HC Deb 16 February 1854 vol 130 cc757-70

said, that in moving for leave to introduce a Bill to alter and amend the Truck Act, he requested the kind indulgence of the House while he brought under its notice a subject of great importance to the mining districts of South Staffordshire, and to various other parts of the Kingdom. It was a question which was not now for the first time presented to the consideration of that House. In the year 1831 a special Act of Parliament was passed, popularly known as Littelton's Act, for the purpose of enforcing the payment of wages in money; and no man could be more sensible than himself of the great benefits which that Act had conferred on the district in which he lived. The time, however, had come when it was necessary to introduce into it some mote stringent provisions. The noble Lord who had introduced it (Lord Hatherton), and with whose name it was connected, now a Member of the other House, was fully sensible of this necessity. Previously to the passing of the Statute to which he was referring, an employer, in an action for wages, could set off the amount of goods supplied in lieu of wages against his servant's demand; but the Act not only provided that no such set-off should be allowed, but went on to enact further, that no action brought by an employer against his artificer, to recover the value of goods which had been furnished on account of wages, should be maintained. These provisions established the illegality of any but money payments, and paved the way for that further legislation which he was now about to ask the House to sanction. From 1832 to 1842 complaints of evasion were frequent, and in the latter year a Select Committee was appointed to inquire into the truth of these alleged evils. The Committee did not report, but the existence of the evil was amply proved by the evidence adduced before them. In 1851 a deputation, composed of gentlemen from the localities in which the truck system prevailed, waited on the right hon. Baronet the Member for Morpeth (Sir G. Grey), then Secretary of State for the Home Department, with respect to these evasions of the Act, and in consequence a Commissioner was appointed to inquire into them, and report as to whether they resulted from the state of the law, and at to what amendments would be necessary. The Commissioner, Mr. Tremenheere, collected a mass of evidence on the subject, which was published two years since, and the Bill which he proposed to introduce was founded upon the facts which Mr. Tremenheere's Report had established, and was in accordance with the recommendations contained in it. The Act was most frequently evaded by a system of collusive payments, which the Report briefly described. The workman, or some one in his behalf, ordered at the shop a certain quantity of goods, which were packed up and put aside for him; and, at the same time, a bill was delivered to him, specifying the amount of his purchase. With this bill, or the memorandum, he went to the cashier, who gave him the amount in cash; and he immediately returned to the shop, paid the money there, and received the goods in exchange. Another mode which was resorted to was to make advances to the workman, ostensibly by way of loan, upon the understanding that a certain proportion—and it was generally a large proportion—should be laid out in goods at the shop. Sometimes goods were supplied upon the credit of a third party, and the workman gave an order on his employer on the account. The result was that the men never got the full value of their wages, being obliged to lay out a considerable part of them in goods, which were not only of inferior quality, but were charged for at a rate much higher than the market price. The existing Act, while it struck at the root of collusive contracts, overlooked the question of collusive payments; and, for the purpose of remedying this defect he proposed in this Bill to enact that anything done to prevent the workman from having the entire control of his wages should be a violation of the third section of the Truck Act, and be punishable by the penalties which that Act prescribes. He held in his hand a letter from a correspondent at Bilston, containing information as to the working of the present system, some of the statements in which he would briefly bring before the House. It appeared from that letter that in some cases the workman was expected to lay out at the shop 10s. out of every "draw," so that if the "draw" amounted to 12s. he had only 2s. to take home to his family; if he did not lay out the full amount, he was punished at the next draw by the ordinary payment on account being withheld from him, and by being told that he must wait for his wages until the next general settlement, which might not be for two or three weeks. If he refused to work he was liable to be sent to prison. The goods supplied were charged at from 1d. to 1½d. per lb. above the retail price, and the women were often kept waiting about for hours; so that instances had occurred in which children had been burnt to death during these absences of their mothers. He did not object to the masters becoming shopkeepers if they pleased. It was a libel on those who wished to put down the truck system, to say that they had any such objection. If the masters chose to descend to the position of the retail dealer, let them do it by all means. In that case, let them put themselves upon a footing with the other shopkeepers in their neighbourhood. What they wanted was to put an end to a system of collusive payments, under which the workman received his money in one part of the establishment and exchanged it for goods in another. Let him have a bonâ fide payment in money of the wages he had earned, and let him be free to lay it out where he pleased, so that he might have what was accorded to the rest of the community—the benefit of full and free competition. He proposed to make an alteration also in the amount of the penalty. At present it was not less than 5l. nor more than 10l. for the first offence—not less than 10l. nor more than 20l. for the second—and it was only a third breach of the law that was liable to be treated as a misdemeanor. He proposed to make the penalty not less than 10l. nor more than 20l. for the first offence, and to constitute the second a misdemeanor, for it was evident that, while the profits of the "tommy shops" amounted to hundreds, and sometimes to thousands a year, penalties so light as those which now existed would have no effect in putting an end to the system. The knowledge that he would have to answer the charge before a jury of his countrymen, would probably have more influence upon the master in preventing him from persisting in it than anything else that could be devised. As regarded the time for laying the information, taking into consideration the difficulty of getting men to come forward to give evidence, he proposed to enlarge the time within which informations might be laid from three months to six, and instead of leaving it to the discretion of the magistrates to dispose of the penalty—a discretion which had been sometimes exercised by awarding to the informer no more than 40s., he proposed that the informer should be entitled to one-half the penalty absolutely. He knew that this was an arrangement which was generally looked on with some jealousy; but, considering the enormous expenses which were incurred in prosecuting to conviction—in one case they had amounted to as much as 80l.—and considering that the funds for the payment of these expenses had to be provided principally by the workmen and small shopkeepers—he hoped the House would not object to carry out in this case the principle which had been recognised in reference to officers of the revenue; and, instead of leaving the local associations to fight the battle unassisted, would give them some portion of the penalty to assist them in enforcing the law. He knew it had been said that the increased value of labour rendered all legislation superfluous, and that there was no pressure from those on whose behalf they were called upon to legislate. He could only refer to the petitions which he had presented, and state the fact that not only from his own constituents, but from other parts of the country, he had received communications representing that the evil was one of urgency, and one that called for the immediate interference of Parliament. He would admit that there was not the same pressure, the same agitation, that there had been in other cases; but he thought they ought to take advantage of that circumstance to deal with the difficulty while they could do it calmly and with deliberation, and before it had assumed that formidable shape which other differences between masters and their workmen unhappily now presented. They had here an opportunity of applying a practicable remedy to an admitted evil, and of promoting thereby the interests of social order, of the honest employer, whom these "truck" masters or "tommy" shopkeepers, by reason of the large profits which they derived from the present system, were enabled to undersell, and of the labouring poor. A Bill had been introduced last year by the noble Lord the Secretary of State for the Home Department, which was withdrawn on account of the approaching termination of the Session; the noble Lord proposed to refer that Bill to a Select Committee, and he (Mr. Forster) was prepared to adopt that course with the present measure; and—although he knew the disadvantage of its depending upon his feeble advocacy instead of being introduced by the noble Lord, so distinguished for administrative talent—by doing so, they would give a proof to the working man that, amid more exciting topics, they were not neglectful of his interest, and convince him that the protection of his rights was not to be found in trade-unions or strikes, but by stating his grievance, which, when proved, stringent legislation should prevent his being deprived of his right to receive a fair day's wage for a fair day's work, the payment for which should be in the lawful coin of the realm.


said, that in supporting the hon. Gentleman's motion, he would beg to suggest that there was no necessity for the Bill being referred to a Select Committee. A great deal of attention had been given to this question and many inquiries made, and he (Mr. Peto) could not conceive any circumstances under which the payment of a man's wages should be withheld, or that for such payment anything else should be substituted for money. When first he became connected with public works the payment of money was the exception and not the rule; but, from twenty-five years' experience, he could conceive no reason why there should be a departure from the rule, that a man's wages should be paid in the current coin of the realm. The firm with which he was connected had employed in England, Canada, Denmark, Norway, and various parts of the Continent, 30,000 men, and they never paid wages otherwise than in money, and always took care the men had it in sufficient time to derive the full benefit from it for their families. He asked the hon. Gentleman and the Government not to refer the matter to a Select Committee, but to a Committee of the whole House, and he was certain there was no hon. Member but would say that the proposed measure sought to secure to the workman his simple and inalienable right. Let them make the Act as stringent as they might, they could not be doing an injustice, as it was but right that an obligation should be discharged in the spirit in which it was incurred—by a proper payment at the proper time.


said, no man could be more anxious than he was that the workman should receive the fullest and best remuneration for his labour; but it was only deluding the workman if they thought a Bill of pains and penalties like this would prevent the master and workman from making whatever bargain they thought proper. Such Bills as this always had been, and always would be, evaded; but it was never evaded except when it was for the interest of both parties; and therefore the hopes which these Bills served to hold out were purely delusive. Far better would it be for the House, instead of wasting time upon such measures as this, to instruct the workman upon the law of political economy, and remove from his mind everything like an idea of injustice in a system which could be made to work as much, nay more, for the advantage of the employed as for that of the employer. For instance, when Mr. Dale established his mills in Lanarkshire, he supplied his workpeople with provisions much better, and at a far cheaper rate, than they could have got them in the market; and he had no doubt there were numerous other cases where the same principle of reciprocity had proved advantageous to the workman. An experience of thirty-five years had taught him that these Bills did more harm than good, and he hoped the House would not sanction the present measure.


said, that as he lived on a borderland, just between two parts of the country, in one of which the truck system prevailed, and in the other it did not, he could give the clearest evidence as to the effect that system had on the workpeople. As there were but few savings banks in his part of the country, the people of the populous district near Merthyr Tydvil, where the truck system did not prevail, invested their money in building cottages, a large proportion of which were built by them out of their savings. On the other side of the mountains, where the truck system prevailed, where their circumstances were in other respects precisely similar, not one-tenth of the cottages were built by the workmen. This, he thought, was conclusive evidence that the surplus, after ordinary expenditure, did not reach them in such fulness as it did those whose wages suffered no diminution from the truck system, and who were free to purchase as other people were. The result of his observations upon the working of the truck system was, that it had a mischievous and baneful effect upon those habits of economy which it was most desirable they should encourage, and which formed the surest basis of the present well-being and future progress of the working classes. Whatever might be the opinion of the House upon the truck system, he thought it was clear that the present law ought to be seriously considered, and, if necessary, amended. The working classes saw the law violated daily by the rich and powerful, and the natural conclusion to which they came was, that the rich and powerful were allowed to break the law, while the poor were not permitted to do so. They constantly saw rich men brought before the magistrates; they witnessed a failure of justice; and it was natural that they should attribute the circumstance not, as was really the case, to the imperfection of the law, but to the leaning of the magistrate towards the course of the rich and powerful. He could himself vouch for the existence of such feelings, having, unfortunately, had to hear charges brought under the Truck Acts, and occasionally to inflict penalties, and he had had frequent occasion for remarking how difficult it was, under the existing Act, to administer the law in the spirit in which it was intended to be administered by the Legislature. He had little doubt, however, that if the hon. Member for Walsall (Mr. C. Forster) succeeded in carrying this Bill, which had been very carefully drawn, many of the existing difficulties would be removed, and that a deathblow would be given to a system which, in his conscience, he believed had been one of the greatest causes of the degradation of the working classes in the mineral districts of England and Wales.


said, he was not disposed to offer any opposition to the introduction of the Bill, though he had not the smallest faith that any benefit would arise from it. He believed it to be one of that numerous class of measures introduced every Session which the House received with a great deal of amiable feeling, and which they allowed to go on two or three stages, because, though they were satisfied that such measures would do no good, they believed they would do no harm. The hon. Member for Montrose had referred to the various measures that had been passed upon this subject in the course of his experience. He (Mr. Bright) presumed that the argument in favour of any legislation on this question was, not that workmen were supplied with food, but that they were supplied with food at shops to which they were forced to go, and where the price charged was higher than they would have to pay if they were to go to other shops, and if what was called "unrestricted competition" was allowed. It had often struck him that though the truck law was the same all over the Kingdom—except with regard to farmers, who, he believed, were excepted altogether from its operation—although that law extended through the cotton as well as the iron districts, since he had been in that House, a period of ten years, he had never heard any complaint of the existence of the truck system in the cotton districts of Lancashire and Cheshire. He thought it would be worth while to consider whether there was any reason why they had such complaints from the iron districts and none from the cotton districts, although the law with regard to both was the same. What could be more easy than to establish the truck system in the cotton districts? The cotton manufacturers employed as large a number of persons as were employed by the majority of masters in the iron and coal districts, and yet they did not find it to their interest—or, if they did, they did not avail themselves of the opportunities taken in the iron districts—to establish this system. They certainly had every motive to adopt it so far as profit was concerned, but yet they had not adopted it. He did not know whether the employers and workpeople in the cotton districts were a superior class to the employers and workpeople in the iron districts, but, at all events, they obeyed the law; and, if this system was bad for the workmen, he did not think that, in the long run, it could be good for the employers. He understood that, both in the iron and coal districts, there was at this moment a great dearth of labour, and that wages were extremely high. Indeed, they had seen in the newspapers accounts of strikes among the workpeople in those districts. If men were striking who received 6s., 7s., or 8s. a day—men whose incomes rendered them liable to the income tax, why should Parliament be called on to legislate for them? Would Parliament legislate for men who received 100l. a year wages for eight or nine hours' daily work, and who yet complained that they were forced to go to particular shops to get their goods? Surely, men who could get up strikes against the owners of ironworks and collieries, who could maintain those strikes for weeks and months, who could organise trades' unions and fight contests before the courts of law—surely, if these men felt the truck system a real grievance they would put down such a tyranny as this was represented to be. He believed that in the cotton districts the working population would not submit to be forced to a shop to which they were unwilling to go. Would it not be as well if his hon. Friends the Members for Walsall and Merthyr Tydvil would recommend to those whom they represented in this matter, that, by an improvement in the moral feeling and the moral views of capitalists and employers, this evil might be put down altogether, as it was, he believed without exception, in Lancashire? He believed that Acts of Parliament would not have the slightest influence in repressing the practice. He believed that no law, however carefully framed, would effect that object. He would undertake to say, that if the 109 lawyers in that House, and those who were to be added by the Reform Bill, were to lay their heads together and draw a Bill on the subject, unless some much more powerful influence operated both upon masters and workmen, the truck system, if it was profitable, would still be continued in spite of Acts of Parliament. He did not object to the introduction of the measure; it was not worth while, for that House always favoured the bringing in of these little peddling measures of legislation. He admitted that his hon. Friend the Member for Walsall (Mr. C. Forster) was actuated by the best motives in bringing this subject forward. His hon. Friend might think that he (Mr. Bright) was mistaken as to the probable operation of the measure. He might be mistaken, but he concurred entirely with his hon. Friend as to the result he desired to attain, and he wished that the districts of Staffordshire were in the same position as Lancashire with regard to this system. He (Mr. Bright) could only say that if the truck system was established in his district and was prospering there, he would do all in his power to dissuade the workmen from submitting to it, and the masters from carrying it on. He believed that the reasons which had induced its discontinuance in Lancashire would be sufficient to prevent its continuance in other districts; and he was satisfied that such a Bill as that of his hon. Friend, which warred against the interest and customs of a district, would only share the fate of those measures which had preceded it on the same subject. It would hold out delusive hopes to the workmen that something would be done for them, and in the end they would be disappointed.


said, as one of the 109 lawyers to whom his hon. Friend had referred, he rose to say how much he agreed with him in the view which he took of this subject. He believed that no law, however stringently drawn and carefully carried out, would be successful in putting a stop to the truck system while it was the interest of masters and workpeople to continue it. A Bill on this subject was introduced last Session, and he formed one of a deputation which waited upon the noble Lord the Home Secretary, and made representations to the noble Lord that resulted in the withdrawal of that measure. That deputation brought facts under the noble Lord's notice which showed that, so far from the establishment of shops in connexion with mines and collieries being in all cases obnoxious to workmen, in some of the large iron districts such shops had been specially established at the unanimous request of the workmen themselves. One case was mentioned where extensive works were situated in a large valley, Coalbrook-dale, eight or nine miles distant from any town to which the workmen could go to purchase the articles they required. It was found that all the trade in that valley was in the hands of small hucksters, who had a complete monopoly, who combined together, who sold bad goods at high prices, and who also used false weights. The masters established shops themselves; there was on complaint on the part of the workmen of the manner in which those shops were conducted; and it appeared to him that this Bill was an attempt to legislate against a system which, under the care of fair and honest employers, might be a benefit, rather than a disadvantage to their work-people. He considered that the laws relating to masters and workmen were in so complicated a state, that a full inquiry into that question ought to take place before any further legislation was attempted. This Bill was introduced upon the assumption that a Truck Act was the only means of preventing the abuse of the truck system. Now, he held that a Truck Act was not only utterly useless, but actually mischievous, and he thought there were other means by which they should seek to benefit the workmen, and to break down the overbearing influence of capital in this country. He would suggest whether the establishment of the principle of limited liability would not be more likely to bring about the independence of the working classes than any interference of this kind. The subject was, however, so beset with difficulties, that he thought the best course would be to appoint a Committee of the House to investigate the whole question. He was happy to understand that the Commission appointed to consolidate the Statute Laws were at this moment engaged in drawing up a report on the whole state of the law as between masters and workmen, from which he anticipated great good. He would not oppose the introduction of the Bill; but he thought, before they allowed it to proceed further, the House should consider whether it would not be more advisable to repeal the existing Truck Acts, than to enact new ones. He hoped his hon. Friend would not press the second reading of the Bill until time had been given for a Select Committee to investigate the subject.


I shall, of course, Sir, support the Motion of my hon. Friend for the introduction of this Bill, in conformity with the pledge I gave at the close of last Session. I brought in a Bill to the same effect as that of which my hon. Friend has given notice, and I did not withdraw it in consequence of any change of opinion as to the principle of the Bill, but only because the Session was drawing to a close. There was also considerable objection to some details of the Bill, and it appeared to me impossible at that period of the Session to give those objections that fair inquiry and consideration to which they were entitled. I quite agree, that on general principles it is much better to leave classes of men to arrange between each other, and to settle as best they can, all matters connected with their mutual interests. But at the same time we know perfectly well that, from the artificial arrangements of society, cases will arise in which some of the parties are more or loss dependent on the others, and unable therefore to take proper care of their own interests and concerns. It cannot be disputed that before the introduction of the Truck Act there were great abuses practised in some of these districts. It is perfectly notorious that at times when the masters had a pull on the men, in consequence of the state of trade, they compelled them, on pain of dismissal, to accept things which were given them at prices far beyond their value, and for which they had no use whatever, such as shovels, tongs, and pokers, as part of their wages; and the men were obliged to sell them again for a very small proportion of the sums for which they had been received. On principle, I am therefore prepared to say that wages ought to be paid in money; but then comes the difficulty which has been alluded to. You may compel the master to give the man a payment in money, but there are many ways in which that arrangement may be evaded and impeded by subsequent operations. The workman is told, for instance, "Here is your money," but there is a shop, and unless you take your money to that shop, and leave part of it there, we cannot employ you any more, and some other man shall be put in your place." The natural provision of the Bill was, that no shop should be allowed to be established on premises belonging to the master. But it was stated to me, last year, that in many of the iron works, for instance, where the premises formed an entire district, or filled a considerable space, a provision of that sort might clearly interfere with the comfort of the men; because, as an hon. Gentleman said, cases may happen in which there is not any difference between the prices of the provisions supplied at the shop established by the masters, and those of any other shop where the workman could, at a fair price, obtain the goods they wanted. I thought these difficulties were sufficient to induce me to withdraw the Bill at the end of last Session, and to enter into an engagement with my hon. Friend (Mr. C. Forster) that, if he would bring in the Bill this year, I would agree to its being read a second time, and referred to a Select Committee. I think that would be the best course for the House to pursue; and I hope my hon. Friend will, in the first place, put off the second reading for some little time, to enable those whose duty it will be to examine the provisions of the Bill, to look into it, and will then refer it to a Select Committee.


said, he did not wish to oppose the introduction of the Bill, but he thought the noble Lord had shown that, with very few exceptions, such laws were totally ineffectual. After forty-five years' extensive experience in the employment of workmen, and never having adopted the truck system, and never desiring to do so, perhaps he (Mr. Muntz) might be allowed to give the House a little advice; and to show them that all that could be done in the way of legislation would be disappointing to the parties whom they wished to serve. He remembered that ten years ago, when Sir Robert Peel was in office, and when Mr. Ferrand made violent attacks upon masters for their treatment of their workpeople, and ascribed all the evils that afflicted the working classes to the truck system, he (Mr. Muntz) ventured to offer to show the House that all the laws they could pass would never prevent the system of truck. His statements at that time convinced the House generally that it would be quite unavailing to pass laws to put down that system, and Sir Robert Peel said that he (Mr. Muntz) had perfectly satisfied him that they would be ineffectual. He (Mr. Muntz) then said that it was not necessary for any master to have a shop for truck; it was not necessary for him even to say that he wished to truck his men, or to say that they should buy their provisions at a certain shop or place. All that it was necessary for the master to do was this—he could make arrangements with any shopkeeper to allow him so much per annum if he sent his men to that person's shop to buy provisions. It was only necessary for the master to recommend his men to deal at that shop, and if the men did not deal there the consequence would be that there would be no work for them. Here they had the truck system without any power of legal prevention. He thought the present was an unfortunate time for the introduction of such a measure as this, when the employed were disputing with their employers. There were not now half a dozen men running after masters, but the masters were running after the men, and any workman of sober and industrious habits might obtain work at higher wages than he (Mr. Muntz) had ever known. Under such circumstances how was it possible that any master could truck? But let a time of pressure arrive, when the men were running after the masters, and then let them see if they could prevent the truck system. By the simple plan he had mentioned any truck law might be evaded, and therefore he disapproved of this Bill, which, in his opinion, would deceive the working classes and the country.


said, that in the last Session of Parliament he had introduced a Bill with the object of securing the payment of wages without stoppages. That measure applied mainly to the hosiery manufacture in the midland districts, but the system to which it related was intimately connected with the truck system, and he hoped that the system of stoppages would be investigated by any Committee that might be appointed on this subject.


said, that all the measures intended to put down the truck system had failed because the only punishment provided was a pecuniary penalty. The crime had been committed because it had been profitable. The punishment was a penalty of 10l. for the first offence, by which the offender might have realized 1,000l., and 20l. for the second offence; but when a man was making thousands of pounds by the truck system it was absurd to endeavour to repress it by such penalties as these. The hon. Member for Manchester (Mr. Bright) had suggested that the hon. Member for Walsall (Mr. C. Forster) should appeal to the moral feeling of his constituents. He (Mr. M'Mahon) considered that if the truck system was a crime at all, the proper course would be to substitute personal for pecuniary penalties. By the existing law, a person who had been convicted twice before the magistrates of offences against the Truck Acts, and who committed a third offence, might be indicted for a misdemeanor. Now, the cost of a prosecution for misdemeanor would be upwards of 100l., and there was no opportunity for the prosecutors to get back their costs; but the highest penalty to which a manufacturer was liable for a third offence against the Truck Acts was a fine of 100l. He (Mr. M'Mahon) conceived that a person convicted of such an offence should be liable to fine and imprisonment. As the law now stood, the expenses of the prosecution exceeded the fine, and the person who was convicted of the misdemeanor laughed at the prosecutors, who suffered more than the offender.


said, the circumstance of past legislation not having been effectual in checking the evils of this system, was no reason why they should not attempt to do something more. He was assured, however, that, so far from the present law being nugatory, it had been productive of much good, and it only required to be made more judicious in order to work more satisfactorily. Until they applied a judicious law, it was mere nonsense to say that legislation was useless. The fact of an Act of Parliament being evaded ought to operate as an inducement to them to amend its defects. It was quite evident that the truck system had a mischievous effect upon the working classes; and as they were the support and strength of the nation, it became the bounden duty of that House to do their utmost to throw around them some protection.

Leave given; Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Charles Forster, Mr. Littleton, Lord Paget, and Mr. Henry Austin Bruce.