HC Deb 02 April 1903 vol 120 cc956-9

said he wished very briefly to call attention to a matter which concerned the administration of the Truck Acts by the Home Office, but especially to an attempt which was being made in the North-west of Scotland to compel the workmen of a certain company to sign themselves out of the provisions of these Acts. At Ballachulish, in Argyllshire, there was a quarry employing between 300 and 400 men. The custom had been for the manager and workmen to combine jointly in the appointment of a medical man, whose salary was deducted from the wages of the men. Last year a dispute arose between the manager and the doctor who was given notice of dismissal. The workmen protested against their medical officer being dismissed without their sanction or authority, and refused to allow the company to make deductions from their wages in order to pay the doctor's salary. They now contributed to a voluntary fund, and had re-engaged the same medical man to attend upon them and their families. He might be allowed to say that there was an action at law now pending against the doctor who, in his agreement with the company, had promised not to set up practice in the neighourhood. The workmen said that that clause in the agreement was put in without their knowledge or consent. The workmen were only allowed to continue in employment if they signed an agreement permitting the salary of the medical officer to be deducted from their wages. They objected to do this, and because they objected they were locked out, and had been out since the end of December. It was well enough known that under the provisions of the Truck Act any agreement enabling an employer to make deductions from his workmen's wages might be entered into voluntarily, but if the employer made such an arrangement a condition of employment it became a violation of the Truck Act. The mines inspector for the West of Scotland inquired into this case, but so far as he was aware no proceedings had yet been instituted. It might be said that the letter of the Act had not been violated, inasmuch as the men were not in employment. The point to which he wanted to direct attention was that the workmen could only find employment on condition that they signed the agreement to which he referred. If that were not making the agreement a condition of employment then he did not know the meaning of the words. There was no dispute about wages, hours of work, or anything else. The only difficulty was that the workmen refused to sign the agreement. It seemed to him that two Departments were concerned in this mutter. First of all the Home Office, and next the Board of Trade. The Home Secretary should make it clear that this attempt to compel workmen to sign an agreement as a condition of employment was illegal, and, if the right hon. Gentleman did that, he did not think it would be persisted in. Then the Board of Trade might send down an investigator to inquire into and report on all the circumstances of the dispute. It looked at present as if the dispute would degenerate into a struggle similar to that at the Penrhyn Quarries. One dispute of that kind was enough to be proceeding at once; and it was with the view to preventing another that he brought these facts to the notice of the House and the Government, and asked the Government to take such action as their powers might permit, in order to prevent the infraction, if not of the strict letter, at all events of the spirit of the Truck Act. The men claimed the protection of the Truck Act, and said that they should not be obliged to sign the agreement, but that if a deduction were made in their wages they could sue for its recovery. They did not, however, desire to resume work under false pretences, and be compelled to sign what they believed to be an illegal agreement. He submitted it was within the power of the Secretary of State for the Home Department and the President of the Board of Trade to take such steps as would prevent the dispute from degenerating into a long struggle. He begged to move.


The hon. Member cannot move an Amendment, one Amendment having been negatived.


said he had to confess that this matter was not present to his mind at the moment. It was a question which would involve a considerable amount of care and consideration; especially as he gathered from the hon. Gentleman that an action at law was pending. But he could promise that very careful consideration would be given to it, not only by himself, but also by his right hon. friend the President of the Board of Trade; he could assure the hon. Gentleman that no time would be lost by him in personally looking into the matter. He would probably be prepared in a few days to inform the hon. Gentleman if he asked a Question on the subject, what action it was proposed to take.