HC Deb 19 February 1856 vol 140 cc982-6

said, he rose to move for the appointment of a Select Committee to consider the inconvenience now felt in the country from the want of equitable tribunals by means of which any difference between masters and operatives might be satisfactorily adjusted; and also, to ascertain whether the Conseils des Prud'hommes in France had answered the purpose for which they were established. The Conseils des Prud'hommes were councils composed partly of masters and partly of operatives, with a president and vice president appointed by the Government, to whom were referred all questions which arose between masters and men, and great dissatisfaction existed at the present moment among the operatives of this country in consequence of the want of some such tribunal to which they could appeal. In all the manufacturing towns the chief manufacturers were generally justices of the peace, and, let their judgments in disputes between masters and men be ever so just and equitable, the workmen viewed them with prejudice, as judgments given by persons who were connected by the ties either of friendship or of common interest with their employers, and, in fact, it was only natural for the workmen to suppose that the magistrates would favour their own class. In the course of the last week he had had an interview with a numerous body of persons belonging to the Association of the United Trades of London. That association represented 40,000 operatives in London, and he had been informed by it that the workmen were dissatisfied with the present state of the law on the subject. They considered that there was no fair tribunal for the settlement of their disputes with their masters; and further urged that even if the decision of a magistrate were fair, the obtaining of it was not unattended by expense. He did not ask for the establishment of tribunals precisely similar to those which existed in France; all he sought was to obtain a Committee, to be composed chiefly of master manufacturers and gentlemen who had turned their attention to this subject, which should inquire into the matter and decide whether or not such equitable tribunals would or would not be beneficial to this country. He had seen a, list of the grievances of printers, tailors, joiners, compositors, and workmen in other trades, all of whom were anxious that the law on the subject should be amended. If the committee were appointed, persons engaged in those trades might be examined, their complaints would be heard, and the Committee might then determine what would be the best course to pursue, and leave it to Her Majesty's Government, or some other persons to carry out their recommendations. It was of the greatest importance to avoid, if possible, the recurrence of strikes. Being connected with Lancashire as a coal-owner, he could speak to the great loss which had been occasioned by the strikes of the miners near Wigan. The owner had lost his royalty, the man who worked the mine his capital, the workman his wages, who consequently became destitute, and the result had been no benefit to any one, but an immense loss to all. In all probability we should, before this year was ended, have "piping times of peace," and it was in such times, rather than in those of war, that persons were likely to find fault with the Government and the institutions of the country. Let the House, therefore, be cautious how it gave the working classes any just cause of complaint. When peace was concluded many grievances would be pressed upon the attention of Parliament, and there would be many applications for the amendment of the law. A large number of individuals of education and ability would, as a matter of course, be thrown out of employment, whoso poverty would tell them that they had nothing to lose, "whose vanity that they had all to gain, and who would give not a little trouble to any Government which might be at that period in power. Was it not the duty, therefore, of the House to guard against such a result, and would not one of the best securities against it be to satisfy the lower classes by giving them equitable tribunals to decide between themselves and their employers? Now in what manner did a strike arise? The operatives met, agreed that they were ill used, and determined that they must have an increase of wages, say of 2s. or 3s. a week. The masters, getting excited, also met, and determined that they would not grant the request. Every one knew that if two individuals became excited or exasperated they were often not very fair to each other. If that applied to individuals, it applied with tenfold force to large bodies of men. The operatives, an uneducated body of men, became exasperated against their masters, and, having determined not to work, suffered the greatest hardships. The masters, although better educated, followed precisely the same course, and refused in the slightest degree to give way to the men. The result was a feud which was equally injurious to both. Suppose, however, that there was established in this country an equitable tribunal composed of an equal number of masters and workmen, with a master or a person appointed by the Executive Government as its chairman. Now, in that case, the operatives might appear by representatives as their counsel, who might explain to the tribunal how they were situated; that provisions were dear, that their work was very hard, and that they were obliged to ask for an increase of wages. The masters would then talk quietly with the representatives of the men; probably a moderate concession would be made by each side, and perfect good feeling would be restored. But as the law now stood, it was impossible to obtain such a result. He (Mr. Mackinnon) was not anxious for any particular form of tribunal, nor did he seek to give it power to fix maximum or minimum rates of wages; all he sought was the establishment of an equitable tribunal, which should be able to reconcile masters and workmen, and to prevent the recurrence of so tremendous a misfortune to all parties concerned, as a strike. He thought he was not asking too much in proposing the appointment of a Committee to consider whether something could not be done to effect that object. All he wished was, that fifteen Gentlemen should examine the subject to see what they could do with it. He could not conceive that there would be any objection to the appointment of such a Committee. It could damage no one except his hon. and learned Friend the Attorney General and others of the same profession, whose business might be diminished by the estaishment of such a tribunal as he sought for.


seconded the Motion.


said, that, when the hon. Gentleman on a former occasion moved for a Committee to inquire into the functions of the Conseils des Prud'hommes, he (Sir G. Grey) objected to its appointment, because he thought that such information could be obtained without the intervention of a Committee, and he then undertook to obtain full information as to the functions of those tribunals. With the assistance of the Board of Trade he obtained that information, and it was laid upon the table of the House. His hon. Friend then gave notice of a Motion, which he had very judiciously altered, as to the appointment of tribunals for the settlement of differences between masters and their workmen. He (Sir G. Grey) thought that it would not be advisable to attempt by means of a Committee to obtain information as to the operation of a foreign law on the inhabitants of a foreign country; and the Motion for such a Committee had been withdrawn by the hon. Gentleman, who now simply moved for the appointment of a Select Committee to inquire into the expediency of establishing tribunals analogous to those Conseils des Prud'hommes, with the view of settling the differences between masters and workmen. He (Sir G. Grey) was not aware that there was any objection to such an inquiry, provided it were undertaken with a full knowledge of what those Conseils des Prud'hommes really were. He was afraid, from the speech of the hon. Gentleman, that he had not profited so much as he might by the information which had been laid upon the table, and that he seemed to contemplate that those tribunals would have power to settle disputes between masters and workmen as to the rate of wages. Having attentively perused the papers upon the table, he (Sir G. Grey) would state what were the functions of the Conseils des Prud'hommes. They are of two kinds, administrative and judicial. The judicial functions were confined to the decision of questions relating to subjects which were already matters of contract between masters and workmen, and had nothing to do with the rate of wages that ought to be paid by masters to workmen. The only questions on which those tribunals had power to decide were such as arose upon pre-existing contracts. It certainly might be desirable to establish in this country tribunals empowered to deal with questions analogous to those which commonly engaged the attention of the Conseils des Prud'hommes in France; but he would warn the hon. Member against the delusion of supposing that it was possible, through the intervention of any tribunal, or at all otherwise than by agreement between the parties, to regulate the amount of wages to be paid by masters to their operatives. If the hon. Member was of opinion that any practical good was likely to result from the Motion the Government would not oppose it.


said, he must beg to explain that it was not intended that the tribunals should fix a maximum of wages. Their great duty would be to promote kind feelings and amicable relations between the employers and the employed.


said, he thought that it would conduce to the interests of all parties that there should be tribunals which, though not empowered to pronounce authoritative decisions, might yet be qualified to give advice, pronounce opinions, and generally to act such a mediatorial part as might tend to mitigate the bitter antagonism of classes.

Motion agreed to.

Select Committee appointedto inquire into the expediency of establishing Equitable Tribunals for the amicable adjustment of differences between Masters and Operatives.