HC Deb 13 February 1871 vol 204 cc193-7

, in moving for leave to bring in a Bill to consolidate and amend the Acts relating to the Regulation of Mines, said, he wished to call the attention of the House to the main points of difference between the present measure and the one which he introduced last Session. After the Bill was brought into this House last Session, a noble Lord (Lord Kinnaird), who had long presided over the Royal Commission appointed to inquire into the health of those who work in metalliferous mines, which were not dealt with in the Government measure, introduced a Bill relating to those mines, and giving effect to the recommendations of the Commissioners. Thereupon he (Mr. Bruce) undertook, on the part of the Government, to introduce, as Amendments in the Bill, substantially all the provisions of the measure respecting metalliferous mines. The present Bill would, therefore, deal not only with coal mines and iron mines worked in connection with coal mines, but with all the mines in the country. To the suggestions made by several hon. Members he had given the most careful consideration, and the result was that in one or two not unimportant respects he had found it advisable to modify the Bill. The Committee, which sat for two years investigating this subject, recommended that the most important general rule of all those which affected mines — that relating to ventilation — should be modified in an important manner. The present rule was that all coal mines, and iron-stone mines in connection with coal mines, should have an amount of ventilation sufficient under ordinary circumstances to dilute the noxious gases. Some Inspectors found it difficult, however, to obtain convic- tions, as the magistrates frequently found that ventilation, which in the opinion, of the Inspectors was inadequate, was sufficient for safety under ordinary circumstances. Consequently it was proposed by the Select Committee to lay the onus probandi on the owners of mines and their agents, instead of on the other side. This change was greatly opposed by several Members, and not supported by any. He had consulted the Inspectors of coal mines, and the result was the conclusion that, on the whole, it was best to retain the law in its present form. The Select Committee felt the greatest difficulty in dealing with the education of miners; but they were agreed that the present regulations were imperfect, and that the provisions made with the object of securing the education of miners were illusory. The law, as it now stood, provided that a child of 10 years of age, who could pass an examination in reading and writing, might be employed in a mine; but it took no security for the character of the examination, such as providing that it should be conducted by a certificated master, or fixing a certain standard of proficiency; and the consequence was that in many cases a most imperfect knowledge of reading and writing was certified as being sufficient. As soon as the examination was passed, a youth was employed without restriction as to hours, and that under circumstances most adverse to any kind of culture. Could anything be conceived more miserable than the condition of a boy of tender age shut up for 12 hours at a time in a dark cavern, with "knowledge at one entrance quite shut out," and altogether cut off from many opportunities of acquiring intelligence possessed by boys who spent their time above ground, even although they were not at school? The Select Committee considered this matter fully, and especially whether it would be possible to introduce the half-time system; but, on the whole, they arrived at the conclusion that it was best to exclude children altogether from the mines until they were 12 years of age, trusting that up to that age they would take advantage of the educational facilities now to be extended to them by the Act of last year, and believing that, if this exclusion were carried out, it would be unnecessary to impose any further restriction. The Factory Acts and the Workshops Regula- tion Act provided that children under 13, who were at work, should be secured a certain immunity from extreme labour, and a certain amount of education; but as, in the case of miners, it was proposed to relieve children from work up to the age of 12, it was considered less necessary to put them under the half-time system for the remaining year, which, indeed, would create an amount of inconvenience out of proportion to the good effected. He stated last year that of all the amendments suggested the most practical seemed to be one offered by the hon. Member for Halifax (Mr. Akroyd), supplemented by the hon. Member for Brighton (Mr. Fawcett), which was that children should be allowed to enter the mines at 10, but that their hours of labour should be limited to three days a week, and that they should have at least 10 hours' education in school every week. He had received from the Association of Miners a proposition of a new and startling nature, which was that no child should be allowed to enter a colliery until he reached the age of 12, and not even then unless he passed a certain examination which would secure proficiency in reading, writing, and arithmetic, and that for young persons of from 12 to 16 years of age, the labour should be limited to eight hours a day; and that these young persons should attend school for a certain number of hours a week. He did not doubt the perfect sincerity with which the Association endeavoured to promote the education of the children of their own class; but he was bound to say there seemed to him to be something more than a desire for education in this proposition, for it was known that many of the Trades Unions had made it one of their objects to prevent the employment of children so as to keep up the rate of wages, by keeping down the number of persons employed; and when such a proposition as this was made we must see in it some object other than the advance of education. The age at which children were allowed to begin work was, under the Factory Acts, 8 years; but he thought there was ample justification for treating the mining population differently, and fixing the earliest age at a more advanced period of life. With this difference, he thought it was just and fair to adopt, as far as possible, the lines that had been already laid down; and he, therefore, proposed to allow children to be employed at the age of 10, to limit their employment to three days a week, to require that they should attend school 10 hours a week, and to maintain these restrictions up to the age of 13. With respect to the hours of labour, the propositions of the Bill were substantially the same as those of the Bill of last year, and it was then proposed to limit the labour of all boys under 16 to 56 hours a week, and at the same time to provide that under no circumstances should a boy be kept down a pit more than 12 hours a day, including an hour and a half for meals and rest. The work in mines was not, generally speaking, of a fatiguing character, and he believed that the work done by a child in a factory was, on the whole, more tiring than the work done by a child in a colliery, which was often confined to the watching of doors and opening and closing them as required. Another alteration in the Bill would, he believed, be deemed satisfactory. It was put forward as an injustice last year that miners should be liable to imprisonment, without the option of a fine, for certain offences, and that agents and others, often as culpable, should be punished only by the imposition of fines. There was undoubtedly a distinction between the two cases; for the offence of the workman was often clear and definite, while that of the agent was more indirect and complicated, and less easy to prove. He was still of opinion that both workmen and agents should be subject to imprisonment if their conduct deserved it; but he proposed that there should be a right of appeal whenever a man was sentenced to imprisonment without the alternative of paying a fine. Those were the only alterations of any importance which had been made in the measure, and the minor alterations, upon which he had not touched, it would be more convenient to discuss when they got into Committee. He had been unable to meet the wish of the hon. Member for Edinburgh and St. Andrew's Universities (Dr. Lyon Playfair), that some provision should be made for the examination of agents. He had given the subject a good deal of consideration, and he had arrived at the conclusion that it was far more dangerous than advantageous for the Government to interfere in the matter by attempting to influence the choice of agents. The defects that existed in the management of collieries did not arise so much from a want of education on the part of the managers, as from a want of attention to duties, and from failure to use the means at their disposal for securing the safety of those intrusted to their charge; and these were failures against which no examination could provide, while no examination could test the energy, vigilance, presence of mind, which constitute in the eyes of the employer the highest merits of the agent, and he therefore had abstained from making any provisions for conducting such examinations.

Motion agreed to.

Bill to consolidate and amend the Acts relating to the Regulation of Mines, ordered to be brought in by Mr. Secretary BRUCE and Mr. SHAW LEFEVRE.

Bill presented, and read the first time. [Bill 16.]