*COLONEL C. E. HOWARD VINCENT (Sheffield, Central) moved—
That, in the opinion of this Honse, it is incumbent upon Her Majesty's Government, in the interests of the industrial classes of the United Kingdom, at once to take steps to restrict the importation of goods made in Foreign Prisons by the forced labour of convicts and felons.
Hon. Members, he said, would not be unacquainted with the subject, and more especially those representing industrial constituencies. They would recollect that early last year a considerable sensation was caused by the revelations of a trade journal, The Hardwareman, published at Birmingham, on the matter. This paper sent a Commissioner to Germany, Mr. James Lancaster Pollit, and at his (the hon. Member's) instance his report had been embodied in a sworn affidavit. This document he had with him, and, if the House would allow him, he would read its more important paragraphs.
I, James Lancaster Pollitt, of 5, Gloucester Road, Kew, in the county of Surrey, do solemnly and sincerely declare— (1) That I was delegated by The Hardware man, journal as a special commissioner to inquire into the manufacture of goods in German Prisons, and that I proceeded to Germany with such intent in January 1894. (2) That upon January 25th I visited the Provincial Short Term Prison of Brauweiler (Cologne), and on January 31st the State Long Term Prison of Plotzen See (Berlin), and I learned that in those establishments the labour of the prisoners is hired out to manufacturers, called concessionaires, who supply their own raw material and the plant necessary for production, and who hire the prisoners' labour upon two systems:—(a) Whereunder they hire the prisoners from the authorities at rates varying from 3d. to Is. per man per diem, according to the man's adaptability to the class of work he is required for; and (b) where-under they take the finished article from the authorities and pay at an equivalent rate for the labour it has absorbed. (4) That I saw prisoners working upon English models, and learned from the officials and representatives of the concessionaires that they were turning out large numbers of brushes, whips, lamps and lanterns, candlesticks, cash boxes, spice boxes, birdcages, carpet sweepers, socks and stockings, wine bins, chair bedsteads, cots, garden chairs, jackets and mantles, sewing-machine tables and covers, slippers, &c., for the English market. All of these, except jackets and mantles and sewing machine covers, I saw in course of process of manufacture, either in parts or the whole, (5) That I was informed by prison officials that the labour at more than twenty prisons in various parts of Germany is farmed out upon one of the two
methods indicated as 'A' and ' B.' (6) That goods made in these prisons find their way into England (firstly) through the concessionaire's English agent; (secondly) from that agent to a wholesale buyer, who is not informed that the goods are made in prison; and (thirdly) from the wholesale buyer to the shopkeeper, who is certainly kept in ignorance of their origin even if the wholesale buyer has learned accidentally how they are made.
The proprietors of The Manchester Examiner had been at the same time informed, from a reliable source, that in German State prisons—
The spinning and weaving of cotton goods was extensively carried on, and the bales were actually fraudulently stamped with the names of Manchester firms.
It would be readily believed that the publication of this aggravated form of foreign competition had created considerable sensation among the industrial masses, who had begun seriously to feel the depression which had been prevalent since 1892. Questions had been addressed to right hon. Gentlemen opposite, not only by himself, but by other hon. Members, and by his right hon. Friend the Member for West Birmingham. He, the Mover, had taken infinite pains on the subject. He had written to the Member for Brightside, when President of the Board of Trade, and had sent him the card of one of the prison travellers bearing the legend, "R. & H., Manufacturers at the Convict Prison, Graudenz. Sole agent, S. A. R., St. E. C." He had shown him across the floor of the House samples of the brushes made in German prisons and being sold in Great Britain at less than half of the cost of British labour alone, while English, Scotch, and Irish brush-makers had been starving. It had been impossible to arouse the right hon. Gentleman. He declared he had nothing to do with International commodities. But wiser counsels prevailed, and the Foreign Office had communicated with Her Majesty's Ambassador in Berlin. Indeed, to give credit where credit was due, Lord Rosebery had done so, it now appeared, as early as February, without the Board of Trade knowing anything about it. But they had waited in vain all through last Session for the Report from Berlin. He had pressed the present President of the Board of Trade repeatedly, but without result, and he would not even send for Mr. Pollitt, the Commissioner of The Hardware man, and learn the facts from
him. He had said last Session that the Report had arrived from Berlin, and had charged the right hon. Gentleman with having had the Report put into a pigeonhole, labelled "Not to be presented till Parliament rises." They had the Report now, and the date showed that he had been perfectly right. Sir Edward Malet's despatch, inclosing the very able Report of Mr. Tower, Second Secretary in Her Majesty's Embassy, had been received in London on June 24. Parliament did not rise for nearly two months afterwards, and the Report had only been issued to Members in December or January. If the President of the Board of Trade thought this trifling with the subject was approved by those whose industry was being ruined, he would undeceive him. The other Reports were entirely of a secondary character, and had not been asked for. The only important des patch received after June had been from Her Majesty's Ambassador in the United States. It narrated that the Laws of America ordained—
That the goods, wares, articles, and merchandise manufactured wholly or in part in any foreign country by convict labour, shall not be entitled to entry at any of the ports of the United States, and the importation thereof is prohibited; and the Secretary of the Treasury is authorised to prescribe such regulations as may be necessary for the enforcement of this provision.
He had called the attention of the President of the Board of Trade to this fact so long ago as the 29th of June, and, would it be believed, that the Minister responsible for the trade of this country with other countries, and the leading English authority on the American Constitution, declared—
that he had no information as to the practice of the Customs Authorities of the United States or Canada on the point referred to?
He was wholly unable to induce Her Majesty's Government to move in the matter last year. He had therefore brought in a Bill of three lines excluding prison-made goods from importation, with the support of 12 Members from all parts of the House. It had been repeatedly blocked and mainly by the Member for Shipley, whose constituents, he knew, viewed his action with great disfavour. But, after all, it was the business of the Government to introduce and press forward Legislation of this character. It was
useless having Committees to inquire into the distress through want of employment if these causes of industrial distress were left unremedied. The Reports from Her Majesty's Representatives in certain foreign countries on Prison Labour showed that there was strong ground for taking action apart from the emphatic resolution on the subject of the Trades Union Congress and the numerous petitions which had been presented to this House since the opening of Parliament. They were from Glasgow, Huddersfield, Dublin, Halifax, Bradford, Oldham, Preston, Worcester, Sheffield, and many other places—indeed, nearly every important town. Would the House permit him to call its attention to the startling character of the Report from Berlin? A recent answer of the President of the Board of Trade induced the conviction that he had not read the Reports. If he had not time to go through them in their entirety, it would be quite sufficient if he condescended to run his eye, as he could do in five minutes, through the very able summary published in the current number of the official Labour Gazette—a journal on the impartial compilation of which he heartily congratulated the Labour Department of the Board of Trade. It showed that there were three systems of prison labour in force abroad:—
- (A)—The Contract System, under Which the prison Authorities farmed out the labour of the prisoners to contractors who supplied materials, machinery, and foremen."
- (B) The Régie System, under which the State supplied materials, tools, and machinery, the work being supervised by the prison officials.
- (C)—The Accord System, under which the control of the work was retained by the State, but the contractor supplied materials."
In Prussia, Bavaria, Baden, and the Hungarian States, 29,200; in Saxony, 3,673; in Wurtemberg, 1,269; in Hamburg, 886; in France, 22,228,—a total on the European Continent, without counting Belgium, Switzerland, and Scandinavia, of 57,256.To this enormous figure the United States of America added 45,277 prisoners, bringing up the official total of foreign felons competing with British labour to 102,533. The value of the 1139 work done by these prisoners in wages alone was estimated at nearly £6,000,000. In Prussia, Saxony, Wurtemberg, and Hamburg over £200,000 were paid in wages to prisoners, who received from ½d. to 2d. a day for themselves. In France £177,000, while the American estimate of the value of prison labour was £5,492,434. Now, the important thing was, how much of the products of this foreign prison labour came to the United Kingdom? The President of the Board of Trade applauded that. But at all events he, the Mover, knew as much, or more, on this subject than he did. The President of the Board of Trade had repeatedly assured the House last year that he had not been in communication with the Customs Authorities on the subject, and had seen no reason for so communicating. He had also averred that he could not tell which of the £68,000,000 worth of foreign manufactured goods annually imported were prison made and which were not. He, himself, had had the advantage of communication with manufacturers and workmen all over the country. They assured him that they were being much injured by this unfair competition, arid, he thought, they knew their own business. Of course, the official informants of Her Majesty's diplomatic officers had not been so foolish as to give away the only market for their prison-made goods, The reports said—
To what extent the output of German prison labour is imported into the United Kingdom cannot be stated. The small merchants who buy may or may not export. To what extent any of the French prison manufactures are imported into the United Kingdom cannot be stated. What proportion of the American prison output reaches the United Kingdom does not appear.This was all very well, and might have been expected. But when the German Minister of the Interior admitted that goods had been ordered in German prisons to have foreign marks put on them, when we had the testimony of our own countrymen whose interests were so vitally affected corroborating the Commissioner of The Hardware man, our suspicions that Great Britain was their destination were more than aroused. It was confirmed by the difficulty of selling prison goods elsewhere. Mr. Tower said the prison work included cigar manufacture, machine knitting basket 1140 weaving, cane-furniture making, brush making—863 in Prussia alone—cardboard work, portfolio making, fancy paper making, the manufacture of hemp sacks, cocoa matting, making felt and wooden shoes, button making, the manufacture of metal fittings, lamps, and copperware; in wood carving, in netting; in making toys, quincaillerie and tin soldiers; in wood, horn, and ivory turning; in making combs, umbrellas, sticks, picture frames, gold beading, iron screws, nails, and in miscellaneous fancy work. Where were the goods sold? The German Government had no means of knowing. Of course not, or rather it would not tell. But they knew how much opposition was being made in Germany against prison labour being applied to reproductive work as being an unfair competition with trades and industries. Mr. Tower wrote—
German carpenters, wood carvers, lock and tin smiths, fitters, plumbers, tailors, shoemakers, paper-makers, bookbinders, button-makers, lithographers, printers, and weavers make complaints.When it was proved that the whole trade of artificial flowers was ruined by prison competition, the prison manufacture had been discontinued. The State required that the contractor should not sell within a ten kilometre radius (say between six and seven miles) of the prison of origin. Her Majesty's Representative in Saxony reported that there the prison work had been distributed into 35 trades, and that, in 1892, £27,500 had been paid in wages to prisoners. He added—
The entire system of prison labour is the object of chronic denunciation in the Saxon Legislature, in the Chambers of Commerce, in the Press, and otherwise, as, constituting an illegitimate interference with private industrial enterprise; and as a concession to free industry it has been laid down that no prison shall employ labour on commodities specially produced in its own immediate neighbourhood.The prison-made goods, being unsaleable near the prisons, were despatched elsewhere. Whither? Would the President of the Board of Trade tell them? The present British Government alone welcomed them. The competition of British prison labour with free labour had been, almost entirely stopped by the action of Trades Unions, although it undeniably taught the prisoners useful trades, was a social good, and reduced the cost of their maintenance. But if 1141 this competition were coming in on an extensive scale from Germany and Belgium, the injury to British free labour was infinitely greater. It was idle for the President of the Board of Trade to try and minimise the amount of the competition or to minimise the injury done. If he went to Glasgow, Edinburgh, or Aberdeen they would tell him that it was very real. Working men and manufacturers knew where the shoe pinched, and were entitled to relief from the Government. He had reason to believe that the great trade journal, The Ironmonger, estimated the importation of prison goods at £1,500 a week. It was idle for the right hon. Gentleman to aver that the injury in any particular trade was comparatively small. If there were any injury whatever to any trade it was the duty of the Government to endeavour to remove it, and most especially in this day of depression and distress. Lastly, it was idle for the right hon. Gentleman to pretend that the officers of Her Majesty's Customs were not able to tell what goods were prison-made or what were not. If he were not able, as well as the Secretary to the American Treasury, to prescribe regulations on the subject he must give place to some one who could. There was no difficulty whatever in the matter. On the ground, then, that 100,000 foreign prisoners were competing unfairly with British industry, and driving honest free men out of work—on the ground that it was the duty of the Government to move in this matter promptly and effectively—he begged to move the Resolution which stood in his name, and hoped the House would support it to a Division, quite irrespective of Party politics, which had nothing to do, as had this Motion, with the bread and butter of the people.
§ COLONEL F. BRIDGEMAN (Bolton),
in seconding the Amendment, said he had had many communications from his constituents on this subject, which they regarded as a burning question. The House was anxious to hear the reply the President of the Board of Trade would make to what had bean said by the hon. and gallant Gentleman who moved the Amendment, and although the right hon. Gentleman would probably not approve the presence of foreign-made goods in this country, yet he would no doubt fall back upon the artificial laws 1142 of Free Trade. Were they not putting themselves too much under the yoke of those artificial laws which prevented them doing the best for the people of their own country? A good many people posed as the advocates of Free Trade, but they struck at its fundamental principles. For instance, there were the supporters of the Eight Hours Bill, which was totally opposed to Free-trade principles, and many other cases of a similar nature could be mentioned. He submitted that there were many cases where it was better that the working classes of the country should have to pay fractionally more for certain goods, and at the same time to be fully employed, than to be displaced by foreign competition for the privilege of securing cheaper goods. The working classes, however, were beginning to see that; and he hoped the Committee which had just been appointed to inquire into the question of the unemployed would turn its attention to the interesting facts and particulars that had been submitted by his hon. and gallant Friend.
§ MR. C. J. S. DODD (Essex, Maldon)
thought that the hon. and gallant Member for Sheffield had been a little hard on the President of the Board of Trade in expecting the right hon. Gentleman to have the whole of the commerce of this country at his fingers' ends. That was too much to expect from any President of the Board of Trade, but they were entitled to say, on behalf of that Department, that it had inquired into, and had furished the Home Department with, some valuable information respecting this matter. In view of that information it would not be too much to expect the right hon. Gentleman to agree that it had become a duty to put a stop to the importation into this country of goods manufactured in Prussian prisons. As had been pointed out, foreign prisoners were let out for hire for small sums. They could make useful but common articles of almost all kinds, and their labour being so very cheat, the system had a disastrous effect upon the market. Prussia appeared from the Consular Reports to have a very large number of prisoners, something like 16,899, who were, engaged in this work, a large portion of which no doubt came to our own markets. In the brush-making work some 862 prisoners were employed, 1143 and this state of things was not confined to Prussia, but was found also in Dresden, although the Saxony Legislature was reported to be continually denouncing the prison labour as interfering with outside trade. The rate paid for prison work greatly undercut the market rate, with the inevitable result of producing goods which the trade could not produce at the same price. It seemed to him that when they had Legislation, which was intended to promote the making of goods, it should be used to prevent prison-made articles coming into the country until they were honestly marked. He did not think that Englishmen would care to brush their hats and clothes with brushes with the prison stamp upon them, or to use any other article of the same origin. Although there were all sorts of men in the prisons, who did all sorts of work, yet none of them appeared to have anything to do with the law, and he attributed that to to the fact that lawyers were not in the habit of getting into gaol. He cordially joined, however, in asking the right hon. Gentleman to do something to put a stop to the present state of things as speedily as possible.
§ *MR. W. C. QUILTER (Suffolk, Sudbury)
desired to confine his remarks to those subjects about which his own constituents entertained rather deep feelings, and which affected them rather severely at the present time. In 1885, when he began to represent the Sudbury Division, the mat-weaving industry was in fairly satisfactory condition there. It had been taken up on the decline of the silk and woollen industry in that part of Suffolk, and was fairly prosperous. Just about that time, however, the people began to feel the pressure of the competition of prison labour, and, as many Members of the House would know, he had made many demands upon successive Home Secretaries in regard to this matter. Many of the holders of that Office had not met his representations unfavourably, and in 1891 the then Home Secretary said, in answer to a remonstrance against this prison competition, that the policy of the Prison Department would be to take care that no trade was seriously interfered with by prison labour. The intention then expressed was not carried out at once, but subsequently it 1144 was decided that this unfair competition with free labour should cease in England. That decision had been loyally carried out by the officials of the Department concerned, and he thanked them for the invariable courtesy and patience with which they had received his representations. But he was sorry to say that, although this kind of competition had been done away with in England, it still lingered in Scotland. There this iniquitous system was still allowed to prevail, but he trusted that its disappearance was only a matter of time. He could not believe that a Ministry like the present, who had such very good reasons for taking care of the working classes of this country, would permit a continuance of the system in any part of the country; but, turning to the question of foreign competition, he had to say that in the district which he represented the people had now to face competition with prison labour in Belgium. There were in Belgium so-called agricultural colonies. In 1888, at the instance of the Belgian Government, a working mat manufacturer went to Belgium in order to teach the mat-making industry to the prisoners in those colonies. Shortly afterwards, the right was given to a concessionaire to hire all the labour on those penal colonies. He was now paying a penny a day for the labour of these mat-makers, taught by an English manufacturer, and he had nothing to pay for fuel, light, and other necessaries. In 1890, when the manufacture of these mats began, the Belgian Labour Representatives in Parliament were in their places, and on the alert—the same could not be said, by the way, of the English Labour Representatives on that occasion—and they insisted that these mats should not be sold in Belgium itself, and so the mats came to this country of Free Trade and unrestricted competition. In 1890, the value of the mats so imported was about, £20 a month, but in 1894 the figure had risen to £1,500 a month. Five hundred persons, at a place near Malines, were engaged in making these mats, the rate of payment being a penny a day. The mats could be sold in this country for 3s., yielding a profit of 50 per cent, to the importers. The same price would not cover the cost of mere labour in this country. These mats were purchased 1145 largely by the Co-operative Societies and for Asylums for the Blind, where they were exhibited as the work of the inmates. It was impossible for any district to contend against this prison competition. The case he had put before the House was surely serious enough to command the sympathetic attention of the President of the Board of Trade. But it was not only foreign competition and prison competition that threatened to strangle the industries of this country: there was the question of rates for carriage. The mats made in Belgium could be brought from Antwerp to London for very little more than the price that was charged for bringing mats from his constituency. He asked whether the time had not come when there should be some alteration in the law. Means ought to be devised to enable purchasers to ascertain whether the goods proffered to them had been manufactured by their own; countrymen by free labour abroad or in foreign prisons. When in ignorance they bought goods manufactured in prisons abroad, they were unwittingly assisting the foreign prison-labour concessionaire to the detriment of starving fellow-countrymen.
MR. JAMES LOWTHER (Kent, Thanet)
said, that the case put before the House by the hon. and gallant Member for Sheffield was undoubtedly a very strong one. Were the Chancellor of the Exchequer present he would no doubt tell the House that German prisons, in sending goods to this country, were conferring an inestimable boon upon us. In the right hon. Gentleman's view, a lowering of prices was always an advantage, and he would probably say that it was highly desirable that a man should not have to pay the full price of brushes made in this country, because the less he had to pay for such goods the more he would have to spend in other ways. But where was the line to be drawn? No doubt the President of the Board of Trade would say obligingly whether the interests of the home producer were always to be sacrificed to the interests of the foreigner; whether the interests of the native Briton were always to be sacrificed to those of the alien felon? The right hon. Gentleman would, he hoped, inform them whether competition of that kind was fair and reasonable to this country. These were points with 1146 regard to which they had a right to ask and expect some guidance on the part of the Government. He hoped this issue would be clearly recognised by the Government. He hoped that the Government would not seek shelter under one of those endless inquiries which they already had ad nauseam. The facts were fully placed before the Government by the Official Reports of the representatives of Her Majesty abroad, and the Government would now be in a position to state whether they intended to stick to the principle of buying in the cheapest market under all conditions, or whether they thought that at last the line should be somewhere drawn.
§ *MR. W. E. M. TOMLINSON (Preston)
said, that, as representing a constituency which, to some extent, felt the grievance of this competition with foreign-made prison goods, he desired to add a word or two to what had been said by previous speakers.
Attention being called to the fact that 40 Members were not present, the House was counted, and, there being 40 Members present,
§ *MR. TOMLINSON
said, he understood that interest was taken in this subject by the constituents of the President of the Board of Trade, the right hon. Gentlemen himself, he was told, having presented a Petition from a portion of his constituents in support of this Motion. With reference to the observations of his hon. and learned Friend the Member for the Maldon Division he had to say that those who supported the Motion now before the House, did not agree with him that it would be sufficient if foreign prison-made goods were marked "prison-made," and allowed to be sold as before. There were two questions which affected their attitude in this matter. First of all, they observed that the sale of goods made in the prisons in this country was prohibited as being an unfair interference with free labour; and with regard to goods made in foreign prisons, they contended that they were not only objectionable on this ground, but that the conditions under which they were produced enabled them to be sold here at such a price as to put competition by free labour entirely out of the question. To stamp goods as prison-made would not have much effect, and would be wholly insufficient as a means of 1147 preventing their sale in this country. For instance the smoker of a good cigar would not care very much if it was wrapped round with a piece of paper intimating that it was prison-made. If a sufficient remedy for the grievance was to be found in marking the goods as prison-made, why was that remedy not adopted in the case of home-made prison goods? The question of price did not, in the case of the home-made goods, enter into the consideration, for it would have been perfectly easy to make such regulations that there need not be unfair competition between goods of that description and goods which were produced by free labour. But the labouring classes of this country were not satisfied to accept any such arrangement as that as a settlement of the question. They said it was not fair that honest labour should be displaced by the labour of prisons, and, therefore, they insisted on the system of complete prohibition, which was the law at the present time. What the supporters of this Motion desired was that the prohibition which existed as to the prison-made goods of this country should be extended, in some form or other, to the goods made in the prisons of foreign countries. If it was fair and right to prohibit altogether the manufacture and sale of goods made in prisons in this country, a for tiori it ought to be our object to prohibit the importation of goods made in foreign prisons which were sold at prices ruinous to honest trade. The Board of Trade have been supplied with all the necessary information, and the demand now made was that they should adopt in this country the same restrictions to the sale of prison-made goods which obtained in foreign countries.
§ MR. S. HOARE (Norwich)
said, this subject was one of the deepest interest to the constituents of many hon. Members, and he thought those constituents would be somewhat surprised when they read the report of the proceedings tonight. They would be surprised that, on a subject that touched them so deeply, there should have been any attempt to "count out" the House. Members of the Opposition had endeavoured to show the Government what the distress all over the country was, and Her Majesty's Ministers, while they had professed sympathy with the sad circumstances under which the working population 1148 were now labouring, had to-night shown that they cared nothing for this important question. Indeed, had it not been that a sufficient number of the Opposition were present when the "count" was moved, the discussion would have come to on untimely end. He had presented a Petition from persons engaged in the brush manufacturing business. If the Government could only understand how the trade of the poor men and women who signed that Petition was depressed, they would feel that this subject was worthy of the fullest consideration. The hon. and gallant Member for Sheffield called attention to the Resolution passed by the members of the Trades Union Congress which met in his (Mr. S. Hoare' s) constituency in September last. The Resolution was condemnatory of the importation of goods made in foreign prisons, gaols, houses of correction, and penitentiaries, and the wonder was that no member of the Congress who happened to have a seat in the House of Commons had attended tonight to speak in its support. He hoped they would hear from the Government that they had more sympathy in this matter than up to the present they had shown. The evil of which complaint was now made was increasing year by year. There were poor people in many constituencies longing and ready to work but were cut out by the productions of foreign prisons. Surely they would, before the evening closed, receive some clear and distinct declaration from the Government that, whatever views might be held as to this or that form of relieving distress, they would prevent the continuance of the grievance to which his hon. and gallant Friend had called attention.
§ MR. G. WYNDHAM (Dover)
said, that after a Debate lasting for two hours, it was not well they should be left in the dark as to whether Her Majesty's Ministers were in sympathy with the Motion. What was the nature of the Motion? Was it one of importance, but restricted to a small area? On the contrary, it touched materially a large number of the labouring population of the country, and sentimentally it affected every single artisan within the four seas. This Motion, which was moved without eliciting assent or dissent from the occupants of the Treasury 1149 Bench, could not be put before a public meeting in any town in England without eliciting vociferous assent as soon as it was adumbrated. Up to now such interest as had been displayed in the House in the Motion had been displayed by the Conservative and Unionist Members. The majority of hon. Members would anticipate that on a question of this kind the Government would have replied, and of course would have replied favourably, about eight o'clock, after the matter had been put ably before the House, and they would naturally suppose they could then go away and dine with a clear conscience, having discharged their duty to their constituents. It was the astonishing silence on the Treasury Bench which had upset their calculations for their own domestic enjoyment and which had obliged them, at immense sacrifice to themselves, to remain at the House and maintain that a question of interest to every public meeting in England was not to be treated with indifference and contempt in the Parliament of this country.
§ THE PRESIDENT OF THE BOARD OF TRADE (Mr. J. BRYCE,) Aberdeen, S.
regretted that the hon. Member for Dover had not been able to get away to dinner, but there was a reason why he should put the hon. Gentleman to the sacrifice of remaining in the House. He had not intervened in the Debate before this in order that he might obtain a certain amount of light from the various hon. Members interested in the Question, light not only as to the amount of the evil which prevailed, but as to the extent to which the evil prevailed in any particular industry, and also as to the remedial steps which in the opinion of those hon. Members, might be taken. He owned in the fullest mariner that it was very natural there should be complaint on this subject. It was only natural and reasonable that the working classes should feel aggrieved that their free labour was subjected to the competition of the labour of foreign convicts. He had never said anything which would indicate he was out of sympathy with that complaint, coming as it did from the working classes who thought themselves affected, and the complaint was, of course, all the more reasonable at such a time as the present, when many British industries were 1150 suffering serious depression. But he did not think it had been at all shown that the competition of foreign prison labour was the cause of the depression. Of course, when trades were suffering, it was only natural that persons engaged in those trades should look around, and should alight upon any cause for the depression that was at all probable; but he did not believe that many of the persons who signed the petitions on the subject which had been presented to the Government were, any more than the Government, in a position to show that this particular competition was one of the causes of the depression from which they suffered. He did not think it necessary to bring any doctrines of political economy into the matter as the hon. Member for the Isle of Thanet had invited him to do. He did not consider that the question of Free Trade arose in the matter at all. He attached more importance to the Reports obtained by Her Majesty's representatives abroad, which were contained in the Blue Book issued on the subject, and it was upon that evidence he proposed to deal with the matter. The hon. and gallant Member for Sheffield regretted that those Reports were not published sooner. But it would be seen that two of the Reports were dated August 12 and August 22, and it was the view of the Government that those Reports should be presented to the House all together, rather than one by one, as they were received by the Government. Well, he had gone through the Blue Book, and he could not find in the Reports from Germany any evidence whatever that any British industry suffered from prison labour. It did not appear that there was so large a manufacture of any particular article in prison as to make it probable that it interfered with the trade outside. In fact, they were told in the Blue Book that the policy of the German Government had been to spread prison labour over as many trades as possible, in order that it might have no injurious effect on any particular trade. There was a certain amount of popular feeling on the subject in Germany which found expression in agitation. The Government came to the conclusion that they ought not to throw the burden of prison competition on any particular trade; and, therefore, while they refused 1151 to abandon the system of prison labour, which was maintained in the interests of the prisoners themselves, they endeavoured to distribute the work over as many trades as possible, so that the production should not be so great in any particular trade as to affect that trade outside. The brush trade had been particularly referred to in the Debate. According to the Blue Book, no one appeared to be employed at brush-making in the prisons of Saxony; and the total number employed at the industry in all the prisons of Prussia was only 863.
§ *COLONEL H. VINCENT
I beg the right hon. Gentleman's pardon; but he will find that at cocoa-matting, &c., £1,010 was spent on prisoners employed in Saxony. The "&c." includes brush-making.
§ MR. BRYCE
I do not admit that brush-making is included in "cocoa-matting, &c." It covers a great deal besides brush-making. Therefore, I do not think there is anything to show that any prisoners in Saxony are employed in brush-making. Again, it should be remembered that the number of prisoners employed in a trade was not the same index as to the quantity of production as it would be in the case of free labour. Everyone knew that forced labour was proverbially unproductive. Moreover, prisoners were often committed only for a short term, and they were released before they had sufficiently learned a trade to make their labour productive. Many of them also were rogues and vagabonds, whom it was extremely difficult to train to efficiency. But the matter did not rest there. There was not a tittle of evidence that any of those prison-manufactured goods came into this country at all. He thought it very possible or probable that some did; but there was no evidence to show how many, and he did not think they were in the least justified in arguing from anything contained in the Blue Book, that anything like a considerable quantity of the goods was imported into England. He was confirmed in that opinion by the difficulty found by those interested in the matter in endeavouring to prove that those prison-made 1152 goods competed with English industries. Some time ago, representatives of those industries came to the Office of the Board of Trade as a Deputation, and they were asked to furnish to the Board some data as to the quantity of those goods that were imported. But they were unable to furnish those data; and the Board of Trade, likewise, had no evidence whatever, though he had caused very careful inquiries to be made in the matter. They had, therefore, two facts clearly before them—first, that the total production of Foreign prison-made goods was small; and, secondly, that there was no evidence of any kind as to the proportion of that small production which found its way into English markets. There was, undoubtedly, considerable depression in the brush trade. One branch of it had largely passed out of the hands of men into the hands of women, who took lower wages than the men, and that was one of perhaps many causes that had limited the employment for men in that particular trade. There were many trades, as the House knew, that were not alleged to have suffered from foreign prison-competition, but which had, undoubtedly, suffered from general foreign competition. Hon. Members opposite had got a remedy for that competition, but it was a remedy which the House would not adopt. But with regard to the question of the effect of foreign prison labour on British industries, the Debate had not carried them any further than the Blue Book. They were entirely in the dark on that subject; and it was not a little significant that, notwithstanding the amount of time the question had been on the carpet, and the amount of consideration given to it, no light whatever had been thrown upon it. But, assuming that there was such an importation of foreign prison-made goods which entered into competition with British industries, what could be done to stop it? That was really a very difficult question. He could understand people saying:It may be that it has not been proved that any serious injury is done to any particular trade; but nevertheless, if the thing is wrong in principle, if foreign goods made in foreign prisons ought not to compete with British goods made by free labour, stop it.He did not quarrel with that position. Unfortunately, no one could devise a 1153 means for distinguishing prison-made goods from others. [An hon. MEMBER: "The Americans."] The hon. Member for Sheffield in his Bill last year did not attempt it. From him, if from any one, might have been expected some practical light on the question—some indication of how the distinction between prison-made and other goods could be drawn, and of what kind of regulations should be adopted to prevent the importation of prison-made goods. But he looked in the hon. Member's Bill in vain for such guidance.
§ MR. J. BRYCE
said that he should like to hear what regulations would enable a Customs Officer, when he saw a brush, to say—"This brush was made in a foreign prison." He should only be too glad if the hon. Member, or anyone else, would show a Customs Officer how to distinguish such a brush from one made in England. It was not enough to know that it was foreign; the Officer must know that it was made in a foreign prison. He would not say that the task was impossible, because the ingenuity of hon. Members might be greater than that of the Customs; but no one had yet pointed out the way in which the difficulty could be overcome. The hon. Member for Sheffield referred to a United States statute on the subject. That was a statute prohibiting the importation of goods made by prison-labour, and authorising the Secretary of the Treasury to prescribe such regulations as might be necessary for the enforcement of the statute. He had taken steps to ascertain what regulations the Secretary of the Treasury had made, and he was informed that he had made none. The same difficulty, no doubt, presented itself to him.
*COLONEL, H. VINCENT
Will a Dispatch upon that subject be laid upon the Table, saying that the regulations have been made by the Secretary of the American Treasury?
§ MR. J. BRYCE
said that he must find out first how the information came to him. He believed that it was in a Dispatch, but he had also written to the United States for confirmation of the 1154 information. It was all very well to say that what Congress had done we could do. But there were many things which Congress had done and which he hoped we should never do. One of the things Congress was most fond of doing was passing statutes which it knew could have no possible effect. It contained a great many Members who, like the hon. Member for Sheffield, were extremely anxious to take up any grievance which excited public attention. But they found it easier to discover a grievance than to discover a remedy. He was quite ready to consider the whole question with a perfectly open mind, and he hoped that he had not argued the case with any preconceived views. Of course, the hon. Member would probably like to mark all foreign goods as foreign goods. But that was not the policy which the House had adopted, or which the Committee who recommended the Merchandise Marks Act, adopted. Indeed, they expressly refused it. Therefore, that was not the question, but merely the making of prison-made goods. Of course, one thing could be done. In any trade particularly threatened the manufacturers might mark their goods "home made," and then those who desired to promote home industries could prefer their goods. The Merchandise Marks Act would then apply to imported goods which were so marked. He was perfectly willing to consider any suggestion on this subject. When there existed among our industrial classes a feeling that they were exposed to unfair competition, and that this might be one of the causes of the depression from which their trades had suffered, there ought to be some effort made to discover what the evil was, and whether it would admit of a remedy. The hon. Member in his Motion suggested that some steps should be taken; he must admit that he did not know what steps to take. He had not been able to discover how great was the evil or what remedy could be applied. The best suggestion he could make was that the wisdom of the House of Commons should be elicited on the subject by means of a Committee. At the same time, he should be glad if any hon. Member would himself bring in a Bill to relieve the difficulty. The Government were willing to take any steps to have this matter and 1155 the possible remedies thoroughly sifted and examined.
§ MR. J. CHAMBERLAIN
I confess that I have with some reluctance stayed in the House during the discussion on this question, because I thought it was a matter upon which opinion was so universally agreed, that discussion would end in a concession on the part of the Government. But although I was reluctant to stay, I admit that I have been amply rewarded by the interesting and instructive speech to which we have just listened from the President of the Department, who is appointed and paid to look after the interests of trade, who says that he must beg from the Opposition a policy. But before I deal with that speech, I will say a word or two as to the question before us. On the merits there is absolutely no contention. The right hon. Gentleman has flung to the winds all the political economy of his chief, the Leader of the House. He says he does not come to the consideration of this question biassed in any way by those eternal principles which were laid down the other night by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and which teach us that the lower the price of commodities the better it is for the nation. He has flung aside those proposals as though they were the proposals of belated philosophers; and he has granted the whole contention of my hon. Friend who introduced the subject. But as to the political importance of the subject. Hitherto it has not been a political question. From to-night it will be. I say that there is no question upon which the working classes of this country have more generally made up their mind than upon this. I do not believe that there is any single hon. Member who sits for an industrial constituency, or who has village industries in an agricultural constituency, who could hold an open meeting and carry a resolution against the principle for which my hon. Friend contends. I believe that is admitted on all sides. The other night we were discussing a question of no doubt great Imperial and national importance; but I am afraid I must confess that the working classes of this country care more for this question of the admission of prison-made goods into this country, in competition with their own industries, than they do for those great Imperial questions which have been the subject 1156 of absolute contest between the two Parties. This is a question, therefore, of supreme political importance. I am not exaggerating its real economic importance, but its political importance cannot be denied. I am afraid it would be out of order to "Kodak" the House of Commons at any time; but I wish we could have a photograph of the House of Commons during this discussion and send it by the million throughout the constituences that they might have seen the interest which some of the people's Representatives take in questions on which they speak very loudly on platforms. Allusion has already been made to the fact that the Labour Members have been conspicuous by their absence. Were they absent on the Votes of Want of Confidence, three or four of which have taken place in the last fortnight? No; every single Member was present. But on an occasion which specially concerns the interests of the working classes, and with regard to a subject on which those who are invariably put forward as the only legitimate Representatives of the working classes, have spoken with a unanimous voice, they are conspicuous by their absence. Only four of them have put in an appearance during any time of the Debate, and during the greater part of the Debate not a single one of them has been present. I say we take note of these things, and we give you warning that we take note of them.
MR. J. WILSON (Durham)
I should like to remind the right hon. Gentleman that I have been present the whole time.
§ MR. CHAMBERLAIN
Then my hon. Friend has been a conspicuous exception to conspicuous absentees. It is true, however, because I have watched the debate, and I know exactly who has been present and who has not. I except, of course, my hon. Friend on the Treasury Bench (Mr. Burt); but I regard him at the present moment as an official member of the Government, and not an especial representative of the Labour classes. But is it not a most extraordinary fact that those hon. Members who claim to represent the working classes should be present at a Party vote and should not be present on an occasion when a question not necessarily Party in complexion was being discussed and when their interests were under discussion? Now, I 1157 ask, what is the position of the Government with regard to this important question, as to which I have said that I do not believe there is a single Member on either side of the House who can entertain a doubt as to the opinions of his constituency on the subject! The first thing I have to say about the Government is, that they assisted an attempted "count." I charge against the Government, who by the necessities of their situation are bound to be present in the House on an occasion like this, that when a "count" was called on an essentially Labour question, there were only two Members of the Government present on the Front Bench. If it had not been for the Opposition there would have been no House to discuss this matter, and the Government would have avoided what is, no doubt, an extremely awkward question for them. But we have waited, and at last we have obtained a very official reply; it was a model of an official reply. I do not blame the President of the Board of Trade; he is merely the tube for conveying this information to the House. It is not a matter in which the right hon. Gentleman has taken any interest himself; it is merely one upon which he has officially informed himself; and he has accepted the information handed to him by gentlemen who naturally do not care to have further important and delicate duties imposed upon them; and he has given all this information to the House as the official reply of the Government. No one wonders that the officers of the Board of Trade should desire to have all the difficulties of the question pointed out; but I think it is the business of the head of the Board of Trade and the Representative of the Government, when face to face with what is practically a national and almost unanimous demand, to find some means of satisfying it. What has the right hon. Gentleman done? The country, I hope, will take notice of his reply. First of all, the right hon. Gentleman seeks to mimimise the facts, to declare that the whole business is of no importance, to say that, after all, we are making a great fuss about nothing and that it is not necessary to do anything. In the second place, he says that the Government are going to do as little as possible, Take the first point, that this is an unimportant matter. The case has been given up on its merits by the right 1158 hon. Gentleman. He does not pretend to defend so ridiculous and so abnormal a system as that which prevents us from employing our prisoners in useful and valuable labour—a matter which might be justified on many important social and political grounds—but which allows the Germans to employ their prisoners, not at the expense of their workpeople, but to take good care that the goods made by their prisoners should be specially ear-marked for British consumption. I will do my right hon. Friend the justice to say that he did not defend such an absurdity as that; but he says:—Granted that it is very improper the system should go on, it is only a little one; it is so small that you need not take any notice of it; I do not believe as yet that any British industry has been ruined.What a satisfaction to British industry, in process of being ruined, to know that the President of the Board of Trade is fairly confident from statistics supplied to him by German sources—statistics "made in Germany"—that up to the present time no important British industry has been ruined! I do know that he can even take that satisfaction to himself. Suppose I accepted every one of his figures—and I do not accept any one of them—that only 863 alien felons are employed in making brushes sent into England, does anyone suppose that the introduction of goods by 863 persons in a limited trade like the brush trade has not an enormous effect? I suppose that the House understands what is the cause of high and low prices—high prices to-day and low prices to-morrow? It is the introduction in a trade already fully supplied of a fractional increase. I do not care how fractional it is. Suppose that you are making 100 brushes; if you increase the output to 101 brushes you reduce the price of the brushes not by 1 per cent., but by 50 per cent. Everyone will be trying to sell the additional brush, and the result is the enormous reduction which we see. If anyone doubts that for a moment let him look at the state of the greatest of our industries. What is the reason for the reduction in the price of corn? Do you not suppose that the reduction in the price of wheat has been enormous? I believe, as a matter of fact, that in the last year the total 1159 production of wheat in the world actually decreased; but in any case the increased production of wheat in the world during ten years has been only a fraction of the total production, and yet that has been sufficient to send down wheat to 20s. a quarter. What happens here happens a fortiori in those small trades concerned. In the brush trade no one has been able to make a profit; the workmen are not able to get decent wages; and this system of competition has ruined everything in the trade worth fighting for. The right hon. Gentleman has dealt with the question as if it was only a question affecting the brush trade. English prison work, as we know, is confined to two or three trades; but the Germans have actually sent over to this country for models of English manufactures, and they are making them in their prisons. At the present time they are making about 20 different articles in various branches of industry; so that, after they have contrived to ruin the brush trade, they will go into many other trades; and, meanwhile, the President of the Board of Trade will continue to be distinguished by the cheerful optimism he has displayed tonight. The right hon. Gentleman made an admission. He said that the Germans had spread these prison industries over as many manufactures as possible. What a satisfactory state of things! How admirable it will read in the newspapers to-morrow! The right hon. Gentleman will be enabled to go to Aberdeen and say to his fellow-citizens there—At the present time the Germans in their prisons have not dealt with the jute manufactures,but a member of the audience will say—Oh, but you say that the Germans have spread their prison work over as many industries as possible, and how do yon know that the German prison system may not spread even to our industry?The fact is that there is no industry which is safe as long as this state of things is allowed to continue. The gravity of the case has been admitted by the Government, though, at the same time they have sought to minimise it; the moral right of the demand made has been admitted by the Government, although the actual amount of the injury done has been minimised. In presence 1160 of the universal demand from the constituencies, and an admission by the official head of the Department, we are asked to take a Committee. No, Sir; in that respect we are not the comrades of the hon. Member for West Ham. The right hon. Gentleman said that while he did not wish to ignore altogether this public feeling and the necessity for doing something, he modestly confessed that he could not do anything. He actually made it a complaint against Members of the Opposition that they had not found a policy for him. He is a Member of a Government that has forgotten how to govern and that has not learnt how to resign. Let the right hon. Gentleman resign; we will find him a policy. But we are not going to lend him our prescriptions while he takes the fees. What is he on the Front Bench for? What has the right hon. Gentleman been appointed President of the Board of Trade for if not to find a policy? But now he actually comes and sues the Opposition to find a policy for him which he cannot find. I do not think there would be much difficulty in finding him a policy, but as I have said, I do not see why we should prescribe until we are called in. If we decline to find him a policy which he cannot find for himself, the light hon. Gentleman actually says to the House that he has an open mind, and that his open mind will take a Committee. Whatever the House does, I hope it will not take a Committee. We know perfectly well what that means. I think an hon. Member belonging to the Ministerial side said the other day, with reference to the Committee promised to the hon. Member for West Ham, that, so far as a Royal Commission was concerned, that was acknowledged on all sides to be a means of securing delay and in putting off a question; but as regards a Committee, he thought that something might be quickly expected from it. One experiment with a Committee is enough; and I shall believe in the result of the Committee of the hon. Member for West Ham when I see it. That Committee is dealing with a subject which involves the interests of hundreds of thousands of people; it is urgent in a sense which no other question before the House is; it has, therefore, a better chance than any other Committee could have of coming to a useful conclusion. But 1161 the question now before us is a question the dealing with which has been already postponed owing to the action of successive Presidents of the Board of Trade during the last three years. If it were submitted to a Committee of this House we know that that Committee would not sit de, die in diem, it would not make any interim reports, and it might report at the end of the Session, when the Government would find it impossible, even if they were willing, to find time to carry any effective legislation. This is a matter for the Government to take into their own hands. It is no new matter; it has been brought before the House again and again, by resolutions passed by their own supporters, by resolutions passed by individual Trade Unions as well as by the Congress at Norwich. It is not dignified, right, or proper that the Government should sit there and say they have no remedy. If that is their position they should make way for persons who can find a remedy. The proposal of the Government has shown to the House what we have contended, that, however great the interest they may take in those large constitutional questions involving the destruction of the Empire or the destruction, of a trade, they have no interest whatever in those social questions which have the greatest interest for the vast majority of the people.
MR. J. MORLEY
My right hon. Friend has enlivened an hour which is not usually distinguished by animation. He charges us with indifference to Labour questions because some of us were absent during the speech of the hon. Member for Sheffield; but while my right hon. Friend was speaking I looked at the front Opposition Bench, where sat two gentlemen, though now there are three. One of them is a predecessor of mine in the office I now hold (Mr. J. Lowther), who advocates doctrines which I am sure my right hon. Friend would be the first person to repudiate. But where is the former President of the Board of Trade, the right hon. Baronet the Member for Bristol (Sir M. Hicks-Beach)? The right hon. Member for West Birmingham fell foul of the President of the Board of Trade for not submitting some proposal of his own instead of suggesting a Select Committee. But I remember that, six 1162 years ago, when I stood, and was proud to stand, by the side of my right hon. Friend at this table, he brought forward a humane and beneficent scheme relating to merchant shipping, and, finding he could not have his own way, what did he do? He referred the whole of that large and momentous question, not to a Select Committee, but to a Royal Commission.
§ MR. J. CHAMBERLAIN
The parallel is not quite accurate. At that time I had my remedy, which I submitted to the House, and it was only in consequence of the lack of time that I did not carry it to a final conclusion. Finding it was impossible to obtain sufficient time, I accepted a Commission as the only alternative.
MR. J. MORLEY
I am not in the least finding fault with my right hon. Friend; I only cite what happened there when he was President of the Board of Trade.
MR. J. MORLEY
I do not want to labour the point, but my right hon. Friend seems to suppose that there is some fundamental antagonism between the free trade position taken up by the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the views of the President of the Board of Trade with respect to the Motion of the hon. Member for Sheffield. Now, if there is an ardent free trader in the House, it is the humble individual who is addressing it; but can I for one moment think I am bound, in the interests of free trade, or in order to be a consistent free trader, to admit into the markets of this country convict-made goods made in this country or convict goods made elsewhere? That is not free trade. Would the late Mr. Bright have allowed the products of slave industry to come into competition with the products of free industry? ["He did."] But the moment it came to be a question of slavery his free trade theory vanished. ["Never"and "Sugar."] At all events, there is no inconsistency between the most orthodox doctrine of free trade and the refusal to allow goods manufactured in prisons, by men who are not self-supporting but who are supported by taxpayers, to come into 1163 competition with the products of free industry. My right hon. Friend will admit there is no inconsistency in extreme free traders insisting that prison-made goods shall not come into competition with free labour.
§ MR. J. CHAMBERLAIN
Let me say I entirely concur in what my right hon. Friend has said. So far as he and his friends are professed free traders, I do not find any inconsistency in their present position; but there is inconsistency between the statement of the President of the Board of Trade and the statement of the Chancellor of the Exchequer that the cheaper goods were the better it was for this country.
MR. J. MORLEY
I suppose that as an abstract proposition thrown upon the floor of the House that is absolutely undeniable. In my own constituency I have often been challenged on this question; and I have never said that upon economic grounds, and with the strictest regard to economic principles, allow prison-made goods to come into competition with the products of free labour. I will go a step further. If I would not allow the products of prison industry in our own country to come into competition with free labour, still less should I be able to sacrifice that sensible maximum in deference to the convenience of any other country. The issue now is, What is practicable? If either my right hon. Friend or the Member for Sheffield will show me an expedient or device, a method or a system by which I can always identify a convict-made brush or mat, I certainly would do the best I could to carry it out. [Colonel HOWARD VINCENT: It is quite easy.] Then let the hon. Member go before a Committee and show them that it is easy. It is all very well, but what is the device or scheme which you say is so easy? My right hon. Friend challenged you to produce it, and it has never been produced in any form or way. The right hon. Member for West Birmingham says that no industry is safe, and he says that English models are sent for to be copied in Germany; but there is no evidence of that before us, or that German prison-made goods are embarked for British consumption. I defy my right hon. 1164 Friend to prove that one of these brushes comes to England. [Colonel HOWARD VINCENT produced a brush, and held it up amid great, laughter.] Yes, that is a brush; but what is the history of it? Where did he get it? If he will go before a Committee he can be examined as to the identity of that particular brush. I represent an industrial constituency in which no cheerful view is taken of present prospects, but I know that there are great economic causes at work; there are great economical forces at work which we may or may not be able to resist by Legislation. But do not let a man come down to this House and say that the safety of British industry depends in any degree whatever on the importation of a few articles made in German prisons. If it can be shown that there are practical methods of keeping these articles out of the country, I, for one, would fall in with any such methods as have been suggested, if it can be shown that the evils which may accrue would not be greater than the evils which it is sought to remedy. I cannot go further in that direction than the President of the Board of Trade, and if the Mover of the Resolution and those who support him are sincere in their desire to attain the object they have in view they will accept the proposal of the Government.
§ MR. C. B. STUART-WORTLEY (Sheffield, Hallam)
said, those who remembered the previous answers of the President of the Board of Trade to previous questions on the subject, and who were witnesses of the hurried consultation of what appeared to be a Committee of the Cabinet on the Treasury Bench, shortly after the "count out" was unsuccessfully moved, would not be surprised at the markedly improved tone of the right hon. Gentleman towards the Motion of his hon. Friend; and that improvement had been carried a great deal further by the Chief Secretary for Ireland. The right hon. Gentleman had spoken of the practicability of attaining the object of the Resolution; but the last Administration, while they held power, reduced practically to vanishing point the manufacture of articles competing 1165 with British industries in British prisons. Permission was also refused to the officer of a foreign Government to study in our prisons the manufacture of articles which it was desired to produce in foreign prisons. With regard to the argument of impracticability, the late Government passed the Merchandise Marks Act, under which the importation of certain goods into this country was prohibited. Could Custom House Officials without the help of Regulations distinguish these from goods not the subject of prohibition? Could Custom House Officials detect goods falsely marked as to mode of manufacture and the materials of which they were composed? He believed the prohibitions of that Act were operative and effectual, and he believed that if a similar statute were passed prohibiting the importation of prison-made foreign goods it would be found that the capital embarked in the trades would be too timid to risk the possibilities of detection. If the British importer were not ready to import, what would become of the trade of the foreign exporte? The fundamental principle was—Why should we give in this country greater assistance to the penal system of foreign countries than we gave to our own at home? A Committee was offered, but the offer was not accepted by any considerable portion of the House. Why was not a Committee valuable or useful for the purpose? There was only one source to go to for evidence. Let them ask Custom House Officials whether they could distinguish goods in the way he had mentioned. They would tell them they could not: and having asked that question and received that answer they would do the only advantageous work open to any Committee. The answer to the offer of a Committee was that the matter was too small for a Committee, and too small for the Government to have made this ridiculous fuss about it.
§ *SIR A. K. ROLLIT (Islington S.)
said, the one redeeming feature of the Debate had been the late but very acceptable disavowal by the Chief Secretary for Ireland of doctrines of laissez faire which apparently had previously been silently acquiesced in, but which were a great 1166 injustice to our workpeople and to the trades of the country. The question was whether the Government had done all that they could to protect our trade interests against these practices, which were not based on principles of free trade at all. He ventured to say that the Government had not done what they might have done to put an end to such a system. The President of the Board of Trade had even made a reflection upon the United States for having done at least their best to prevent the introduction of such goods into their country; but, at any rate, the Customs Officers of the United States were at the present time in a very different position to the Customs Officers of our own country. Any attempt upon the part of our own Officers to stop or even to investigate the origin of these goods would be an illegality. This was not a question for a private Member's Bill, but for the Government, since the abuse struck vitally at all classes of industry in the country, and was one of the causes of the present distress. If it was admitted that a measure of reform would be welcome, why did not the Government initiate proceedings for a Bill which would give powers which were at present wholly wanting? The old doctrine of laissez fairs was persistent in certain quarters, but they hoped that the present Debate would do much to demolish it. He could see no great objection to a Committee, though he doubted if it would do any good, but what they desired was some action on the part of the Government.
§ *MR. W. R. CREMER (Shoreditch, Haggerston)
said, that the constituency which he represented was almost the centre of the brushmaking industry, and he had therefore, from time to time, had a great deal of evidence brought before him as to the importation of foreign articles into this country. There might not be any direct or positive evidence of the importation of prison-made brushes, but he had been told on good authority that a well-known firm in the West End of London, which had four large establishments in which brushes were sold, had no factory in this country for the manufacture of these brushes, and it was fair to conclude that their brushes 1167 were manufactured abroad, and largely by prison labour. What the workmen desired was that all articles which came into this country should bear the brand of the firm which manufactured them, and if they were made in German prisons it should be clearly stated upon the articles themselves. He could state on excellent authority, in order to show how the law was dodged, that at the present time large cases of merchandise were imported into the country with an outside label signifying that they came from Germany, but not one of the articles of which they were full bore the label, and some English firms were dishonest enough to afterwards brand them with their own names, and sell them as English-made goods at prices much above their value. That was what the English workmen complained of. The great majority of them were Free Traders, but they contended that the public ought to have the means of knowing the character of the goods they bought and where they came from, and that British traders should not be permitted to sell German prison-made articles as of their own manufacture. He knew well that it was the method of Governments to propose, or grant, an inquiry when they were in a difficulty about a question. The practice was not confined to one Party. The proposal tonight was by no means a new one, and probably it would be again resorted to by hon. and right hon. Gentlemen opposite when they again occupied the Treasury Bench, to which they were now looking with a longing eye. But there could be no doubt that more information was wanted on the question; and he therefore thought it very desirable that a Committee of Inquiry should be appointed. He therefore, rejoiced that the Government had decided upon this course, although not until the last moment, but whether the Committee was granted at the first hour or the eleventh hour he was glad to accept the offer they had made. He hoped, however, that the scope of the Inquiry would not be limited to prison-made goods, but would be extended to other goods imported into this country, and to the comparative failure of the Merchandise Marks Act.
§ MR. T. W. RUSSELL (Tyrone, S.)
desired to point out that the policy of the Government on this question was of a twofold character. The first part of the policy of the Government was to procure a "count out" of the House. He would describe what took place. An Irish Member suddenly appeared in the House and drew the attention of the Deputy Speaker to the fact that 40 Members were not present, and then, silently folding his tent like the Arab, quietly slid away. The bells rang for a count, and how many Members of the Government came in to prevent a count? There were about 25 paid officials Members of the Government in that House, and two of them only came in to respond to the summons. How many unofficial Members of the Party appeared? Why, some of them who were in the House at once cleared out, and but for Members of the Opposition the intention of the Government would have succeeded, the House been counted out, and the question burked. He wished the constituencies to know that this was the primary policy of the Ministry on this subject. After the count was prevented, what took place? The hon. Member for Merionethshire (Mr. T. E. Ellis), came up the Floor of the House and took a seat on the Treasury Bench. Immediately hurried consultation took place between Ministers, and then the President of the Board of Trade rose and made a long speech, and finally threw the offer of a Committee at the hon. and gallant Member for Sheffield Central. The right hon. Gentleman confessed that he had no policy of his own, and asked the hon. Member what he had to propose. In a day or two the Welsh question would be brought before them; a day or two later the Irish Land question would be introduced, and a few days after that the House would be deep in the discussion of the Local Veto proposal. Now, he put it to the House, even supposing the proposed Committee sat and prepared and brought up its Report, what chance was there that in such a crowded Session as this was certain to be, any of its recommendations would be considered and carried into law? The first plan 1169 having failed, the Government tried this second plan of appointing a Committee, whose Report, even if arrived at, could not be acted upon this Session. The constituencies would know the facts tomorrow, and the people would have no difficulty in understanding the primary policy of the Government on this interesting and important question.
§ Mr. J. PINKERTON (Galway)
said, he represented a constituency in which there were a large number of brushmakers, and on that account he was disposed at first to support the proposal of the hon. and gallant Member for Sheffield. But when the right hon. Member for West Birmingham stated that instead of being a social question, this was a political question, he had to reconsider his position. He was anxious to benefit the brushmakers of Galway, and he thought he could best serve their interests by supporting the Government who had the interest of the working men at heart. He believed it was not by any measure introduced by the hon. Member for Sheffield that they could benefit the working men in this matter, but by investigating the matter by means of a Select Committee; and instead of trying to make policital capital out of this subject, he thought every honest friend of Labour must vote for the Government, and by that means, show that they were not political quacks and humbugs.
§ MR. P. A. MUNTZ (Warwickshire, Tamworth)
said, that having heard the remarks of the hon. Member for Haggerston and of the hon. Member for Galway, he could not help feeling that they would get into some little trouble with their brushmaking constituents. The question now stood in a totally different position from that which it occupied at the begining of the evening. He was anxious that the working classes should have their special attention drawn to the course that was pursued. A "count" was attempted in the most marked manner, upon a non-political subject. It was, he thought, very discreditable, in the present condition of trade and industry that the Government 1170 should have attempted a "count" on a matter of this importance. The attempt failed in the most signal manner, and they had a Debate which ended in the rising of the President of the Board of Trade. The right hon. Gentleman gave the case away as regards Free Trade—"foul trade" would be a more accurate expression; he said, firstly, that the manufacture was of no importance; and, secondly, that there was no proof that foreign prison-made goods were introduced into this country. But the hon. Member for Haggerston told the House that he had the most conclusive proof on the subject—["No No!"]; at any rate, he gave presumptive evidence. This trade was undoubtedly doing serious injury to the manufacturing industry of this country at a time when the manufacturing population in every branch of industry was suffering in the most lamentable manner, when starvation reigned around, and when there was nothing but the efforts of the charitable to maintain many thousands of the poor in every great centre in the country. Was that a time when Members should try to shuffle out of a question, of this kind? The people in the great centres would form their own conclusions, as to which Party in the House was endeavouring to serve their interests, and which Party had signally failed in their duty. All the questions in which the Government appeared to take an interest, might be trotted out, but the question in which the great mass of the people took an interest at the present time was, how they should get their living.
§ MR. ARNOLD-FORSTER (Belfast, W.)
thought it a somewhat unusual proceeding that a second Minister should be put up to enforce the case for the Government. But he did not wonder at it, for a precious mess the President of the Board of Trade made of the case. As far as they could judge, the right hon. Gentleman, made common cause with the "alien felon," and it appears to have been thought that the partisanship should be repudiated by the Government. Therefore an absolutely different case was stated by the Chief 1171 Secretary. It was admitted by the Government that there was a great grievance existing, and it was proved that the offence against our commercial interest was a deliberate one. The evidence was absolutely clear on that head, that this operation of the German Prison Authorities was intended to operate to the detriment of foreign countries. It was clear that the grievance existed, and that the offence was a deliberate one. It had also been proved that there was no other possible avenue through which these goods could escape except the British Market. On that they had the concurrent testimony of the hon. Member for Haggerston that, to the best of his belief, these goods had come into the country. It was sought to minimise the difficulty by saying that it affected only a small industry; but that did not take away in any possible degree from the danger of allowing this principle to be admitted. The Resolution referred to no question of Free Trade or Protection. It referred to something quite outside any matter of Free Trade. He could not recollect any expression of any views by the late Mr. John Bright with regard to the exclusion of American goods produced by slaves; but this had nothing whatever to do with the question of Free Trade. The Resolution said—That it is incumbent upon Her Majesty's Government, in the interests of the industrial classes of the United Kingdom, at once to take steps to restrict the importation of goods made in foreign prisons by the forced labour of convicts and felons.There was not a single Member in the House who would dare to go down to his constituents and contest any single syllable of that proposition; and yet they had it from the Government, although they admitted that the danger existed, that they proposed to do absolutely nothing to remedy the evil. They could not be put off by the statement that there was no practical remedy. He should say that there were many, for there were now classes of goods prohibited from entering into this country except in strict regulations, as, for instance, copyright books; and it certainly ought not to pass the ingenuity of the 1172 Board of Trade, if they were seriously in earnest, to find some method of remedying the evil.
§ MR. J. CUMMING MACDONA (Southwark, Rotherhithe)
said, he rose to enter his protest against the action of the Government. Whilst thousands of our people in London were out of work—he went through his constituency the other day, and everywhere the cry was "Out of work! Out of work!"—was it right to encourage the importation of foreign prison-made goods to compete with the goods, produced by the honest toil of our fellow-citizens?
MR. J. POWELL-WILLIAMS (Birmingham, S.)
said, that last night the Government moved the closure on a very important Labour question. That night they had adopted a different policy with a similar view. They had endeavoured to have a "count" on another Labour question, in which workmen all through the country were deeply interested, and he trusted that the Labour Members might be induced to take some notice of the matter, and to adjust their support of the Government according to the treatment the Government gave to these Labour questions. This was not altogether a question which related to the brush industry alone. Many other industries were deeply touched by the system. Something had been said about the lack of evidence of the evil. If the Government would make inquiries of their own representative on the Labour Gazette in Birmingham, they would learn from him that this importation of German goods affected several trades there. It did not quite do, perhaps, to judge of evidence from the number of telegrams a Member of the House might have sent to him on a particular question. He had himself before now had to wade through telegrams to the House, and he had that day received no less than 11 telegrams from manufacturers in Birmingham expressing their hope that he would be able to support the action of the hon. Member for Sheffield that night. One of those manufacturers told him the other day that such was the competition in a particular branch of the trade he carried on that he was absolutely driven out of it, and was compelled to dismiss the workmen employed in it. He also told him that he had absolutely followed the course of the goods formerly manufac- 1173 tured by him from Germany. This was a matter which the Government ought to deal with resolutely and quickly; and when he said resolutely and quickly he did not mean by a Select Committee. He had been long enough in the House to know what that sort of thing led to, and was reminded that only a few nights ago, the Westminster Gazette, an organ which supported the Government, said that no doubt the Select Committee which had been appointed to consider the question of distress would report upon the matter as soon as the frost had gone and when no distress existed. The same thing, no doubt, would happen in this case, and he hoped his hon, and gallant Friend would absolutely decline to accept the suggestion which had been made by the Government; and he hoped, further, that, if the Government persisted in carrying their suggestion out that every Member of the Unionist Party would abstain from sitting on the Committee, as their labour would only result in a farce.
§ *MR. J. KEIR HARDIE (West Ham, S.)
said he intended to support the Amendment, and the declarations he had heard from the Treasury Bench had confirmed him in that determination. The hon. Member for Haggerston assumed that the Committee was to be appointed to inquire into the question, of prison-made goods. But that was not the contention of the President of the Board of Trade. His words were—Show me a method by which I can identify prison-made goods, and I will adopt it.The Committee was to be appointed for the purpose of finding out that method.
§ *MR. CREMER
I am sure the hon. Member would not willingly misrepresent me. What I said was that I hoped the scope of the inquiry would be considerably extended beyond the terms referred to by the President of the Board of Trade.
§ *MR. J. KEIR HARDIE
Quite so. And I am certain the Government will be only too willing to adopt the suggestion.
§ *MR. J. KEIR HARDIE
said, he had noted the words, and thought they would be verified by other hon. Members or by the reports of the Debates in the morning. The Chief Secretary and one or two others had gone into heroics about their professions of Free Trade, but they could not shut their eyes to the fact that Free Trade in the abstract was all but an impossibility. No one who supported Trade Unionism could claim to be a consistent Free Trader. Free Trade was a good thing as long as there were equal conditions; but the Trade Unionists of this country had no intention of allowing the sweater or the under paid labourer of continental nations to enter into competition with them. There should be no mistake upon that point; and the present question was the thin end of the wedge to secure that object. Marking the imported articles with the name of the manufacturer had been suggested, and surely that method would succeed in preventing them coming into the country without their origin being known, unless, of course, there was dishonesty on the part of our officials. As there had been such unanimity on this question, he suggested that the best thing the Government could do would be to introduce a short, non-contentious Bill to settle the matter—such a one as would easily pass through the House, and put a stop to the importation of these prison-made goods, which were believed to be doing a certain amount of injury to British industries. For these reasons he intended to support the Amendment of the hon. and gallant Member for Sheffield.
§ MR. A. CROSS (Glasgow, Camlachie)
said his constituents were deeply interested in this subject; but was he to have to tell them that the Government, who for the time being were in charge of the trade and industries of the country, were practically turning a deaf ear to the entreaties that were being made? The Government had used their power to prevent the Debate coming to a conclusion, and certainly had not met this matter in the spirit which hon. Members representing industrial centres had a right to expect. He hoped the Labour Members would take full note of the stand which the Government had assumed 1175 in relation to this pressing question. The real question before them was, whether they should restrict the importation of goods which it was admitted ought not to be imported. They had the example of the American Government to guide them, for that Government prohibited the importation of goods of this description. Let the President of the Board of Trade consent to introduce a measure of prohibition, and then let him institute an inquiry if he wished to do so. He joined in the appeal which had been made by the hon. Member for South West Ham.
§ MR. A. J. BALFOUR (Manchester, E.)
The Government, in the course of the discussion which has taken place on my hon. Friend's Amendment, have made two attempts to "burke" it. Their first attempt was a "count," and that failed. Then they attempted to "burke" it by a method more decorous, above all longer, but not less effectual. They proposed to refer the matter to a Committee, which in itself is a serious proceeding, but which is made more serious by the fact that the reference to the Committee is apparently to be overloaded, at the suggestion of the hon. Member for Haggerston, by such a large number of questions as will make it absolutely impossible that the Committee should come to any conclusion in a reasonable time. I listened with astonishment to two speeches delivered in the course of the last half-hour, one of them being the speech of the hon. Member for Haggerston. Both the hon. Gentlemen who delivered these speeches announced that they were going to vote with the Government, and both gave extraordinary reasons for the course which they intended to take. The hon. Member for Haggerston told us that he had a large number of brush-makers in his constituency, and that they were deeply injured by the trade in prison-made goods imported from Germany. He said that, notwithstanding, that he meant to support the Government and to vote for the Committee, and that the course proposed by the Government was always the course adopted by a Government in a difficulty. The hon. Member for Haggerston is a sufficiently old and experienced Member of this House to see through and 1176 through the dodges of the Government, and when he votes for them on this occasion he will not do so as a naive supporter of the Ministerial Bench, but as one who knows that this proposal for inquiry can have no other effect than to delay indefinitely the settlement of this question.
§ MR. CREMER
explained, that what he had said was, that many of his constituents complained that they suffered severely in consequence of the importation of goods manufactured abroad, and that there was strong presumptive evidence that these goods were manufactured in German prisons or elsewhere in Germany. But he had also said that the evidence was not conclusive, and that it was desirable that evidence should be given before a Committee, because statements made before a tribunal of that kind were made under a sense of greater responsibility than was felt by those who made general statements outside that House.
§ MR. BALFOUR
The hon. Member is right in saying that I am one of the last persons who would desire to misrepresent him. What I ventured to point out to the House was that the hon. Gentleman knows that this particular plan of submitting an awkward question to a Committee is one that has been adopted so frequently that nothing can be made out of it. Then he was followed by another hon. Member. What said he? He told us that he also had a large number of brushmakers in his constituency, but that though he loved them much he hated still more the Member for Birmingham, and that the speech of the hon. Member for Birmingham had so rubbed him up that he was prepared to sacrifice the interests of the brushmakers for the purpose of supporting the Government in the course they propose with regard to an interest in which they are so vitally concerned. Let us, in the light of these two speeches of Members who have brushmakers in their constituencies, consider the position of the Government. They do not really deny that there is a grievance. They have not ventured to meet any specific allegations which have been made. They admit that the brushes are manufactured in German prisons. They do not allege that these brushes are not imported 1177 into this country. Still less do they deny that when they are imported the brushes are used to undersell the produce of British workmen. Now, when all these facts are known, I wish to ask the House whether it thinks that a Committee of this House would be of much advantage. What doubtful point is there to clear up before the Government takes action? There is no such thing. If this Committee is proposed it is for one of two reasons—for one of two purposes. It is either in order to smother the question absolutely so that it may be no longer heard of, or it is that the Committee may do for us what the Government are bound to do for us—namely, to exercise their ingenuity to obtain means with which to deal with the question. What should we appoint a Committee for? What do we appoint Committees for? We appoint them to examine evidence on large questions on which the Government have not themselves the machinery to arrive at the truth. We appoint Committees either to collect evidence on doubtful questions, or for the purpose of discussing before those tribunals questions of great controversial Party interest. What we do not appoint Committees for, and I hope never shall, is for the purpose of doing that which we look to the Executive Government to do, however big or however small their majority may be. We look to them for that ingenuity and that resource which, after all, are required in great national affairs. The suggestion of the Government is not one which, in my opinion, should be adopted by the House. They have avoided, or temporarily avoided, one difficult question already in the course of the Session by appointing a Committee. The whole House is not to be divided up into Committee, for the purpose of relieving the Government of that responsibility which ought to lie on them and them alone. Here is a question, the material facts of which are not in doubt. [An hon. MEMBER: "They are."] No; the material facts are not in doubt. There are facts, no doubt, which are not material, but there is no doubt whatever that these goods are made in Germany, that they are not allowed to be sold in Germany in the neighbourhood of the prisons, and there is no doubt that they are imported from Ger- 1178 many. Then, why have a Committee? If we have a Committee for ten years it could not add to that statement. What, then, is a Committee wanted for? You want a Committee to relieve the Government of their responsibility, and I hope my hon. Friend—who is, I know, from a deputation which recently waited on me in Manchester, dealing with a class who naturally feel the grievances of which they are victims,—will not be misled by the offer of the Government. I hope he will not accept the proposal of the Government, which is perfectly illusory and which cannot by any possibility end in giving relief.
§ MR. J. C. FLYNN (Cork, N.)
observed that the right hon. Gentleman had not thought it beneath his dignity to speak about the dodge of the Government, but the truth was the Motion before the House was a dodge of the Unionist Party, who were parading for the moment as the working man's friend. The sponsor of the Motion was a well-known and incorrigible Protectionist. The whole course of the Debate had been interesting and instructive. The House was asked to adopt the peculiar course of putting the cart before the horse. Without one scintilla of clear proof that these prison goods were being used in the manner stated, they were asked to legislate upon the subject. The Government made the fair and sensible proposition that if a grievance existed at all to any appreciable extent, a Committee should be appointed to take evidence, and that, if a case was made out, legislation should follow afterwards. According to the allegations made on the other side, a large portion of Germany, instead of being encamped in a military condition, must be composed of the criminal classes, and the prisons must be full to suffocation. If, as was assured, German prison-made goods were flooding the markets of this country and thereby seriously threatening the great industries of this country, there should be no difficulty in getting evidence of the fact. That evidence could be given in a week, and then the House could, with some show of reason, proceed to legislate in a sensible and satisfactory manner. The hon. Member for West Ham said that free trade was good so long as equal conditions existed; but if the doctrine was sound, why should we stand by and 1179 allow the sugar industry, for example, of this country to be crushed out by the bounty-fed sugar of France? They could not stop at the sugar industry, but would be bound to go on from step to step. The truth was, in this matter, the right hon. Member for West Birmingham and the hon. Member for Sheffield were gathered together in one fold under the red flag of Protection. He denied the statement of the Leader of the Opposition that Committees were only appointed in connection with questions of an acutely controversial or political character. The experience of most Members would bear him out that there were a very large number of Committees which sat for the sole purpose of taking evidence on subjects entirely unconnected with acute controversial or political questions, and that, the Committee suggested, was the best way of meeting a difficulty like the present.
§ Motion agreed to.