HC Deb 04 June 1867 vol 187 cc1603-12

Order for Second Reading read.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a second time."—(Lord Elcho.)


said, he regretted the noble Lord (Lord Elcho) had moved the second reading of the Bill without stating grounds for proceeding with it this Session, instead of waiting until after the Royal Commission now sitting on Trades Unions had made their Report. Having served upon the Committee over which the noble Lord had so courteously and ably presided, he felt bound to oppose the second reading. He admitted the present state of the law was very unsatisfactory, and he took credit to himself as an employer of labour having never put the law in force against any of his workmen. The evidence taken before the Committee showed the oppressive action of the law in very few instances. Nearly the whole of the evidence was strongly against contracts of all kinds. Out of twenty-two witnesses examined before the Committee nine were representatives of trades unions. Scarcely any witness spoke of hardships under the present law from his own experience, though they had all heard of instances of hardship in the case of others. He was struck by the fact that all the complaints came from the mineral districts. There were none from the districts where textile fabrics were produced. He did not care personally if the Bill of the noble Lord came into operation to-morrow. But he had the strongest opinion of the impolicy of agitating this question until the Commission which was now sitting should have reported on the general question. The working classes themselves would be of opinion that it would be much fairer to leave the matter to a Reformed Parliament, in which the working class element would be much better represented. They would be much better satisfied with a measure obtained from such a body than by precipitate legislation in the present Session. He moved that the Bill be read a second time that day six months.

Amendment proposed, to leave out the word "now," and at the end of the Question to add the words "upon this day six months."—(Mr. Edmund Potter.)

Question proposed, "That the word 'now' stand part of the Question."


said, that having served on the Committee he must express his dissent from the view of the evidence which had been given by the hon. Gentleman. Both parties gave their evidence with great candour. The masters admitted that the present law was unjust, and that employer and employed should, except in particular cases, be on the same footing. They approved the Bill of his noble Friend. He would refer to some of the evidence before the Committee on the present system of contracts. One witness, a large employer of labour in Scotland, had stated that the system pursued among his workpeople was that of the day or minute contract. Mr. Dickenson, the chief inspector of mines, gave similar evidence. It was a little hard then to represent these complaints as emanating entirely from the men. Until the present time he was really not aware there was any opposition to the Bill. He was most surprised that opposition to it should proceed from an hon. Member who acknowledged the injustice of the present law. Objections on points of detail might be considered in Committee.


said, he fully admitted the injustice of the present law, but the House should also remember that the law of master and servant had been much before I might not be presented for a considerable the public, and involved an amount of interest which it was almost impossible to describe. Though he had a strong objection to the power of imprisonment, there were some cases in which it would be advisable to preserve that power. There was the case of protecting workmen from the strikes of their fellow workmen, which was provided for by the dread of imprisonment. A colliery employing large numbers of men and a great deal of shipping might be stopped by the strike of an engineman. A thousand men might thus be thrown out of work. If this Bill passed, such a man could only be punished by means of a fine, and that fine would probably be paid by the trades union to which he belonged. He strongly objected, moreover, to the proposal that two justices should have power to annul a contract, this being a power which, except in case of fraud, no court in the kingdom possessed. The length of time which would elapse before complaints of breach of contract could be adjudicated was another ground of objection. While desirous that a measure on this subject should be passed without delay, so as to promote a better understanding between employers and employed, he thought the present Bill contained such faults as could not be remedied in Committee of the Whole House. He should therefore, when the opportunity arrived, propose that it be referred to a Select Committee.


said, he supported the Bill. Its defects, whatever they might be, could be remedied in Committee. The fact that the present law was not enforced in the districts where textile manufactures were carried on was an argument for its abolition. It was said to be necessary in the mining districts, on the ground of there not being in many cases a cordial understanding between masters and workmen; but the present law was one cause of that misunderstanding, for we could not expect trades unions to change their policy as long as this ground of complaint existed. As an employer, he should not feel himself justified in putting the Act in force, and he had therefore no available remedy against a workman who committed a breach of contract. The operation of the law in agricultural districts must likewise be considered, for many cases of extreme hardship occurred in those localities. As to awaiting the Report of the Royal Commission, that Commission was engaged on a very intricate question, and their Report might not be presented for a considerable time. He could not see why a source of irritation like this should not be removed at once. As long as the present law existed no workman who respected himself would enter into a long contract. Whatever trades unions might think or say to the contrary, it was desirable that contracts between masters and men should be of considerable duration. Believing that the law as it at present stood was both unjust and impolitic, he cordially supported the second reading of the Bill.


said, he agreed that it would be better to alter the existing law to a certain extent; but he could not agree that the House would do well to adopt the whole principle of the present Bill. That principle was the abandonment of the punitive process against the workman, and the doing away with the deterrent effect of the present law. The noble Lord (Lord Elcho) moved for, and presided over, the Select Committee on this subject. He drew up their Report. Yet he had brought in a Bill which was not based on that Report. The Committee was composed of fifteen Members. That Report was passed without a division, and was finally adopted by five Members, one being the noble Lord himself. That was a Report which, affecting the relations of employer and employed throughout the country as it did, was second to none in importance, yet it could not be expected to carry very great weight. He wished to ask the noble Lord whether the other nine Members of the Committee were assenting parties to the Report? One important feature of the Report was, that in aggravated cases of breach of contract the magistrates ought to have the power of awarding punishment by imprisonment, and not by fine. If the noble Lord would agree that in aggravated cases, where, as in collieries and manufactories, a great number of workmen were employed, and where a breach of contract might involve loss of life, the magistrate should have the option recommended in the Report, the opposition which the noble Lord would otherwise encounter would disappear. It was unjust, as by the present law, to compel the magistrate to inflict the punishment of imprisonment instead of a fine; but, if the circumstances appeared to require it, he ought still to retain the power to imprison without fine. It would be very dangerous to the interests of the workmen themselves to deprive magistrates of the power of dealing summarily with delinquents, and he implored the House not hastily to deprive magistrates of all discretion of punishing breaches of contract by imprisonment without any previous summons. It was all very well to talk of equalizing the law between master and servant. The amount of compensation which a servant could claim from his master was measured by the amount of his wages. But the amount of compensation which a master might claim from his servant could not be measured by any criterion whatever; and, moreover, the responsibility of maintaining discipline rested with the master alone, so that in no sense could their respective positions and obligations be considered equal.


said, that having had the honour of being a Member of the Select Committee he must express his approval of the Bill. It was founded on reciprocity of principle between master and servant. By the present law, the master was responsible civilly—the servant criminally. In all cases where, by the Act of the servant, any injury was inflicted upon the master which could not be compensated by fine, an option of imprisonment or fine ought still to be left. County Members must allow that the present law bore very hardly upon agricultural servants. When the spring of the year came and labour bore a higher price, they sometimes attempted to break their contracts with their masters. A great number of agricultural labourers found themselves in consequence the inmates of a gaol because they could not release themselves from their contracts, and the magistrates had no alternative. It would be very desirable that these hirings should be regulated by the common law which applied to domestic servants, so that master and servant could both be free by a month's notice on either side.


said, he thought they owed the noble Lord a good deal for the trouble he had taken in bringing that subject, which was one of great importance, before them. The main principle of the Bill was that contracts of service generally should be put on the footing of a civil bargain, the breach of which should render the party liable to pecuniary remedies, but not to penal punishment. In that proposition he agreed. He agreed that in that respect the master and the man should stand on the same ground. But some of the details of the measure required careful consideration. In the first place, it might be worth the noble Lord's attention whether some limit should not be put to the quantum of damages which the magistrates might assess. As the Bill stood the amount appeared to be unlimited. The parties were to claim damages for serious injury to persons or property. But a master might sustain a heavy loss by the absence of a servant, and yet might not be able to prove that it was an injury to his person or even to his property. When they came to the case of a heavy loss, unless they laid down some limit it was possible that the damages given might be carried to a vindictive extent, which would be very unfortunate for both parties. Juries were sometimes accused of running riot in the matter of damages. Again, where the injury to the person or property of the party complaining had been wilfully or maliciously inflicted, so as to amount to a criminal act, the case was to be sent to the quarter sessions. He did not exactly understand that provision. If a man inflicted a wilful or malicious injury now, and the act was one which was recognised by statute as an offence, he could be indicted at quarter sessions without that clause. If it was a fanciful offence, and not now recognised by statute, the clause as it stood would not, he thought, give a jurisdiction to try it at quarter sessions, and therefore the provision would be waste paper. It was worth the noble Lord's while to consider whether those cases were not sufficiently provided for already by the Acts of Parliament which had been very carefully revised within the past few years. Another point was this—The Bill applied to all kinds of service—service in the country included. Suppose a waggoner who went out with his master's team got drunk and drove the horses in a very improper way home, or that he had not fed them in the morning. Many such acts of misbehaviour could not be easily brought within the category of breaches of contract, yet they could hardly be called criminal acts, and the man could scarcely be indicted at quarter sessions. It was also worth consideration whether servants living in their masters' houses ought to be included in that Bill, because there were many miscarriages among servants, which could be met without much difficulty either by a slight abatement of their wages or in some similar manner. That remark applied to male as well as female servants, and he invited the noble Lord's attention to that point.


said, he agreed with the principle of the Bill, but thought that, after the many suggestions which had been thrown out, it would be advisable to refer it to a Select Committee. Under ordinary circumstances, a breach of contract between workman and employer might be easily dealt with as a merely civil offence. But there were cases in which the act of a servant in breaking his contract involved much more than an offence to his master. It involved a loss of employment to a vast number of his fellow workmen, the interruption of work, the payment of heavy damages to third parties, and the infliction of an amount of evil altogether disproportionate to any possible remedy which could be exacted from servants. An illustration of that occurred in his own neighbourhood a few years ago. A haulier, employed in hauling coal out of a colliery, was dismissed for improper conduct. The case was so flagrant that it never occurred to the man to appeal to the stipendiary magistrate of the place, whose justice and impartiality were well known. Without any notice the remaining hauliers, about eight in number, in that colliery struck work, and the consequence was that a large colliery, employing between 200 and 300 colliers, was stopped, every workman lost his wages, the coal owners were unable to deliver the coal at the port, and had to pay for demurrage and delay; and all that arose through the summary and peremptory act of those hauliers. Under the Bill, how would they have been dealt with? A summons would have been taken out against them, and they might have been compelled to fulfil their contract, that was, to return to their work. But what remedy was that? The evil had already been done, and an interruption of work for a week had taken place. The legal definition of cases of this kind was not very easy, but it was capable of being done better by a Committee sitting upstairs than by the House. The immediate issue of a warrant might seem a harsh proceeding, but in certain cases it was perfectly justifiable and even necessary. When men were led away by emissaries and by the promise of higher wages, to a distance, perhaps, of 300 or 400 miles, the proceeding by summons would be nugatory. They would either not attend or shift their quarters—perhaps cross the border into Scotland. Where positive proof existed that the men had absconded, and removed to a distance of some miles, power should be given to the magistrate to proceed, in the first instance, by warrant. The House had agreed to the principle of the Bill; if therefore the noble Lord consented to refer it to a Select Committee, he should be happy to aid him in rendering the details satisfactory alike to employers and employed.


said, this Bill very fairly represented the evidence given before the Select Committee last year. Many of the points referred to in the debate had been already considered by the noble Lord and the other members of the Committee, who were sincerely anxious to overcome the difficulties, but could not clearly see their way to do so. The men, he believed, would not object to aggravated breaches of contract on their part being treated as criminal offences, if aggravated breaches of contract on the part of the masters were similarly dealt with. It seemed to him a fallacy to urge that a heavier scale of penalties should attach to offences committed by the men, on the ground that more serious losses were thereby entailed. No doubt the pecuniary loss was great; but consequences as severe frequently devolved upon the men through the acts of the masters. Men who were brought from distant parts of the country, say from the North to the South, on a promise of twelve months' regular work and at the end of three months were discarded, owing to fluctuations in the trade, suffered hardships as great as any capable of being entailed upon the master. As to the suggestion that progress with the Bill should be postponed till the Trades Unions Commission reported, he was entirely opposed to it. There was no connection between the two subjects, and nothing could be more unfortunate than to mix up the question of trades unions with a grievance which all admitted and which would continue to be felt, if trades unions ceased to exist tomorrow. The noble Lord the Member for Haddingtonshire (Lord Elcho) had studied this subject his only object was to get an undoubted grievance remedied as quickly as possible. Whatever decision, therefore, the noble Lord arrived at with regard to the reference of the measure to a Select Committee, he should be prepared to support it.


said, he was opposed to the Bill, which was not in accordance with the Resolution of the Committee, of which he had been a member. Its provisions were not fair between servant and servant. Was a man, having charge of an engine at a pit's mouth, who got drunk and ran away, to be dealt with merely as a debtor, though he might leave 400 or 500 fellow workmen below in enforced idleness and in cruel uncertainty for six or seven hours? It was the knowledge that under the existing law he would be dealt with very differently, which kept such a man from getting drunk and running away. He did not know any masters who objected to the principle of this Bill, but its provisions they would stoutly resist.


said, that he and hon. Members, whose names had been placed on the back of the Bill, had every reason to be satisfied with the reception it had met with from the House. Every speaker had admitted that some change was necessary. His own position with regard to the measure was peculiar. As it involved, with the exception of domestic servants, the whole relations of employers to employed, he had been most anxious that the question should be taken up by the Government. But the late Home Secretary (Mr. Walpole), with whom he communicated on the point, though prepared to give all the assistance in his power in promoting the object in view, saw difficulties in the way of initiating legislation, and therefore the task had devolved upon himself, a private Member. Though no lawyer, he contended that the principle of the Bill was sound. The present state of the law was shortly this—For an alleged breach of contract, a man might be taken out of bed at night, brought by a policeman before a magistrate, and sentenced on the evidence of his employer to three months' imprisonment, with hard labour, without time being afforded him to bring forward evidence for his defence. The hard labour was a necessary part of the sentence, for sentences which did not include it had been quashed. This harsh law was really a remnant of serfdom, and dated from a time when it was not a harshness but a relaxation, since it enabled men to enter into contracts respecting their labour, which before they had been unable to do. But what in the 18th century formed relaxation might constitute a galling and grievous restriction in the present day: it was an unjust, harsh, unequal, and unnecessary law. It was most desirable that the breach of contract should be made the subject of a civil action. In Scotland there were 35,000 miners, and 25,000 did not serve under this law. The Committee was a fairly constituted one, and went into the case very carefully; and the House was in possession of the conclusion that Committee came to. He had hoped that his Bill would have been agreed to by all parties; those who represented the men had agreed to it; but the Mining Association representing the masters had offered objections and made new proposals, which had to be considered by the men. Under those circumstances, he suggested a compromise which was accepted by the men, but the Mining Association raised objections to that mode of settlement, and he had at length proposed to Parliament what he believed was just to masters and men, and unfavourable to neither. As to the course which should be adopted for the future consideration of his measure, he would prefer not to send it before a Select Committee, but to have it read a second time unconditionally; he would then endeavour to come to some arrangement with those specially informed upon the subject as to what Amendments should be made in the Bill, and he would ask the House to pass it through Committee pro formâ, in order that it might be printed in the amended form. If upon this he found it impossible to do what he regarded as justice between one side and the other, he would be the first to move that the Bill be referred to a Select Committee. He therefore hoped his hon. Friend would withdraw his Amendment, and he might rest assured that the House, as at present constituted, was as ready to do justice between one class and another as it was to listen to any grievances that might be brought before it.


said, he quite agreed that some such Bill as that under discussion was necessary.


said, he thought the House must be quite satisfied of the necessity for mitigating the rigour of the present law. The difficulties in the way of amending it which had been suggested, however, were such as could not be well settled in a full House; the proposal of the noble Lord was therefore a wise one; he believed it would be assented to, and that the noble Lord would have the satisfaction of going into Committee without having an opponent to the principle of his measure.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Main Question put, and agreed to.

Bill read a second time, and committed for Thursday 20th June.