HC Deb 20 July 1875 vol 225 cc1737-51

Bill, as amended, considered.

Clause 4 (Breach of contract by persons employed in supply of gas or water).


, in moving to insert words making the clause applicable to breaches of contract by others than workmen, said: The object of my Amendment is to make this clause applicable, not only to a breach of contract on the part of a workman, but also on the part of any other person who has a contract, the non-fulfilment of which may deprive a community of a supply of gas or water. I would remind hon. Members that since this clause passed through Committee in its present form, a great change has taken place in the policy of the Government with reference to the Bill now under consideration. So strong was the feeling of the House in favour of the Amendment of the right hon. Member for London University (Mr. Lowe), and so evident was it that any measure which dealt with working men in a different or harsher manner than that in which it dealt with other members of the community would not be looked upon as a settlement of what has been called the labour question, that the right hon. Gentleman the Home Secretary came down to this House last week with the important intimation that he was prepared to repeal the Criminal Law Amendment Act, and virtually to accept the Amendment of the right hon. Member for London University by inserting a clause which, while dealing effectively with those offences against which the Criminal Law Amendment Act was directed, cannot hurt the feelings of any working man, for it applies not to workmen specially, but to any person. I beg to congratulate the right hon. Gentleman upon adopting a course which I believe will give general satisfaction, and in the same spirit I ask hon. Members not to weaken in any way the operation of this clause, but by adopting my Amendment, to take away from it the character of class legislation which it at present possesses. The object of the clause is to prevent the inhabitants of a city or town being suddenly deprived of a supply of gas or water, and with this view you propose to deal exceptionally with working men. By passing the Employers and Workmen Bill, you have told them that, in any other contract of service, a breach of such contract shall not be dealt with criminally, but in this particular instance it shall be held as criminal. I do not object to this, but I would ask hon. Members—why deal with one kind of contract in this exceptional manner? If the object is to ensure a regular supply of gas and water, why not apply the same legislation to all who are connected with the providing of that supply? Why not embrace contracts of maintenance and contracts for materials as well as contracts of service? It has already been pointed out that the non-fulfilment of a contract to supply coals might interfere with a supply of gas as much as the refusal on the part of a workman to put coals into a retort; and let me point out that in the event of the main supply pipe bursting, and the tradesman who had contracted to maintain such pipes refusing to make the necessary repairs, the consequence, so far as regards the supply of gas, might be as injurious as if the gas had never been made, and yet this tradesman cannot be fined or imprisoned, while a working man, employed directly by the gas company, for refusing to do precisely the same thing, may be thrown into prison. It may be said, and I think justly, that such breaches of contract of maintenance or for materials are not likely to occur. If so, there is less difficulty in making this clause of general application, so that the law shall be enforced impartially against workmen or other persons who may be guilty of the offences of which this Bill takes cognizance.

Amendment proposed, in page 2, line 10, after the word "service," to insert the words "or other contract."—(Mr. William Holms.)


said, that this question had already been discussed in Committee, and he would not now refer to it at any length. He demurred to the statement that this clause simply affected working men. By the striking out of the word "workmen" and the substitution of the word "person," it affected not working men alone, but the manager, the head of the staff, and any person who was employed in whatever capacity by a gas or water company or corporation. The clause as it already stood involved a great extension of the Criminal Law, and he could not agree, as the hon. Member proposed, to apply it to all contracts. He maintained, however, that it was an unfair interpretation to say that the clause affected the working classes only.


regretted that the Committee had not made the clause perfectly equal as between employers and employed, and that the clause had not been applied to the companies and the contractors as well as the workmen.


had always heard that a company had neither a body to be kicked, nor a soul to be damned. He did not see, therefore, how the clause could be applied to companies.


said, that as a matter of fact companies had been indicted and punished.




Not imprisoned, but fined.


said, the matter stood thus—When any person employed in what the right hon. Gentleman called "service" should wilfully and maliciously break his contract of service, &c., he should be liable to be punished; but if a person made a contract other than that of service, with exactly the same person, and then did exactly the same thing—that was, maliciously broke the contract—that person was not to be punished criminally at all. The question was made entirely to depend on the contract of service. The person was to have no punishment at all, unless he was under a particular kind of contract of service. The right hon. Gentleman did this in a Bill of which he had said the leading principle was to abolish all distinctions as regarded criminality between contracts of service and contracts not of service. He must say he felt himself humiliated, as a Member of that House, that it should be in the power of a majority to pass such a law as that.


said, that under this clause an employer might break a contract wilfully and maliciously, and yet he was to go scot-free; whereas a workman, clerk, underlooker, or any person under contract of service, was to be punished. That would be a most unequal and unjust enactment.


asked what would be the use of omitting the word "service" in order to bring in a company, against whom the clause could not be enforced by imprisonment? There was now a perfect remedy against gas companies, who were liable to heavy penalties, so that it was idle to say the workman was placed at a disadvantage.


said, it was a mistake to suppose that the clause applied only to companies. It contained the word "contractor," and it would allow him to break his contract with impunity, because it was not a contract of service. He might have contracted to supply a town with gas at 4s. per thousand, and he might say, "Unless you give me 5s. I will turn off the gas." This clause would not punish him, and yet it would punish a workman for a smaller act, resulting in less serious consequences. He did not know how to reconcile the clause with the professions of a desire to deal equally with all classes. To do that we must punish alike all who broke contracts.


said, he could well understand why the right hon. Member for the London University should feel "humiliated;" but there was an obvious distinction between contracts of personal service and other contracts which could be enforced by penalties or special damages.


said, the clause applied exclusively to persons who were employed, and it did not apply to employers, contractors, companies, or municipal authorities. It would not, for instance, reach a tradesman who contracted to supply gas-pipes or to repair them.

Question put, "That those words be there inserted."

The House divided:—Ayes 88; Noes 100: Majority 12.

Clause 5 (Breach of contract involving injury to persons or property).


moved, in page 2, line 36, to omit the words "of service." He said that as the clause originally stood the words were, "Where an employer or a workman wilfully and maliciously breaks a contract of service." Now, there the clause evidently applied both to employer and employed. In Committee, however, the word "person" was substituted for "employer or workman." It now, therefore, stood that any one so breaking "a contract of service" would be liable to punishment under the clause. This seemed to give the clause a one-sided application, while surely if a contract was maliciously and wilfully broken, in such a manner as to endanger property or even life, the person so acting should be liable to punishment, whether he was the employer or employed. He moved, therefore, to omit the words "of service."

Amendment proposed, in page 2, line 36, to leave out the words "of service."—(Sir John Lubbock.)


supported the Amendment, and expressed a hope that it would be accepted by the Home Secretary.


said, he must decline to assent to the Amendment, which proposed to extend the operation of the Bill to contracts other than of service. The question had been discussed and decided when the House was in Committee on the Bill.

Question put, "That the words 'of service' stand part of the Bill."

The House divided:—Ayes 137; Noes 100: Majority 37.

Clause 8 (Penalty for intimidation or annoyance by violence or otherwise).


moved an Amendment to leave out from "abstain from doing" to the end of the clause, and to insert— Shall persistently follow such other person about, or hide any property owned or used by such other person, or deprive him of the use thereof, or with one or more persons follow such person in a disorderly manner, shall be liable to a fine not exceeding twenty pounds, or to imprisonment with or without hard labour for a term not exceeding three months. If the Amendment were adopted the result would be that the clause would be confined to two classes of offences, rattening and persistently following. All the other offences it now proposed to deal with were already the subject of criminal enactment, and it was undesirable that the same offence should be punishable under two statutes. He should not trouble the House by taking a division, but if the Government did not accept the Amendment he would leave the responsibility on their shoulders.

Amendment proposed, In page 3, to leave out from the word "doing," inline 24, to the word "months," in line 37, inclusive, and insert the words "shall persistently follow such other person about or hide any property owned or used by such other person, or deprive him in the use thereof, or with one or more persons follow such person in a disorderly manner, shall be liable to a fine not exceeding twenty pounds or to imprisonment with or without hard labour for a term not exceeding three months."—(Sir W. Vernon Harcourt.)


protested against the clause standing in its present shape.


was in favour of the alteration of the clause in the manner proposed. He believed it would be very difficult to draw an indictment under the clause, and then it would remain for the Judge to determine what the offence was, and to direct the jury accordingly. The prisoner, moreover, would be deprived of his appeal against a summary conviction.


objected, as he had done previously, to the clause as being too vague in its terms.


observed that the point raised by the hon. and learned Gentleman opposite had been thoroughly thrashed out in Committee, and therefore it was unnecessary for him to do more than say that he could not accept the proposed Amendment. He hoped that the right hon. Member for the University of London would not feel "humiliated" by a portion of his words haying been adopted in the clause as it now stood.


thought that there was nothing dangerous in the clause except the words "seriously annoyed," for which he suggested that the words "unjustifiably annoyed" should be substituted.


repeated what he had said in the former discussion, although it had then been challenged, that the clause created a new offence in giving power to A to prosecute B for threatening C. The right hon. Gentleman said that the clause was intended to protect workmen against workmen, but that was Parliamentary hypocrisy. It was intended really to give the master again the power taken away from him by the Criminal Law Amendment Act.


said, that in the part of the country of which he had the honour to be a Representative there was not the smallest sympathy with the captious criticism of hon. Gentlemen opposite upon the Bill. On the contrary, there was in every part of the port of Liverpool, on both sides of the Mersey, and in South-west Lancashire generally, a feeling of the greatest satisfaction that the settlement of these difficult questions should have fallen to a Gentleman who was so much one of themselves as the Home Secretary.


said, one result of the Amendment would be to prevent this general Act from being more stringent than the Criminal Law Amendment Act. He sympathized with that object, but could not vote for his hon. and learned Friend's Amendment, which proceeded to strike out the words inserted at the instance of his right hon. Friend (Mr. Lowe) with regard to serious annoyance, and would so get rid of any means of preventing picketing. There had been an honourable understanding on this point, and any such Amendment should have been brought forward at an earlier period.


thought the Home Secretary should have little difficulty in altering the clause so as to make it command the respect of the Judges, which in its present shape could hardly be expected. As the words "seriously to annoy" were obviously meant to prevent rattening and picketing, why not confine it to those offences? Under the Bill even practical joking might become an object of criminal prosecution. He should certainly insist on a division unless the Government modified the clause.


reminded the House that we lived in days of combinations of all sorts, and acts which were innocent in themselves became criminal if done in combination for unlawful objects.

Question put, "That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Bill."

The House divided:—Ayes 219; Noes 91: Majority 128.

Clause 13 (Saving as to sea service).


moved an Amendment, the object of which was to make the Act applicable to seamen. He argued that the working classes afloat had as much right to have their interests equally protected with the working classes on shore. Yet there had always been, and would continue to be, a great discrepancy between the position of these two sections of the same class if the Bill under consideration were passed as it stood. The workman on shore not only had his health guarded, but also his political liberties and privileges, whereas the sailor was subject to an exceptional law, which operated towards him most unjustly. The sailor, for instance, was liable in many cases to summary arrest and a long term of imprisonment for refusing to proceed to sea in his ship, although, rightly considered, that act was a mere breach of contract, for which the working man on shore would be lightly punished. That was an anomaly which ought at once to be rectified. For his part he could not see why owners should be allowed to exercise the arbitrary powers with which they were endowed as long as a vessel was in British waters, where the ordinary course of the law could be appealed to. Sailors were in this respect very hardly treated. Within the last two years seven gas stokers and five cabinet-makers only had been imprisoned for breach of contract, and their case had been the subject of leaders in the newspapers and had excited all England from one end to the other, whereas within exactly the same period no fewer than 1,096 sailors had been arrested without warrant and cast into gaol for refusing to sail in particular ships. What rendered this injustice all the more severe was the fact that in most cases the ships in which the seamen refused to sail had been proved, by subsequent experience, to be unseaworthy. He knew of one case where a sailor asked to be released from his contract because his ship was not seaworthy. His request was refused, but he preferred to go to gaol rather than run the risk of going to sea; and his fears were fully realized, for the vessel went down with her crew. He could mention many such cases. In one instance a ship had been surveyed and certain things were ordered to be done. The owner refused. The report of the surveyor was that "the ship in her present condition was utterly unfit to go to sea with human life on board;" but it was sent to sea notwithstanding. The sailors found the ship so leaky that they went ashore at Deal or Sandwich, and the owner who refused to execute the repairs ordered, sent these men to gaol for 10 or 11 weeks. Another crew was put on board, the vessel went to sea, and never was heard of afterwards. Was it right that English subjects should be sent to gaol because they refused to go to sea in a vessel they believed to be in a condition perilous to human life? What was the case of the Wimbledon of Cardiff? They were very ready to commit at Cardiff; perhaps more committals occurred at Cardiff than at Liverpool. The crew of the Wimbledon were sent to gaol for 10 weeks. A second crew were brought before the magistrate; they were ordered either to go to sea or to gaol. One half of the crew went to sea, the other half preferred to go to prison. A third crew were brought up, and they were sent to gaol also. In a few days a portion of a fourth crew was brought up. By this time the magistrates began to think there must be something in the complaints of the men, and they ordered the vessel to be surveyed. But before this could be made, the captain took the ship to sea, and she was lost; yet the men who had refused to go in her were compelled to serve out their time in prison. Nor was that all that was to be said upon the point. He had ascertained that out of 497 vessels ordered to be detained by the Board of Trade on account of alleged un-seaworthiness, only 15 had actually been found to be seaworthy. Further, it might be mentioned that on the 3rd of this month there were no fewer than 2,654 vessels which had lost their character and forfeited their class, the owners of which were yet able to send their crews to gaol for refusing to go to sea in un-seaworthy or overladen ships. And how were some of these ships loaded? Why, the Thornbury went out recently with a crew of between 20 and 30 men. She was only 957 tons net register, and yet she was allowed to depart with a cargo of 2,122 tons, only to go to the bottom the second day after she had departed. The brother of one of those who were lost in the ship wrote to him (Mr. Plimsoll) that his brother had told him on the eve of sailing that the ship was not safe, and that his only reason for not leaving her was his fear of being imprisoned. In that way we drove men to their death by laws which had no justification, for whatever necessity there might be for strengthening the hands of a captain at sea, the ordinary law was sufficient when he was at home. The Board of Trade in their Return admitted seizing 48 vessels for overloading, and said that in no case did they find the allegation unfounded; but that number of cases afforded no indication of the extent of the evil, because, from a very deficient list of the vessels that left our ports, he had selected—omitting all doubtful cases and all cases of moderate overloading—no fewer than 662 cases of excessive overloading since the 28th of July last year.


informed the hon. Member that he failed to see the relevancy of these statements on the overloading of ships to the clause under consideration. The hon. Member appeared to be discussing the Merchant Shipping Bill.


merely wished to enforce his argument by these statistics. He would tell the House what sort of people exercised these arbitrary powers. They were not respectable and well-known shipowners, with large numbers of vessels, and who had been in business many years without loss of ships or life. He was preparing a list of good shipowners, and also a list of those whose losses were so numerous and dreadful, and in whose ships so many men went to death; and he should be glad to submit this information to the House on a future occasion. In the 12 months ending June last year, 6,927 men were drowned, and all the evidence showed that these fatalities might have been prevented. Were men sent to gaol by the Allan Line, the Cunard Company, the Peninsular and Oriental Company, Smith's, Brocklebank's, George Thompson, junr., George Holt, the National Line, the Cape Mail, or the Royal Mail Line? Yet, if loss or inconvenience were to be guarded against, surely protection was most needed by those who carried mails under heavy penalties. The Cunard Company had 49 steamers and a large number of sailing vessels, and yet in 12 years they had not sent 10 seamen to gaol. Who, then, were the men who sent these seamen to prison? They were the owners of coffin ships, ship-knackers, people who, as he had recently stated in that House, insured their ships for £36,000 when they were worth only £ 15,000—people who systematically overloaded their ships primarily to earn more freight, but sometimes—he declared it with shame and sorrow—to get from the insurers money for the ship. Not only was there great loss of life, but intense suffering was endured by the men before they died. This had not always been so. The position of seamen had become infinitely worse since the present permanent officials of the Board of Trade had had the management of the Mercantile Marine committed to their care. A Committee appointed in 1839 to inquire into the causes of loss of life at sea had detailed many dreadful instances of dreadful suffering, and recommended that no deck loads should be carried in timber-laden vessels from North America.—["Order!"]


pointed out that the question of deck loading had no reference whatever to the Bill before the House.


was aware of the difficulty with which he had to deal, but he would be extremely obliged if the House would listen to matters which were of enormous interest.


said, it was competent for the hon. Member to address the House on any matter relevant to the clause under consideration.


wished to give reasons for extending the operation of this Bill to seamen. In 1843 a Committee confirmed the legislation adopted in 1839, and in 1853 it was re-enacted; but in 1862, with scarcely a word of explanation, the prohibition of deck loading was swept away and the requirement that ships should be built in compartments was withdrawn. The case of the seamen had become so much worse during the last few years, that unless the House could be induced to come to the rescue he did not know what would be the consequences, and he therefore now proposed his Amendment.

Amendment proposed, in page 6, line 20, to leave out the words "Nothing in."—(Mr. Plimsoll.)

Question proposed, "That the words 'Nothing in' stand part of the Bill."


said, no one could listen to the hon. Member for Derby without interest and instruction, for the hon. Gentleman had paid so much attention to this matter, and was so thoroughly in earnest, that he always spoke with authority on the subject. So far as he (Mr. Cross) was individually concerned, he was aware of the state of the relations between sailors and their masters, and in some cases he should be glad to see relief afforded to them, but he must put it to the House whether some Notice should not have been given of this Amendment. The Bill had been before the House and the country for a great number of weeks, and yet no Notice had been given, and if these words were struck out, and every ship-owner and sailor throughout the country found next day that the House had dealt with the matter in a hurry, instead of promoting peace and goodwill, it would produce a great deal of consternation and bitterness. If it were in his power to do so, this was a case in which he should do most justice to feelings by moving the Previous Question. This was not a proper opportunity for discussing the matter. Supposing he had intended to deal with it, he (Mr. Cross) should have taken the trouble to ascertain the views both of owners and sailors, but as these matters were dealt with by a Department under the presidency of another Member of the Government, he had not presumed to interfere. He hoped the House would not be led away into this question, but would reserve it to a more suitable time, instead of interrupting the progress of this Bill.


argued that the whole of the provisions of the Bill were entirely inapplicable to the sea service, and urged the House to reject the Amendment.


remarked that this was a Bill of Pains and Penalties, inflicting a number of punishments. It was applicable to the whole of Her Majesty's subjects, including the Members of that House. There was but one class to whom it was not applicable—namely, seamen and apprentices in the sea service, and the hon. Member for Derby proposed to benefit that class by depriving them of that exemption and by making them liable to its provisions.


recommended the hon. Member not to press his Amendment, but stated that when the Merchant Shipping Bill was again under consideration he would move the omission of the penal clauses, with the object of placing seamen on a footing with other classes of the community.


joined in the request that the hon. Member for Derby (Mr. Plimsoll) would not press his Motion to a division. In cases where seamen laboured under conditions as between employers and employed, similar to those under which other classes of workmen laboured, the same legislation which was thought right for others should equally be applied to sailors. It might be desirable for the House to consider what those conditions were, and wherein the work performed by sailors differed from that performed by other classes of the community. Ordinary breach of contract on the part of seamen might be broadly classed under one or other of three separate heads, which he would ask the Home Secretary to consider. Sailors actually at sea who failed in their contracts, or who deserted abroad, were under exceptional conditions, and he (Mr. Mac Iver) feared that it was necessary to treat such cases with exceptional legislation. The safety of life and property depended in such cases on seamen being compelled to fulfil their contracts, and therefore he did not think the provisions of the Home Secretary's Bill could reasonably be applied to such cases as those. Nor could the measure be fairly applied to the second class of offences—namely, those breaches of contract where sailors in British ports received money in advance and then failed to join their ships. That was not an ordinary breach of contract, and he thought it might fairly be dealt with exceptionally. But a much larger class of cases was where sailors, without receiving an advance of wages, and often without really intending to fail in their contracts, simply omitted to go on board to fulfil their agreements. Of course, this involved no more substantial loss to the ship-owner than was involved to other employers of labour whose workmen failed in their contracts; and, surely, sailors in such cases ought not to be treated with exceptional severity. He asked the House to remember what were, unfortunately, the conditions of a sailor's life. Many of them, without family ties, were specially liable to temptation; and the mistaken Board of Trade legislation of recent years had, however well intended, done much to degrade the sailor. Why was it that exceptional legislation was necessary? Was it because the Board of Trade had failed in its duty with reference to the inspection of vessels? He had no desire to detain the House, but he felt that the Amendment of the hon. Member for Derby was not the right way to deal with the question. They had, however, a right to ask the right hon. Gentleman the Home Secretary, on the part of the Government, to consider it. The existing law was unsatisfactory, and he hoped his right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, if he could not at present remove those evils, would at least do nothing to perpetuate them. Surely sailors, having by the nature of their calling scarcely a voice in the representation of the country, should receive the utmost consideration of hon. Members. He left their case in the hands of the Home Secretary, feeling confident that he would do that which was right.


said, that when the hon. Member for Derby saw two or three Bills going through the House, professing to be intended to ameliorate the condition of the working class, it was natural he should take exception to the clause that appeared in each of them excluding seamen from the operation of the measures. He was one of those who was glad the Merchant Shipping Bill had not been changed, as some interested people hoped, and many more feared, it would be, and when they reached it he would certainly give his support to the hon. Member for Derby.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause agreed to.

On Motion of Mr. ASSHETON CROSS, Clause 14 omitted, and re-inserted as a sub-section of Clause 15.

Clause 15 (Repeal of Acts).


moved to leave out "provisions" in line 23 inclusive, and insert— Every person found liable on conviction to pay any penalty under this Act shall be liable, in default of payment within a time to be fixed on conviction, to be imprisoned for a term to be also fixed therein, not exceeding two months, or until such penalty shall be sooner paid, and the conviction and warrant may be in the form of No. 3 of Schedule K.

In reply to Sir HENRY JAMES,


explained that the object of the Amendment was to adapt the Summary Procedure Act of 1864 to the Scotch legal system.

Amendment agreed to.

Bill to be read the third time upon Thursday.