HC Deb 10 June 1875 vol 224 cc1668-88

, in moving for leave to bring in a Bill to enlarge the powers of County Courts in respect of disputes between Employers and Workmen, and to give other courts a limited civil jurisdiction in respect of such disputes, said: I should not have moved the adjournment of the debate if I had not thought, with the concurrence of my Colleagues, there was a general wish that my statement with regard to this subject should be made to-night; and I hope that it will be considered by both sides of the House in no Party spirit, but with a genuine desire of arriving at a satisfactory conclusion on the question, and that it will not be mixed up with the question of strikes and trades unions, as it affects large interests which have nothing to do with one or the other, and thereby arrive at a satisfactory conclusion with fairness and calmness. The ancient law with reference to the relations between master and servant did not promote freedom of contract in any way, and the laws as originally laid down were very oppressive and restrictive. The original Statute of Labourers, which was passed, as everyone knows, in the reign of Edward III., after a great plague and pestilence in this country, contained very restrictive provisions to prevent the rise in wages which labourers were demanding. That statute enacted that— Every person able in body, under the age of 60 years, not having means to live on; being required shall be bound to serve him that doth require him, or else be committed to the gaol until he find surety to serve; and if a workman or servant left his service before the time agreed upon he should be imprisoned. It also contained a section fixing what wages were to be paid, and declared that no higher wages should be paid. Passing over all the statutes which were enacted with regard to labourers at various times, I come down to another great period in our history—I mean the period after the suppression of monasteries. In the time of Elizabeth, I find the next great statute, sometimes called the Statute of Apprentices and sometimes the Statute of Labourers, contains provisions equally infringing on freedom of contract. First, the acceptance of work was made compulsory, the hours of labour were fixed, and the wages were to be fixed by it and under another statute by the Justices at the Easter Quarter Sessions. A master for dismissing his servant was only subjected to a penalty of 40s. The servant was liable to imprisonment; and no person was allowed to leave his shire without permission—no doubt to prevent vagrancy, which was increasing at that period in consequence of the relief given being cut off by the suppression of monasteries. No one can read that statute without feeling that, at all events, it was entirely out of date in the present age. I need not refer to any of the later statutes which were passed from time to time in the same spirit: but I would remind the House of this—that the same law of coercion against servants certainly did exist down to the year 1813, and to a very great extent down to the year 1824. If we look at the long list of statutes relating to master and servant—they amount to 17 or 18—we will find that every one of them was passed at a time when these coercive measures against servants were enforced in this country. The next thing to consider is what really was the state of the law before the passing of the Act it is proposed to amend, and in doing so it will be convenient to take the state of the law before the Royal Commission was appointed and consider first the Master and Servant Act, then the Criminal Law Amendment Act, and lastly the question of conspiracy. Before the passing of the Master and Servant Act, as far as I can make out, the state of the law was this—the relation of servant and master and that of master and servant was by no means the same. With regard to any action which a servant had to take against his master he must begin invariably by summons; on nonappearance he might have a warrant against his master; an order for payment of wages might be with or without costs; if that order was not complied with it might be followed by a distress, and if the master had not sufficient goods to satisfy the demand he might be imprisoned. But when we come to deal with the action of the master against the servant the law assumes a very different complexion. A summons was not necessary; there might be a warrant in the first instance. A summons or warrant went against the servant not simply for breach of contract, but for any misconduct in the execution of the contract. The penalty was that he might be sent to prison for three months, and in the first instance the wages might be abated; or he might be discharged from his contract. So that the law, before it was altered in 1867, was in this state—the remedy against a master was entirely civil, but the remedy against a servant was entirely criminal. In the case of a servant he might be arrested on a warrant and taken to prison if necessary before the case was heard, and when it was heard he was not allowed to give evidence in his own defence; whereas, if he brought a charge against the master, it being a civil matter, the master was entitled to give evidence against the servant. There were certain other evils. A case might be heard before a single Justice in his own private house; im- prisonment was the only punishment which could follow, and there was no appeal. To this state of things, which is a remnant of the old coercive laws, there is no doubt that servants took great exception. To inquire into the subject the House appointed a Select Committee, of which the noble Lord the Member for Haddingtonshire (Lord Elcho) was Chairman. That Committee reported that the state of the law was unjust and arbitrary, and they recommended certain alterations—that the inquiry should be in public; that it should be before two Justices, or one stipendiary; that there should always be a summons before a warrant; and that, instead of imprisonment being the necessary punishment, a fine should be imposed in the first instance, and then distress, followed by imprisonment: they also reported that there might be an order made for the specific performance of contract; that in an aggravated case of injury to person or property a servant might be sent to prison, and that he should be allowed to give evidence in his own defence. A great many of these recommendations were embodied in an Act which was passed in the following year. There was to be a public trial before two Justices; there should be a summons in the first instance before a warrant; and the party be allowed to give evidence in his own defence. According to the original Bill there might be an order for fulfilment of the contract, or it might be annulled, compensation might be assessed for injury, and wilful and malicious injury was made a crime indictable at Quarter Sessions. In the progress of the Bill changes were introduced, and when it became law it had assumed a difierent complexion. Power was given to the Justices to order the fulfilment of a contract, or annul it and award compensation; and then followed in the 9th clause remarkable words, to the effect that where compensation would not meet the circumstances of the case there must be a fine, and on failure to pay it or to do what was ordered there must be imprisonment. The 4th and the 9th sections made these words refer to several breaches of contract and cases of conduct and misdemeanour, as well as to the offences defined by the 17 statutes named in the Schedule, the operation of which was only suspended by the operation of the Master and Servant Act, not being repealed. The 14th clause had given rise to much discussion. It provided that where the conduct complained of had been of an aggravated character, and not committed in the bonâ fide exercise of a legal right, and if it appeared that the case was not a fit one for pecuniary compensation or other remedy, then a man might be sent to prison. That was the Act of 1867 which is about to expire. When it became law it was considered by the servants generally throughout the country as a very great boon; and it was spoken of in terms of credit and praise, not simply by the Press, but by persons occupying high positions in life, and the Secretary to the Society of the Operative Classes, in an address, said that the previous laws had been replaced by one which put the employer and the employed on an equal footing. The question arises, what are the objections which are now taken to that law which was so much approved at the time it passed? The objections may be traced to what the Act retains of the character of our ancient law; that forbade freedom of contract for service; and this Act, although it mitigates the ancient law in many ways, still retains a criminal character. It is said that civil contracts ought to be enforced in Civil Courts, and that the contract of service is the only one that is enforced by the Criminal Law. That is the main objection to the principle of the Bill, and other objections went to matters of detail. By common consent it was an ill-drawn Act, and one very hard to be thoroughly understood. And then came the 14th clause, with reference to aggravated breaches of contract, which it was said really formed a kind of sliding scale from the difficulty of being able to say when it was, and when it was not, an aggravated case—some justices considering the eases were only breaches of simple contract, whilst others held upon similar facts that they were aggravated breaches of contract. Some held that they might imprison for any breach of agreement, however slight and excusable; and on this account it was said that the old law survived in spirit in spite of the qualifying words in the Act. No doubt, great objections to the Act of 1867 still exist. When the Government came into office they, on finding this Act was going to expire, took a course which I believe to be right under the circumstances. Instead of immediately legislating upon the subject, they appointed a Royal Commission in order to ascertain what were the difficulties experienced in working the Act of 1867; what were the great objections to it; and how they could best meet those objections and difficulties. The Commission appointed was one composed of Gentlemen of the highest standing in the country, who could have no interest one way or the other in finding out what were the anomalies that existed and what should be the remedies to be applied. No doubt, they entered upon their labours with a sincere and earnest wish to do what they thought right. They did not spare either time or trouble in their deliberations, and they have this year presented their Report, and it is upon that Report I desire to make some suggestions to the House. Before, however, leaving the Act of 1867, I ought to say that those who represented working men stated, before the Committee of 1866, as well as before the Commission, that they had no wish whatever to prevent the punishment of anyone who had committed a crime, and that there were crimes which were necessarily committed only by breach of contract on the part of those who stood in the relation of employed to employers. For instance, Mr. Harrison admitted that a man who maliciously exposed his employer to injury committed a specific offence, and he instanced the case of an engine-driver abandoning an engine at full speed, or a driver abandoning a horse on the highway. So, again, Mr. Crompton admitted that there were specific employments in which distinct breach of contract undoubtedly involved serious risk or injury to life and property; and these offences, he contended, should be dealt with, not by the 14th section, but by express provisions of the criminal law. The instances named were those of the police force, miners, railway servants, merchant seamen, all of whom have special dangers attached to the employments in which they are engaged—special dangers, too to the general public for whose interest, and not particularly for the interest of their masters or fellow-servants, it is that they should be subject to special laws. Passing by those special cases, which should be dealt with as such, let us see what the Report of the Commission is upon the Act of 1867. They first discussed very properly the 4th and 9th sections, leaving out of view the aggravated cases under the 14th section. I will read one or two paragraphs of the Report showing the conclusions to which the Commissioners came on cases of absolute breach of contract. But, first of all, I should state that this is the unanimous Report of the whole Commission, without any single exception; for although there is a separate Report from the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Macdonald) at the end of the Report, his Report is entirely in accord with the rest of the Commissioners on this— That the mere breach of contract such as was contemplated by the 9th section of the Act should be divested of all character of criminalty, and we therefore recommend that the power of the magistrate to impose a fine under that section, when compensation cannot be assessed, should be taken away. If the complaining party has sustained or will sustain loss, compensation can be assessed; if he has not, he has no claim to damages, and the infliction of the fine can only operate by way of punishment, which Presupposes a criminal act, and not a claim of damages arising from a breach of contract. The Commissioners then went on to say— But for the reasons we have already given; we cannot advise that imprisonment in the last-mentioned form should be done away with, although we think that the servant should be sent to that part of the prison in which persons imprisoned for debt are confined, and not to a common gaol. And the jurisdiction here conferred should, in our opinion, be limited to matters arising specifically out of the contract entered into between the parties. On this particular there is no difference of opinion whatever—namely, that in all ordinary cases of breaches of contract between master and servant, the whole of the old law, so far as it is coercive, shall be swept away, and that they shall be treated simply by a civil proceeding. I now come to that part of the Report which deals with breaches of contract of an aggravated character. The Commissioners state— Some of our number, feeling the force of the objection founded on the anomalous character of the law by which breach of contract is treated as a criminal offence, and thinking that a sufficient remedy can be found for the prevention of breach of contract, though of an aggravated character, are of opinion that it would be better that it should be dealt with as falling within the civil rather than the criminal law. To those Members of the Commission it appears that it would be sufficient if power were given to the justice in aggravated cases, such as we have pointed out, to commit to prison for a longer time not exceeding six months in the event of the compensation he may award not being paid, the prison being a civil prison, and without hard labour. The other Members of the Commission, impressed with a sense of the serious mischief which may result from such aggravated breaches of contract, are of opinion that the law as it now exists under the 14th section, but subject to the provision hereinafter proposed of having such cases tried by a jury at the option of the party accused, should be maintained. The Commissioners submitted both those views for consideration, leaving it to the wisdom of the Legislature to decide between them. I will, therefore, shortly state what the decision of the Government is with respect to cases under the 14th clause. Before leaving the Report of the Commissioners I must refer to two recommendations which are made in it. The first is as to the jurisdiction that shall try these oases between master and servant. A great deal of evidence was taken before the Commissioners on that point. The County Court was named, but it was objected that the County Court did not sit continuously, and that in many instances intervals of a month or six weeks elapsed between the sittings, which is a great disadvantage to suitors of this particular class. Therefore, the Commissioners discussed the question as to whether the Registrar of the County Court should be empowered to deal with such cases in the meantime, and at length they came to the conclusion to advise Parliament to leave these cases in the hands of the magistrates as civil proceedings, making it a consideration, wherever there was a stipendiary magistrate, that the cases should be heard before him. Such being the Report of the Commissioners, I will now shortly state what is the opinion of the Government, and how we propose to deal with the matter. "We propose on this head, first of all, that whatever the crimes may be, committed by persons engaged in this kind of employment, those crimes should certainly be specified distinctly in the Act of Parliament, and not left to the discretion of the magistrates to make one a crime and another not. Therefore, we propose to present to the House two separate and independent Bills, one dealing with all such matters as we think ought to be treated criminally, and the other with all that ought to be dealt with civilly. This was a matter on which a great number of witnesses had been called, not merely before the last Commission, but before the Committee which sat in 1856. I apprehend there is no doubt whatever on this point—that wherever there is what is called a general public danger to the State or a large body of the community, ensuing from the neglect of duty to perform a contract, each neglect may be looked upon as a crime. What we then propose is that, wherever a workman is employed by a municipal authority or a public company, upon whom is imposed by Act of Parliament the duty of supplying any city or other place with gas or water, and that workman wilfully and maliciously breaks his contract of service, knowing, or having reasonable cause to believe that the probable consequence of his doing so, either alone or in combination with others, would be to deprive the inhabitants of that city or place or a great part of them, of gas or water, such a breaking of contract shall be considered as a special offence. Such a workman will be placed by that provision in the same category as the police force, seamen, and railway servants. Then there is another class of crimes to be dealt with. There are in the Malicious Injury to Property Act two general clauses—51 and 52—which enact that anyone wilfully and maliciously committing injury to the property of another shall be guilty of an offence the degree of which shall vary according to the amount of damage done. Take, for instance, the case of any man who wilfully with his hands strikes a blow at any property belonging to another, and inflicts an injury to that property maliciously and aware what the consequences would be, that offence falls within the existing law. Now, a man may do precisely the same injury with his feet as he does with his hands when he walks away from his work, knowing at the same time that injury to the property will ensue. We therefore, propose to place such an offence in the same category as that where a workman strikes a blow at property with the hand and injures it. These two crimes, we think, may be put under the criminal law. When we come to consider other breaches of contract, we think they ought to be brought under a different system. We think the time has come when, considering the various attempts to modify the ancient laws, which have been coercive and oppressive, we may in other branches of contract between master and servant, do away with all criminality and proclaim, once for all, that as between master and servant contracts shall be treated civilly as any other contract case. That, I think, ought to be the satisfactory conclusion of all parties concerned. We propose that this kind of contract shall be dealt with as a civil proceeding, with all the incidents of civil proceeding. The ordinary cases will go the County Court, as suggested by the Comissioners; but I do not think the County Court has sufficient powers to deal with such cases. It is therefore proposed to supplement their powers by saying that they shall not only assess such damages as they think proper, but also have ample powers to adjust all the claims which may exist between master and servant, and to rescind a contract if they think it equitable that it should be rescinded. That is giving to the County Courts the same power exercised by magistrates under the Master and Servant Act. There is another question which has been very much pressed upon our notice, not simply by the Reports of the Commissioners, but also by everyone who has written upon this subject. They have all thought that contracts could be enforced, as in the Court of Chancery, by an order of specific performance. It is extraordinary what a number of persons have written and have said that; but the obvious answer is that the Court of Chancery never does enforce contracts; it has always steadily refused to do so. Therefore, to order specific performance is not possible. There is, however, one way in which a good many of these cases may be met with equal justice to both parties. A servant is brought up for having broken his contract—I am not speaking of strikes, but of the ordinary cases of breach of contract—as, for instance, when a servant goes away for a week without permission. He is brought before the Court which can assess damages; but it may often be better for the servant to go back, and we think it would be unwise not to give to the Court the power of saying—"My good fellow, the best thing you can do is to go back, and if you will undertake to do so you will hear nothing more about the matter; but if you do not, with security or without, then, of course, we shall assess the damages, and unless your security or yourself pays you will have to go to prison." It is perfectly optional for the man to do which he pleases, and that is as far as we can go towards making an order for specific performance. Another question has been very much considered—namely, to what other tribunal can we go? The evidence given before the Commission by the police magistrates of London and other places shows that the County Court is expensive as well as dilatory, and we therefore propose in small cases—that is, where the claim is limited to the amount of £ 10—both master and servant shall be entitled to go to the stipendiary magistrate, or where there is none, to the nearest petty sessions, and they shall have the same power as the County Court of making an order for the payment of damages. There is one point of importance here. The Commissioners reported that if a man does not pay the damages assessed he shall go to prison—they did not see their way to avoiding that. But there is this remarkable paragraph in their Report. They say— If it is a small case of damages the term of imprisonment shall be three months in that of the prison allotted to debtors; but that if it be a large amount he shall go to prison for six months. I confess that there seems a great inconsistency in that. If we send a man to prison for three months or for six he must feel it to be a punishment, and we cannot say he should go to prison for six months if he owed £20, and only for three months if he owed £10. There is this further difficulty. It puts the man against whom the damages are given practically, though not nominally, in a worse position than he was in before; because if a man is subject to a fine of a few shillings under the Small Tenements Act, he would only be sent to prison for seven or 14 days. In this case, however small the amount of damages, he is liable to three months' imprisonment. I think the Commissioners have made some mistake here. [Mr. MACDONALD: Hear, hear!] The end of the whole business is then, that if this matter is to be treated civilly, treat it civilly. We specify what are to be crimes, and everything else is to be treated as a civil debt. Therefore, we propose in this Bill that any damages assessed they should become a debt, to be treated like any other debt, and recoverable in the County Court—that Court to have the same power of enforcing payment of the debt as in all other cases. We have come to this conclusion, and we believe it to be the only logical conclusion to which we could come upon the Report of the Commissioners. That being so, let us go to the other part of the case. When we declare there shall be absolute freedom of contract between master and workman, we are also of opinion that there must be equal freedom of contract between workman and fellow-workman. If a workman is entitled to make a contract with his master as he might make a contract for his bread, or his house, or anything else, if he breaks his contract he is to be as free from his fellow-workmen as from his master. There is to be no infringement by Parliament on his liberty as regards his master, and there must be no coercion on his free will by his fellow-workmen or bodies of his fellow-workmen. He must have precisely the same liberty as anyone else in this country; and therefore we come now to consider what must be done in the case of the Criminal Law Amendment Act. Before I touch upon that, let me say that it must not be imagined for a moment that we are doing what has never been done before. Do not run away with the notion that by equalizing the law of servant and master we are doing anything that will hinder us in the race of competition with foreign countries. Foreign nations are a long way ahead of us in this matter. In Italy, Prance, Belgium, and Germany there is absolute equality, and all these matters have for a long time been treated as civil contracts. We are therefore taking precisely the same step which has already been taken by foreign nations, and we shall be in no worse a position as regards these contracts than any of those nations. I now come to the Criminal Law Amendment Act, and if the House does not think I am trespassing on its attention too long I should like to read a short extract from the 1st section of the Act of Parliament, because I cannot help being of opinion that the Act is one which has been very much misunderstood. There have been a great many cases in which there has been great misapprehension as to what the law really is, and how far it goes. It has been said that this Act is a piece of class legislation; but that I deny, because the first and main clause does not refer simply to master and workman but to every person who does any one or more of the things specified in it— 1. Use violence to any person or any property. 2. Threaten or intimidate any person in such a manner as would justify a justice of the peace, on complaint made to him, to bind over the person so threatening or intimidating to keep the peace. 3. Molest or obstruct any person in manner defined by this section with a view to coerce such person. Thus the molestation or obstruction must be done with the view to coercion—that is, interfering with the free will of another. But then we have a definition of what molestation is— 1. If he persistently follow such person about from place to place. 2. If he hide any tools, clothes, or other property owned or used by such person, or deprive him of or hinder him in the use thereof. 3. If he watch or beset the house or other place where such person resides or works, or carries on business, or happens to be, or the approach to such house or place, or if with two or more other persons he follow such person in a disorderly manner in or through any street or road; but the whole thing is with a view to coercion. On the other hand, the working men have urged—"We always thought we had absolute power to go to a place for the purposes of persuasion. We have not gone for purposes of coercion. We only want to inform those persons who have been brought from other districts by advertisements as to the real state of things. We thought these things were innocent, but by this Act they are made crimes." Now, that is a mistake, because none of the things mentioned are crimes. I have this on the very highest authority; first, that of the Commissioners themselves, amongst whom were the Lord Chief Justice of England and many other persons very learned in the law, and I wish shortly to call the attention of the House to one or two paragraphs of their Report. The Commissioners said— It was alleged that the provision against picketing was too general; that picketing might sometimes be perfectly innocent, and on some occasions absolutely necessary for the protection of the Union; that, for instance, when the Union was on strike it would be necessary to keep watch to see that men receiving pay from it, as being on strike, did not take work, and thus defraud the body. But the answer is obvious. Such a case ought certainly not to be held to be within the Act, which makes molestation penal only when used for the purpose of coercion. Again, it is alleged that too loose a construction has been put on this part of the Act, and that language addressed to a man for the purpose of persuading him has been held to he molestation with a view to coerce. If, however, such a construction, which would, undoubtedly be too large, should have been put on the Act, the fault is not in the statute, the language of which is sufficiently clear and precise. Then they referred to the language of Mr. Justice Lush, and his words were so clear that he felt bound to read them. In a case which he was trying—the case of "The Queen v. Shepherd "—he said— The defendants merely waited outside the place where the workmen were employed, and tried to induce them not to work there, their conduct being peaceable, orderly, and civil. The learned Judge, in summing up the case to the jury, pointed out the distinction between force put upon the will of another by violence, intimidation, or molestation, and persuasion used as a means of influencing the will, observing on the difference between the case then before him and one which he had tried at Leeds, in which the parties, charged under a similar indictment, had abused their fellow-workmen, shouted and hooted at them, and had been otherwise violent in their conduct. Finally, he directed the jury, if they should be of opinion that the defendants had done no more than employ persuasion, to acquit them, which the jury accordingly did. [Lord ROBERT MONTAGU: In what year?] In 1869, before the Criminal Law Amendment Act was passed; but I am now speaking of the existing Act of 1871. The Commissioners went on to say— Believing this to be the true exposition of the law, we cannot doubt that the ruling of the learned Judge will be followed in any similar case. There is another exposition of the law which was given by a right hon. and learned Gentleman for whom we all have the highest respect. I mean the Recorder of London (Mr. Russell Gurney), and there cannot, in my opinion, be any clearer exposition of the law of 1871 than he laid down to the Grand Jury in the case of five men who were sent to prison. The House will see whether there is the slightest difference between that exposition and that which I have just read. The right hon. and learned Gentleman said— Among the acts forbidden by that Act was this—the molesting or obstructing any person by watching or besetting any place or the approach to such place where his business was carried on, with the view to coerce such person to alter his mode of carrying on his business. That, then, was the question the Grand Jury would have to consider—whether the evidence laid before them was sufficient to establish a primâ facie case that the defendants did conspire to molest or obstruct the prosecutors by watching or besetting their place of business, in order to coerce them to alter their mode of carrying on their business. And there the Grand Jury must observe a distinction. The question was not whether they had endeavoured to cause them to alter their mode by themselves refusing to work or by persuading others not to work. That they had a right to do; but the question was whether they agreed to effect their object in the way forbidden by the Act. That they did watch the place of business there would probably be no doubt, but there were some purposes for which they had a perfect right to watch. When a contest of that sort was going on it was not unusual, he believed, to watch in order to sec that none of the men who received what was called 'the strike pay' were also receiving-wages from the employers; but the more important object that the watchers had in view was to inform all comers—those, for instance, who might have been brought by the advertisement—of the existence of the strike, and to endeavour to persuade them to join in it. All that was lawful so long as it was done peaceably, and without any interference with the perfect exercise of free will by those who otherwise would have been willing to work on the terms proposed by the prosecutors. The sort of questions," the Recorder proceeded to say, "which the Grand Jury would have to ask themselves was, whether the evidence showed that the defendants were guilty of obstructing and rendering difficult the access to the prosecutors' place of business, or whether there was anything in their conduct calculated to deter or to intimidate those who were passing to and fro, or whether there was an exhibition of force calculated to produce fear in the minds of ordinary men, and whether the defendants or any of them combined for that purpose. If they thought that was proved, it would be their duty to find a true bin; but if they thought their conduct might be accounted for by the desire to ascertain who were the persons working there, and peaceably to persuade them or any others who were proposing to work there to join their fellow-workmen who were contending for what, rightly or wrongly, they thought was for the interest of the general body, then they would ignore the Bill. Well, then, I put it to the House whether that is not the law that ought to be maintained? If a man can do all these things under the law, has he anything to complain of if the Act is fairly and honestly carried into effect? Is it not equally necessary to maintain the perfect free-will and independence of the workman as against his fellow-workmen as it is to maintain his freedom and independence against his master? "We therefore do not propose to make any alteration in the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1871, except the one recommended by the Royal Commissioners—namely, that the defendant should have the option of having his case tried, not by the justices before whom be was brought, but by a jury. I have now simply to deal with the Law of Conspiracy. The subject of the Law of Conspiracy is a very difficult one to approach at this late hour of the evening; but I do not propose to take up much of the time of the House in referring to it. The first question that arises here is—will you deal with the Law of Conspiracy as a whole, or merely as a particular branch of the law relating to the subject engaging our attention. The hon. and learned Member for the City of Oxford (Sir William Harcourt) some years ago endeavoured to deal with it on a limited scale, but the Ministry of the day were more ambitious. They made considerable additions to his Bill, and the result was the measure came to an untimely end. To deal with the whole Law of Conspiracy would be a very serious matter in the present state of the criminal law. Indeed, I doubt whether any Ministry can so deal with it, until the criminal law is in a very much more perfect state than it is at present. The Government, therefore do not propose to deal with the Law of Conspiracy as a general subject in the Bill which I shall lay upon the Table. But we do propose to deal with the peculiar grievance which is alleged to exist so far as regards master and workman. That grievance arises in consequence of the discrepancy between the Trades Unions Act and the Criminal Law Amendment Act, which were passed in the same year. The latter Act, after imposing penalties for threats and molestation with a view to coerce, added a Proviso that no person should be liable to punishment for conspiring to do an act that tended to restrain the free course of trade, unless the act was done with the object of coercing. It was therefore thought, and generally understood by the country, when these Acts were passed, that so far as the case of trades unions was concerned they were free from the Law of Conspiracy. But one or two decisions have since been given by the Judges which have tended to shake confidence on the subject. Upon that point the Commissioners say— It has been urged that by the ruling of the Judges, and the Proviso to the 1st section of the Criminal Law Amendment Act, the construction of the Act is deprived of any practical value. With that opinion of the Commissioners the Government entirely agree. I need hardly point out that in the celebrated case of the gas stokers it was not upon the count on which they were convicted that the ruling of the Judge was challenged, but on the count on which they were not convicted. The ruling of Baron Pollock was also brought before the Commissioners. He is reported to have directed the jury that if several workmen combined not to work with a particular person, and refused to work for an employer unless he dismissed that workman, that would amount to a conspiracy at Common Law; a doctrine which would equally apply to masters agreeing not to employ a particular workman unless he left a particular society or union. The Commissioners did not choose to enter into the question whether that is a true interpretation of the law, but say, if it is, it ought to be changed; and with that opinion we entirely agree. Therefore the proposal we have to make with regard to the Law of Conspiracy is this—that we shall put a clause in the Criminal, and not in the Civil Act to this effect— That an agreement or combination of two or more persons to do, or to procure to be done, any act in contemplation or furtherance of a trade dispute between employers and workmen shall not be punishable as a conspiracy, if such act as aforesaid, when committed by one person, would not be punishable as a crime. That is the whole of the Government proposal upon this point. I would say again, we want the most absolute freedom of individual will between the master and the servant; and we are determined to maintain the most absolute freedom of will between the servant and his fellow-servants. I have an instinctive dislike to put persons in prison unless they have committed a crime. I think it is of very great importance that when a man has committed a crime he should know he is going to prison. It is of equal importance where a man is convicted justly of crime, and goes to prison, that the punishment should be certain. I know of nothing more mischievous than interference, except for the most just and proper cause, with the course of the administration of justice. But if no crime has been committed do not send the man to prison. Keep up the broad distinction in the minds of the public that gaols are for criminals, and maintain also the belief that if a man becomes criminal he shall go to gaol, but that you will not fill your prisons by persons who have not committed a crime. Upon these broad and plain, and I hope distinct issues, we have placed these Bills before the House. I hope they will receive the attention which, in the opinion of the Government, they deserve, and that they will afford some satisfactory solution of these very difficult questions. I am afraid I have detained the House some time; but I was anxious that it should clearly understand what the law is proposed to be, and the reasons for the change. It will be necessary, I may add, as there are a number of Acts in the Schedule, to pass a repeal measure of certain Acts which will become obsolete in consequence of these Acts. The right hon. Gentleman concluded by moving for leave to bring in the Bill.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to enlarge the powers of County Courts in respect of disputes between Employers and Workmen, and to give other courts a limited civil jurisdiction in respect of such disputes."—(Mr. Assheton Cross.)


reminded the right hon. Gentleman that at present men might be made criminals according as the tribunal that tried them was formed, and that Judge after Judge gave different decisions as to what the Law of Conspiracy really was. He believed there was no wish on the part of workmen to coerce their fellow-servants, and that a sense of honour prevailed in their dealings with one another.


remarked that there was much in the Bill for which the House and working men would be grateful, but that there were some points on which further information was required. In the earlier part of the speech of the right hon. Gentleman he seemed anxious to prove that since the remotest times of our history there had been coercive measures against workmen—that there had never been any freedom of contract. This was utterly fallacious. There had always been perfect freedom of labour in olden times in England until, in the reign of Elizabeth, a man who would not work was flogged for the first offence, branded for the second, and hanged for the third. Coercive measures against working men began in the reign of William III., when the right of representation was taken away from the working classes and transferred to the employers. The House of Commons had since that time been the House of the middle classes. He was glad that the Home Secretary had divided his measure into two, and he would recommend him to pass his Civil Bill with certain amendments and to drop the Criminal Bill altogether. The right hon. Gentleman argued that in the case of gas and water companies breaches of contract ought to be criminal offences because of the injury to the public. He should make the gas and water companies liable to the public, and then they would put a clause in their contract with their workmen subjecting them to penalties if they left their employment without giving a month's notice, and by this contract the men would abide. But by making it a criminal offence, an enormous and tyrannical power would be put into the hands of gas and water companies. With regard to the right hon. Gentleman's observation that the working men should be as free from their fellow-workmen as they were from their masters, he (Lord Robert Montagu) would say that that would lead to the dissolution of the unions of working men. ["Divide!"] If hon. Members did not like to hear him they might go home. The right hon. Gentleman in speaking of malicious injury done by working men, whether it were done by hands or feet, said it ought to be treated as crime. He (Lord Robert Montagu) objected to that. The Commissioners said that the working man on strike should either work or knock under. Well, that was a feeling which led to the formation of trades unions. They became an incorporated body to assist each other, and to say that the working men should be as free from each other as they should be from their masters amounted practically to a dissolution of trades unions. That was what the Home Secretary was driving at and what he wanted to do. ["No, no!"] He (Lord Robert Montagu) said yes; but would urge that instead of pursuing that policy—a policy which had been pursued for 100 years—in trying to get rid of trades unions, they should adopt a course exactly the reverse, and seek to increase the power of trades unions. They should re-constitute them as the ancient guilds were constituted, and then the country would get all the advantages which it had derived from the guilds, while injustice would be done neither to the masters nor to the men.


said, he did not rise at that late hour of the evening to prolong the debate, especially after the liberal explanation which they had had from Her Majesty's Government with regard to the Labour Laws. He rose simply to say that, although it was stated in the early part of the evening he was burning with a desire to make a speech on this subject, it was not really his intention. He had only been desirous that the country, which had been anxiously looking forward to the proposals of the Government, should have the earliest possible opportunity of knowing what they were. He thanked the Home Secretary for the prompt manner in which he came forward and redeemed the pledge given by the Prime Minister early in the evening by moving the adjournment of the debate on the Judicature Bill. With respect to the Bill, as the question would have to be judged by the public most concerned, he hoped the Home Secretary would give considerable time to enable them to get the opinions of those who were most interested in the matter. He would add, further, that he was certainly glad the Home Secretary had seen fit to eliminate the criminal portion of the Law of Contract altogether. With regard to the character of the tribunal, he was afraid that it was not quite satisfactory. He must also say that he regretted the continuance of the Criminal Law Amendment Act very much indeed. The Bill would be laid, however, on the Table for second reading, and then he should be able to state more explicitly his views, and then the working classes could give theirs in so far as they thought them to be the opinions entertained by the general body of the people on this subject.


said, he wished to add a few words to what had fallen from his hon. Friend (Mr. Macdonald), and to thank the Home Secretary for having so promptly redeemed the pledge given by the Prime Minister. The late Government gave many promises to take up this question, but had failed to do so. He was perfectly satisfied that the working classes throughout the country regarded this question with the deepest interest. He knew this was the case in the city he represented (Perth), and he hoped the right hon. Gentleman would give sufficient time for the consideration of the Bill before it was brought forward for the second reading.


said, he must disclaim the sentiments which had been attributed to him with reference to trades unionism. He hoped the Bill would be laid on the Table to-morrow, and he proposed to take the second reading in a fortnight.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Secretary CROSS, Mr. ATTORNEY GENERAL, and Sir HENRY SELWIN-IBBETSON.

Bill presented, and read the first time. [Bill 203.]