest to the House. In order to show the importance of the subject he would briefly call the attention of the House to the increase in the manufacturing population. During the present century, or at least within the last fifty years, the whole population of England had increased at the rate of twenty-five per cent, but the manufacturing population had increased at the rate of fifty per cent. At the commencement of that period, the proportion they bore to the agricultural population was one-half—now they were as two to one. In the same period, they had made a corresponding advance in intelligence; and though they had made, in some cases, provision for themselves, they were still exposed to the evils of being occasionally thrown out of employment. They were exposed to all the evils of a fluctuating demand for their labour. At one period they were excessively well off—at another they were plunged into the deepest distress. He would call the attention of the House to the causes of these fluctuations—to their effects—and to the means of remedying them. The causes of the alterations in the demand for labour were either foreign or domestic. Of the former, he might mention changes in the commercial laws of other countries. Thus the alteration in the American Tariff had an immediate effect on our iron trade. At Wolverhampton the demand for its manufactures was much lessened, and the demand for the labour of the people much diminished. In the same town, during the war, the demand for locks, hinges, and other coarse iron manufactures for exportation, was considerable; but since the peace, when our neighbours had become our rivals, the demand for these articles had diminished one-sixth, and the great body of the people had been thrown into a situation of want and distress. Political alterations had the same effect as alterations in the commercial laws. For example, the war between Holland and Belgium had thrown our Flemish rivals out of the market of Holland, and, for a season, had ensured us a monopoly of that market. For a considerable period we had the monopoly of the markets of the Continent, but at present the Flemings and the Germans were our rivals in every place; which had a considerable effect in reducing the demand for employment in our country. There also was a change in the demand for labour, arising from a change in habits and fashions, which sometimes threw hundreds and thousands of persons out of employment. For example:—a change had taken place from wearing linen to wearing woollen, and then came the use of cotton, which had in part since given place to silk, and each of these changes made a change in the demand for labour. During the transition from one employment to another, and until the workmen were taken up by the new manufacture, they suffered most severely. Surely it was not unworthy of the House to endeavour to remedy that. There was also a change from local cause. Manufacturers migrated from one place to another, which caused a continued fluctuation of demand for labour in different districts, and exposed masses of men to great distress. For example, the discovery of the steam-engine, and its application to a great variety of purposes, had caused the migration of almost all our considerable manufactures to those districts in which were deposited the great beds of coal. He had said enough to make it apparent to the House that the labouring manufacturers were exposed to great fluctuations, and he wished to enable them to provide against the evils of such fluctuations by their own prudence. The discoveries in art also produced changes in the condition of the people. Thus, the invention of the power-loom, by introducing a cheaper mode of weaving, had deprived the hand-loom weaver of employment. In 1820 there were 14,000 power-looms; in 1828 the number was 55,000; and, he might venture to say, that it was now nearly doubled. Each of them did the work of several weavers, and the employment of them had reduced the handloom weavers to a most wretched condition. Changes were also brought about by the violence of the workmen themselves. Thus, the conduct of the carpet-weavers had driven much of that manufacture to Scotland. The use of canals and rail-roads might have a similar effect. A deficient harvest or any insecurity of property might also lead to similar results. The consequence of all these circumstances was, that there was never a time when a great number of people might not be found in distress and out of employment in some parts of the country. The remedy which he meant to propose was no wonder-working plan—was no forced Legislative Enactment—it was nothing compulsory; it was simply permissive, and would facilitate and allow the workmen to put their funds in a safe place, to ensure themselves against the evils he had mentioned. He believed that the average wages of the manufacturers, though not great, were sufficient, if equally distributed, to provide for the comfort, satisfaction, and contentment of those in humble occupation. Something, however, was wanted when wages were high, to encourage and enable the people to lay by part of those wages for a season when wages might be low. The manufacturers were themselves eager to do this, and they wanted nothing but facilities to do it to a greater extent than at present. They only asked per-mission to do that which would benefit themselves and be of great public service. It was already done imperfectly in several trades, but done to an extent sufficient to show that the persons engaged in manufactures were aware of the evils hanging over them, and eager to provide against such contingencies. There was one trade in which a system was established that a person out of work should travel about the country—it was called the tramp system—and when they came to a town where there were any persons of their trade, they had a right to receive a penny from every workman, with a lodging and supper for two or three days, till it was seen whether they could be taken up by the demand for labour. That was a provision against a defective demand for labour, though it was imperfect. Another plan had been followed by the carpet weavers of Kidderminster. When men were out of work, they had a right to receive a certain contribution from each man in work till they got work again. This plan, too, was defective, but it enabled the men, when thrown out of work, to bear it till they again got employment. Another, and the most complete plan was adopted by a large class of workmen of the great City of London—he alluded to the tailors—who were divided into three classes—first workmen, second workmen, and third workmen. When any of these were thrown out of employment, they went to their respective houses of call, and there received an allowance per day in proportion to their skill. So well was their scheme organized, that it never was known that any person of this society applied for parochial relief. Other trades had similar societies, but they suffered from not having a sufficient control over their own funds, and from not having an easy and secure mode of investing their money. There was a difficulty of large bodies acting together, and apportioning their labour to the demand for it; which, having a fund of this kind, might lessen. If they had a fund of this kind, when work was slack, they might work for only two or three days in the week, and thus allow the goods in the market to be gradually absorbed till the demand for their labour was revived. In the case of having no funds, the men, as happened at Wolverhampton, were apt, instead of diminishing their labour, as the demand slackened, to increase it by redoubled exertions. In that place, when a season of distress had arisen, they had actually worked sixteen hours a day, and had accumulated a great stock of commodities in the hands of the masters. Of course he could not blame the masters for that, but that stock was actually made out of the blood and marrow of the workmen. When the demand revived, the stock was so great, that it took a long period before the wages returned to their proper level. Now that would not have happened if these people had had a little fund which would have enabled them to stop working two days in the week. Many masters would, he believed, be happy to make an arrangement with their workmen under such circumstances, for working less, so that the supply might be more speedily brought to a level with the demand, but from want of funds of this kind, the workmen were unable to act upon that principle. What he meant to propose was, that these people should have the power of forming a fund for this purpose, and should have it entirely under their own control, He would extend the principles of the Friendly Societies' Act. The House was probably aware, that by the 10th George 4th, cap. 56, such societies were allowed to provide against infancy, old age, sickness, or other natural states or contingencies which would be made a matter of calculation, and be reduced to an average. That part of the Act completely excluded the workmen from taking advantage of it, to provide a fund against want of employment. That the people would be willing to provide against such a contingency, was, he thought, proved by the number of them who subscribed to Friendly Societies. According to the last Returns, these Societies numbered 1,000,000 subscribers, embracing at least, with their families, 4,000,000 of persons. He proposed to enable the manufacturers to form, by their own means, a joint fund, which they might deposit in places of security, such as the Savings' Banks or the Public Funds, so as always to have a provision against a want of employment. He wished also to fence that fund round with measures of legal safety similar to those which were applied to the funds of Friendly Societies. He would suggest that the manufacturers who chose to form such a fund, should be allowed to draw up their own rules, with no other restriction than that those rules should be legal. The workmen were intelligent, but they were also suspicious, and they did not like to be interfered with. They might, certainly, commit mistakes, but that was their lookout, and, he believed, that they were much less liable to commit mistakes than Members of Parliament who should undertake to prescribe rules for them. He would give them the same facilities to enforce these rules, as were now possessed by Friendly Societies. He would apply all the rules of such societies to these funds—such as making the executors of any officer of the society pay the society before he paid any other person. Further, he would give the same summary mode of recovery as was granted by the Friendly Societies Act. He would then say a few words as to the objections which might be raised to his proposition. It might be said, that while the object of establishing such funds might be, in many instances, highly beneficial, it would be still possible that they might be turned to illegal and improper purposes—that the men would combine to keep up the price of wages—that they would exercise an arbitrary control over the masters, and that the most mischievous consequences would result. A few years ago every man was frightened at the word "combination," and so strongly did the prejudice exist, that, for a very long period, the most odious and disgraceful laws in reference to combination were allowed to remain upon our Statute-book. By the 5th Geo. 4th, however, no less than thirty-eight of those laws were repealed, and less arbitrary, though equally efficacious provisions were made against violence to persons or property. The effect of this Act was in the first instance to excite a very considerable degree of alarm, and in the subsequent year a Committee was appointed to take the whole subject into consideration. The Report of that Committee stated, that although there certainly existed some combinations for mischievous purposes in different parts of the kingdom, the only alterations in the law which the Committee recommended, were the lengthening the period of imprisonment, and the empowering one Magistrate, in some instances, to commit, instead of two. That took place in 1825, the year in which the nation was mad—when bubbles were daily and hourly created—when prices were enormously raised, and when every class of persons was led away by the prospect of great and prodigious wealth. What wonder, then, that at such a period the labouring and manufacturing classes should also be led into the indulgence of false and flattering hopes. But since the year 1825, although some exaggerated complaints had been made from particular districts, very few combinations had taken place. What was meant by combination? The present law said this, "If you combine to intimidate or threaten, or in any way to overawe others, your fellow-workmen, you shall be punished." But were these to prevent men from forming themselves into societies to constitute a fund to be composed of small deposits from their earnings, for the purpose of providing against the vicissitudes which were continually occurring? Were they to prevent the men from doing that, because they were apprehensive that a fund so raised might be applied to improper purposes? Let the House strike the balance between the evils of combination and want of employment; it would find that the latter produced misery and disorder in a degree equal to, if not greater, than the former, if the labouring manufacturers were to apply the fund improperly, the prudence which had led them to accumulate it would soon point out the evil of continuing to do so, and they would learn better. The creation of such funds would not foster a spirit of violent and intimidating combination amongst the workmen; on the contrary, it would have a different effect. The laws against combination had produced the evil; they had excited a feeling of suspicion between the master and the men, and had arrayed the one against the other. This evil had become manifest, if not to both, at least to one of the parties; and he felt assured that the fear and objection which the master manufacturers formerly had to the formation of such funds had greatly diminished, if it were not entirely removed. He was not desirous to do any thing hostile to the masters, or to pass any measure that would take any party by surprise; but when they saw a great practical evil, and when a remedy (which would cost nothing) was suggested, the subject might be deemed well worthy the consideration of any Parliament which had a desire to alleviate the distress of their fellow-men. What produced violent outbreaks of combination, attended by destruction of property, and, in some cases, of life, in manufacturing districts?—Want!—want of employment, followed by want of bread—the people having no reserved fund to fall back on for support. The possession of such a fund would give time and opportunity for reason and truth to work their way, and patience would not be at once abandoned through necessity. In case of disputes between masters and men, the latter having a fund to fall back on, the subject at issue would be argued, not by a resort to violence, but by an appeal to reason, truth, and justice. The existence of the fund would also be beneficial to masters, by removing the temptation to go on producing goods at a time when there was no demand, for the purpose of keeping their workmen from starving. Gluts would be avoided, and the labour-market would not continue loaded so long as at present. He considered that the plan which he proposed to adopt, even should it be found to be partially wrong, could not produce any permanent evil, while the suppression of all combinations would only have the effect of compressing those discontents which were not allowed any legal vent, till they gathered all the force of condensation, and burst forth in acts of violence. It was quite clear that no system of combination could alter the real demand for labour; and if the true state of the case were understood, it would be found that the course which he proposed was the best for avoiding the evils of combination, and, at the same time, for affording relief to the labouring population.

Mr. Cobbett

said, he had heard hon. Members talk a great deal about the labouring classes putting their money in the funds, and such like securities; but suppose there should be a run upon the Bank, in the way that was explained by Mr. Paine—a thing which was very likely, for it was actually the case in 1827, what would then become of the poor men's securities? It would then come to a scramble, and the word would be "the devil take the hindmost." They were going quite the wrong way to work, and the better way by far would be to take off the burthens of the people, to let them live well, and have nothing to do with the funds.

Mr. Hardy

said, he should be in favour of any measure which could lead to an improvement in the condition of the labouring and operative classes of the country; yet, at the same time, he feared that the hon. Gentleman (Mr. Slaney) was not sufficiently acquainted with the measures which had been pursued for some years past, in order to enable those meritorious classes to make some provision for old age. It could not be doubted that combinations were rife in this country to promote an increase of wages, and that, not for one class of journeymen to which their fellow-journeymen subscribed, but also for other trades, whether tailors, carpenters, plasterers, or others. Now, this he took to be a grievance as well as an act of injustice. He had known instances in the west riding of Yorkshire, when men earning 14s. or 15s. a-week had been called upon to pay 5s. a-week, not to the support of persons in their own trade who were out of employment, but to support persons of other trades who would not work under a certain rate of wages. But, while he said this, he rejoiced that the various trades had been permitted to unite for the purpose, ay, and for the legal purpose too, of not permitting the masters to pay them and work them as they might think proper. The Statute of George 4th referring to combination did not prevent large meetings or unions of working men to regulate their wages; it only went to inflict penalties on such persons as intimidated others from not working at such prices as they might think proper. He should be glad if any plan could be devised to secure a safe support for the labouring classes in their old age, and so far the proposed Bill of the hon. Member (Mr. Slaney), should have his support.

Mr. Hume

observed, that the hon. Member who had spoken last, said a great deal about the combinations of workmen to raise wages, but forgot that the masters were also in the habit of combining to keep down wages; but these were not denominated combinations, although they existed so generally. It was improper, in his opinion, that any legislative enactment should apply to journeymen, which did not also apply to masters; and it was Upon that principle that he had brought forward his measure in 1825. Nothing was said about masters; but a great deal about workmen, their wages, their hours of labour, and their combinations, as by an error of his (Mr. Hume's) he had denominated the meeting and consulting together of workmen. He objected, however, to the interference of the Legislature with the funds of any description of persons. It was true that combinations, after the passing of the Bill which he had proposed in 1825, had been carried to an illegal extent, insomuch that a Committee of the House of Commons, of which he (Mr. Hume) was a Member, had been compelled to examine parties belonging to Liverpool and Newcastle, without publishing their names; but since the removal of the grounds of complaint which had given rise to these unions, they had assumed a much more pacific character, and were now confined to their legitimate objects. It had been argued against the measure, that it might be made an instrument and an engine for producing very great mischief, in consequence of the hands in whose management the funds would be left; but he had too high an opinion of the good sense of the labouring classes of the country to have any apprehension upon that subject. He did not, therefore, look with any degree of jealousy at such combinations, but he did object to put any restraint on the funds of the working classes. The Act formerly passed to regulate friendly societies, had had the effect of reducing the number of the societies by one-half, in consequence of the trouble and expense which it brought upon them; for, instead of an expense of one guinea, as the House had anticipated in passing the Bill, an expense varying from three to seven guineas was necessary before the societies could comply with the regulations required by the Act. The consequence had been, that thousands—and he spoke advisedly—that thousands of these societies had been destroyed by that Act. With respect to the capacity of the working classes to manage their own affairs, he believed, if they picked out 500 gentlemen and 500 artizans, they would find the latter fully as capable as the former of attending to their own concerns. What he objected to was, the circumstance that Magistrates were to have the power of appointing Treasurers to these societies, who were to be enabled to prevent the application of the funds to any but charitable purposes.

Mr. Thomas Attwood

opposed that part of the proposition of the hon. Gentleman which went to enable and induce the labouring classes to invest their joint money in the public funds. Such a proceeding on their part, would, in his opinion, be highly dangerous. There were already 270,000 distinct proprietors of stock; added to which there were about 270,000 families having money in the savings' banks, besides numerous friendly societies, all of whom had their property invested in the public funds. If to these were added the parties to whom the hon. Member's proposition applied, the consequence would be, that Government would hold a terrific partnership with almost the whole of the working classes, whom they would thus be enabled to scourge at their pleasure. He was the more solicitous on this point, as he was convinced that the division of last night had sapped the foundation of the public funds. He was sure of it; he was sure that that division rendered the whole foundation of the national debt rotten and unsafe; and, he would, therefore, not give his countenance to a manœuvre which would induce the lower classes to place the savings of their industry on so precarious a footing. He was persuaded that the truth of what he had been observing would be made manifest, and that at no very distant period.

Mr. John Maxwell

felt that, what was called Peel's Bill, had given the public creditor a greater advantage than he was justly entitled to; and what rendered that effect more objectionable was, that since the passing of that measure, the wages of the working classes had fallen one half. He heartily approved of the proposition of the hon. member for Shrewsbury; and should be very happy to see the people, instead of losing the Mondays, and sometimes the Tuesdays of every week, working hard for twelve hours every day, in order to lay by something for old age, and to prevent in- curring the degradation of a recourse to the Poor-rates. The hon. member for Middlesex had very properly discriminated between unjust combination, and that union of any branch of the labouring classes which might enable them to sell their labour to the best advantage. Although he voted last night for the proposition of the hon. member for Whitehaven, yet he thought that the noble Chancellor of the Exchequer was perfectly justified by his official character in resisting that proposition. The noble Lord's motion, however, on that subject, as a Minister, was, in his (Mr. Maxwell's) opinion, perfectly reconcileable with his doing every thing in his power to support the working classes, and assisting to give them an interest in the public funds.

Mr. Cutlar Fergusson

said, that the discussion had been altogether diverted from the proposition now before the House. He was sorry to hear the hon. member for Birmingham take that opportunity to recur to the debate of last night, and to give it as his opinion that the funds did not rest upon as secure a foundation as they did previous to the vote of the House last night. If the hon. Member had, in the course of the day, consulted any man of knowledge and business in the city of London on the subject, he would find that the very reverse was the fact—he would find that the consequence of the vote of last night was, that the funds were more secure now than ever—and that, instead of resting upon a rotten foundation, as he would insinuate, they were now one hundredfold more secure than they would have been if the motion of the hon. member for Whitehaven had been carried. He was sorry, he repeated, that the hon. member for Birmingham had endeavoured, on this occasion, to throw discredit upon the public funds. He would give his cordial support to the Bill now before the House. He could not avoid making the few observations which he had made in consequence of what had fallen from the hon. member for Birmingham respecting the vote of last night—a vote that he was sure would be considered by the country as rendering more secure the property of every man in it.

Mr. Slaney

disclaimed any intention of proposing that the individuals in question should not invest their money as they chose, or should not draw it out when they liked. The object of his proposition was, to give them a better security than they now enjoyed.

Leave given to bring in the Bill.