HC Deb 04 May 1896 vol 40 cc518-24

THE UNDER SECRETARY OF STATE FOR THE HOME DEPARTMENT (Mr. JESSE COLLINGS, Birmingham, Bordesley) moved the Second Reading of this Bill, the object of which, he explained, was to correct certain omissions in the Truck Acts, requiring that wages should be paid in coin, and not in kind. He believed the Bill was accepted on both sides.


was struck by the fact that the Bill only applied the existing definition of "workman." Yet it could not be denied that shop assistants suffered as much as, perhaps, on the whole more than did workmen so-called from the practice of fines and deductions. The Home Secretary, he believed, admitted that the case of shop assistants was a hard one, but he saw great difficulty in dealing with their case in the same Bill as workmen were dealt with. No doubt if shop assistants were included it would be difficult to exclude other classes, such as waiters and domestic servants, in some cases, but whatever the difficulties might be, when ones they got beyond the definition of "workman," undoubtedly the case of shop assistants deserved the attention of the House. The first great question, therefore, was whether shop assistants ought not to be included in the Bill. Some of the books which came into his possession containing the greatest number of fines were those relating to shop assistants, and they were for offences of the most trivial description, and so vexatious as virtually to amount to a system of slavery on the part of employés who had to submit to them. The great difficulty was that judicial decisions had continually cut down what was supposed to be the law until there was really nothing of value left in it. He congratulated the Home Secretary on having made a good try at producing a real amendment of the law, and though he himself was not satisfied with the Bill as it stood, because he was an advocate of the complete abolition of fines and deductions, he hoped the Standing Committee would be able to make out of it a substantial improvement on the existing law.

SIR JOHN BRUNNER (Cheshire, Northwich)

observed that the noble Marquess at the head of the Government, a year or two ago spoke very strongly against legislation by reference, and he was in hopes that our system of legislation would have been improved in consequence of what the noble Marquess then said. He found, however, that Clause 4 of the Bill incorporated a clause of the Truck Act of 1831. He did not think any harm could follow if the words so incorporated were copied into the present Bill. An hon. and learned Gentleman opposite indicated dissent, but he (Sir J. Brunner) could not conceive why the words of an old Act should not be repeated in order to make this Act clear. This was intended to be an Act for the benefit very largely of workmen who were entirely unfamiliar with the interpretation of Acts of Parliament; and it did seem to him it would be great hardship that those men and their advisers should be compelled to refer back to an Act passed in 1831 in order to ascertain what Parliament meant today.


said that from one standpoint the Bill seemed to be one to permit, rather than to prevent, fines and deductions for damaged goods and materials. He heartily re-echoed the hope expressed by the right hon. Baronet the Member for the Forest of Dean, that in Committee the clauses intended for the protection of the workmen would be made more stringent. In spite of laws, there was a great deal of tyranny, and, therefore, he would be glad to see the Bill of a more thorough character than it really was. If he made careful inquiry as to a workman before he employed him, an employer could always protect himself, besides which, he always possessed the power of dismissal. He earnestly hoped that when the Bill got to Committee the right hon. Gentleman would facilitate every effort to make the Measure a more real protection of the workman than it was at present.

MR. SYDNEY BUXTON (Tower Hamlets, Poplar)

said there was no desire to prevent the Bill going to a Grand Committee. He agreed that judicial decisions as to fines and deductions had been of such an extraordinary character that the only clear way in which the matter could be dealt with was to abolish fines and deductions altogether. But he felt that, if they did that at the present moment, they would go considerably beyond what public opinion, either on the part of the masters or the men, would justify. Therefore, he was quite prepared to support the Second Reading and the reference of the Bill to the Standing Committee on Trade, from which he was sure it would emerge improved in many respects.

MR. W. ALLAN (Gateshead)

said, he had no desire to oppose the second reading, but there were one or two clauses which particularly deserved attention. For instance, Clause 1 (sub-section C) provided that— the fine imposed under that contract is in respect of some act or omission which causes or is likely to cause damage or loss to the employer, or interruption or hindrance to his business. There was a sub-section which was very badly drawn, and very unfair to the workman. Suppose a turner was mending the belt of his lathe and there was interruption of work and loss. Who was to decide what the loss was? First of all they compelled a workman to sign a contract and then they fined him because he produced a loss to the employer. That was not fair to the workman or to the employer. He, personally, would not like to take advantage of any workman under such a clause. Clause 3 was also a very badly drawn and unjust clause, for sub-section C said— the amount of the deduction or payment is fair and reasonable having regard to all the circumstances of the case. Who was to decide what was fair and reasonable? Was the workman to go to the court over every fine imposed upon him? If so, who was to pay the man's expenses? The clause was one sided, and not fair, and not honest. The Bill altogether was one-sided, and stronger provisions for the protection of the workmen ought to be introduced.


said, that he had come to the conclusion that fines ought to be abolished altogether. If the Government would not accept that principle, he would suggest that a clause should be inserted similar to that in the Hosiery Act, which provided that all wages must in the first instance be paid in full, and that any fines must afterwards be collected from the workpeople. He had had a case brought before his notice that day which nothing short of the abolition of fines would meet. One firm in the fancy-leather trade had a system of keeping the women workers waiting for their wages for several hours on Saturday afternoon, unless they consented to a small deduction from the full amount.

* COL. J. M. DENNY (Kilmarnock, Burghs)

, thought that the hon. Member wanted a little more experience of the management of workmen. If fines were abolished where several hundred people were employed, there was no way of maintaining discipline unless dismissal were resorted to. A light fine was a proper punishment for a breach of rules, where the fine was of no benefit to the master, but was devoted to the workmen's benefit fund. To dismiss a man for breaking rules was too severe, because it prevented him from earning the daily bread of himself, his wife, and his family.

MR. W. ALLEN (Newcastle-under-Lyme)

said, that the Factory Inspectors had declared the discipline to be as good in factories where there were no fines as in the factories where there were fines. The inspectors were quite as strong on the abolition of fines as on the abolition of deductions for bad work. The Bill of the Home Secretary was not at all perfect; but it was one that should be sent to the Grand Committee, where it might be amplified and improved; and it might do something towards sweeping away those judicial decisions which had knocked such holes in the Truck Acts. He should, therefore, strongly support the Second Reading.

MR. H. E. KEARLEY (Devonport)

said that he had tried both systems—fining and not fining; and he had satisfied himself that the former system was bad. He was in favour of the abolition of fines altogether.


asked those who argued against fines to say what they would do with workpeople who came late in the morning.


, thought it would be unwise to abolish the system of fines altogether, for in many cases the plan of levying small fines had worked well.

MR. E. H. PICKERSGILL, (Bethnal Green, S. W.),

understood that the Bill was to be referred to a Grand Committee, and he wished to ask the right hon. Gentleman in charge of the Measure whether he proposed to refer it to the Grand Committee on Law. The Bill seemed to be on the border line, as it were, of the two Committees of Law and Trade, but as the present unsatisfactory state of the law on this question had been largely brought about by judicial interpretations of the existing Act, he suggested that there would be special advantage in referring the Bill to the Grand Committee on Law.


said that in reply to the question asked by the right hon. Gentleman the member for Manchester, as to what a firm would do without fines, in the case of workpeople coming late in the morning, he would only say as a large employer of labour, that such people had better be discharged.—["Hear, hear!"]—for this reason that it would be impossible to apply a system of fines to workmen coming late to work in the morning, fining the person 6d. who came a quarter of an hour after nine, 1s. for being half an hour late, 2s. for being an hour late, and so on. No firm could be carried on under such conditions. ["Hear, hear!"] It would be far better that such workmen should be warned to look for other employment. ["Hear, hear!"] He did not think a system of fines to be at all necessary; workpeople who needed to be fined for neglect or carelessness, had better be got rid of, for the sake of the firm and the other workmen. He should support the Bill as a step in the right direction, and he hoped hon. Members on both sides of the House would support any Bill that would abolish fines altogether. ["Hear, hear!"]


acknowledged the favourable spirit in which the Bill had been received in all parts of the House. It did not proceed on the assumption of the total abolition of fines, but on the principle that it was not possible, even if it were desirable, to make all deductions, whether by fines or otherwise, illegal. In fact, he went further, and thought it was very arguable whether it was desirable to make all fines illegal, although it might be possible in some cases for a good employer to be able to dispense with fines. ["Hear, hear!"] What the House had to deal with, however, was the existing state of the law, and the object of this Bill was to strengthen the law in the interests of the workman. In consequence of the interpretations that had been put on the old Truck Act, it had been thought desirable that an effort should be made, not only to make the law clearer in the interests of both employer and employed, but also to strengthen the law in the direction of protecting workmen against unreasonable deductions by fines or otherwise, and he was confident that careful legislation in that direction must prove beneficial. He did not apprehend any vexatious litigation over the expression "fair and reasonable." He felt sure that one or two decisions of the Courts of Law would settle the meaning of the expression. He also thought that the description of the Bill as "legislation by reference" was not quite fair. There was only one reference to another Act in the whole Bill. He hoped the House would give the Measure a Second Reading and allow it to be referred to the Grand Committee on Trade. As there was no Bill before that Grand Committee it was reasonable to hope that in a short time a fair and reasonable settlement of a complex question would be arrived at. ["Hear, hear!"]

Bill read a Second time.

SIR MATTHEW WHITE RIDLEY moved that the Bill be referred to the Standing Committee on Trade, etc.


No, no! We want to hear something more about that. [Cries of "Order!"] Let us have some explanation. As a matter of fact, Sir, in this House of Commons we should not allow things to go by the board, and if Her Majesty's Government are paid for doing their duty let them do it. [Cries of "Order!"]

Bill committed to the Standing Committee on Trade, etc.