HC Deb 21 March 1900 vol 80 cc1405-26

Order for Second Reading read.

*MR. GOULDING (Wiltshire, Devizes)

I desire to move the Second Reading of this Bill. When the Home Secretary introduced the Workmen's Compensation Bill he stated that it was proposed at first to limit its operations to dangerous trades, but that he hoped that before long the success of the Act would be such that it might be extended. The Act has been in force now for two years, and I think on the whole it has worked most beneficially. Certainly the evil forebodings which were indulged in as to the hardships it would inflict on employers, and the hindrances it would impose on trade, have not been realised. In fact, the working of the Act has made these predictions appear absolutely absurd, and it now stands as a bold and generous attempt to deal with a great social problem, and is certainly the most far-reaching of all the social problems proposed by the present Government. The defects in the question of employers' liability are, however, patent to hon. Members on both sides of the House, and Her Majesty's Government are pledged to deal with them. As regards the agricultural labourer the Employers Liability Act of 1880 is practically a dead letter. Labourers living in the villages have no lawyers to consult and have no means to enable them to undertake an action. They are face to face with all kinds of difficulties in getting evidence to support their case, especially when that evidence has to be frequently given by their fellow workmen under the same master. In cases which are fought most of the damages, when obtained, are exhausted in the expenses of prosecuting the action. The wages of agricultural labourers, although they have been increased in recent years, are yet only just sufficient for the support of themselves and their families in decency, and to enable them to contribute to a friendly or other society, and the result is that if the calamity of an accident befall them they are absolutely dependent on charity. I therefore sincerely hope that the House of Commons will, if not unanimously, at least by an overwhelming majority, declare that the time has come when the benefits of the Workmen's Compensation Act should be extended to the 1,700,000 labourers who are employed in the industry of agriculture. It may be said that accidents among agricultural labourers are few, but I venture to say that hardly a harvest passes that serious accidents do not occur, and with the increase in machinery, the liability to such accidents will be still further increased. Far more accidents occur even in ordinary times than is supposed. In my own division I have personal knowledge of four serious accidents occurring in four months. A carter engaged with a waggon had his foot so severely injured that he was laid up for a month; a boy was injured owing to a horse bolting; in another case a man was kicked by a horse and was laid up for some months in hospital, and in November, during the high gales, a man received injuries on Salisbury Plain by the overturning of a rick which resulted in his death. These cases alone in one single constituency show that there are far more accidents among agricultural labourers than people imagine, and when it is remembered that they are the only large body of workmen who have no organisation and no means of bringing their grievances forward, the necessity for legislation is increased. Complaint is very frequently made that only the old and the infirm and those who cannot get work in the towns work on the farms. Can it be wondered at? What has this House done to induce the agricultural labourer to stop on the land? The Act of 1897 encourages him to seek employment elsewhere. You cannot expect the agricultural labourer not to be struck with the injustice of his position as compared with other working men living in the same localities employed on a railway or in a mill, who receive much better wages, and when an accident befall them receive compensation, whereas nothing remains for himself. Is it not common sense to suppose that unless Parliament takes into consideration the undoubted grievances of the working men engaged in agriculture, we shall still have the continued depopulation of our rural districts? This Bill simply extends the benefits of the Workmen's Compensation Act to all engaged on agricultural work. It has been limited to that extent, not because there is any desire that the Act should not be extended to other trades, but because, as practical men, we know that it is absolutely impossible for any Bill in charge of a private Member to pass through this House if it is of too large and ambitious a character. Therefore we limited the Bill to agricultural labourers in order that it might have some chance of success. The only objection which can be urged against it is the burden it would place upon the farmer. At the present time farmers have to pay 2s. 6d. for every £100 of wages they pay to cover their liability under the Employers' Liability Act of 1880, but they can secure for all workmen the great advantages of the Act of 1897 by the additional payment of 1s. for every £100 paid in wages or 3s. 6d. in all. There may be some difficulty in the case of farmers working sixty or seventy acres, but the hon. Member for the Horncastle Division of Lincolnshire said that he, as a landlord, would not allow such a miserable objection to stand in the way, and that it would be the duty of all intelligent landlords to bear the expense in cases where small farmers were not themselves able to effect an insurance policy. I think, moreover, that it would be perfectly possible for the number of small farmers to combine together and so effect an insurance policy. There is a further objection, and that is the impossibility of insuring as regards men who only come for a day's labour. Only a week ago a decision was given in the Court of Appeal that such workmen were outside the scope of the Act of 1897, and however we may regret that decision, we need not handicap ourselves now by considering the particular position of such men. In the division I have the honour to represent many farmers now voluntarily insure to secure the benefit of the Act of 1897 for their men. I venture to press on the Government, who have undoubtedly shown very great interest in agriculture, that they will not only take a disinterested view with regard to this Bill, but that they will assist to pass it. The Government in 1897, the Jubilee of the Queen, extended the great boon, as I maintain it is, of the Workmen's Compensation Act to dangerous trades, and I know no better opportunity than the present for extending the same boon to the agricultural labourer. If there is one thing which the British people ought to be proud of it is the constant statement in the reports from South Africa that the bravery of our troops was splendid, and it should be remembered that the preponderating proportion of Tommy Atkins is drawn from the agricultural community. In my own division in a village containing only 300 inhabitants there are twenty at the seat of war to-day. I venture to hope that the House will carry the Second Reading of this Bill, and that the Government will see that this boon is conferred on the agricultural labourer.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a second time."—(Mr. Goulding.)

*MR. GRANT LAWSON (Yorkshire, Thirsk)

I desire to say a few words in support of this Bill. I do not intend to wear a white sheet in connection with it, although I was one of the agricultural Members who voted against the inclusion of the agricultural labourer in the Act of 1897. I believe we were right then in the course which we took, and I believe I am right now in voting for this Bill. That may be thought a contradiction in terms, but it is not. The Act of 1897 was avowedly and explicitly an experiment, and if there is one thing a farmer hates more than another it is to be made the subject of an experiment. Further, the agricultural community opposes anything being done in a hurry. My constituents supported my vote in 1897 against the inclusion of the agricultural labourer in the Act on the grounds that if experiments were to be tried they should be tried on someone less valuable than the agricultural labourer. We were told when the Act was passed that it would impose a very heavy burden, and would fall with great weight on the trades to which it applied. We were told, especially on the other side of the House, that it would result in old men being turned out of employment. There is no proof that it has done so, and no statistics have ever been shown to prove it. The rates of insurance are now very low since the insurance companies have come to their senses, and it has been shown that the burden has not been serious. But naturally in an industry like agriculture, where the profit is so small and the balance frequently on the other side, we naturally have nervousness when increased expenditure is proposed. What would be the increase if this Act is passed? I have made it my business to look into the question, and have applied to insurance companies for quotations. I find that a perfectly good and solvent company—I do not propose to advertise it by mentioning its name—is prepared to undertake the insurance of agricultural labourers against all accidents during their employment for five shillings per £100 paid in wages, and if accidents which disable for a fortnight are excluded they are prepared to insure for 3s. 6d. That, however, in my opinion, is too high a rate. When the Act of 1897 was passed 10s. per £100 paid in wages was asked, but the employers combined together and got themselves insured at 2s. 3d., and after one year's experience at that rate it was reduced to 1s. 6d. The small number of accidents which occur in agriculture, if spread over the enormous industry, will enable farmers to insure at a great deal less than 3s. 6d. All the gloomy forebodings which were indulged in in 1897 as to the results of the Act have been falsified by events, and I think we now may safely take another step forward. I believe that by combination among the farmers the rate for insurance would be reduced to a very low sum indeed. If an insurance company were only taking the risks on one farm they would charge of course higher rates than if the risks were spread over a number of farms or covered a great agricultural association, and then something would be taken off the farmer in the reduction of the poor rate, which would follow if all labourers were insured. I think the cost to the farmer would be small and the value to the labourer would be very great if this Bill were passed. Town work has already great attraction for the agricultural labourer, and I think it is a pity that we should add the further attraction that if he wants the benefit of the Compensation Act he must go into a town. The great difficulty to my mind is the case of the small farmer having four or five acres, who calls in some neighbour, and gives him a couple of shillings to assist him on a particular day. I think such a man, who is almost as poor as the labourer, should not have to provide for the labourer for the rest of his natural life if an accident occurs during his employment. One of the cases referred to by my hon. friend shows that it is now the law that the Compensation Act does not apply to such a labourer. There seems to be some legal difficulty as to how far a farmer is responsible for accidents now. I believe it has been decided by a County Court judge that if a labourer is injured in connection with the work of the threshing machine the farmer is responsible under the Act of 1897. I think this Bill will encourage the farmers to insure; I believe they will be able to insure at very low rates, and that great benefit will be conferred on the agricultural labourer.

*SIR WILLIAM HARCOURT (Monmouthshire, W.)

I am sure the House has listened with great interest and instruction to the information which the hon. Member has given us as to the process of conversion which has overtaken all classes of the agricultural interest. I hope we may regard the hon. Member in the words of the poet, as "the Knight of the Shire, who represents them all. "Sitting on his left are two distinguished representatives of the agricultural industry—the hon. Member for the Newport division of Shrop-shire, whom we often hear on agricultural subjects, and the hon. Member the Member for Epping. I am sure they will both support this Bill. Behind him is another representative of the agricultural interest, the Member for the county in which I have the pleasure of residing. He generally expresses the views of the agricultural interest, and will, I hope, support the Bill. If that is so we have ample time this afternoon to pass it. Who is going to oppose it, when, after an experience of three or four years, even the agricultural labourer is converted to a measure which is in favour of himself. I can remember questions in which the process of conversion of particular classes of the community occupied even longer than three years. There is only one body in this House whose conversion is required, and that is Her Majesty's Government. We have heard the views of the agricultural interest and the views of other interests, and it is only right that we should hear the views of Her Majesty's Government, and then we shall pass this Bill with acclamation, and you, Sir, will announce that it has been passed nemine contradicente. There is no argument which can be advanced for excepting the agricultural labourer. Machinery is now used to a great extent even in England for agricultural purposes, and it has long been employed in Scotland, and liability to accidents is, therefore, just as great as in other trades. There can be no rational ground of opposition, unless it be the opposition of a preponderate interest to apply an equal rule to all classes of the community in this respect. I do not know whether the process of conversion on questions of this kind takes place more easily towards the end rather than at the beginning of a Parliament. There are moments when men think very seriously of life, and that is when they are approaching its end. But though a death-bed repentance is, perhaps, not as good as a repentance in earlier years, still, at all events, it is valuable. The views I desire to hear are the views of the Government. The Home Secretary, though not an agricultural Member—[Sir M. White Ridley: Oh, yes, I am.] At all events, he is a personal representative of agriculture to a large extent. He is one of the great landowners of this country, and we should like to hear in that capacity, as well as in his official capacity, his views on this Bill. I only desire to make a few brief remarks, because I do not want to waste time. We have heard the opinion of the agricultural interest, and if we only hear the official opinion of the Home Secretary in the same sense we shall be satisfied, we shall pass this Bill and go home rejoicing.

*THE SECRETARY OF STATE FOR THE HOME DEPARTMENT (Sir M. White Ridley) Lancashire, Blackpool

The right hon. Gentleman has been very jocular about death-bed repentances and about conversions, and he apparently wishes the House to believe that when the Government introduced the Workmen's Compensation Bill in 1897 they were not in favour of extending the principle of it to all trades. When the Government introduced the Bill it was admittedly as an experiment. It was a new departure unknown to the law of this country, and very in acceptable to many persons from a legal as well as a political point of view. When introducing the Bill we explained that it involved momentous consequences, and that we thought it would be safer if we applied it only to those industries in the country in which the greatest number of accidents occurred, and where there was a greater possibility of effecting insurance to cover the risk which would necessarily fall on the employer. We always have said—I myself said it, and my right hon. friend the Secretary of State for the Colonies, who was so much responsible for the Bill, also said it—that when the Bill had been tested by experience in this country the Government hoped they would have an opportunity of proposing its extension. One hon. Gentleman in this House particularly represents seamen. There is a very much heavier rate of accident among seamen than among agricultural labourers, but I said we should require a separate Act of Parliament, as we could not deal in one Bill with seamen and other industries, but I hope the time will come, as I believe it will come, when the same principle will be employed to seamen also. But that is in the future. I was very glad to hear from the hon. Gentleman who moved the Second Reading of this Bill, that the working of the Act of 1897 has been in the main so beneficial to the industries to which it has been applied, that the agricultural interest now seek to have it extended to them. The right hon. Gentleman opposite said that it took a long time to convert the agricultural labourer, but it was not the agricultural labourer who had to be converted, but the employer of the labourer who would have to bear the brunt of this legislation, and I think the employer was quite right to look after his own interests, and when a novel procedure of this kind was introduced and a new responsibility was thrown upon him, he was bound to consider the liability and, speaking commercially, to see how much in the £ it meant to him. That was the reason why there were a considerable number of agricultural Members in this House who, in 1897, while desiring to see the Bill of that year extended to agricultural labourers, still desired—and the Government and the majority of the House agreed—that the Bill should in the first instance only be applied to those interests which were included in it. We are in a very different position now from that in which we were in 1897. As the right hon. Gentleman opposite said the other day, we have learned a good deal since then, and whereas we then introduced a new principle which frightened a good many employers of labour, it has now been found that it is possible to meet the liability by a comparatively light premium for insurance, and it has been proved beyond controversy that a very considerable boon has been bestowed by Parliament upon the working men of this country who came within the provisions of the Act. After three years experience we are able to state now, and I think some credit might be taken to the Government for it, that in introducing this principle to a very large number of labourers—nearly one-half of the labouring population of this country—we have effected a very considerable social reform. Under these circumstances, of course, the Government are prepared to support this Bill. I cannot conceive anybody objecting to the principle of this Bill. When we come to the details, I think my hon. friend will find some difficulty in regard to the definition of an agricultural labourer. I am not aware that there is any statutory definition. In the Rating Act, which caused so much feeling in this House two or three years ago, there was a definition of agricultural land, but a definition will have to be found for the agricultural labourer, otherwise we shall be landed in difficulties not much less than those which now beset the courts in the interpretation of the Act of 1897. As to the general question of the Amendment of that Act, I have admitted in this House and elsewhere that there has been considerable difficulty in its interpretation, but I do not think that the number of claims which have been brought before the courts under the Act compare unfavourably with those brought under the Employers' Liability Act of 1880. The percentage of cases which have gone to the Court of Appeal for ultimate decision is nothing like so large as under the Act of 1880, and if it were possible to get the figures of the claims which have been settled out of court, I think it would be found that a very infinitesimal proportion of the number of claims under the Act of 1897 have been adjudicated on. There is no doubt, however, that the Court of Appeal has been much occupied with some of the legal questions which have arisen under the Act. There is no doubt, owing to one or two recent decisions which have been given, that in some respects the Act does not appear to do for certain classes of labourers that which unquestionably it was the desire of the promoters of the Bill should be done for them. Therefore, I think that there will be before long a case for the revision of the Act; and I will go further and say that the question of the extension of the provisions of the Act, apart from its extension to the agricultural labourer, is intimately bound up with the construction of the Act itself. There are such questions as to the 30 feet limit—a limit which was taken for the purpose of convenience from the Factory Act, in order to make the measure clearly understood not only by lawyers, but by those whom it directly affected, and also for the purpose of providing machinery which would be intelligible. Questions of that kind are intimately bound up with questions on the amendment of the law. When I am asked whether the Government are prepared to introduce a Bill to amend and extend this Act, I can only say, considering the circumstances of the present session, that the time is scarcely ripe, either for introducing an amending Bill or an extending Bill. But when we are simply asked to extend to the agricultural labourer this Act, I can only say that the Government are prepared to assent to the Second Reading.

*MR. TENNANT (Berwickshire)

May I be allowed to congratulate the Government on their support of this Bill? Unlike the hon. Member for Thirsk, I was one of those who voted for the inclusion of the agricultural labourer in the Bill of 1897, and I maintain with a degree of logic greater than his, that I was right then and that I am right now. I want to ask the Home Secretary a question. Allusion has been made to the case of a man injured by a threshing machine, and to that man receiving compensation under the Compensation Act. In my humble judgment that is bad law. I would ask whether a man who is injured in a barn where corn is being threshed by a machine, which corn was ultimately sold, does not come within the definition of the Act by the fact that he is preparing an article for sale "by steam, water, or other mechanical power." I brought the case before the Attorney General, and his opinion was that such a man would not be included within the Act. The right hon. Gentleman said he thought there might be a difficulty in describing what was an agricultural labourer. I believe that a definition of an agricultural labourer will be found in the Employers and Workmen Act, or in the Truck Act of 1831. The argument which was advanced in 1897 that there were no accidents in agriculture, and the further argument that the farmers could not afford to pay for insurance, have now been abandoned, and the agricultural labourer is to be admitted to the benefits of the Act.

COLONEL KENYON-SLANEY (Shropshire, Newport)

The inclusion of the agricultural labourer in the Act of 1897 was opposed mainly on the ground that farmers had very little time given to them in which to make the necessary arrangements for insurance. If the agricultural labourer were included in 1897 the Act would be looked upon with, distrust and suspicion, whereas now it is accepted cheerfully and with a determination to carry it out in the best spirit. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for West Monmouthshire has hinted that some of us in supporting this measure are looking forward to possible political events; and I should like to clear myself from any such imputation. No sooner was the Act of 1897 passed than I turned any attention to making arrangements that every single man employed by me should obtain benefits similar to those in the Act. I am glad to say that for some time past every single man in my employ in any capacity has been standing on the level of those who come under the purview of the Act. Therefore it is fair to suppose, that, while some of us considered it was necessary to support the exclusion of agricultural labourers before, we acknowledged that as soon as the right time came we would be anxious to include them, and that in the meantime we were doing our best to bring about a state of feeling in the country to make that inclusion as easy as possible. Now, there will and must always remain some chance of individual cases of hardship in the working out of the Act, and when we come to discuss details it will be necessary to do what we can to obviate the possibility of individual hardship, and to secure that the Act shall work smoothly. It will be in the recollection of hon. Members that there is growing up amongst agricultural labourers a keen sense of their position and a desire to be put on all fours with their brothers in the factories and workshops in our cities. That is a feeling which we have not the slightest wish to stifle. The terms that would have been asked from the farmers when the original Act was passed to enable them to insure their labourers would have been extremely onerous, and would have weighed very heavily on the farmers. Speaking from personal experience, I can say that these terms are now light and easy, and can be arranged so as to work without any undue weight on the employers of labour. How far the term "agricultural labourer" is to be defined I do not know, but I do hope the definition will be as generous as possible, and that we shall not be afraid to include kindred occupations. I have no doubt whatever that in the term "agricultural labourer" every woodman, gateman, groom, or any man employed about a country house can be included. I venture to say this, because the Bill has the hearty support of the bulk of the hon. Members on both sides of the House who wish to see fair play done.

SIR JAMES JOICEY (Durham, Chester-le-Street)

I wish to join in congratulating Her Majesty's Government in supporting this Bill. I am glad to find that those who took an interest in the debates in 1897, in this House, have begun to admit that there was some injustice in that Bill, and are now prepared to accept the Bill under discussion, and to grant to agricultural labourers the benefits of the Workmen's Compensation Act. I agree with an hon. Member who said that the time was scarcely come yet for realising all the effects of the Act passed in 1897. I believe as experience is developed it will be found that that Act has conferred immense benefits upon those who participate in it. I quite admit that there were very great difficulties indeed when the Act was passed, because it adopted an altogether new principle of compensation, and it was wise in the first instance to take special precautions in order to prevent any ill effects from the measure. But speaking as one who has had as much experience as any Member of this House of the working of the Act, I am bound to say many of the dangers which were anticipated have certainly not arisen. So far as the Act has been worked in Northumberland and Durham, we have had extremely few cases of litigation. That is owing, not to the clearness of the Act itself, but entirely to the common sense of the people in the North of England, who endeavour to adapt themselves to any measure which this House passes. If the interesting method in which this Bill has been dealt with in the North of England were considered I think it would be agreed that the common sense of employers and workmen has made up to a large extent for the deficiencies in the Act itself. Committees have been formed, consisting of three workmen and three employers, the secretary and the solicitor of the miners' union, and the secretary and solicitor of the employers' association, and it is remarkable how many cases which appeared to be extremely difficult have been settled by this most excellent arbitration clause. I cannot but agree with the hon. Gentleman below me who supported the inclusion of agricultural labourers in 1897. I voted for that Amendment, and so far as I am concerned I have never seen any reason whatever why all workmen of whatever class should not be put on exactly the same footing as the favoured workmen who have hitherto had the benefit of this Act. I cannot see why one law should affect one part of the population and not another. The only proper way to legislate is to deal with every person alike. I most heartily welcome the support of the Government to this Bill; and I trust that the Government will not be satisfied with including only agricultural labourers, but that the time is not far distant when every class of workmen will be included.


The hon. Baronet who has just sat down explained that the reason why many in 1897 felt a difficulty as to the inclusion of agricultural labourers in the Workmen's Compensation Act was the dread that serious consequences would result there-from to the trades and industries in which they were, interested. Is it wonderful, then, that those interested in the great industry of agriculture, which at that time was suffering from depression, felt great anxiety also in the matter? We had no idea that the liability to be incurred would be anything like so small as experience has shown us it is. The hon. Baronet frankly stated that he had fears that very serious grievances would arise from the passing of the Act, but he has told us that these have been very happily disappointed. We had equally strong anxiety about our industry, but we have now found that to insure against our liabilities is not the heavy burden which we were afraid in 1897 it would be. My hon. friend the Member for Shropshire has alluded to the fact that, though the agricultural labourer was not included, he felt, as I have felt, that it was our duty as far as our own labourers were concerned, to give them equal security in case of accident as those engaged in more dangerous trades. I found that in order to meet all the liabilities under the Act an insurance of 3s. 6d. per £100 was sufficient; but I also found that by paying 5s. per £100 wages I could get my labourers far greater benefits than the Workmen's Compensation Act would give them, for instead of the benefits accruing a fortnight after the accident, as under the Act, they received the benefit immediately, the very time when a man most needs it. I therefore insured all my labourers. I re-echo the hope of my hon. and gallant friend that the definition of agricultural labourer shall not be made too narrow, but should include gardeners, woodmen, keepers, and all the workmen about an estate. I have experienced the advantages of this insurance myself. One of my own labourers suffered from an accident, and when I communicated with the office with which I carry on all my insurances I received a letter at once, stating that the man was to be paid 7s. per week so long as he was unable to work. I had the pleasure of taking down to the poor follow the first 7s., and when I saw the great advantage it was to him, and the great pleasure it gave him when I handed him the money, I felt convinced that this was a benefit which ought to be given to all engaged in agricultural industry. I am not surprised to hear that the Government will give their willing support to the Second Reading of the Bill. I always understood that it was their desire, after the experiment of the Act of 1897 had been fairly tried, to extend the advantages of that Bill to other occupations. I am glad we have made the advance to agricultural labourers; and speaking as a Member for a great borough, I am quite sure that the labourers in our industrial centres will be rejoiced that the benefits of the Compensation Act are to be extended to agricultural labourers.

*MR. F. W. WILSON (Mid Norfolk)

There is no doubt that the agricultural labourers strongly resent their exclusion from the Workmen's Compensation Act. Since the Act was passed I have taken part in many meetings in Norfolk connected with vacancies in this House, and the labourers have always shown a very keen desire to be placed on an equality with other workmen in regard to compensation for injuries. The strength of their opinions has been pretty clearly shown by the recent bye-elections, and I am glad to think that the result has so keenly whetted the appetite of hon. Gentlemen opposite for this reform. When I had the pleasure in 1897 of seconding the Amendment for the inclusion of agricultural labourers, very few hon. Members on the Government side of the House followed me into the lobby, but now we find a cordial and delightful unanimity. Farmers were alarmed when this measure was first brought forward, but they have become acclimatised to it, and the offers of the insurance societies have put them completely at their ease. I have worked out what the insurance costs, and it comes to rather less than a penny per acre. Recent legislation has relieved them of 6d. to 9d. per acre in rates, and I think it only fair and an act of justice, that they should give a penny of that to the insurance of their labourers against the accidents to which they are liable.


I voted against the inclusion of the agricultural labourer in the Workmen's Compensation Act, I admit. I do not say I have been converted at all. [An Hon. Member: "Hear! hear!"] I will not split terms with the hon. Gentleman; but at all events I have done as other hon. Members have done: I have changed my opinion. And my reason for doing so in company with the hon. Baronet the Member for Chester-le-Street is, that while we voted against the Bill, it was because we did not think the Bill had been sufficiently tried, and further because we did not know what the consequences would be. We did not know and could not find out from any insurance office what the terms would be on which we could insure any labourer. As a coal-owner I was terrified by the accounts given me by experts as to the cost, if the Workmen's Compensation Bill came into law. I went to my right hon. friend the Colonial Secretary, and asked him his opinion, for on many previous occasions he had been right. Well, the right hon. Gentleman proved to me that the fears of the coal owners were very much exaggerated, and that the Bill would not injure them at all. And we have found that to be the case. Farmers did show a great dislike to the inclusion of their labourers in the Bill. They object to any burden laid on the land. Now, Conservatives and Unionists have done a great deal for the farmers in the past—[Hon. Members: "Hear! hear!"]—and they believed us when we went amongst them, and pointed out that to include agricultural labourers in the Act could not possibly hurt, but actually benefit them. I believe it is greatly owing to the way in which Conservative and Unionist Members, whom they recognise as true friends, have spoken to the farmers, that they have come to the conclusion that there is no danger in it. If that doctrine had been preached to the farmers entirely by hon. Gentlemen on the other side of the House, I do not believe their conversion would have been so rapid. As regards the rates of insurance being extremely light, I may say I have insured every person in my employ. I have been told by the secretary of an insurance office that should the system come into general play the rate of 3s. 6d. would be reduced to 2s., which I think is as low as it can possibly go. I expected all along, if we were fortunate enough to obtain a good place in the ballot for the Bill, that we should succeed in obtaining the support of Her Majesty's Government; and that support has been cheerfully given. Hon. Members on this side of the House have always found that, when we introduced a good private Bill, we invariably succeeded in obtaining the support of Her Majesty's Government. I hope the Government will assist us in passing this measure by referring it to the Grand Committee on Trade and Agriculture. As time goes on we shall find party differences sink into oblivion, and the agricultural labourers will discover that this side of the House has never been forgetful of them.

MR. HAVELOCK WILSON (Middlesbrough)

I am glad that the Government have decided to support this measure. I was very pleased indeed that the Home Secretary held out some hope of extending the Act to the sea-faring community. I am sorry that no Amendment can be moved on this Bill which would bring seamen within its scope; but I trust when a Bill of a similar kind applicable to seamen is introduced shortly, hon. Members on the opposite side of the House will give it the same support as they have given to this Bill.

SIR. W. THORBURN (Peebles and Selkirk)

Farmers in Scotland, according to the custom of the country, pay the wages of their labourers in case of accidents, and, therefore, if the Bill is extended to Scotland they will be no worse off than now. In the district I represent, and also in Roxburghshire, the manufacturers have formed a mutual insurance company in connection with the Compensation Act. When we first of all applied to various insurance companies, as much as 7s. 6d. per £100 of wages was asked as a premium. The lowest offer we had was 4s. 6d. We then got up this mutual insurance company, and commenced by charging 2s. 6d., a rate which we found to pay very well. Since the operation of the Act we have had only one claim, and that was settled to the satisfaction of both parties. In regard to agricultural labourers, the premium will come to a great deal less. Accidents in the agricultural districts are very few, And I believe that if the farmers of Scotland, through some central body, such as the Scottish Farmers' Association, get up a mutual insurance company, in a very short time a rate of something like 1s. in £100 will be sufficient to meet all the accidents that occur. The hon. Baronet the Member for Chester-le-Street spoke of including all classes of workmen under the Compensation Act. I quite agree with him, and I hope that, as many hon. Gentlemen have expressed the desire that the definition of agricultural labourer should not be drawn too narrowly, a considerable amount of latitude will be allowed in defining those who are to come under the operation of the Bill. I thank the Home Secretary sincerely for giving his assent to the Bill, which will afford great satisfaction to the great body of agricultural labourers.

*MR. JEFFREYS (Hampshire, N.)

My right hon. friend the Member for West Monmouthshire twitted us very fairly on our change of opinion on this subject. I should prefer to call it a gradual development. I have no hesitation in saying that the farmers opposed the inclusion of agricultural labourers in the Compensation Act, because they thought it would increase the burdens on them at a time when they could hardly bear the burdens already imposed. When the original Bill was introduced it was thought that the insurance would cost 10s. 6d. per £100 of wages. According to my hon. friend who introduced the Bill this afternoon, 2s. 6d. or 3s. 6d. was enough. Of course there is a great difference between these figures. A farmer might be justly afraid of a half-guinea tax, and yet acquiesce in the Bill if he found it was so small as half-a-crown. An hon. Gentleman had said that the exclusion of agricultural labourers from the Bill drove them out of the villages into the towns. I never heard of such a case, and I really think it is great exaggeration. If he had said that if you gave the labourers good cottages and good gardens, that would induce them to remain in the villages, it would have been much more to the purpose. If the Act is altered and simplified so that the labourers will have some easy made of getting compensation whenever any accident occurs, it would have my support. If the desire has been created in the agricultural labourers to come under the Act it must have been because they were told what an immense advantage it would be to them. I only hope they will not be disappointed. I find that the Act of 1897 has been most fruitful in litigation. In December, 1899, there was an article in The Times which said that of all the sources of litigation known, the Workmen's Act of 1897 had, in the two years of its existence, been the most fruitful in modern times, and probably surpassed in that respect the Act of 1881. Applications for arbitration were pouring into the County Courts by hundreds, and even thousands, and nothing short of fresh legislation could bring order out of this chaos. I approve, however, of the principle of the Bill, and I hope that the Home Secretary and the law officers of the Crown will take care that such amendments are made in Committee as will prevent litigation. I do not believe we would be doing any good to the agricultural labourers in bringing them under the Bill if it threw them into litigation.

LORD WILLOUGHBY DE ERESBY (Lincolnshire, Horncastle)

I am exceedingly pleased at the unanimity with which the Bill has been received to-day, and there seems a good prospect of its being passed into law within a short time. I am also exceedingly pleased that Gentlemen on this side of the House representing agricultural constituencies see the benefit which will accrue to labourers and farmers if this Bill becomes law. Further, I am pleased to see that there is now some great anxiety among hon. Gentlemen opposite that it should become law. I was rather afraid that there would not be unanimity in that quarter, for I do not think I am wrong in stating that a Bill of this kind has not been proposed by any hon. Gentleman opposite, and those who have been trying to get this Bill passed have not received much support from them. I am glad, however, that unanimity appears to reign at last in the House, and that in a short time the Bill will become law. I believe that it will be of benefit, not only to the labourers but to the farmers. The view I have always taken is that the farmers were not averse to paying for the accidents which occurred on the farm, so long as other people shared the burden. What the farmers did object to was that when accidents happened in other industries, such as colliery explosions, they had to contribute to a rate for compensation, while the farmers had to compensate their own men. I cannot quite agree with some observations which have fallen from hon. Members as to the rates of insurance. I can only hope that the insurance offices which have been mentioned as willing to insure agricultural labourers at the small rate of 3s. 6d. per cent. will continue to do so, and consider that that is a sufficient premium. My own experience is different from that. No doubt I have been "done," and I have had to pay a considerably higher rate of insurance than necessary. I cannot agree with what fell from the hon. Member for Shropshire, that the small rate of 3s. 6d. will cover the insurance of all classes of men engaged in estate work. I do not wish it to go down to the farmers of the country that 3s. 6d. per cent. on the wages bill is enough. I am afraid the premium will be higher; but whether it is higher or lower, I am certain that all farmers in the country who are worth anything will be perfectly willing to help those men who are injured in farming, and that they will support this Bill.

MR. ASQUITH (Fife, East)

There is not the slightest difference of opinion on this side of the House as to the desirability of including agricultural labourers within the scope of legislation of this kind. The hon. Member for Hampshire spoke of the litigation which has attended the interpretation and application of the Workmen's Compensation Act of 1897. He seems to think we were conferring on the agricultural labourer a doubtful boon by giving him a chance of embarking on proceedings of that kind. I must honestly say that I do not think the amount of litigation which has taken place under the Act of 1897, large and deplorable as it is, is any great percentage of the number of accidents which have actually occurred. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman referred to it, because it enables me to point out to the House what is the real cause of nine-tenths of this litigation. It is the manner in which the Act was drawn, because the Act made a series of artificial distinctions between the different categories of our working-class population, and so established illogical compartments which have taxed all the resources of Her Majesty's judges to interpret. That is one of the reasons why I welcome this measure, and I am very glad that it has received the approval of the Government. It is, at any rate, the first step in the direction of removing the illogical anomalies and distinctions between different classes of our working population—the first step in a series of steps which I hope will ultimately be taken to place all these classes on the same level and within the scope of the same law. As the unanimity with which this proposal has been received this afternoon has been contrasted with the very different greeting which was accorded to it only three years ago, may I remind the House that at that time the arguments which were urged against the inclusion of the agricultural population within the scope of the law were two—first, that accidents in agricultural employment were, relatively speaking, very few; and, secondly, that the farmer was, as a rule, a man of comparatively small means, and that, therefore, to him the burden of even a single accident would be a serious matter. It was pointed out at the time that those two arguments to a very large extent neutralise one another, because if the number of accidents were very small the burden on the farmer would be proportionately small.


There was a third argument, namely, that we did not know how the Act would work.


That argument, of course, applied equally to every class of worker included in the Bill. I am very glad that the second of the two arguments I have mentioned has been frankly abandoned this afternoon, and as regards the first argument, as to the comparative rarity of accidents in agricultural employment, I hope and believe it is now generally recognised that it does not matter in the least to the injured man whether he belongs to a trade in which the percentage of accidents is fifty or one. The case of a man who has lost his finger or leg, and thereby his means of livelihood, is equally hard whether he belongs to a trade in which there is an accident every day in the week or only one day in the year. I could never see that there was any element of justice or common sense in so distinguishing between different branches of our industrial population. I am heartily glad to see the manner in which this Bill has been received by the House, and I trust we shall not stop here, but proceed to apply the principle of this measure in other directions, so that the whole of our working population may be included within the scope of the law.

MR. KENYON (Lancashire, Bury)

I should not have troubled the House at this stage but for the remark of the right hon. Gentleman who has just sat down as to the way in which the Act of 1897 was drawn. I will not dispute the right hon. Gentleman's judgment, but I have had some experience of the practical working of the Act which maybe of use to the House. I believe a very large proportion of the cases which have been brought into the courts have arisen from the ridiculously low rates of premium which some of the insurance companies have charged. In one case it was stated that one shilling per cent. only had been charged, and when an unfortunate accident happened, and the insurance company was called upon to pay, they disputed the matter at every turn, and caused a great deal of irritation and annoyance, which, if they had first of all charged a reasonable premium, might have been avoided. It is better to pay a little more and have a satisfactory settlement without wrangling.