HC Deb 08 February 1867 vol 185 cc179-205

in moving for leave to introduce a Bill for facilitating in certain cases the proceedings of the Commissioners appointed to make inquiry respecting trades unions, and other associations of employers of workmen, said: The Bill, Sir, I now ask leave to introduce is of a somewhat unusual character, and the circumstances which have given rise to it are also peculiar. I will briefly refer to them. Many hon. Gentlemen will recollect that in the autumn of last year a very violent outrage was committed in Sheffield, an attempt having been made to blow up the house of a Mr. Ferneyhough, with its occupants. Large rewards were offered for the detec- tion of the perpetrators of this atrocious deed. The Government, in answer to appeals made to it, also offered a reward, and a promise of pardon to any one concerned, except the actual perpetrator, who would give information on the subject. All these offers and promises failed, and the perpetrator of the deed is still unknown. In consequence of the failure of these efforts to discover the guilty parties, application was made to the Government, on the part of those most intimately connected with the trade of Sheffield, that extraordinary measures should be taken for the detection not merely of this offence, but of similar crimes before committed. A deputation attended at the Home Office, headed by the hon. Gentleman the Member for Sheffield (Mr. Roebuck), and he stated, on the part of the inhabitants of Sheffield, how earnestly they desired that the Government should take some steps for the discovery of this deed. It was pointed out by the deputation that other and repeated offences had been committed of a similar character, some of less, some of equal atrocity; and there was placed in my hand a list of 200 cases within the last twenty years, in which it was alleged that workmen had been assailed. First of all they had been warned by threatening letters, then they had their tools injured and their leather bands destroyed, and finally incendiarism and gunpowder had been introduced when the other warnings had been found to be insufficient. Under these circumstances, it was pressed upon the Government that even if only to prevent suspicion resting upon the wrong persons, it would be necessary to confer extraordinary powers, land that the Government should apply for them to the Legislature. This deputation was followed by another, headed also by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sheffield, from what are commonly known as trades unions, which pressed upon the Government with equal earnestness the importance of taking extraordinary measures for discovering the real perpetrators of these outrages. I think I cannot do better than read to the House the words of the hon. Member for Sheffield, addressed to myself on the part of those who then attended with him. Speaking of the trades unions, he said— They believe that a full inquiry will prove that trades unions have been and are of great benefit to the working classes and through them to the, country at large; that they are wholly innocent of any such foul proceedings as are laid to their charge; that their conduct has been wise and just to their employers as well as themselves; and that the more searching is the inquiry the more patent and obvious will appear the wisdom of those who have directed the proceedings of these unions, and the immense advantage to trade and the country at large from their existence. Such being their firm conviction, they earnestly pray you to accede to their request, and that you will move the House of Commons to pass a law creating a Commission with ample powers to make all requisite inquiries into this most momentous subject, and that you will support such Motion with all the powers of this Government. I felt it to be my duty to communicate to my Colleagues the appeal thus made to me, and to submit to them that an application of this kind, coming both from the employers and the employed, rendered it necessary to consider first whether Parliament should not be applied to for extraordinary powers with reference to these outrages; and, in the second place, if such an application were made, whether the opportunity ought not to be taken of inquiring fully and completely into the working of trades unions and similar associations. The Government considered that such an appeal could not be resisted; and the only question, therefore, in their minds was whether the inquiry should be limited, in the first instance, to the occurrences at Sheffield, or should embrace the whole subject to which I have referred. As regards Sheffield, I think it will be admitted on all sides that, in the face of the double appeal made to us, we could not but accede to the desired investigation. That town is, in some respects, peculiarly circumstanced with regard to trades unions. I am afraid I must say, in passing, that it has obtained an unenviable notoriety for outrages of this description. But there are also circumstances peculiar to it which make it the most advantageous place in which an inquiry such as that now proposed could take place. In Sheffield there are a large number of trades unions; many of these are in association with others, and there are some trades without unions at all. There is also this further peculiarity, that the difference between the workman or artisan and the employer or capitalist is less broad and distinct, at least, in the cutlery trade than it is in most of the other manufacturing districts of the country. The line between the employers and the employed in the great majority of the large manufacturing towns is plain and obvious. The capitalists provide everything except the labour. But in the cutlery trade the artisan not merely furnishes his labour, but he rents what are called the wheels, and in that respect he is master of his own time and of his own resources. These wheels, connected by bands with the water wheel, are thus rented by the artisan, the result being that in this double capacity—partly as owner of the wheel and partly as workman—he is not merely in those capacities master of his own time, but he is also capable of sustaining severe injuries at the hands of any discontented workmen who may think they have reason to find fault with him. A common way of showing resentment against a fellow-workman is to deprive him of the tools of his trade, steal his wheel-bands, or disable his machinery in other respects. At last, if these proceedings prove ineffectual, recourse is had to the more flagrant outrages to which I have already referred. In this state of affairs it is impossible for Parliament to shut its eyes to the importance of having a thorough investigation set on foot, especially in the face of the applications which have been made by all parties for inquiry. The Government have therefore arrived at the conclusion, in regard to Sheffield, that it is for the benefit of all concerned that special investigation should take place; and I have now to ask leave to bring in the Bill of which I have given notice. But this further point was brought specifically under my notice by two deputations, headed by the hon. and learned Member for Sheffield—namely, if you have an inquiry at all, has not the time come when the fullest inquiry should be made into these trades unions and other associations? Is it not desirable that the inquiry should be in the largest and most comprehensive form, so that the evil or good of these unions may equally be brought out, and the law complained of on the one side or the other so improved, as to contribute to the mutual benefit both of the employers and the employed? That was the grave and difficult question submitted to the Government in the course of the autumn; and it appeared to the Government that there were two reasons why such an inquiry would be most advantageous. The first is the uncertain, and I may say, after looking very fully into the question, unsatisfactory state of the law. The second is that the subject is but ill understood by those who are most interested in it. The fuller the inquiry, the better will the subject be understood by the country. The facts of the case being brought to the knowledge of an impartial tribunal, it will then report to the Queen and to Parliament the result of their inquiries before legislation is attempted. These are the reasons which appear to me to be absolutely irresistible in the present state of affairs in favour of such an inquiry. Upon both I may take the liberty of adding a few words. The law of this country, independent of the common law—the doctrine of conspiracy—is entirely based upon the Act passed in the sixth year of the reign of George IV. Before that Act was passed, from the earliest period, the law relating to combination was in every respect adverse to the workman. The earliest statute relating to combination was passed in the reign of Edward III. From that time to the reign of George III. a series of statutes were passed prohibiting combinations, either for the purpose of raising wages, or for the purpose of limiting the hours of work, or for the purpose of attempting to control any manufacture, or for imposing restraints upon masters, either with regard to the hire of assistance or the employment of labourers. The object of some of these statutes nobody probably would find fault with. But the object of others was a direct interference with the freedom of labour. It was under these circumstances that in the year 1824 Mr. Hume obtained the appointment of a Committee of this House, which went fully into the whole subject, and that Committee reported that the law respecting these combinations had not prevented them—that in spite of the law combinations existed—that they existed in the worst form in which combinations could exist—namely, as secret societies with secret oaths. The Committee drew from these facts the natural conclusion that such a state of the law could not properly be maintained. The Act of 6 Geo. IV., framed on the Report, enabled workmen, if they could, to obtain from their employers higher wages, or more limited hours of work; but, at the same time, the Committee condemned in toto any attempt to continue such combinations, if they were to exercise by violence or threat any restraint upon the freedom of others in the prosecution of their work or in the employment of labour. This is clearly shown by the Resolutions of the Committee, the preamble of the statute, and the speech of Mr. Wallace, the President of the Board of Trade, who introduced the Bill. The seventh Resolution come to by Mr. Hume's Committee runs as follows:— That it is the opinion of this Committee that masters and workmen should be freed from such restrictions as regard the rate of wages and the hours of working, and be left at perfect liberty to make such agreements as they may mutually think proper. And the eleventh Resolution asserts— That it is absolutely necessary, when repealing the combination laws, to enact such a law as may efficiently and by summary process punish either workmen or masters who by threats, intimidation, or acts of violence should interfere with that perfect freedom which ought to be allowed to each party of employing his labour and capital in the manner he may deem most advantageous. The preamble of the statute states that— It is expedient to make further provision as well for the security and personal freedom of individual workmen in the disposal of their skill and labour as for the security of the property and persons of masters and employers. Mr. Wallace's remarks are in the same spirit as the Resolutions and preamble which I have quoted, and I look upon his speech as the key to the measure which was passed. Mr. "Wallace said— He was no friend to the principle of the laws which had been repealed. He did not wish to see them re-enacted, but he wished that the common law as it had stood before should be again brought into force.…By that law sufficient powers were given to the workmen for the preservation of their own interests. They were permitted to meet for the purpose of obtaining an increase of their wages; but if they went beyond this, and attempted to mix up any intimidation of others in their schemes, it was going too far. The object of the Bill was to keep up this distinction, and everything beside was left to the operation of the common law.…The principle of the Bill now before the House was to make all associations illegal, excepting those for the purpose of settling such amount of wages as would be a fair remuneration to the workman."—[2 Hansard, xiii. 1404.] Mr. Wallace should have added—and no doubt it was his intention to add—that associations would also be permitted for the purpose of settling such amount of wages, and also regulating such hours of labour, as would be a fair remuneration for the workman. That was the object of the Bill. The principle was simply this—to draw a distinction between the use and the abuse of that liberty which capital and labour had an equal right to claim, and that was, I have no doubt, the principle which was to be substituted for the law which existed before. The desire of Parliament was to give liberty to labourers to act in combination when their object was legitimate and reasonable, and to restrain them from combining to abuse the liberty accorded to them. It was intended, therefore, to leave untouched the common law, and nothing was done with reference to that in the Act of Parliament. The consequence has been that in leaving untouched that part of the subject questions soon arose which complicated the matter very much—namely, how far the common-law doctrine of conspiracy was applicable to trades unions. There are three points which show how unsatisfactory is the state of the law at the present moment. First, with reference to the common-law doctrine of conspiracy, a dictum was laid down by one of the Judges—that although a person, a single individual, might do an act which would not subject him to an indictment, yet if two or more individuals did the same act they might subject themselves to au indictment for conspiracy. And the illustration given by the learned Judge was taken from the wages question—namely, that a single workman was perfectly at liberty to insist that he would not work unless he had a certain amount of wages; yet if two or three workmen combined for that purpose, in the eye of the law it amounted to a conspiracy. No doubt a more liberal and a more just interpretation has since been adopted; but still the law is not clearly defined, for according to that interpretation, although it is truly said that every conspiracy implies a combination, every combination does not necessarily imply a conspiracy; and I believe the law at this moment may be taken to be that a combination to constitute a conspiracy must be the combination of persons to do an unlawful act, or to do an act which may be lawful by unlawful means. But, then, the House will see that that very definition of combination and conspiracy leaves one point entirely uncertain, and it is owing to that uncertainty that considerable difficulty has arisen in several recent cases, and especially in the last case. The uncertainty is as to what is and what is not unlawful. As applicable to this question, there are two cases of great importance—the one that of "Hilton v. Eckersley," and the other that of "Hornby v. Close." In the former case several employers bound themselves in a bond, under a penalty of £500, not to employ workmen except upon certain terms and conditions. One of those who had subscribed acted in opposition to the agreement, and an action was brought against him to recover the penalty to which he had rendered himself liable. The Court decided that, although there was nothing in the bond or the subscription to render it so illegal as to subject the subscriber to criminal proceedings, yet, inasmuch as the nature of the bond implied a restraint on trade and manufacture, it was illegal in another sense—that is, it could not be enforced in a civil court. The case of "Hornby v. Close" was just the reverse of this. In that case a number of working men, forming themselves into a society, had placed their money in the hands of a treasurer, and brought an action to recover the money. The claim was resisted on the ground that, though some of the rules of the society were such as were usually adopted by friendly societies, yet others were such as regulated the action of trades unions, and were calculated to act as a restraint upon trade. The judgment of the Lord Chief Justice has put before us very plainly this question as to the legality of the Act, and of its illegality at the same time as regards any action in the civil courts— He quite agreed with Mr. Mellish that if the main object of the society was that of benevolence, though the rules might have gone a little further or a little less, that it was one coming within the 9th section of the Act; but here the very purpose and existence of the society was not merely that of carrying out those objects for which benevolent societies, so-called, were established; but also for the purpose of carrying out a trades union, under a very generally understood combination by which men bound themselves not to work except under certain conditions, and to support themselves when out of employment in conformity with the interests and wishes of the body at large. He was far from saying that a trades union so constituted, and for such a purpose, would bring the members within the criminal law. On the same principle that a combination of masters for a certain purpose was so far illegal in respect of civil rights that it could not be enforced, so he thought that a civil action brought on these rules would be held to be illegal. He thought, for two reasons, that this society could not be brought within the provisions of the Friendly Societies' Act—first, because the purposes for which trades unions were organized were not analogous to those of benefit societies; and secondly, because this arrangement, though not criminal, yet, being in restraint of trade, they were by the law of the land illegal. Now that state of the law is certainly not satisfactory. It ought to be more clearly defined what are the rules which make it illegal for any combination of persons to take place; because unless it is, the right which they have of enforcing from those who have their money any civil right is very questionable. It ought also to be so defined, that the members of these societies may not under cover of a benevolent purpose attempt to do something that is contrary to law or in restraint of trade. The question then arises whether the rules of these societies cannot be so regulated by law as to draw the line between that which is legal and that which is illegal; so that in the one case persons may know that if legal their rights will be secured, and that if illegal they ought not to attempt to enter into such societies. In saying this I do not wish to give au opinion as to what should ultimately be the law of the land, because that must depend upon the result of the inquiry about to be instituted. On the one hand, when you find these societies extending, and increasing in magnitude, and consider that they were originally established to give themselves perfect freedom with regard to their own labour, it is impossible to ignore their existence or to deny their claims. On the other hand, if they attempt to obtain through the instrumentality of these combinations something which the law does not allow, and cannot allow, then the line ought so to be drawn that they ought not to be permitted to claim a right which is not given to them. But it appears to me that, do what you will—even if you can distinguish, which I believe you may, between what will give these societies a legal existence and that which ought to be restrained if beyond the law—yet one of the greatest evils of all—that of locks-out on the one hand and strikes on the other—will not be lessened until you can find something by which the differences between the employers of labour and the employed can be satisfactorily settled. I consider that one of the most important, if not the most important, objects of inquiry will be, whether arbitration or conciliation courts, as they are called, or some other tribunal may not be established, in which both parties would have equal confidence, for the purpose of adjusting their differences before they arrive at that point which is fatal, not only to themselves, but to the best interests of the country. It will be necessary therefore that the Commission, if appointed, shall have some person of great judicial eminence to direct the inquiry, so as to leave the law no longer in its present uncertain and unsatisfactory state, and to suggest for the mutual satisfaction of both employer and employed some tribunal by means of which their differences maybe adjusted. I believe that no legislation whatever can be more important than that which would accomplish this great and most desirable object. I said before, that it was not merely on the ground of the uncertainty, and therefore, to some extent, the unsatisfactory state of the law, that I thought the time had come when this inquiry should be made. I said also that the subject was imperfectly understood, and, from all I can hear, both on the part of the masters and of the men, they do not seem to have been brought into such a position that the views of each could be thoroughly understood by the other. Although both have given much consideration to the subject from their own point of view, the different opinions entertained respecting it have never hitherto been brought before one tribunal where they can be compared and sifted, and where each party may understand the views of the other. If this inquiry attains that object, we shall then have before us, for the purpose of legislation, a full and complete exposition of the views and opinions on both sides, in order that we may then settle the law upon a satisfactory basis. The people of Sheffield, workmen as well as masters, having solicited inquiry in order to detect the atrocious crime lately committed there, I venture to think that the opportunity may well be taken, and ought to be taken, to consider the whole subject, in order that Parliament may afterwards apply the best remedy which can be devised. It was said on the first night of the Session by my right hon. Friend (Mr. Gladstone), alluding to the paragraph in the Queen's Speech upon this subject, that he hoped those who recommended the Commission did not mean to interfere with the perfect freedom either of capital or of labour, so long as nothing was done, by means of these unions and associations, to injure the freedom of trade. I hope that the few words I have spoken to-night will show that no such intention is entertained by the Government. What they desire through the Commission, and the powers which they will ask Parliament to confer on the Commission, is, to draw the line which ought to be drawn between perfect freedom of labour as well as capital, and those illegal acts and acts of violence, threat, and intimidation, which are as detrimental to workmen as they are to masters and to the country at large. If I wanted one proof to show that this is the sole desire of the Government, I believe I should have nothing further to do than to read the words of the Commission. Her Majesty has directed the Commission to inquire and report on the organization and rules of trades unions and other associations, whether of workmen or employers, and to inquire into and report on the effect produced by such trades unions and associations upon workmen and employers respectively, and on the relations between workmen and employers, and on the trade and industry of the country, regard being had to the investigation of any recent acts of violence alleged to be promoted, encouraged, or connived at by such associations in Sheffield, with power to suggest any improvements in the law with respect to the matters aforesaid, or with respect to the relations between workmen and employers. The Commission will thus have to consider these great subjects—namely, the effect of these unions upon workmen and employers, and their relations, and the effect they now have or are likely to have upon the general trade of the country, with full power to report upon the whole matter for the mutual benefit of employers and employed. One word with regard to the Bill proposed. The Bill recites the Commission and the object of it, and then asks for power to inquire into the acts which have been perpetrated at Sheffield. It is confined to the investigation of the acts at Sheffield almost exclusively; because a roving inquiry of that kind is not an inquiry which Parliament would be likely to grant, nor would it in all probability lead to any practical result. There is, however, this power reserved, that in case application should be made to the Commissioners, and they should think it reasonable to extend the inquiry from Sheffield, then, with the sanction of the Secretary of State, a further investigation may be made. Powers are given by the Bill to compel the attendance of witnesses; and there is a power of examining witnesses on oath, and a further power of indemnifying them from the penalties which might otherwise attach to illegal acts which they had committed, on condition that they make a full and complete confession. These are the powers given by the Bill, and by these I hope that those acts which are done with so much secrecy, and which are attended by so much difficulty of discovery, may be put an end to, that the innocent may not be confounded with the guilty while the guilty may not be punished—that is not the object of the Bill—but be exposed, and a repetition of such acts be prevented. With regard to the Commission itself, it is proposed to make it as little of a partisan character as possible, and to attain that object, the names of those to sit upon it have been selected, one from the upper House of Parliament, four from this House, and four or five others from gentlemen outside the walls of Parliament who take a great interest in the subject, but who are not intimately connected with either the masters or the workmen. The President of the Commission is the late Lord Chief Justice of the Common Pleas, Sir William Erle, one I need not say, whose probity of character, judicial impartiality, and great ability, eminently fit him for the post. His life for a long series of years has been devoted to the benefit of his country, and he has secured for himself the universal esteem and respect of all parties. Lord Lichfield will be appointed from the other House. There is one whom I am sure the workmen, and the country generally, would have been glad to see appointed on this Commission—I refer to the hon. Member for Westminster (Mr. Stuart Mill); but he has declined to sit, on the ground that his duties in this House occupy too much of his time. I still hope that he may be induced to re-consider his decision. Then there is the hon. Member for Sheffield (Mr. Roebuck), who has taken a deep interest in the subject; the hon. Member for Lambeth (Mr. T. Hughes), Lord Elcho, and Sir Daniel Gooch. Prom outside the House the names of the following gentlemen have been added: Sir Edmund Head, Sir James Booth, and Mr. Herman Merivale. That makes nine members; but I ought to inform the House that I had a communication from a body of working men, urging that some working men should be put upon the Commission—or, if that course were not followed, that one or two persons, in whom the working men had entire confidence, might be appointed. My answer to them was, that I had endeavoured to avoid having a Commission with anything like a partisan spirit, and that if working men were added to it, masters must be added also. I, however, suggested that if, it were satisfactory to them, they might recommend to me the name of some gentleman whom they would like to see upon the Commission, and the masters might do the same. In that way the names of Mr. William Matthews and Mr. F. Harrison were added to the number. I thank the House for the attention they have paid to me. I trust that good results will arise from the labours of the Com- mission. I hope its inquiries will tend to the mutual benefit of the employer and employed. Seeing that both masters and men agree in desiring an inquiry, and feeling perfect confidence that the inquiry will be properly conducted, I hope it will lead to results that will prove of permanent good to the country. The right hon. Gentleman concluded by moving for leave to bring in the Bill.


said, no one could doubt the importance of the subject; but with regard to the Bill itself, he did not quite understand whether the compulsory powers to be granted were to be limited to Sheffield or to extend over the whole of the country, or whether the powers of the special inquiry at Sheffield would compel witnesses to give evidence which might tend to criminate themselves, and subject them to severe penalties. He would reserve any opinion upon the Bill, however, for the present. With regard to the construction of the Commission, he would only say that he did not think that a better President could have been selected than the eminent Judge—Sir William Erie—who had presided so long over the Court of Common Pleas. He felt sure that the Commission would be conducted in the spirit which the right hon. Gentleman opposite (Mr. Walpole) desired. Of the other Members he would refrain from expressing any opinion. The composition of the Commission was a most important question; because, unless constituted in such a way as to give confidence to those whose interests were concerned, it would be found to produce very little benefit.


said, he felt the immense gravity of the inquiry on which they were about to embark, and was delighted to hear that the composition of the Commission had been to some extent enlarged, so as to introduce one member at least who would be able conscientiously to advocate and to explain the position held by the trades unions as militant bodies. There was one point which it was desirable to impress upon Her Majesty's Government. This inquiry must extend over a considerable time; and mean while, a recent decision had placed the trades unions outside the pale of the law. From the year 1824, when the combination laws were repealed, up to 1854, the position of those societies was simply outside the law. Their objects were not illegal; but, at the same time, they had no corporate powers of suing or being sued, and were not in any shape within the protection of the civil law. In 1853 and 1854 Mr. Sotheron Estcourt was introducing his amendment of the Friendly Societies' Acts, and he (Mr. T. Hughes) rendered the trades unions such help as he could to bring them into a recognised position in the eye of the law. They sent deputations to Mr. Sotheron Estcourt on the subject, and the result was that he introduced into the Friendly Societies' Act of 1855 the 44th and other clauses, which enabled trades societies, by depositing their rules with the Registrar of Friendly Societies, to come within the scope of the Act as far as regarded summary powers of dealing with fraudulent officers and members of their own society with whom there might be any dispute. For several years after no further step towards recognition was taken. But in the year when the Post Office Savings Bank Act was passed, the societies came forward and asked the right hon. Gentleman the Member for South Lancashire (Mr. Gladstone) to admit them to the same privilege as the Friendly Societies of investing their surplus funds in the bank. The right hon. Gentleman, with true statesmanship, granted them the privilege, so that they were then recognised for purposes of suing and being sued, and of investing their funds in Government securities. Then came the unfortunate decision of the Queen's Bench the other day, which entirely swept away all this recognition, and placed them absolutely outside the law of the country. Persons who knew much of the action of these bodies knew that a large portion of their action was that of provident societies, rather than of trades unions. They distributed thousands a week for purely benevolent purposes within the Friendly Societies Act. To his own knowledge that was the case with respect to one of these societies. Many of them had branches all over the country, and the treasurers of those branches were nominally members of the societies, but were generally publicans, in whose houses their meetings were held. The decision of the other day enabled dishonest persons to retain the funds of the societies, there being no legal process which would reach them. Therefore, rejoicing that this inquiry would be entered into, and hoping it would place the law on a much better footing, he would urge earnestly upon the Government the propriety of bringing forward some such measure as had been indicated by the hon. Member for Oxford (Mr. Neate), so as to provide that, pending the result of the investigation, dishonest persons should not be enabled, by the late decision of the Queen's Bench, to retain money intrusted to them, while the societies had no remedy. As this inquiry could only be of service in the event of thorough confidence being felt by both sides, it was of the first importance that the House should take such steps as would restore that confidence by enabling the trades unions to deal with their own funds' and to punish any who, in consequence of the decision, might abuse their trust. By adopting such a course Parliament would convince the working men that they were resolved to act throughout the inquiry in perfect good faith, and thus the labours of the Commission would be likely to result in a termination satisfactory to all parties.


said, he concurred with the right hon. Gentleman opposite (Mr. Walpole) as to the desirability of the proposed inquiry, but did not approve mixing up together two questions apparently akin, but iii reality of a totally different nature. It was proposed that the Commission should inquire, in the first place, into the unfortunate outrages which had taken place at Sheffield, and then into the general effect which trades unions had upon the trade and industry of the country. These were both very proper subjects of inquiry; but the question was, whether it was quite expedient and quite just to refer them to the same Commission? Was it right to mix up a broad question of political economy with an investigation into certain local outrages? Was it right that a Commission appointed to inquire into one of the most serious questions of the day, affecting, as it did, the trade and manufactures of the country, should sit at Sheffield? He scarcely understood whether the compulsory powers asked for by the Bill to be vested in the Commission were to be limited to the Sheffield inquiry, or were to be exercised with regard to the broader question, which he understood was to be entered on at the conclusion of the other.


said, he had not, perhaps, made himself clearly understood upon the point. The Commissioners were to have power to appoint examiners, who were to go down to Sheffield, under the direction of the President of the Commission, for the purpose of inquiring into the outrages which had taken place in that town. If an application were made to the Commissioners for inquiry elsewhere, and the Commissioners should think it reasonable so to extend the inquiry, then, with the sanction of the Secretary of State, a further investigation might be made.


said, these questions would be better gone into on the second reading; but he desired to know whether the Commissioners would be able to compel witnesses to attend upon any other questions except those connected? with these outrages?


said, they would not.


said, he was glad to hear the right hon. Gentleman negative such a supposition; as, in the first instance, there had been some fear entertained that the Commissioners would have power to compel the attendance of witnesses generally and examine them on oath, with regard to the great question as to how far the operation of these associations had been beneficial or otherwise to the manufacturing and other interests of the country. It would certainly have been a strong measure to call upon the secretary of a trades union to detail compulsorily, and on oath, the whole of the private affairs of the association with which he was connected. He must repeat his objection to ' the two subjects—the outrages at Sheffield, and the effect of the trades unions on the interests of the country—being treated together, as such a course was likely more or less to bias the minds of the Commissioners, by bringing before them prominently and from the very first, certain deplorable acts of a criminal nature in such a manner as to lead them to conduct the inquiry on the basis that the trades unions were connected with the outrages, and thereby more or less prejudice the examination into the broad question of the effect of these organizations on the trade of the country.


said, that the difficulty to which the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Goschen) alluded did not exist. When Mr. Hume brought in his Bill to give freedom to workmen to sell their labour at the best price they could get for it, there had been stringent laws preventing them from doing so, and there was great doubt expressed when Mr. Hume's Bill was proposed whether it would not be injurious to the industry of the country. Since then certain acts had occurred which the masters said verified their anticipations of mischief, and that this Sheffield case was an instance. The people of Sheffield said they had done no harm, and would prove their innocence. The question arose whether the laws at present existing were beneficial, and he could not see what mischief could arise from an inquiry into the Sheffield outrage, which had been brought forward as an illustration of the working of those laws? One party said the disease was fatal; another said it did not exist. An impartial inquiry would elicit the facts.


said, he thought the two subjects of inquiry should be conducted separately. Even supposing that the investigation of the outrages at Sheffield would not prejudice the minds of the Commissioners against the trades unions, the House must look to the effect which would be produced upon the minds of the working men by the two questions being treated as one. The minds of the working classes were just now in a very sensitive state; and he did not think that it would be desirable to suggest to them, even indirectly, that the organization of the trades unions was in any degree connected with the crimes which had been perpetrated at Sheffield. He would have confidence in any Commission that might be appointed to inquire into the case. That, however, might not be the opinion of the working men of England, more especially as this Commission not only inquired into the facts, but also acted as the adviser of the Crown. It was therefore important not to do anything which would wound the sensibilities of the working men by mixing up two subjects not necessarily connected. He entirely agreed with the opinion expressed by the hon. and learned Member (Mr. T. Hughes) as to the propriety of restoring the trades unions to the position they had occupied before the late decision in the Court of Queen's Bench, which appeared to him to be in direct opposition to the expressed intentions of Parliament on the subject. It was a delicate matter to criticize the opinions of men so much above suspicion; but when Judges multiplied cases in which contracts were to be set aside as violations of public policy, they were not encroaching but treading upon ground which Parliament shared with them, and the recent decision was a very serious one, depriving these unions, as it did, of any legal status as benefit societies. Moreover, the discretion which was to be left to magistrates as to what degree of departure from the purposes of a friendly society rendered organizations illegal, was one which they were by no means fitted to exercise. Upon this ground alone it was desirable to pass a provisional measure exempting trade societies from the forfeiture of those privileges which they had enjoyed prior to the recent judgment; and he should, defer proceeding with his Motion on that subject, in the hope that the right hon. Gentleman would see the propriety of his proposal.


said, that as a manufacturer, he had had a great deal to do with the employment of labour; and, as far as he could judge, the law as it stood enabled both the workman to sell his labour at the best price he could obtain for it, and the manufacturer to buy labour at the cheapest, without molestation. The establishment with which he was connected engaged a short time ago to build a warehouse; but the master mason found great difficulty with his men, who, notwithstanding that he increased their wages and shortened their hours of labour, all struck at an hour's notice. He said, that were he to submit to their demands he should soon have a repetition of the misconduct. The firm offered the master every assistance in their power; and after the landlord of a beer-shop, who had been found intimidating new men who sought for employment, had been summoned before a magistrate and sent for a term to "Wakefield House of Correction without the option of a fine, and had his "topping" cut off—much to his astonishment—there was no further difficulty, and the work proceeded. There was a good deal of unreasonable feeling abroad that it was wrong for working men to stand to sell their labour at the best price; but it must be remembered that their labour was the only thing they had to sell, and the best thing to do was to leave these matters to take their natural course. Although his' firm employed about 5,000 people, they had not had a strike for twenty-five years. It was a great mistake on the part of employers to suppose that the lowest priced labour was always the cheapest. If a man wanted to succeed in life, it was not by paying a less price for labour than his neighbours; because by paying a little more than others he would secure the best workmen in the district, and by having the best workmen he would be much better able to compete in the market than those who payed a smaller rate. As when they went to sell goods, so when they went to buy labour they must meet argument by argument, and in his opinion in the trades differences that had occurred the fault was quite as much with the masters as with the men. If there was not so much desire to run down the price of labour, and masters showed a more conciliatory spirit, there would be fewer strikes and outrages. If the law was imperfect, by all means let it be remedied. He thought it was not far from what it should be. They must not expect too much of Parliament. Anything practical that was to be accomplished must be brought about by the wise discretion of the masters and workmen in their dealings between themselves. If masters would try to get the best productions instead of the cheapest there would be fewer strikes.


said, he had been so often appealed to by friends of trade societies in reference to proceedings in that House, that he felt called upon to say a word upon the subject under discussion. No one could object to an inquiry into what had taken place at Sheffield; but the proceeding recommended by the Home Secretary was one which would be received with astonishment by the great body of the working people of the country. If he understood rightly, the Commission was to be appointed to inquire into the effect upon the industry of the country of trade societies legally and properly conducted. Parliament had long since recognised the legality and policy of trade societies. [Mr. WALPOLE dissented.] When Mr. Hume's Act passed, Parliament certainly recognised their legality. His hon. and learned Friend (Mr. Rolt) shook his head, and seemed to think that legal trade societies did not exist, but Parliament had certainly recognised the status of societies having legal objects in view. He entirely objected to the proposal of the Government that any Chief Justice, however learned, should sit in judgment on one of the gravest political questions of the day, and undertake to decide whether institutions which had long existed under the sanction of Parliament were or were not legal, and whether they conduced to the prosperity of the trade of the country. The inquiry would obviously be useless, unless if the Chief Justice's judgment were against trade societies they were to be repressed, and to return to the state of the law previous to 1824. It could have no other effect than to destroy any remaining feeling of confidence in the minds of the working classes with refer- ence to the conduct of Parliament. It was quite another thing to inquire whether any abuse, any illegal acts, had been perpetrated under the name of trades societies. Nobody could better inquire into that subject than the late Chief Justice of the Common Pleas; but he hoped the right hon. Gentleman did not contemplate going beyond that. The right hon. Gentleman had suggested courts of conciliation or arbitration—was the Commission to investigate that subject? Some four years ago he had devoted to it much time in a Committee upstairs; a Bill had been carefully framed for the establishment of these courts, and it passed that House without opposition. It had been rejected, however, by the other House in the most contemptuous manner, without consideration, without reflection, and, he ventured to add, without intelligence. The House of Lords, therefore, were answerable for the present state of things, and any acerbity of feeling which might exist between employers and workmen. It was not necessary to have a Commission to re-consider that question. He hoped the labours of the Commission would be limited to the investigation of the illegal acts of trades unions, and that it would not enter into an inquiry whether acts perfectly lawful have been favourable or unfavourable to the trade of the country. The decision of the Court of Queen's Bench that a particular rule was illegal might be right; but the effect of the decision in making the society itself illegal was unreasonable. The most convenient course would be for the right hon. Gentleman at once to bring in a Bill to declare that illegal rules in benefit societies should not be enforced, but that the other objects of such societies, which were most beneficial to the working people and advantageous to the country at large, should remain. It was monstrous that, because some illegal rule had crept in, therefore funds which had been subscribed to meet cases of sickness should be left at the mercy of any one to swallow up for his own benefit.


The hon. and learned Gentleman has founded his argument upon quite an imaginary opinion, which he has attributed to me. He seems to think that my opinion is that there is no such thing as a lawful trade society. I entirely disclaim entertaining such an opinion. I know that there are many legal trade societies. I entertain no doubt that the great majority of trade societies are legal societies. But it is also true that there are many of such societies which approach very near to the line of illegality. The whole object of this Commission is not to ascertain whether there are any legal or illegal trades societies, but to inquire into the actual operation of trade societies now existing. That is the point to be ascertained by this Commission—to ascertain their laws and regulations, and the nature of their operations. I think an inquiry of this kind is actually necessary to the legislation which all appear to think desirable. The point we have to settle is this. There is a broad difference between a criminal act and an illegal agreement. It is not a mere play upon words to make a distinction between a criminal act and an illegal act. The law recognises such a distinction, and the uncertainty of its application lies not in the law, but in the application of the law to the facts. An agreement may be wholly illegal, and yet the entering into it not necessarily criminal. All agree that general restrictions on trade are illegal; but agreements for that purpose, though illegal, are not for that reason merely criminal. The question of illegal agreements and their consequences is a fit subject for inquiry. I have no hesitation in saying that I have seen many decisions, pronouncing agreements null and void because they were in restraint of trade, which I much regretted. But to say that I would therefore sweep away this broad principle, which at any rate is something upon which the Courts of Law can rest in furtherance of an important public end, is an assertion which a bold man may make, but at which any man who has had experience in Courts of Law would hesitate. It appears to me that what is wanted on this subject is inquiry, with a view it may be to modify and to regulate the law, and, above all, to make intelligible to the working classes the principle that an act which is not criminal may be illegal, for upon that subject there is great confusion in their minds. If by inquiry you can modify or regulate this principle, and show the working classes that restrictions on trade, though not criminal may be illegal, I am sure you would be doing much to promote those benevolent objects which the hon. Member for Lambeth (Mr. Thomas Hughes) and others have at heart. The whole object of the inquiry is a beneficial one. It is a mistake to suppose that the Commission is to inquire into the trade outrages, and then into the general effect of trade societies. That is not so. The object of the Commission is to inquire into the nature of the laws regulating trade societies, and into the effects of those societies upon the working men and the employers of labour, with the view, amongst other things, to obtain information to enable us to consider how far we should modify, regulate, or qualify the principle that agreements in restraint of trade are illegal. Such an inquiry is all important. It is, of course, impossible to conduct it without reference to the outrages that have occurred; and it is also impossible satisfactorily to legislate upon the subject without further information.


said, that the object of this Commision was so excellent, and it was brought forward in a spirit with which they must all so much sympathize, that he did not like to appear to approach it in a hostile spirit. If it were possible for the House by any means to put an end to differences between employers and workmen, no one would like to throw any obstacle in the way of the accomplishment of such an object. But, after the statements which had been made, he could not help thinking that the right hon. Gentleman the Home Secretary was attempting to do that which, in practice, would be found very difficult—namely, to make one Commission serve for two very different purposes, and which must to some extent interfere with each other. The Commission was first to ascertain by a general inquiry whether that House could with advantage adopt fresh legislation in respect to trades unions; and it was also, as he understood, next to discover, if possible, the perpetrators of acts of violence at Sheffield. These two matters were more fit for the consideration of two separate Commissions than of one. For the purpose of considering whether that House could with advantage adopt fresh legislation, he conceived that the Commission ought to be of a representative character; and he must say he did not see that there was any cause to object to the constitution of the Commission on that ground, particularly as the right hon. Gentleman had acceded to the request of the working men to have upon it a gentleman—Mr. Harrison—in whom, according to the hon. Member (Mr. Thomas Hughes), they reposed full confidence—as their advocate. It appeared to be fairly chosen. But surely a representative Commission was hardly a proper body to discharge the judicial function of discovering the perpetrators of acts of violence at Sheffield. For such a purpose a very small and absolutely impartial Commission, consisting of the late Chief Justice of the Common Pleas and one or two assessors, would be better suited. He admitted that there were grounds for a general inquiry; but he was of opinion, like the hon. Member for the West Riding (Sir Francis Crossley), that they must not be too sanguine as to what could be done. Far more could be effected by the influence of public opinion than by any law. Certain objects were to be aimed at. Every facility should be given to workmen, not only to sell their labour to the greatest advantage, but to combine for the purpose of obtaining, by all constitutional means, the best price for it. They ought, at the same time, to be prevented from coercing others. It was desirable that the law on this point should be defined, as it did not appear to be accurately defined at present. With respect to the late decision on trades unions, there could be no question that it had thrown many of them, whose objects were quite innocent, outside the pale of the law, and that was a state of things which was as adverse to the employer as to the workman, for nothing could be worse for an employer than to force his workmen into illegality by taking from them the protection which was denied to other associations. He was glad a noble Lord (Lord St. Leonards) had brought the subject of conciliation courts forward in another place. He thought that some good might be clone by the formation of such courts as existed in France for the settlement of differences between employers and workmen. He again strongly recommended that the matters proposed to be submitted to the Commission should be kept distinct, and that two separate Commissions should be issued. If only one Commission were appointed, a great deal of time must be consumed before any Report could be made, and the workmen would have a right to complain that their case was prejudiced by being joined together with a special case of violence at Sheffield.


said, he did not like to hear things stated as facts which were not facts. He believed there was great anxiety in the country that the organization of trade societies should be inquired into. He assured the hon. Gentleman the Mem- ber for the city of Oxford (Mr. Neate), that the most intelligent of the labouring classes with whom he was acquainted were now engaged in forming societies free and clear of trades unions. They called them "Free Labour Societies," because they were satisfied that from the conduct of trades unions labour was not free. The working classes would, he believed, repudiate the tyranny of the trades unions, whether this House legislated on the subject or not. But there was a strong feeling in the country for legislation on the subject.


said, he hoped the right hon. Gentleman would not be discouraged by the criticisms on his proposal which he had heard in the House, for he believed that the working classes were very anxious that this question should be taken up by the Government. The course proposed by the right hon. Gentleman would be attended with great benefit. He was on the Committee which had been referred to by the hon. Member for the Tower Hamlets, and he must say that the Bill to which his hon. Friend had referred did not pass because the public mind was not then ripe for its discussion.


said, that there was a great desire on the part of the working men to have this inquiry instituted. He believed that something might be effected by this means in removing the difficulties attending the question of strikes. There could be no doubt that a man had a perfect right to obtain the highest wages which he could; but what was objected to in the interest of the working man himself, and also of the country at large, was, that there was a third power introduced between the workmen and the masters which took the form of a formidable protection, carried out by means of these trade unions. Large sums of money were raised by these unions for the purpose of sustaining the men while they demanded a particular sum for their work irrespective of the law of supply and demand. This was a system of protection which must defeat itself. The hon. Member (Mr. Ayrton) said that no result could be arrived at which would be satisfactory to the working class; but he (Mr. Whalley) had known of three extensive strikes which had been voluntarily abandoned by the men in consequence of their being convinced by argument that they were attempting to carry out a system of protection. As another reason for having this inquiry, he might state that in his own district, where efforts had been made to put an end to strikes, the most formidable difficulty which they had had to encounter were certain egregious fallacies which had been put forward under the authority of the hon. Member for Westminster (Mr. Stuart Mill). For instance, he was quoted on one occasion as having stated, in one of his authoritative books, that it was quite justifiable for workmen not only to combine for a particular sort of work, and for a fixed rate of wages, irrespective of demand and supply; but that further than this, they were justified in adopting rules for the purpose of preventing too great a number of persons from entering into that trade and so establishing an injurious competition. When such arguments were put forward, he thought that it was quite necessary that there should be an inquiry in order to find an answer to such opinions. For his part, he believed that the inquiry would be of the greatest benefit.


said, he thought that the hon. Gentleman (Mr. W. E. Forster) had somewhat mistaken the nature of this Bill. The object of the Bill was not simply to give Parliamentary powers to the Commission to detect the perpetrators of the outrages at Sheffield, but in the inquiry into trades unions and associations, they were to have regard to the outrages which were alleged to have been perpetrated by means of these trades unions and associations, and to see how far such outrages were or were not connected with the organization and rules of these trades unions and associations. It was therefore a part, and, indeed, a necessary part of the subject, according to all the regulations and to all the workings of these institutions, to see whether the unions had led to any great extent to acts of outrage and violence, such as had taken place. The hon. Gentleman would therefore see that if this Commission had been issued independently of a direction to inquire into the particular Sheffield outrage, still the Commission would not have done its duty if it had not inquired into the working of these unions in reference to all acts of aggression against workmen. It was therefore a necessary part of the inquiry; and that it should be carried on by a Commission having Parliamentary powers would only have this effect, that they could more thoroughly investigate the subject, and thereby enable Parliament to deal more satisfactorily with it. The hon. Member (Mr. Ayrton) enlarged upon the importance—in which he fully agreed with him—of having tribunals established for the purpose of adjusting the differences between workmen and their employers. The hon. Gentleman totally misapprehended him if he thought for a moment that he (Mr. Walpole) was not of opinion that the hon. Member took great pains to establish such tribunals. He was perfectly aware that this was so. So long ago as Mr. Hume's Committee, there was a recommendation that there should be means found for settling such disputes. They did not attempt to define the means, but very few attempts in that direction had been made in Parliament until lately. Although the hon. Member's Bill had failed in the House of Lords, yet it was, perhaps, in consequence of this that a noble and learned Lord had now taken up the subject. The failure of that Bill was no reason for issuing the Commission; but still, if there were to be a Commission, surely the investigation should be completed, and should include this branch of the subject. He believed that there was no part of the matter more important than that there should be tribunals in which both masters and men should have confidence; and he believed that they would be better constituted for having the opinions of masters and men directly brought before the Commission, which should, as it were, set its seal on that which would be the best mode of securing the desired end. The hon. Member (Mr. Neate) would find that it was not so easy a matter to alter the law in the point he alluded to. The real fact was that the whole question of the legality of these unions, with reference to questions like that that had recently arisen in the Queen's Bench, turned upon this, what were to be the rules which were to sanction the status of such unions, so that they might be able to enforce their civil rights against members of their own body, and also against strangers, without trespassing upon the laws of the land in those respects in which laws were deemed necessary for the freedom of trade, or for other purposes, which, if they were not observed, would enable such societies to commit acts which they were now not permitted to do. It was the rules of these societies upon which the difficulties arose. There was no difficulty if the societies were simply for friendly or benevolent purposes, legalized by the Act of George IV, apart from combining for the settlement of wages to be worked for and the hours of work; but if they went beyond into matters which the law did not recognise as legal, then there was established a state of things that might or might not be good, according to the rules for the organization of these societies. Although they could insist upon all their civil rights whilst they kept within certain bounds, yet beyond them they could not go until the Legislature had determined that what was now contrary to law should no longer be so. The hon. Member (Mr. Ayrton) said that this Commission would be taken in a spirit (which was certainly not intended) of an inquiry hostile to working men; but all he (Mr. Walpole) could say was, that he had at that time several applications from working men asking for inquiry. And, in conclusion, he would express his own belief that this inquiry would do a great deal of good, and be beneficial to all concerned in trade, as well as to the country in general.

Motion agreed to.

Bill for facilitating in certain cases the proceedings of the Commissioners appointed to make inquiry respecting Trades Unions and other associations of employers or workmen, ordered to be brought in by Mr. Secretary WALPOLE, Lord JOHN MANNERS, and Sir STAFFORD NORTHCOTE.