HC Deb 13 June 1883 vol 280 cc504-14

Order for Second Reading read.


, in moving that the Bill be now road a second time, said, he felt some regret that it should be found necessary to re-open this question, when such a short period had elapsed since it was dealt with by Parliament. This Bill was not brought forward on account of any special difficulty with respect to the working of the Act of 1880 in the counties of Northumberland and Durham. Indeed, if that Act had been accepted universally in the same spirit in which it was accepted in those counties, he should not have taken any part in attempting to deal again with the subject at this early stage. But, in certain parts of the country, no sooner was the Act passed than some employers and corporate bodies—especially some of the Railway Companies—put very extraordinary pressure on their workmen to compel them to contract out of its provisions. For instance, in Lancashire there was along strike on the part of the miners, the chief difficulty in the case arising out of the demand of the employers that the men should contract themselves out of the Act. The National Miners' Union, recognizing the importance of the matter, sent a deputation to Lancashire to inquire into the causes of the strike, and they found that the most unfair pressure had been employed against the miners to compel them to accede to the demand of the employers that they should contract themselves out of the Act. The main object of this Bill was to prevent this, or to render illegal the method by which this was most usually done—namely, by requiring the payment of contributions to an accident fund as a condition of employment. There were, however, two Provisoes. One was, that the Bill should not have effect on contracts now in existence; and the other was, that if any employer contributed to a common fund, or paid anything in any way to a workman in connection with an accident that might occur, any such payment should be taken into consideration in making any award. If, however, it was the opinion of the House that they should not absolutely prohibit such agreements, he thought they should still have some provision, in order that arrangements of the kind might be come to in a formal and specific way, so that workmen might know exactly under what conditions they were contracting out of an Act of Parliament passed for their advantage. There were several subordinate provisions, one being to prevent appeals, except by consent, in cases under £100. Another proposed modification of the present Act he desired to call attention to. Sometimes it happened, after a workman had received an injury, that his master continued to pay his wages, thereby admitting that he was in fault, and, after paying them for some weeks, discontinued, and thus the workman, who had not given notice of his claim, was precluded from recovering anything further from his master. Of course, there was opposition to the Bill. Like many other promoters of Bills, he had incurred the displeasure of the Liberty and Property Defence League. That League, in the Annual Report just issued, stated that the miners themselves, even those among his own constituents, were opposed to any change in the law; but that was not so. It was true that at two meetings held at collieries in the North a majority of those present voted for the views of the League; but at one of them there were only 38 votes given, of which 23 supported and 15 voted against the League; while at several other meetings of the same character the League was outvoted by overwhelming majorities. At a delegate meeting of the Northumberland miners, which he attended, an unanimous vote was passed in favour of his Bill. It had been said that the delegates did not represent the miners. That was not the case. They were miners themselves, and represented the views of the miners much more faithfully than Members of the House did the views of their constituents. Ho understood that the opposition to this Bill by the hon. Baronet (Sir Joseph Pease) was based on a fear lest the Miners' Permanent Relief Fund should suffer by the passing of this Bill. A similar fear was expressed when the Employers' Liability Act was under discussion; but the fact was that these funds were never stronger than at the present time. The Trades' Union Congress had unanimously passed a resolution in favour of the Bill. Miners' Associations had petitioned in its favour, and there had not been a single Petition from an organized body of workmen against it. He begged to move the second reading of the Bill.


rose to second the Motion, and expressed his wish that he could have reserved his remarks for a later stage of the debate.


informed the hon. Member that an Order of the Day did not require a Seconder.

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


, in rising to move— That it is inexpedient to interfere with that freedom of contract between Employers and Employed which enables them to contract themselves out of the Act of 1880, and by mutual arrangement and mutual payment to make provision for every workman who may be injured and the family of every workman who may be killed; whether the accident is one coming under the provisions of the Act of 1880, or is one not so provided for, said, it was with regret that he felt himself compelled to act in opposition to his hon. Friend the Member for Morpeth (Mr. Burt), whose life-long devotion to the interests and welfare of the class which he represented he highly appreciated. The Employers' Liability Act was to be in force for only seven years, of which only two had elapsed—a period obviously insufficient to enable a sound judgment of its effects to be formed. At present, workmen had the choice of remaining under the Act, with all the advantages it conferred, or the choice of contracting out of it with often still greater advantages. But the question broadly put before the House was, whether or not the working classes of this country were able to take care of themselves? Were the employed too prejudiced, or too ignorant, or too foolish to make their own contracts with their employers? He did not take that view of the working classes of this country. Was the House of Commons to say to them—"You shall be tied down to the four corners of this Bill, oven though your employers offer you much more liberal terms than you would obtain under the Bill." There could only be two reasons for this Bill. Ono was, that the men were subject to undue pressure from their employers—wore, in fact, slaves to their masters; and the other was, that they were so unwise and so imprudent that they contracted themselves out of the Act without receiving any equivalent. No such case had been or could be made out. He maintained that employers had endeavoured to work the Liability Act loyally and well, and their voluntary efforts were equally commendable. He could not find that a single meeting had been held on the subject of the present Bill; but he knew that from the borough of Morpeth, 1,219 persons from among the constituents of the hon. Member in charge of the measure had petitioned against it. A mere reference to the voluntary efforts among the coal minors and iron miners in the North, the subscriptions from whom last year amounted to £46,144, would show that these were not the men to be treated as children. Some trades—for instance, the building trade and the mechanical engineers—had by a system of mutual assurance made provision for all cases of accident. As to the generality of contracts between employers and employed, he believed that, so far from there being improvident contracts on the part of the men, they were much more beneficial to the men than the Act itself would have been. The North-Western Railway, for example, which employed upwards of 50,000 men, had given their men terms, which, he had no hesitation in saying, were five—or even ten—times as good as the original Act, or the Bill of his hon. Friend would give them. With regard to the Petitions that had been presented in favour of this Bill, he confessed that he never saw more unsatisfactory documents of the kind. Ho had presented many of them himself, and in every case they were signed by one person only — in a representative capacity. They were signed by Chairmen; but the Petitions did not say of what Bodies the gentlemen who signed were Chairmen, nor could he find in the local papers accounts of any meetings. They were certainly not indicative of large support by the working classes; and even from the borough of the hon. Member himself, no less than eight or nine Petitions had been presented to the House against the passing of the Bill. At any rate, there was great divergence of opinion with reference to it. The hon. Member had said that a great cry was raised that the provident societies of the working men had been placed in danger by the Employers' Act. That was quite true, and the figures showed a steady falling off in the subscriptions by the employers; but they would be placed in very much more danger and be much more damaged if the Bill now proposed was carried into law. He contended that the employers of England had acted most loyally by their workmen under the existing Act. With regard to the statement that the masters had been able to extort from the men the advantages of the Act, the hon. Member for Morpeth had only mentioned one case, and that was the case of 27,000 miners in Lancashire. The fact was, however, that they had a strike, and all, he believed, went to work again after having extracted some terms from the masters which enabled them to contract themselves out of the Act with advantage to themselves. He had never yet heard exactly the terms upon which these Lancashire miners contracted themselves out of the Act; but he perceived from a speech that was made by Mr. Bryson, a Northumberland miner, on this very question, that he said the miners of Lancashire were improvident, and had made no provision against an evil day. Further, Mr. Bryson said the idea of 27,000 men being forced into a disadvantageous agreement was ridiculous, and ought never to have been brought forward, for they entered into the arrangement that was made well knowing what they were doing. That was the language of Mr. Bryson at a meeting held only the other day; and when these men actually got 20 per cent for their provident fund front their employers, it could not welt be said that it was a case where they got nothing. But if this proposal was adopted, it would deprive working men of great advantages they now enjoyed, and place them in a much less independent and favourable position. He took a very different view of the requirements of the working classes of this country to that of the hon. Member for Morpeth. He did not think they would have to legislate for the working classes very much longer in this style. If they were once in leading-strings, they were well out of them now, and were perfectly well able to run alone and to take care of themselves. He spoke on this matter with some right, for he had been among the working classes all his life, and it was only within the last few months that he had been twice elected by a largo body of them to be sole arbiter in an important dispute between them and their employers. He had no hesitation in saying that on those occasions the working men placed their case before him more clearly, logically, and more true to principle than the employers did theirs; and such facts as those and others went to prove that what Parliament had done for the working classes was very little compared to what they had done in recent years for themselves. The statement of the hon. Member that the working men required to be taken care of, and to be protected from their employers, was, therefore, one which he thought the House would hardly be prepared to endorse. As he had said, the working men of the country were able to take care of themselves, and did not need or ask for this protection. Therefore, he moved the Amendment he had read to the House.

Amendment proposed, To leave out from the word "That" to the end of the Question, in order to add the words "it is inexpedient to interfere with that freedom of contract between Employers and Employed which enables them to contract themselves out of the Act of 1880, and by mutual arrangement and mutual payment to make provision for every workman who may be injured and the family of every workman who may be killed; whether the accident is one coming under the provisions of the Act of 1880, or is one not so provided for,"—(Sir Joseph Pease,) —instead thereof.

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


said, he thought the speech of the hon. Baronet the Member for Durham (Sir Joseph Pease) had in no way dealt damagingly with the Bill of his hon. Friend the Member for Morpeth. He (Mr. Broadhurst) was fully aware of the importance of the coal and iron trades of the North; but lie wanted the hon. Baronet to remember that there were in Great Britain a few other industries besides those he had mentioned. It was the fact that soon after the Employers' Liability Act, 1880, was passed, a placard was posted up at one of the large building firms in the Metropolis, informing the men that they must consider themselves in the same position as if they had signed an express agreement contracting with their employers that the latter should incur no responsibility under the Act, otherwise the men must leave the works forthwith. That document was, he believed, merely a copy of what was posted by other firms, not only in London, but all over the country, which seemed to indicate concentrated action on the part of the employers. It was all very well to say that the men were capable of taking care of themselves. They, no doubt, were in many instances; but it must be remembered that when the Act came into force there was a great lack of employment in many industries, and the employers of labour swooped down like vultures and engaged men who, front their sheer necessity of providing themselves and their families with bread, were only too ready to accept work on any terms imposed by the employers. Moreover, there were a large number of men in the service of the Railway Companies who were not in permanent employment, but who were, nevertheless, compelled to work under the same conditions, so far as contracting themselves out of the Act was concerned, as the men who were in the permanent employment of the Companies. He did not think the hon. Baronet could have been aware of the course taken by the general trades of the country with regard to the Act. Then insurance companies had been called into existence under the Act in the interests of the employers, to indemnify them against all liability under it; and these companies, in many instances, worked great hardship by resisting the just claims of the widow and children of some poor workman who had lost his life in the service of his employer. Such a state of things was a disgrace to the country. The hon. Baronet had stated that the existing law had already done some damage to the provident associations by lessening the contributions of the employers to those associations; but he was informed by his hon. Friend the Member for Morpeth, that the contributions of the employers last year amounted to a larger sum than they had ever amounted to before. With regard to the Petition to which reference had been made, 1,200 or 1,300 men and boys out of a large colliery district was not a great number of signatures to have been obtained, especially when they were aware of the wonderful power which had been brought to bear in obtaining these signatures. His marvel was that the signatures of everybody in the district had not been obtained. The Liberty and Property Defence Association, which had used its influence in promoting the Petition, was generally known as the Association of the "three P.'s "—peers, pawnbrokers, and publicans. When they had an Association of that description, with agents scattered all over the country, and without stint of money, was it not surprising that with all their mighty efforts they had only produced 1,200 signatures of men and children to a Petition against the Bill of his hon. Friend? He said that the Petition, and the Association which promoted it, were wholly unworthy of the confidence of the workmen, and had never had their confidence. He asked the House to take the assurance of his hon. Friend that the Bill was absolutely necessary for the protection of the workmen, and that there was a widespread desire on their part that this Bill should be passed. If the question of Petitions were to be introduced, and the Bill were to go over until another Session, he believed that the House would be flooded with Petitions in its favour. Reference had been made to Mr. Bryson, a working miner, who addressed a meeting in London, a few days ago, against this Bill; but Mr. Bryson had no authority to speak for the miners of Northumberland, and his appearance in London could only be described as a huge hoax. In conclusion, he begged to thank the House for the patience with which it had listened to him, and expressed the hope that the House would assent to the second reading of the Bill.


said, he thought the speech of the hon. Baronet the Member for South Durham (Sir Joseph Pease) was perfectly convincing, the hon. Baronet being well qualified to speak with authority on the question. The existing law had, so far as he was able to judge, though he was not himself an employer of labour, worked well. The whole question was fully considered by Parliament at the time the Act of 1880 was passed, and he protested against its being now re-opened. In this Bill there was a provision that an action might be brought without any claim having been sent in at all. Now, was that fair to the employer? The one great question really was that they ought to set their faces against the idea that the working man might not contract himself out of the Act. Believing, as he did, that it was for the interests of all classes, masters and servants alike, he certainly did hope that the House would not for a moment entertain the crude crotchet of the hon. Member for Morpeth (Mr. Burt). And, before he sat down, he would recommend the hon. Gentleman in future to conduct his own case himself, and not to filter it through the mouth of the hon. Member for Stoke (Mr. Broadhurst).


said, he thought that before the hour at which, according to the Standing Orders of the House, the debate would be adjourned, they ought to have some expression of the opinion of the Government on this question. They had all looked to the Bill of 1880 as a settlement of the question; and they wished to know whether or not the Government were satisfied with that Bill, and whether they meant to maintain it or not? If there was one thing more important than another, it was that legislation should be allowed to rest. He should not detain the House, because they wished to hear, not what he, but what the Government had to say.


said, that what he had to say on behalf of the Government could be said without hesitation, and in almost as few words as those employed by the right hon. Gentleman who had just sat down. This Act was introduced and passed by the Government a little over two years ago, and came into operation on the 1st of January, 1881. It had, therefore, been in operation a very little over two years. Under those circumstances, the Government were certainly not prepared, at the present time, to accede to any proposition for altering it in the manner proposed by this Bill. He would go further, and say he had taken very great interest in the working of this measure, and had reason to be satisfied with the results it had produced. Ho believed it had worked, on the whole, beneficially to the working classes, and that it had not worked injuriously or unjustly to the employers of labour. The right hon. Gentleman who had just sat down said it was very important that legislation of this kind should not be too frequently altered, so that employers and employed should know and understand their position respectively to each other. He did not wish to enter into controversial matter; but he must remind the right hen. Gentleman that the Government had introduced and passed this Bill with the intention that it should be, so far as such measures were, a lasting measure; but, on the Motion of a noble Lord, then the Leader of the Party to which the right hon. Gentleman belonged, a clause was inserted in the other House limiting the operation of the Bill to two years. By a subsequent compromise, when the Bill came back to the House of Commons, the operation of the Bill was limited to seven years instead of two. He would call the attention of the House to the fact that the Act was, therefore, in the nature of an experimental Act, and would necessarily come under the review of the House before many years. For the present, the Government wore satisfied with observing the working of the Act, and could not support the Bill now before the House.

Question put.

The House divided:—Ayes 38; Noes 149: Majority 111. — (Div. List, No. 134.)

Words added.

Main Question, as amended, put. Resolved, That it is inexpedient to interfere with that freedom of contract between Employers and Employed which enables them to contract themselves out of the Act of 1880, and by mutual arrangement and mutual payment to make provision for every workman who may be injured and the family of every workman who may be killed; whether the accident is one coming under the provisions of the Act of 1880, or is one not so provided for.