HC Deb 30 July 1897 vol 51 cc1610-21

Order for Third Reading read.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the bill be now read the Third Lime.


said lie hail put a notice m. the Paper of a Motion for the recommittal of the Bill in respect of Clause I. His chief object had been to call attention to the position in which the House was placed by the new system of the Government—that of bringing in short but drastic Bills, and refusing to accept any Amendments upon them. The right hon. Gentleman in charge of the Bill had received the support of many of his followers by promising Amendments in another place. The House of Commons ought not to be asked to pass a Bill on such conditions. The right hon. Gentleman had promised that the Bill should not apply to the case of goods made in Indian Prisons and sent here not for sale; and, further, that the Bill should not apply to goods in transit. Those promises alone would justify the Motion for re-committal, because the House had a right to know how the promises were carried out. While he protested against the treatment of the House of Commons by the Government, he should not trouble, at so late a period of the Session, to Divide the House, so he would not move the Motion of which he had given notice.

MR. WALLACE (Edinburgh, E.)

moved to leave out the word "now," and at the end of the Question to add the words "upon this day three months." He said that the Bill had been treated as though it were wholly ridiculous. To a large extent it was ridiculous. The evil with which it professed to grapple was infinitesimal, almost non-existent, and the method for dealing with it was quite ineffectual. But while that was so, in another aspect it was a very dangerous Bill. It did not deal with a real and palpable evil. It was simply a sort of declaratory Bill for the purpose of placing upon the Statute-book an abstract statement of a general principle from which practical Measures of a most vicious nature would in future be evolved by the open and disguised protectionists on the other side. lie was much interested in observing that the Secretary to the Colonies had been manifesting a peculiar interest in the fortunes of this Bill. It was a circumstance of evil omen, and the probability was that the Colonial Secretary had mischief in view in connection with it. If so, they might surely know that the mischief would in due time come about. The abstract principle underlying it was simply the old and for ever buried principle of protection to native industry, the negation of absolute free trade. However useful the cry of "Down with convict goods for the British consumer" might be as an expedient of unscrupulous electioneering, in all other respects it seemed downright nonsense. They might just as well say that goods produced from horse labour were equine goods—[a laugh] — or goods manufactured by the assistance of coal were carbonaceous goods, or that goods imported by sea were salt goods, as to maintain that goods made by convicts must necessarily be convict goods in the sense that they had been criminally produced and placed on the market by a crime. He admitted that there was a certain offensive suggestiveness connected with prison labour. He knew shirts were made in prisons and more or less extensively sold outside them. Suppose he went into the market and saw a remarkably good shirt at a remarkably moderate price—say, 4s. or 5s. and 113/4d.—[laughter]—and he purposed acquiring that shirt, but some officious person gave him the information that it was made by a celebrated German murderer, who put the finishing touch to it the night before he was hanged. [Laughter.] On learning this, he naturally shrank from his purchase, and preferred investing his money and himself in a garment with a less homicidal history. [Laughter.] But why should his neighbour who knew nothing about this be prevented by law from buying and enjoying that shirt simply because it was a shirt "with a past"? [Laughter.] Or why should his other neighbour, who was somewhat of a philosopher, to whom pleasure and pain were much the same thing, and who had learned to know there was no such thing as the disagreeable if he only looked at the thing so-called in the right way— why should he be prevented from saving his 2s. 6d. by a stoical control of his feelings? The whole thing was simply a question of taste, but surely they were not going to base serious legislation merely upon considerations of taste ! ["Hear, hear!"] If they were going to shut out such goods because of their cheapness, where were they going to stop? He was sure the hon. Member for Sheffield, who in this matter was the non-official tail that was wagging the Government dog, would go on unto perfection if he could. The hon. Member would cordially approve of the language used in this House by Mr. Keir Hardie, who said: "The Trade Unionists were not going to allow the sweater or the underpaid labour of Continental nations to come into competition with them," and that the present question "was the thin end of the wedge to secure that object." In that Debate sweated labour and prison labour were treated practically by several speakers as standing on the same footing. Accordingly, when once they had established this avowal of protection on the Statute-book they had changed the attitude of the law in this matter, and made it regard these things, not from the consumer's but from the producer's point of view. The cry of "Down with convict goods for the British consumer" would be succeeded by a large number of similar cries. It was notorious that on the Continent of Europe wages were lower and hours were longer than here; and in the Far East, in Africa and India, the labourers were producing a great amount of goods for our markets. and were made to live on almost next to nothing and to lead the lives of beasts of burden. So the labouring population of this country, taking note of this, would not be slow to raise the cry "Down with sweated foreign coal and iron"; "Down with sweated German matches"; "Down with sweated diamonds and up with the British pebble jewellery"—[laughter]; "Down with sweated tea and coffee and up with English Bovril and beer;" "Down with slave-caught ivory and up with British ornaments in bone "—[laughter]; "Down with Turkish tobacco and up with the brown paper cigars of Whitechapel." [Laughter.] The right hon. Member for the Isle of Thanet would be justified in taking note of these unequal conditions and in joining in the cry of "Five shillings a quarter on wheat, and God bless the British landlord." [Laughter.] Hon. Gentlemen from Ireland, who were sound protectionists at heart, would cry "Down with bounty-fed foreign butter and up with the native article of Cork and Kilkenny"—[laughter]—while the sugar magnates would cry "Down with bounty-fed sugar and up with the refineries of Greenock." This was by no means an exaggerated description and forecast of the Bill and its natural developments. ["Hear, hear!"] He did not forget the description of the late President of the Board of Trade, the right hon. Member for Montrose, and the Colonial Secretary, wherein they all affirmed that this matter had nothing to do with free trade. He preferred, however, to go back to the fathers of free trade, and they had no hesitation in applying the principles of free trade to far uglier cases than prison-made goods. They defended not only the admission of slave-grown cotton and slave-grown coffee and tobacco, hut the far crueler case of slave-grow a sugar; they insisted on being put on the same fiscal footing as sugar produced by our fellow-subjects in the colonies by means of free and paid labour. Yet the founders of free trade were Lord John Russell and Lord Howick. ["No," and some laughter from the Ministerial Benches.] Hon. Members might laugh at these memories, but he had learned more from these old free traders in an hour than he expected to learn from the hon. Member who laughed in a life-time. [Laughter and cheers.] Those founders of free trade included also Milner Gibson, Villiers, and Bright; and they all maintained the principle of admitting on equal terms slave-produced sugar with the sugar produced by the free labour of the colonies. These fathers of free trade had no hesitation in the matter because they were not feeble sentimentalists or timid and hesitating reasoners who could not carry out their principles to their legitimate conclusions. ["Hear, hear!"] If he were to be dictated to by authorities in this matter he preferred the classics of the old school to the doctors of the modern school of economics. There was the ex-President of the Board of Trade whom he might possibly call the "universal doctor," because he knew so much. [Laughter.] The right hon. Gentleman said that protection was not in this Bill; but his ipse dixit was not enough. Then the right hon. Member for the Montrose Burghs, whom he might without offence call "the subtle doctor," because he splits airs so deftly and so diligently—[laughter]—appealed to history and to logic; but, unfortunately, his history was false and his logic wrong. [Laughter.] He did not understand how his right hon. Friend had fallen into the error as to the attitude of Mr. Bright in the matter of Free Trade and slave-produced sugar. It was all the more unintelligible because in the right hon. Gentleman's "Life of Cobden" there occurred a large note in small print occupying two-thirds of a page, in which that original thinker and great publicist delivered a scathing attack on the silliness of those who opposed cheap sugar merely on the ground that it was slave-grown; and whatever Cobden had thought out and stated, Bright would reproduce with eloquence and iteration. He could only suppose that the right hon. Gentleman had not read his own "Life of Cobden"; he must have thought when he wrote it that he had done all that could be expected of him, and he wisely left the labour of reading it to other people. The Colonial Secretary had also a doctrine in this matter, and if he were to assign the right hon. Gentleman his doctorial position he would describe, him as "the angelic doctor"—[laughter]— from qualities which were too obvious to require special mention. [Laughter.] The right hon. Gentleman said that this question had nothing to do with Free Trade; it had only to do with the principles of common sense and common justice. ["Hear, hear!" and laughter.] He was aware that the right hon. Gentleman had lately advanced strange opinions on common justice. He hoped he had not extended these principles to the domain of common sense, and he should be pleased to hear that he did not think the principles of free trade and the principles of common sense and common justice were essentially diverse from on another. For his own part, he had always thought they were simply different names for the same thing. ["Hear, hear!"] Surely it was common sense to prefer to buy a cheap brush when you could get it, rather than buy a dear brush because you had not arrived at a correct and complete history of the genesis of the cheap brush. That Was common sense, and, put in the scientific language of the old free-traders, it was just the old maxim about buying in the cheapest market. ["Hear, hear!"] As to common justice, surely it was no more than common justice to insist that the interests of the whole consuming community should not be subordinated to those of the small class of producers. ["Hear, hear!"] Let them note that this was to a certain extent a resuscitation of the old problem and difficulty about machinery. He sympathised with the condition of the workmen who smashed machines when introduced; but machinery was an unspeakable blessing to the community at large, and they must hold that the breaking of machinery was a scientific blunder as well as a crime. He held that a prison with cheap labour available was simply a goods-producing machine, and a Bill of this kind was from that point of view a piece of reactionary barbarism—a going back to the machine-breaking days. As for the hypothetical distressed brush maker, he would comfort such an individual—if he existed—by showing him that if all trades were protected, his condition as a consumer would be much worse. ["Hear, hear!"] For these reasons and others he grudged to mention, considering the pressure of business, he moved the rejection of what he must describe as an uncalled for, absurd, and contemptible electioneering device. [Cheers.]

MR. COLVILLE (Lanark, N.E.)

said that after the able and eloquent address of his hon. Friend, he did not propose to detain the House more than a few moments in seconding the Motion. The Government had established no real necessity for such reactionary legislation. The explanation that it was an attempt to protect home industry would undoubtedly sound well on the platform, and provide a spurious argument with which to try and catch the labour vote. Yet, having regard to the fact that the labour electorate already understood what were the leading principles of the present Government, and, judging of their action during this Session and the last, were quite able to come to a just appreciation of the intentions of the Government with regard to the masses of the communities, he looked on the Bill as a mere red herring drawn across the path, which would not have much influence on either the bye-elections or tile future General Election. It seemed to him to be an attempt to put back the hands of the clock and restore, if only in a small way, the Protection of the past. As his hon. Friend had said, they could hardly stop at Prison-made Goods. Immediately this Bill was put on the Statute-book, they would find other industries which conceived themselves to suffer from foreign competition, putting in a claim on this reactionary Government to have Protection on their behalf. It took no prophet to foresee that when they began such legislation, it would go on, and ultimately they would have the agricultural classes demanding the reestablishment of that abominable legislation which formerly disgraced the Statute-book, and which caused such wide-spread misery by making food so dear. No argument of his was required to attack this Bill. He felt with confidence, representing one of the largest labour constituencies in Scotland, that lie could return to his constituents and point out the true policy of this Bill, and show that instead of an honest attempt to improve the condition of the working classes it was merely an attempt to turn aside the minds of the electors from what they were entitled to expect from this Government with its large majority, viz., legislation in the interests of the whole community and not of the privileged classes. He, therefore, had great pleasure in seconding the Motion "That the Bill be read a Third time that day six months."

*MR. STUART-WORTLEY (Sheffield, Hallam)

said the House would realise that the Member for Edinburgh had taken evident pains to prepare the speech which he had just delivered, and which had caused so much amusement. No one ever doubted that the lion. Member could make a certain number of good jokes. [Laughter.] But he rose in his humble way for the purpose of drawing the greatest possible amount of attention to the hon. Member's speech. The hon. Member said this was an electioneering Bill. [Opposition cheers.] He did not appear to see that when he said that, he gave away his whole case. When he referred to the hon. Member's jokes, he did so not for the purpose of saying that he did not enjoy the jokes, but in order to draw the attention of the House to the contrast that existed between the hon. Member's jokes and the tenets of the gloomy school of politicians to which he was so anxious to remind the House that he belonged, lie meant the school of mathematical politicians who took into all their calculations everything human and divine, excepting only human nature. That the Bill was based upon human nature and popular desire was proved by many interesting matters of evidence. One of these to which the hon. Member himself would pay some respect was the fact that year by year the Bill had been loudly demanded in tones to which even the hon. Member was bound to pay regard, by the Trades Union Congress. The hon. Member would net say that that Congress were self-constituted representatives of the working classes. Gentlemen opposite were in the habit of telling the rest of the House that what the Congress said was to be accepted as gospel quite as much as the old dicta of the early Free Trade Fathers to whom the hon. Member had appealed; and that appeal had been surrounded with such magnificent mystification that lie began himself to feel alarmed lest in some mysterious way, in supporting this Bill he had been supporting slave labour in the West Indian Colonies. But there was a much simpler explanation of the Bill, and the hon. Member, with all his knowledge of history, had not been able to arrive at this simple solution. What the hon. Member called a vicious principle and what he characterised as nonsense, was nothing more nor less than the principle which we had been practising for years as regards our domestic prison administration. That principle was that prison labour should be restricted at home to the production of such articles as were required for the Government Departments and such further articles as were necessary to give useful and educative employment to the convicts—a rule framed, not in the interests of trade, but in the interests of prison administration alone. ["Hear!"] It was a very simple thing on the part of the working men of this country to ask—for it was on their part that it was asked—that the same principle should be practised with regard to foreign prison-made goods, and that their importation should not go unrestricted. He hoped the hon. Member's speech would be made as public as possible; he could not conceive a better time at which it should have been delivered.


said as the Bill was not likely to produce any practical effect, the sooner they voted on it the better. ["Hear, hear!"] He was in favour of a Bill of this character, but he objected to this Bill because it did not carry out what he and his constituents desired. When the Conservative Government got in at the last General Election, he felt he had this consolation. They had been roaming about the country explaining that they were going to bring in a Bill to prevent the importation of prison-made goods; and, of course, they had carefully considered the thing and were prepared with a Bill that would effect the object about which they had been prating. But the Bill brought in was absolutely worthless. Was that fair upon him and his constituents? [Laughter.] The hon. Member for West Edinburgh said the objection to the Bill was that it drew a distinction between convict-made goods and others under the impression that goods made by convicts had something convict about them. [Laughter.] He had never heard that objection. The real idea was that in England they prevented convicts from competing with free labour, and if they could prevent German, French, and Russian convicts from competing they ought to do so. It was the economic wage in prisons that they objected to. His hon. Friend said that possibly a prisoner cost as much as any other workman.

MR. WALLACE (Edinburgh, E.)

No, I did not say that.


Well, his hon. Friend said this—that they must take into consideration in the wage the cost of the prison, keeping the man, housing him, and looking after him. If his hon. Friend's views were carried out logically, not only ought mats to be made in prisons, but other articles of utility also, and he supposed that his hon. Friend would say that such articles, so made, ought to be thrown upon the market, where they could be sold at a cheaper price than the produce of free labour. He did not believe that the working men of the country would accept the views of the hon. Member. They certainly would not be popular in Northampton. The Bill, in his opinion, did not go far enough. It was little more than an abstract declaration in favour of the protectionist views of the hon. Member for the Central Division of Sheffield. If, however, it could be shown that the Bill would really prevent foreign prison-made goods from coming into the country, he should be ready to vote for it.


observed that the Bill was based upon the principle that free labour in this country must not be affected by labour carried on under inferior conditions. The Bill affirmed a far-reaching principle, but only touched the merest corner of the ground that would have to be covered if that principle were carried out. He had a great deal of sympathy with the principle, but on what ground could they select one or two small and rather insignificant trades for protection against the competition of German prison - made goods? How could they refuse to apply the principle to more important interests? How about the produce of cruel and compulsory labour in Rhodesia? Ought not that to be excluded also? If this principle were accepted a protest would be made before long against the importation of goods manufactured by Belgian and German workmen who worked for 12 and 14 hours a day for lower wages than were asked for in this country for an eight hours day. The Bill was a preposterous one, and its only immediate effect would be to exasperate traders, whose consignments would be searched. But it certainly would be made hereafter the basis of a demand by Irish producers for protection against bounty-fed foreign produce, such as butter and hams. The Bill, in short, would be the fruitful mother of many demands on behalf of interests it was considered were injured by free trade. If an election had not been coming on in Sheffield he did not believe that precedence would have been given to this Measure that afternoon, when the House was anxious to begin the discussion of the Workmen's Compensation Bill.

Question put, "That the word 'now' stand part of the Question."

The House divided:—Ayes, 120; Noes, 54.—(Division List, No. 345.)

Main Question put, and agreed to.

Bill read the Third time, and passed.