HC Deb 06 May 1887 vol 314 cc1237-43

Bill considered in Committee.

(In the Committee.)

MR. D. CRAWFORD (Lanark, N.E.)

I feel that I am under a great disadvantage in asking the attention of the Committee to my Amendments on this important Bill at so very late an hour (1.30 A.M.) But the questions involved are questions which concern my constituents very nearly. They affect not only the electors in my own constituency, which is a mining constituency, but also mining constituencies in many parts of the country, I will endeavour, as briefly as I can, to explain the object of this Amendment. The original Truck Act of 1831, which this Bill is intended to amend, dealt, I believe, with two points. The first point was, that wages were to be paid in current coin of this Realm; and there were various clauses which endeavoured to protect the workman from evasion of that part of the Bill. And the second point dealt with was a provision for certain deductions from wages for certain purposes, justified by public policy, such as education, medical assistance, and so forth. Experience has shown that the original Act requires considerable amendment. The Bill which is at present before the House, and which has already made considerable progress—the Bill of the hon. Member for Northampton—certainly proposes some very salutary changes in the law; the Committee have already agreed, for example, that the original Truck Act, which was restricted to certain trades only, shall now be extended to all trades. That is a great change for the better, but it will not much affect the constituency which I have the honour to represent. Secondly, the Bill before the House, in a clause which has been partially under discussion, proposes a most advantageous change as to the method and time of paying wages, abolishing the system of poundage or interest which now prevails, and establishing in principle that the wages shall be paid weekly. That, however, has not yet been accepted by the Committee. But, assuming that this is also passed, I can only say that the evils under which my constituency and constituencies similar to mine labour will not, at least to the extent of one-half, be removed. Now, I should like to recall very briefly the attention of the Committee to the principle on which the Truck Act of 1831 proceeds. It prohibits the payment of wages in kind. That is a very considerable interference with the liberty of dealing between man and man; and yet, at so early a date as 1831, and, I believe, anterior to that, it was found necessary to make such an interference. I should be very sorry, any further than is absolutely necessary, to extend the principle of interference with the dealings between man and man. An hon. Member who sits on this side of the House—a very large employer of labour, and a respected Member of this House—said to me, a few days ago, that if he had liberty to pay his workmen in kind, they would get their food better and 20 per cent cheaper than they can at present. That may be so. I should be glad to see the day when such protective legislation as truck legislation has become entirely unnecessary, and I think it may possibly be that the day is not so very distant; but, in the meantime, I think no one at all acquainted with the subject can doubt that the existing Truck Act is still necessary for the protection of workmen; and all that my Amendment proposes is that the Act should be not merely a Statute on paper, liable to continual evasion. The reason on which any legislation of the kind cannot be dispensed with is, that the employers and workmen do not deal entirely on equal terms. It has been found necessary, therefore, to assist the workman in the object which he has at heart—namely, that he shall have the spending of his own wages; that his wages should not be subject to a second profit to be made by the master, compulsorily and against the workman's will—a profit beyond the fair profit derived from the legitimate exercise of the trade. The Committee has already passed clauses intended to give additional protection to the workman against any compulsion in respect of the payment of wages. It would be impossible for me to trespass on the patience of the Committee by going into each detail of the subject; but I may say that my contention is, that the new clauses do little or nothing to strengthen the present Act. I think my interpretation will be confirmed by the Attorney General when he looks into the matter, because I have no doubt that the Government will treat it in a judicial spirit, and with a desire to do justice to the interests concerned. I say that the clauses of the Truck Act are as strong on paper as they can be made. The 1st and 2nd clauses of that Act provide that no contract is to be lawful which stipulates that the workman is to spend his wages in any particular place and in any particular manner; and then the definition of the word contract is so wide that I think—on paper—it is sufficient to cover any attempt on the part of the master to compel the workman to spend his wages in a particular way. The definition is, that the term "contract" is to include every understanding … every agreement or arrangement, direct or indirect. It is evident that the framers of the Truck Act of 1831 were very much in earnest in making these provisions as stringent as possible. I am afraid, although I welcome the clause introduced, that it does not materially improve the position of the workman. Now, how far wore the clauses of the Act of 1831 effectual, which provided that a workman should be at liberty to spend his own wages? In former days they proved to be very ineffectual, and the loud complaints which were made throughout the country came to a climax about 17 years since. A Royal Commission was appointed to consider the question, and they collected a quantity of valuable information which showed that the existing provisions of the Truck Act were entirely ineffectual in a great many places; that the masters practically compelled their workmen to deal at their stores, or at stores let to others, or held by them in another name; that those stores were very often spirit shops; that this produced a demoralizing effect upon the workmen; and that the men were practically deprived of the benefit of their own wages. The Royal Commission consisted of an eminent Judge and of a Gentleman who is now a Member of this House, and their Report was presented in 1872. They reported that great evils existed, and they made recommendations on the subject. Since then no legislation has taken place, although legislation was proposed in the following Session by the Liberal Government, and a Bill went so far as to be sent to a Select Committee and to be reported with Amendments. I am far from saying the evils are now so great as then; because the attention which was drawn to the subject by the issuing of the Commission, and the publicity given to the evidence given before the Commission, had, no doubt, a very considerable effect. I will read a very few lines from the Report of the Commission. I should have liked to read a great deal more if the time had been more favourable. The passage I will quote is from page 82 of the Report; and the general manager referred to is a gentleman with whom I am well acquainted. I have had no communication with him on the subject at all. He is now retired from business, but is a man of great ability and experience, and what he says may be fairly taken as an illustration of what generally exists in my constituency. The gentleman was the manager of one of the largest works in my constituency, and the Report says— The general manager expressed unqualified disapproval of the store system. 'It is,' he said, 'a disagreeable system to work, and I think it has the effect of interfering with proper men coming to the works generally. The workmen do not like it. They generally disapprove of works where stores are, and do not care about going to these works. It has a tendency, I think, rather to demoralize the people. Most of the people that I see who deal in the store get into a state of poverty from the working of the system. They are a bad lot, I find generally, as compared with others. They do not improve. They begin at the bottom and stay at the bottom. The people who spend their money in that sort of way are rather degraded.' If it be said, as it may fairly be said, that, to some extent, there has been an improvement since that time, I would like to read one or two letters I have received from workmen with whom I am personally acquainted. They are not long letters, but they are written in simple and effective language, and are written by modest and respectable men personally well known to mo. One man writes to me as follows:— Dear Sir,—In this district truck is carried on to a great extent. Each coalmaster has a store attached to his work's, where his workmen must take all his goods from. Every article they sell is double the price that it is anywhere else, and, besides, the worst of rubbish. In fact, they think anything's good enough for their serfs. At a deal of the cash offices they have a system of giving their workmen money every night, or a line over to the store. So far, it's for their ink rest to give them it every night, ft keeps the workmen in poverty, that they cannot wait for more than a day at a time; so, besides the fear of dismissal, they would got no money the following night. But, of course, that does not apply to all the workmen; there's some lets their money remain in the office till the pay. Supposing I had £2 for my fortnight's pay, and going into the store and leaving £1 8s. on Monday, the manager would tell me I must spend all my money in the store, or I would know the consequences. When they are dismissing workmen they do not say what it's for; hut they can draw their own inferences from it. I myself was taking all I required, but that was not enough. I must take goods to correspond with the money I got. Suppose I was to let them go to waste, there is a messenger goes between the store and the office to let them know what each spends; they will say you have no excuse; they sell everything you require; there is always a spirit shop attached. Now, if that is a true statement, it shows a lamentable state of matters, and I can vouch for the respectability of my informant. Here is another short letter— Sir,—The truck system is carried out in this way, where the employer keeps a grocery and spirit shop. The employés are paid their wages in full; hut if they fail to leave their wages in the shop, they are simply dismissed without any reason being given except through some under-official. If the man asks him, he will be told he ought to know himself, for he has done nothing for the store. Now, dismissal from work means being turned out of house and home; because, where the employer has a shop, the men's houses belong to the employer. It is when work is scarce that the greatest pressure is brought to bear on the poor men. Here is an extract from another letter— I beg to state that the stores is no convenience to the men; they would only be too glad to spend their money where they could make most of it. The men want the masters to be forbidden by law to have stores, especially grocery stores, no doubt. They do not care whether we eat or drink our money if they get it back, so long as they are allowed to have the profits of the stores. Our wages are not our own, and there should be none except on the co-operative principle. That man expresses, in plain language, the principle in this case. So long as the men are obliged to deal with the stores their wages are not their own. In this Amendment I am not proposing anything of an extreme or violent nature. I am only proposing to carry out the principle of the existing Truck Act, which prohibits workmen being compelled to spend their money in any particular place, or in any particular man- ner. I know it to be a fact that, in some instances, these stores have been established with a view to the convenience of the men. T am ready to admit they are often managed with the intention of benefiting the workmen; but I assort, with the utmost confidence, that, as far as my own constituency is concerned, and other constituencies from whom I have had communications, the men unanimously desire to have these stores prohibited, because they consider that, as long as such places exist, there is a practical compulsion upon them to deal at them. There is no hardship whatever upon the masters in prohibiting these stores, for the very reason that is stated, practically, in one of the letters I have read—namely, that while a man is entitled to a legitimate profit in his own trade, he is not entitled, against the will and desire of his. workmen, to make a second profit out of the workmen's wages. That is the principle of this Amendment.

New Clause—

(Prohibition of Stores.)

"No spirits or other intoxicating drink, or groceries, or other provisions of any kind, or clothing, shall be sold by any employer, or any agent of an employer, to a workman in the employment of such employer.

"Provided that this enactment shall not apply to the supply of provisions to any workman living in the same house with his employer.

"For the purposes of this section, a person who is tenant of a store, shop, or other premises belonging to an employer, and who sells any of the aforesaid things to a workman in the employment of such employer, shall be deemed to be the agent of such employer, unless he shows that he is only an ordinary tenant, and that the employer does not directly or indirectly derive any profit from the store, shop, or premises beyond such reasonable rent as would be paid for a store, shop, or other promises of the same character held under another owner,"—(Mr. D. Crawford,)

brought up, and read the first time.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Clause be read a second time."


I really must ask the Committee to report Progress. We have had a very interesting speech, occupying nearly half-an-hour, from the hon. Member; but it is impossible, at this hour of the night (1.45), to debate the question raised. This is a clause which must lead to considerable discussion, and, therefore, I hope the Committee will now report Progress.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Chairman do report Progress, and ask leave to sit again,"—(Mr. Attorney General.)

MR. BRADLAUGH (Northampton)

I certainly shall not oppose a Motion to report Progress. It is quite clear a great deal of debate must arise upon this Amendment.

Motion agreed to.

Committee report Progress; to sit again upon Monday next.

House adjourned at ten minutes before Two o'clock till Monday next.