HC Deb 09 September 1886 vol 308 cc1764-72
MR. BRADLAUGH (Northampton)

said, that a few days ago he put a Ques- tion to the Secretary of State for the Home Department as to alleged breaches of the Truck Act in Scotland; and that right hon. and learned Gentleman answered that the Inspectors of Factories reported to him that they knew nothing of such breaches of the law. He (MR. Bradlaugh) therefore took advantage of the present opportunity to show that the law upon that subject was, in Scotland, persistently, wilfully, and upon a wholesale scale broken. That applied to Tiree and Shetland, to Lanarkshire, and to part of Ayrshire. It was impossible that the Inspectors of Factories in the various districts could be ignorant of the fact; and if they pleaded ignorance to the Home Secretary, there must be some other reason for their want of knowledge than was apparent to the mind of a private Member. At a large meeting of coal and ironworkers, which he (MR. Bradlaugh) attended, as did the hon. Members for the local divisions, at Motherwell, thousands of men declared that the whole of the labourers there present were cognizant of breaches of the Truck Act happening in the works in which they were employed, and a resolution was passed condemning the system declared to be largely in vogue in the county. He would not trouble the House with details as to Tiree, which was partially dealt with in the Report of the Crofters' Commission, nor would he on that occasion go into the broach of the law in Zetland and Fair Isle, though he held in his hand a careful statement of the breaches made on high and indisputable authority; he would confine himself to Lanarkshire, where the state of things seemed every bit as bad as when reported upon in 1871 by the Truck Commission, which thus described the practice as proved before them— When a man wants an advance before payday, he goes to the cashier or the clerk with his book, in which is entered the amount of work he has done. The cashier or clerk marks on the hook the sum which the workman is to receive, and hands the hook hack to him with cash. On receiving the money the workman is expected to take it to the store and deliver it to the head storeman, who in return provides him with a line or ticket for the amount. This line is available for articles at the store to the extent of the figure written upon it. In some cases the man is permitted, either by the clerk or the storekeeper, to carry away a small proportion in actual cash, 1s. or 2s., or 2s. 6d. in 10s., being the usual allowance. He (MR. Bradlaugh) had investigated many cases; but the difficulty was that the men entreated that their names and addresses might not be given unless the Government took the matter up, as they would be at once dismissed from their employment and their families would starve. He had in his hand a pay-note which was issued within the last five weeks, and it contained two items, one for "cash" and the other was what was called the "cash account." The first thing that occurred to the mind was that it was somewhat extraordinary that two such separate items of cash should be printed on each man's pay-note. Really, the practice was to pay fortnightly, or at longer periods. The poor man, unable to exist, obtained an intermediate advance, but not until after he had earned it. Such advances were entered against the first "cash" in the pay-note; but for any money advanced upon this account he was charged interest, though the money had been already earned. The rate of interest was astounding. Upon the ticket before him the charge was 9d. for an advance of 15s. for five days; but the regular rate was 6d. for 10s. for a week, 1s. for £1, which was, at the lowest, 250 per cent per annum; and this was charged to men for lending them their own money. Then the second line "cash account" was the shop account, which was remarkable. The man applied, and got "a line" that nominally entitled him to receive a certain amount in cash; but, in reality, he could only obtain goods. If he should get cash, and with it buy goods elsewhere, he would have to leave the works. One poor man in Lanarkshire wrote him thus— The proprietor one day was going into the town, and met one of his workmen's children with a basket on her arm; he looked into the basket and found a few provisions—he asked her where she had got them, and the girl telling him, he told the father he would not allow it, there was a shop there, and he must use it; and I believe it is very prevalent all through Scotland, I beg to say that I send this in all confidence, as I should suffer the penalty of instant dismissal should it become known. He would not now delay the House from going into Committee by stating further instances; but if he could insure protection to the men he could furnish evidence of over 200 cases which he had himself investigated. The House might wonder why, the law being so audaciously broken, it was not enforced in Scotland, as it had been recently by the Treasury in Wales. Prosecutions in Scotland were conducted by the Procurator Fiscal in all cases in which that official could get his expenses; but, curiously enough, the Truck Act was drawn by English lawyers, who made no provision for prosecutions being conducted in Scotch Courts. That difficulty had been noted by the Truck Commission of 1870; and he would trouble the House with the following extract from the examination by the Royal Commissioners of the Procurator Fiscal of the Hamilton district— Can you inform us whose duty it is? It is the duty of every man who finds himself aggrieved.—But of nobody in particular? Of nobody in particular.—Suppose a miner were aggrieved, would the information be given to you, or to the police? To either; but I never had an information of the kind.—And I rather gather from what you have said that you would not move in the matter, although you had? I would not.—Then to whom ought a complaining miner to make his complaint? He would require to employ an agent to conduct his case for him, and proceed in his own name.—Even if he was complaining of a criminal offence? If he was complaining of an offence against the Truck Act.—And wished to prosecute? Yes, and wished to prosecute.—I am not talking of a case in which he wished to recover money back? No; I am speaking of a contravention of the Truck Act.—Then he would have to employ an agent at his own expense, and proceed in his own name? Yes.—Suppose he were to complain to the police, what would they tell him? That he must proceed himself.—Is not that a very exceptional state of things in the law? It is so; I do not remember any other Act of Parliament in the same condition. And yet the law has been left in this unsatisfactory state. The Procurators Fiscal did not, unfortunately, take up prosecutions in cases of breach of the Truck Act; nor, perhaps, could they be expected to do so until they knew they would get their expenses paid, and that was a state of things which he desired to see remedied. He was advised that to secure this it needed a short amending Bill to enact—(1) That all prosecutions under the Truck Acts may be brought in the Sheriffs' Courts, and by the Procurators Fiscal thereof; (2) That the expenses of such prosecutions should enter the Sheriffs' accounts against their counties, and be repayable in Exchequer, as in other prosecutions; and (3) That pecuniary penalties adjudged by Sheriffs should be accounted for by them in Exchequer. The Royal Commission of 1870 had denounced, and he (MR. Brad- laugh) would again denounce, this truck system as demoralizing in the highest degree. The Secretary of State for the Home Department said that he had no information upon the matter, though it was perfectly well known to 30,000 or 40,000 workmen. He was not attacking the right hon. and learned Gentleman personally, who had received his (Mr. Bradlaugh's) statements with great courtesy, and who, he believed, desired to suppress this shameful system. But it was the Secretary of State who had to answer in that House. He (MR. Bradlaugh) had in his possession allegations of cases where employers, reputed for their honour and integrity, and who gave large donations to churches, had beer shops and whisky stores at the doors of their places of business, and who advanced money to the men to go in and spend in these places, and charged them, in addition, 250 per cent interest on the advances. It was intolerable that when breaches of the Truck Act had almost entirely disappeared in England and were punished in Wales, the law should be allowed to become a dead letter in Scotland. The putting of the law in force should surely not be left to poor ignorant men without pecuniary means, who could not proceed without employing law agents' counsel.


said, that he could not follow the hon. Gentleman upon the province of fact into which he had entered. He had done his best within the last week to make inquiries on the subject. He had some, although imperfect, information with regard to Tiree; and he was bound to say about it that, although the state of things was by no means satisfactory, and one for which he could wish to see a remedy, he was not satisfied that what took place there could be reached by the Truck Act at all. As he gathered, the workmen in Tiree, who were paid in goods instead of money, were not artificers within the meaning of the Truck Act. They were simply persons who collected sea weed or tangle, which was ultimately used for glass manufacture, but who were not employed in any manufacturing process. Moreover, in extenuation of the practice which seemed to prevail in Tiree of giving these labourers goods instead of money for their wages, various excuses were urged by the employers. Some said that the workmen themselves preferred it. He would scrutinize a plea like that closely before accepting it. Others alleged that the system of giving meal was preferred by the men.


That very excuse was made and dealt with by the Truck Commissioners, who rejected it as an invalid excuse.


said, that the Crofters' Commission had dealt with the case of payment with meal instead of coin, and expressed no very positive conclusion on the subject. They did not state positively whether the custom prevailed so as to bring it within the Truck Act. Another excuse was made, and if true would, he thought, be a valid one, that the difficulty of reaching Tiree was so great, owing to stormy weather, that the getting of regular supplies of coin was a matter of almost impossibility. He did not pretend so set himself on an equality of zeal with the lion. Member in this matter; but he claimed the next place to him in zeal, and he would assure the hon. Member that if any efforts could tend to prevent any abuse which came within the letter or the spirit of the Truck Act, they should not be wanting in order to protect the workmen, whose cause was advocated with such ability by the hon. Member. With regard to what went on in Lanarkshire, he was not able to assist the hon. Gentleman with any statement of facts at present; he had done his utmost within the last four or five days to get information on the matter. He had no reason whatever to doubt the accuracy of the information which the hon. Gentleman had laid before the House, but he was not at present able to confirm it; and, of course, the hon. Member would not expect him to take official action without that confirmation. He had reason to suspect, though he did not know yet, that the system to which the hon. Member had alluded of charging what was called a "commission" by some employers for advances of wages did exist in that part of Scotland. The Scotch law seemed to him to be as impenetrable as a Scotch mist, and he did not profess to have any knowledge of the subject; and the Lord Advocate, he was sorry to say, was not at his elbow to enlighten him. At the same time, he thought that the system of making a workman's wages payable every fortnight, and to charge him 6d. or 1s. for an advance of 10s., was a very great abuse, and if it was not freely and voluntarily consented to by the workmen themselves it was a matter which any friend of the workmen would be justified in protesting against. As to compelling them to deal at a particular shop, the hon. Member was as good a judge as he was whether that was against the spirit of the Truck Act; and if he could do anything with the assistance of the Secretary for Scotland and the advice of the Lord Advocate, he and they would do their utmost to stimulate Procurators Fiscal and to induce them to inquire into these matters.


said, he regretted that he had not known beforehand that the hon. Member for Northampton was to bring forward this subject to-night. If he had he would have looked into the law of the subject, and would also have endeavoured to get more facts from the county of Lanark than he had at present. In fact, he was not aware that the Forms of the House would have allowed of the subject being brought forward now. If he had it would have been his business to bring forward the subject himself, as he was aware that it was regarded with great interest in the county. The abuses complained of in Lanarkshire were of two kinds. The one was the system of poundage by which a miner got an advance on his wages on what he had earned, and was charged an exorbitant interest upon it. He might explain to the Home Secretary that this was a matter which had nothing whatever to do with the Scottish law. It required no familiarity with the Scottish law, and the Truck Act and the subsidiary Acts dealing with the subject were equally applicable to every part of the United Kingdom. There was no doubt a very considerable difference of opinion from the information he had received as to how far the system of truck prevailed in Lanarkshire. But he quite agreed with his hon. Friend that it did prevail to a considerable extent. He knew one employer who denied that the shop system continued in existence now, although it was very bad 15 years ago, and who was even astonished to hear that the system of poundage prevailed, although there was no doubt it did. He would press the matter on the atten- tion of the Home Secretary and the Secretary for Scotland; but would not express any conclusion himself on the subject just now, not having had an opportunity to look into the law on the subject. No doubt the Truck Commissioners 15 years ago pointed out that the machinery of the law for bringing breaches of the Truck Act before Courts of Justice was ineffective as regarded Scotland. It was constructed for England. The statement of the hon. Member for Northampton that the hitch lay in the non-provision for expenses did not explain the whole cause for inaction. There was frequently difficulty in prosecuting what were called quasi-criminal offences. Criminal offences were prosecuted by the Public Prosecutor, and that official did not receive or ask for his cost; but in quasi-criminal cases, such as breaches of the Factory or Truck Acts, difficulty sometimes arose, although it might be got over occasionally. The Solicitor General for Scotland would probably corroborate him in saying that it was sometimes got over by the issuing of an order, as it was in the power of the Lord Advocate to do, directing that the Procurators Fiscal should conduct such prosecutions. One point he asked the Home Secretary to consider was how far the law as regarded the mode of bringing offences against the Truck Act before the Courts of Law might be amended; and the second point he asked the right hon. Gentleman to consider was whether the Truck Act covered the system of poundage. The shop system and the poundage system were a very great hardship to the workmen; and he asked the Home Secretary and the Lord Advocate to consider whether the present law would suffice, and whether it ought not to be extended.

DR. CLARK (Caithness)

said, that in all the Highland quarries the truck system was in operation. When in Argyllshire in June and July, before the present Lord Advocate was appointed, he had called his attention to the matter, particularly in connection with the Easdale quarries. The probability was that in Tiree, the Procurator Fiscal being the agent of the proprietor, nothing was done. He knew that in his own county the truck system prevailed in the flagstone quarries; and the Procurator Fiscal, being also agent for the proprietor, winked at it. There the men were paid, not once a fortnight, but every three months. The accounts were made up every three months, and then the men had to wait another month before receiving payment. The only pier to winch a ship could bring coals belonged to the Company who had only once in a considerable number of years allowed any ship to come there except their own. They imported meal and coal, and sold them to their men, and the local merchants could not compete with them. He was glad the Home Secretary had taken up the question; and he hoped that by next Session they should find the subject had been investigated, and that the Procurator Fiscal, who had been tolerating, if not aiding and abetting, would receive proper attention.

MR. CALDWELL (Glasgow, St. Rollox)

said, he wished to point out that in Scotland there was a civil remedy for these grievances. If a workman were paid in kind he could sue for payment in money, going back for a considerable period; and if he were in the position of not being able to conduct the prosecution, the law of Scotland provided him with counsel, provided he could show a primâ facie case. Therefore a remedy was within the reach of even the poorest man in Scotland, and expenses would always follow the success of the case. With regard to poundage it was difficult to bring it under the Truck Act, because the matter was outside the contract of service, the workman desiring payment in advance. That was a private arrangement between him and his master. Under the law as it at present stood he did not think that that would necessarily come under the Act. It was a question whether it ought not to be brought under the Act; but he merely wished to point out that a civil remedy at present existed.