HC Deb 26 February 1869 vol 194 cc374-83

, in rising to call attention to the destitution at Portsmouth consequent on the discharge of Men from the Dockyard; and to ask the First Lord of the Admiralty, Whether he intends to take any measures to alleviate that distress by promoting emigration or otherwise, expressed his concurrence in the remarks which had fallen from his hon. and gallant Friend (Sir John Hay). What, however, he now desired more particularly to call the attention of the Government to was the great distress existing in several portions of the kingdom in consequence of the very large reductions which had been made in the dockyards. Into the causes which had led to the discharge of so many of the workmen he had no desire to enter, but the result was very great and wide-spread distress. At Portsmouth last year 1,118 men had been discharged. Against the character of these men nothing had been urged, and after parting bit by bit with their clothing and furniture they had to trust to the assistance of their neighbours for relief. They were too respectable to go into the poorhouse. £1,500 had been subscribed at Portsmouth for the purpose of alleviating the distress which the reductions had occasioned, and those who had been discharged were employed upon public works—the money being found by the municipality and the citizens combined, but this was insufficient for the purpose. During the continuance of the distress in Lancashire these men, then the possessors of comfortable incomes and happy homes, came forward with no sparing hand, and they now trusted that the Government would entertain their case with equal consideration. Indeed this was a duty which, in his opinion, the peremptory mode of dismissal that had been adopted rendered imperative upon the Government. His own acquaintance with working men was of a very intimate character, and he did not believe that it was at all consonant with the feelings or wishes of the working men of this country that so many of their brethren should be reduced to distress by being so suddenly and so unexpectedly deprived of their employment. The Mayor of Portsmouth, in a letter which he had written, described the distress which the discharge of so many workmen had occasioned as "deep, dire, urgent, and most heart-rending." It was indeed heart-rending to see gangs of workmen in the prime of life, standing at the corners of the streets with nothing to do. What was desired was this—in Portsmouth alone there were 200 or 300 men who with their families would be glad to emigrate if they had the means of so doing, and he did not think it an unreasonable request if he asked that these men should be assisted to emigrate to Canada, where, according to intelligence they had received, there was every reason to believe they could obtain ample means of subsistence.


said, that as the representative of Devonport, he could fully endorse the statement which had fallen from the hon. and gallant Baronet (Sir James Elphinstone) as to the great distress which had been occasioned by the discharge of so many of the dockyard employés. Last year no less than 1,500 were discharged from the Government establishments at Devonport, and he believed he could safely assert that such a wholesale and reckless system of dismissing workmen had never before occurred in the borough. These discharges were attributable solely, he would not say to the fault, but to the act of the late Government, and he was, perhaps, exhibiting some ingratitude in referring to the subject, inasmuch as it was quite possible that, but for what had occurred, he should not have had the honour of addressing the House that evening. He did not mean entirely to blame the late Government in this matter, for when persons got into difficulties they were occasionally obliged to reduce their establishments. Though, however, the servants so discharged, might possibly have no legal claim against their late masters, the latter would not be favourably regarded by society if they altogether turned their backs upon the wretched people who by the loss of their employment had been reduced to distress. He was sure his right hon. Friend the First Lord of the Admiralty would not fall into any such mistake, and it was with great satisfaction he heard last night that there was to be no further reduction in the number of men employed at Devonport and Portsmouth. His right hon. Friend the First Lord of the Admiralty had stated, that of the 4,629 men who had been discharged 2,000 had been employed only from the preceding October, and that they must therefore have known their services were liable at any moment to be dispensed with. But that would still leave more than 2,600 who had been working at their employment for some years, and who, if discharged in so unexpected a manner, were certainly entitled to some slight consideration at the hands of the Government. He trusted that the Answer of his right hon. Friend would be calculated to give satisfaction in this matter.


said, he was unwilling it should be supposed that the reductions complained of affected solely the localities more immediately concerned. With regret he must say they affected the shipwrights and other artizans connected with the shipping trade throughout the kingdom. This particular branch of the trade of the country was generally pretty well regulated by the law of supply and demand. On the whole, however, the supply might be said to be greater than the demand, and therefore the effect of 2,600 men being suddenly thrown upon the country would be greatly to increase the supply, and thus, to a certain extent, to increase the pauperism of the country. His object in rising was to ask the right hon. Gentleman the First Lord of the Admiralty, in his reply, to give the House some idea of the terms of the engagement of these men. He had always been under the impression that those engaged in Government Dockyards received lower wages than those who were employed in private yards, and that in consequence they were entitled to the receipt of some pension or gratuity on superannuation or on leaving the service after some time. If that were so, he certainly could not help thinking they had some claim to consideration at the hands of the Government. It might be proper that the Government should wish to carry out a reduction, but it was clear that they ought to avoid anything like a breach of public faith.


said, he was glad that his hon. Colleague (Sir James Elphinstone) with whose sentiments he thoroughly concurred, had confined his remarks to the distress existing in Portsmouth, and that he had not gone into any matters relating to those who were responsible for this distress. It might be asked how it was that men who were discharged last year had not long before this taken steps to obtain employment elsewhere, instead of remaining to be a burden to the rates? but the answer had been supplied by the hon. Member for Liverpool (Mr. Graves), and it was that the depression in the ship building trade was not confined to the dockyards, but was general throughout the country. Therefore there was no opening for those men in their own employment in any other part of the country, and it was of no use their going elsewhere. It might be said that these men took employment with the distinct understanding that they were liable to be discharged at any moment, and therefore they had no legal claim on the Government; but there was a difference between the discharge of one or a few men from one out of other establishments and a wholesale discharge like this from all places where the men could find employment. There was another matter to which he wished to refer, namely—the position of the Government in dockyard towns in connection with the poor rate. The question was whether the Government should not contribute their fair share to the rate in a crisis like this? A great many persons in the towns suffered from the diminution of trade and the increase of the local rates; and although the Government within the last few years had made a contribution to the poor rate in respect of the premises they occupied, they paid a fixed sum, so that their contribution did not vary with the amount which was required to be spent in the place. When the Government increased the rate levied upon the town, by discharging their men, they did not, like private employers of labour, increase their payment to the rate. All he asked was that the Government should recognize these facts and afford help in some way or other.


said, he could assure the House that the distress was as great in the South of England as it was in the West, He would abstain from speaking particularly of the borough which he had the honour to represent (Rochester), although in that place there were men who had served the Government for thirty years and who were now walking the streets in search of employment. He would, however, remark that at Woolwich the distress was extending from the late employés of the dockyard to the poorer class of shopkeepers in the town; and unless the Government would give some assistance, he was afraid the increase of the local burdens of the counties of Hampshire, Devonshire, and Kent would countervail any reduction of the public burdens.


said, he wished to call attention to the general subject of the employment of workmen in national establishments. Those who had been connected with dockyards, or had represented constituencies which included dockyards, must have observed the critical position in which workmen were placed from time to time. When the idea prevailed that Government dockyards were the proper places in which to build ships there was a demand for workmen. Then there followed a period in which economy was required, which, was generally just before the Estimates were proposed; and, to the great injury of the industrial classes, a large number of workmen wore discharged, and the greatest distress was produced. It had been his misfortune to see this distress in its horrors and miseries, and it was impossible to describe the effects of it on the families of the unfortunate men. It led him to think it was desirable that these sudden changes should, if possible, be avoided by the adoption of some fixed rule. Was it not possible to employ the men in some other way than in the building and repairing of ships? He had before advocated their employment in breaking up old vessels as preferable to discharging them, and he still considered that desirable. Extraordinary statements had been made in the late Parliament of the loss in which the country was involved by the sale of wooden vessels to be broken up by private ship-breakers. Two, which were originally valued at £80,000 and £40,000, were soldrespectivelyfor£28,000and£26,000, and the stores were re-purchased by the Government for£32,000and £30,000. If workmen, instead of being discharged, had been employed in breaking up these ships, their distress might have been greatly mitigated. The late Government, after this suggestion, and when the elections were coming on, employed discharged men at Sheerness and Devonport to break vessels up. He was informed that the distress at Devonport had been much alleviated by two small vessels being broken up in the dockyard at that place. He hoped the First Lord of the Admiralty would ascertain how many vessels that used to be in ordinary were still to be disposed of; and whether he did not think it would answer the purpose of the Government to employ men in breaking them up. Although he hoped that something might be done to assist emigration, he must also observe that when he visited Keyham factory lately, he was informed that men had been discharged from that establishment, while the necessary work upon which they were employed remained unfinished. The same thing, it was alleged, had happened at Devonport Dockyard. He could not understand how that could be called economy. He thought it would be very desirable forthwith to investigate what work there was on hand, with the view of ascertaining whether it would not be true economy to take back some of the men.


The last time it was my duty to engage in a debate of this kind—when some of the same speakers took part in it as have spoken this evening—was in 1866, when I think six or seven gentlemen representing dockyards declared with one voice how absolutely necessary it was to raise the wages of the dockyard men, because, if their wages were not raised, the men would leave the yards and the Government would get no work done. I was at the Treasury at the time, and I ventured to resist that Motion, and gave good grounds for it. I must say that, having listened very patiently during the last hour to what has been said about the dockyard labourers, and in the light of that discussion reviewed the past, I feel grateful that the Government came to so wise a conclusion in 1866. There is no doubt that if Government had listened to the demands of the hon. Members who urged an increase of pay, the attractions of dockyard towns would have been proportionately increased, and we should at this time have been more loudly called upon to provide from the public revenue compensation to the dockyard towns because labourers have been thrown out of work. Before I answer the specific Questions put by my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth (Sir James Elphinstone), let me say a word in reply to what has been stated by the hon. Member for Liverpool (Mr. Graves). I thought I had anticipated the inquiry he addressed to me when replying to a Question last evening on this subject. I then stated very precisely how many men had been discharged from the dockyards, what were their rights to compensation or superannuation, and whether those rights had been respected; and I stated as clearly as I could that everybody who had rights to compensation had had those rights respected. I think I also gave the numbers of those who had been discharged with compensations, and the average amount of compensation, whether in the shape of annual payment or gratuity, they had received. In reply, therefore, to my hon. Friend I would say that the persons who were discharged last year, with a few exceptions, were persons who had been hired on the expressed condition that they would be discharged at short notice without any gratuity if their service was short, and with a certain limited gratuity if their service was long. Having looked into the matter I believe the late Government, under whom the whole of these proceedings occurred, acted justly with respect to these men and the terms upon which they were engaged, and therefore there is no occasion for the apprehension under which my hon. Friend (Mr. Graves) labours. Now, Sir, I will come to the precise Question which has been put to me by my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth. He has called attention to the destitution existing at Portsmouth consequent upon the discharge of men from the dockyards, and he has asked whether the Government is prepared to take a certain course with the view to relieve it. Let me state the nature of this discharge. I have looked very carefully as far as Portsmouth is concerned into the figures with respect to these discharges, and the fact is simply this—According to the Estimates in force before 1868 there were, in round numbers, some 4,800 or 4,900 usually employed in the Portsmouth Dockyard. These numbers have now fallen to about 4,000. The difference, therefore, is not very much if you merely look upon it as a question between the former amount of employment in Portsmouth Dockyard and the present amount; but what really happened was that towards the end of 1867 the late Government decided to engage for a specific purpose—whether wisely or unwisely I will not now inquire—an additional number of men beyond those provided for by the Estimates. Somewhere about 300 or more were so engaged for a short time at Portsmouth, and I understand that a considerable number of these men, attracted by the chance of work, came from the North through the distress in the shipbuilding trade there; we have no official Return, however, to show how many of those men came from distant parts. During the financial year ending with March, 1868, this extra employment continued; but the Government came to a somewhat sudden decision to reduce the number of men, and the numbers in Portsmouth Dockyard between March, 1868, and June, 1868, were reduced altogether by somewhere about 1,650 men. In June, 1868, two months before the close of last Session, the reduction practically ceased, and in fact there are now more hands employed than there were in June last. It is clear, therefore, that the Questions I am now called upon to answer should have been addressed to the late Government in July last, rather than to the present Government, who are not only employing the full number of men employed last June, but are providing in the Estimates of 1869–70, for an additional number beyond those employed last year at Portsmouth, as well as at Devonport, and Chatham. I repeat, that distress which my hon. Friend has brought before the House was occasioned by the discharges of eight months ago, and not at all by anything which has occurred during the latter part of the year. But hon. Members from dockyard towns ask us to consider whether the destitution is of such a character as to justify the Government in resorting to special provisions, involving a charge on the public, for the workmen at these towns. Now, one word as to the cause of this destitution. I do not think the reduction in the numbers at the dockyards such as I have described during the last eighteen months before the increase, in any respect abnormal. Reductions have been made on previous occasions quite as large, but have attracted no special notice. The real fact is, that the reduction in the shipbuilding trade connected with the Government is only a fraction of the reductions in the shipbuilding trade throughout the country. The number of men employed in the Government yards is very few when compared with the number in the trade as a whole, and these discharged men are very few, indeed, as compared with the numbers reduced to absolute poverty by the sudden change which has come over many branches of our trade, especially the shipbuilding trade, during the last few years. It would be altogether wrong to suppose that the former or the present Government are in the least responsible for the present state of things, which is really almost entirely the result of a great wide-spread and well-known distress which has come over the whole of the shipbuilding trade. With respect to Portsmouth, my hon. Friend will forgive me if I am not able to go into much detail, because, although I saw him some short time ago on the matter, I received the explanatory papers from the Mayor of Portsmouth only last Tuesday. But the distress at Portsmouth is by no means solely due to any reduction of the number of dockyard men; on the contrary. I found three very distinct causes of distress at Portsmouth at this moment. The large contract works connected with the fortifications have been suspended, to a very great extent, during the past two months; the extension works at the dockyard, in which men are employed in large numbers by a contractor, have been slack during the winter; the Corporation of Portsmouth, too, has been employing a very large number of men whom they have recently discharged, and these causes have largely contributed to the destitution deplored. That is the general statement I have to make as regards Portsmouth. Then my hon. Friend has suggested that Government should help the men to emigrate; but I am quite sure he will not expect from me anything like a complete reply, considering the matter was brought under the consideration of the Government only three days ago. To any general system of emigration carried on by the Government I should entertain very strong objections. The colonies are coining forward themselves for that purpose. Hon. Members may have seen by a letter in The Times this morning that there has been a very considerable change of opinion on the subject of emigration in a colony of which I once knew something. But considering the whole course of our policy towards the colonies, nothing, I think, could be more unwise than that we should suddenly embark in a large emigration scheme. Besides, at this moment the Poor Law authorities have power, under an Act of Parliament, to assist emigration; whether that system is workable or not I do not pretend to say, but the power itself exists. I must, therefore, decline giving any positive answer to the Question which has been put to me, beyond pointing out the two considerations to which I have already adverted. I think it is the duty of the Government to exercise its power of discharging men in large numbers from the dockyard with discretion and moderation, and upon some very plain principle. Whether the large discharges last year fulfilled those conditions it is not for me to say. I shall not attempt to go into that question. But my own opinion on the subject generally is perfectly clear; it is, that those who employ large bodies of men, while resisting claims inconsistent with the terms of employment, should, on the other hand, have regard to the time, the manner, and the circumstances in which it is proposed that labour should be thrown back upon the country. That is the only answer I can give to my hon. Friend, stating distinctly at the same time that this is the policy by which I shall be guided as long as I have anything to do with the administration of the Admiralty.

Question, "That Mr. Speaker do now leave the Chair," put, and agreed to.

SUPPLY—considered in Committee.

(In the Committee.)

Resolved, That a Supplementary sum, not exceeding £131,844, be granted to Her Majesty, for the following Civil Services, which will come in course of payment in the year ending on the 31st day of March 1869.

[Then the several Services are set forth.]

House resumed.

Resolution to be reported upon Monday next;

Committee to sit again upon Monday next.