HC Deb 06 March 1855 vol 137 cc203-7

said, he wished to call the attention of the House to the inconvenience now felt in this country from the want of equitable tribunals by means of which any differences between masters and operatives might be satisfactorily adjusted, and from which other advantages might be gained in disputed claims. He begged to move that an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the necessary information as to the Conseils des Prud'hommes in France, might be obtained by a Commission or otherwise. The subject was one which, in his opinion, was of the utmost importance, and a very strong feeling existed throughout the country in favour of the establishment of councils of arbitration. There was one club in London alone, consisting of, he believed, 16,000 members, and there were other clubs in various parts of the country which had been established for the purpose of advocating the establishment of equitable tribunals, by means of which disputes might be adjusted without incurring legal expenses. It might be said that the principle of such tribunals was not recognised by the law, but he could not admit such assertion, for by the 39 & 40 Geo. III. power was given to settle certain cases by arbitration, and to make the decision thus arrived at legal. About thirty years back a Committee, consisting of some of the most influential Members of that House, had agreed to a Resolution, that "the principle of settling disputes by arbitration was not against the law of the land, and that it was attended with good results to the parties concerned." It appeared, therefore, that there was nothing in the establishment of councils of arbitration opposed to any principle of law, and, in his opinion, such tribunals would be highly beneficial generally, and more particularly so in two instances. They would, in the first place, be of the greatest benefit in settling disputes concerning patents and designs, but, what was of still more importance, they might conduce to the prevention of such strikes as had lately occurred at Preston, Leeds, and other manufacturing districts, and which might at some period be productive of great danger. He would adduce one instance in the case of a disputed patent which would explain to the House the advantage of these councils of arbitration. He would take the case of a person in poor circumstances who, by his industry and ingenuity, had succeeded in perfecting a valuable invention. To secure the advantages of his own skill he was obliged to take out a patent, and the expense of so doing might, perhaps, consume all his means. When, however, he was beginning to reap the reward of his ingenuity, another person might make some slight alteration in the invention, take out a new patent, and the original inventor, not having the means of defraying law expenses, might be deprived of the just reward a his skill. He should wish to see established councils of arbitration, consisting of masters and workpeople, the masters to be elected by the workpeople, and the workpeople to be elected by the masters, for he thought that a body so constituted would be better adapted to settle disputes concerning patents than the ordinary courts of law, and it would at the same time be of great advantage in settling disputes which might occur between masters and workpeople, which, if not settled, might lead to strikes similar to those which had lately taken place. He had had the opportunity of observing in France the working of the Conseils des Prud' hommes, and he was satisfied in his own mind, that those tribunals had greatly conduced to the prosperity of that country. Those tribunals were first established in the year 1806. At that period the Emperor Napoleon, on his way to Milan, passed through Lyons, and the manufacturing population of that town waited upon him, and requested him to establish a tribunal of that description for the adjustment of disputes between masters and workmen. Napoleon took the matter into consideration, and issued a decree establishing a Conseils des Prud' hommes. This tribunal worked perfectly well in France; it had kept up a good feeling between the master and the workmen, and had fully answered the object for which it was established. Now, there might be objections to the establishment of such a tribunal in this country, though he did not think there were; but what he would ask the Government to agree to was, the appointment of a Committee of the House to investigate the subject. As it was worded upon the notice paper, his Motion was for the appointment of a Commission, but he thought the best course would be for him to conclude by moving for a Select Committee to see how far the establishment in this country of Conseils des Prud' hommes, or councils of arbitration, would be attended with benefit to the people of this country.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That a Select Committee be appointed, to inquire into the operations of the 'Conseils des Prud' hommes' in France."


said, there could be no doubt as to the importance of any measure which could be adopted by which differences between masters and men could be satisfactorily arranged. He did not, however, think that there was any necessity for the appointment of a Committee or Commission to inquire into the subject referred to by the hon. Member, as the fullest and most complete information existed with reference to these institutions in an official edition of the French laws, which he should be happy to place at the disposal of the hon. Member, if he had not already seen it. With respect to any further information which might be required, it could be easily obtained through his noble Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, who would make application to the French Government, if such a course were considered necessary. Looking to the jurisdiction exercised by these bodies, he thought that they would be ill suited to the manufacturing and trading population of this country. He was perfectly willing to lay before the House all the information the Government possessed upon the subject, and he trusted that that would satisfy the hon. Member.


said, he wished to refer to a court of arbitration of this kind which had been established in Sunderland and had worked very satisfactorily. He thought it would be very desirable if the Secretary of State for the Home Department would endeavour to give something like a legal constitution to those courts which had been voluntarily established in various places, so as to give authority to their judgments.


said, he had no objection to voluntary arbitration, but he objected to giving such tribunals any legal power to arbitrate on the rate of wages, or anything of that sort. Unless a court of arbitration had legal jurisdiction it would be inoperative, and if such powers were given it, there might be injurious interference in matters that should find their level in the market.


said, that, at a very large meeting held last year in the manufacturing districts, the establishment of some court of this nature was approved of almost unanimously. He did not believe the courts in France, which had been alluded to, had any arbitrary power to settle the wages of any particular trade in any given district; they had only power over such things as were specially referred to them. He hoped the subject would not be lost sight of. They must not suppose, because a strike commenced in November, and was over in December, that it was all done with. It was put an end to then only to be renewed on a more favourable occasion, and left much ill-feeling. He thought the subject well deserved the attention of the Government, and he hoped that at all events the hon. Member (Mr Mackinnon) would not let it rest, but when he got the information would bring in a Bill on the subject.


said, he wished to understand the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for the Home Department aright, and to know what he was to expect if he withdrew his Motion. He understood the right hon. Gentleman to ask him to wait until he could procure the information he had stated, and that then the Government would grant him a Committee if he (Mr. Mackinnon) thought it necessary. There would be no great probability of the House passing a Bill unless the matter were first referred to a Select Committee.


said, he had not made any promise that a Committee would be granted. The object of this Motion was to ascertain the state of the law of France, and the operation of that law. He doubted whether a Commitee would afford the best means of obtaining information, which must all come from France. When the hon. Member obtained the information he desired he would be competent to move for the appointment of a Committee if he thought it necessary, but he (Sir G. Grey) could not at present pledge himself to support the appointment of a Select Committee.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.