HC Deb 04 March 1903 vol 118 cc1437-53
* MR. BELL (Derby)

, on a point of order desired to know whether the Motion would be in order seeing that there was a Bill down for a future day dealing with the same subject.


said he was about to call the hon. Member's attention to the fact there were several Bills on this subject, and, as the Motion was couched in wide terms, he was about to ask the hon. Member what matters outside the scope of these Bills he proposed to discuss, and whether he would modify his Motion so as not to include their subject-matter.

MR. PEMBERTON (Sunderland)

said he did not intend to trench upon those Bills in the observations he proposed to make, but it certainly seemed to him there was ground for some inquiry.


said it was not enough, in order to avoid anticipating a Bill, for the hon. Member to contend that the question which was raised by a Bill was one on which there should be previous inquiry. The hon. Gentleman must avoid all discussion on the subject-matters of those Pills. If the hon Gentleman said he could make his Motion without touching the subject-matter of those Bills that was another matter.


said that was his impression. The position he had taken up had been misunderstood, and he had been met with a good deal of opposition from opposite quarters. Those who represented the employers considered he was bringing a Motion which might injure their view of the law, whilst hon. Members who represented Trades Unions thought he was trying to burk discussion on the Bills which would come before the House in due time. He should, he thought, be able to show good reason for asking the House to agree that a Committee should be appointed to inquire into the state of the law as it affected Trades Unions, without attempting to allude to any of the points to which the Bill of the right hon. Member for Forest of Dean and others alluded. His first point was that the legal status obtained by Trades Unions was of great importance to the country and to the House, quite irrespective of party. Everybody who knew anything of social and economic life in this country, looked upon it as a matter of great importance to the country that Trades Unions should not be in the uncertain position that they were in to-day. Trades Unions had become more and more important from time to time, and had now obtained a quasi-legal status. Then came the great combinations of employers. Considering the importance of trade in this country and the fact that the whole prosperity of the country depended upon the operations of trade, and that that was involved in the relations of the Trades Unions and the Employers Unions, it seemed to him primâ facie that that was good reason for asking for an inquiry to settle what exactly was the position of the law, if there was a law, with regard to Trades Unions.

The three grounds on which he based his request were, first, the uncertainty as to the liability of Unions and as to what they could do, as well as the uncertainty of the rights of Employers Unions. That in itself he thought justified his request for inquiry. Such inquiry would be in the interests of the general public as much as of the combinations themselves. Secondly, he urged the inequality of the position of Trades Unions and Employers Unions as a reason for inquiry. That inequality was not only possible with regard to their legal positions, but also from their general positions. He pointed out that in cases of dispute the workmen risked more than the employers, because the employers could shift their business and get rid of the difficulty in that way, but that this course was not open to the Trades Unions. The chief ground on which he had based his argument was the natural and broad one of public policy. Trades Unions were a very important body in the country. Everything, he thought, should be done, as far as reasonably could, to consider their position, and all that the country or the House could desire was that they should obey the law. It would surely be a wise course to try to make their position clear. In asking for an inquiry, he could not see that he was in any way asking for an amendment of the law. He only asked for an inquiry into the state of the law as it was, and he hoped the Government would show favour to such an inquiry. He begged to move.

MR. HALDANE (Haddingtonshire)

, in rising to second the Motion congratulated his hon. friend on the extremely skilful way in which he had proposed it. He himself felt the sword of Damocles suspended by a hair over his head, and a sense of extreme peril in the task he had undertaken in seconding the Motion. He contended that the general law relating to Trades Unions was in a crude condition. It was law made by the Judges rather than by the House. He was far from wishing to be understood to object to what was called Judge-made law, for some of the Judge-made law was of the very best we had. He instanced the Merchant Law, made not only by judges but juries as well, and the Law of Partnerships, which was made in a like manner from time to time until at last it reached a stage, as the result of an inquiry by a Committee of this House, when it was possible to legislate upon it. The difficulty the House was in when it approached legislation which related to labour lay in the uncertainty of the material. It was essential that there should be before the House some clear view of what the law was before they could possibly proceed effectively to amend it. Therefore it was eminently desirable to his mind that the Government should initiate some form of inquiry on this subject. Speaking for himself he thought the Government would probably act wisely in going a little short of this Motion—if they confined themselves to asking for a report on the actual state of things rather than for suggestions as to a remedy. He would prefer that an inquiry of this sort should be conducted in a dry scientific light, which could only be done by those engaged divesting themselves of the very smallest tinge of opinion on one side or the other; and he submitted to the House that the condition of things with which they were all familiar made it essential and desirable that they should have some authoritative statement as to" the material with which they had to deal. He begged leave to second the Motion.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That a Committee be appointed to inquire into the existing law as it affects Trades Unions, and report what, if any, alterations should be made therein."—(Mr. Pemberton.)

MR. GALLOWAY (Manchester, S. W.)

I acknowledge at once the difficulty in which I am placed in following two such eminent Members of the Bar. That difficulty is almost insurmountable, and I rise not so much to discuss in any way the merits or demerits of the proposal of my hon. friend the Member for Sunderland as to submit an Amendment which, even assuming the ground taken by my hon. friend to be sound, I believe will remove the ambiguity involved in his Motion. All the laws affecting Trades Unions had their foundations in a preliminary inquiry. That was the case with the Royal Commission presided over by the Lord Chief Justice Earle, and which sat from 1867 to 1869 and with the subsequent Royal Commission of 1874. If we are to have any legislation affecting the Trades Unions of this country then I submit that before such legislation is proposed we ought to have some inquiry to enlighten us as to what is the actual condition of the law. It is admitted that there is uncertainty in regard to that which should be removed. If the Motion of the hon. Member for Sunderland is passed in the form in which it now stands it might merely mean that the inquiry should be made by a Committee of this House, because my hon. friend simply says "a Committee." I am quite sure that the hon. and learned Gentleman who seconded the Motion is the last person in the world to recommend a Select Committee of this House. It is not for me to argue what would probably happen if there was such a Select Committee. The hon. Gentleman referred to the bias which some people might have who had read, for instance, Mr. Sydney Webb's book: but whatever view we take on this question we all admit that a Select Committee is not either a proper or a good tribunal to deal with this subject. Therefore that ambiguity should be removed from my hon. friend's Motion.

Whether it would be better to appoint a Departmental Committee of experts or a Royal Commission is a matter worthy of consideration, and for debate. I think a Depart mental Committee is very often apt, to judge from the experience of various such Committees, to labour the official view of the Department. I do not say that the employers' view of labour questions is necessarily hostile to that of the workmen. I believe it is not the case in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred; and that the two interests are so combined and conjoined that it is impossible, except with a malicious intent, to divide the one from the other. If that be so I submit that a Departmental Committee would be by no means a good tribunal to deal with this question. So far as I know the only other method left is a Royal Commission. I know it is suggested sometimes that Royal Commissions are often appointed for the purpose of delaying legislation, but if there is any guilt in the matter it is shared equally by both sides of the House. I am sure that my hon. friend will agree that this House should thoroughly understand a question before it attempts to legislate upon it. My hon. friend holds decided views on various questions, and he would not suggest that the House should embark on legislation on a subject which he himself did not understand. It is admitted, then, that we do not know exactly where the law stands, and there is no other method, which I can imagine, of affording us the information we require than by an inquiry by a Royal Commission. Therefore I beg to move the omission of the word "Committee" in the Motion of my hon. friend, and the insertion of the word "Commission." I use the word "Commission advisedly, because I do not know whether technically I would be carrying the Government with me if this suggestion of mine is agreed to.

I do not think it is necessary that there should be a limit to the number of Members on the Commission, but at the same time I do not think it necessary it should be a large Commission. On the contrary it would be very much better if all contending interests were excluded from this body, and that there should be included only those competent to form a judgment from a legal and a common-sense point of view. I know it may be urged that we cannot appeal to the judges for any assistance in this inquiry, because they would not be able to spare the time for this additional work, although I cannot imagine any work in which the judges could be more properly engaged than in settling a difficulty of this kind. Whether the Commission should be large or small it is not for me to say: but I wish to remove any ambiguity in the original Motion, and to make it quite clear that the inquiry should be made not by a Committee, but by a Commission.

Amendment proposed— To leave out the word 'Committee' and insert the word 'Commission' instead thereof."—(Mr. Galloway.)

Question proposed, "That the word 'Committee ' stand part of the Question."

* MR. J. F. HOPE (Sheffield, Brightside)

I have an Amendment on the Paper to the Motion of my hon. friend the Member for Sunderland, but I am bound to say that in putting down that Amendment I based it on the view to which the hon. and learned Member for Haddington has given expression. I had had the hope of gratifying the ambition of hatching the egg which the hon. and learned Member has laid, but I feel that now he has cut the ground from under my feet. I will confine myself to one or two general observations. In the first place there is a point on which I think we all agree. It is certain that the law as it stands at present is obscure, and that it is suspected that the law at present is partial. The obscurity ought to be made clear, and the absolute fairness and equality of the law ought to be demonstrated without doubt or cavil. Whatever view we may take of labour disputes I think all parties who have to enter such disputes have a right to know where they stand, and have a right to meet each other on equal terms. I do not believe that Parliament will ever give any privilege to one class and deny it to another. [Ironical cheers from the OPPOSITION Benches.] Certainly Parliament ought not to do so; and it ought to be absolutely clear that if unfortunate labour disputes do take place both sides should meet to settle their differences in a fair field, and with no favour. As to the composition of whatever body is appointed to investigate this matter, I believe there is a distinct prejudice against a Royal Commission constituted in the ordinary way. It is found that when a large Commission is appointed, representing every kind of interest, and when that Commission sits over a long period, hearing every kind of evidence from every quarter, an impression is produced on the public mind that it has been appointed to shelve the matter. I deprecate that that should be the ease on this occasion. I think that whatever body is appointed to inquire into this question should be small, expert, and impartial. [An HON. MEMBER on the Opposition Benches: "Why not appoint the House of Lords?"] The appointment of the Commission ought to be made on the assumption that real busi- ness is meant, and that the state of the law should be so settled that no Party will be able to say that they are aggrieved, or that all are not placed on a footing of equality.


I think this must be an evening of short speeches. These must necessarily he compressed in consequence of the narrow lines on which we shall have to confine ourselves in discussing; the matter before the House. I certainly feel gratified with the hon. Member for Sunderland for the sympathetic manner in which he introduced his Motion; but all I heard fall from his lips seemed to be arguments why his Motion should nor be carried. They are arguments for the; Bill set down for Second Beading on 8th: May, and everything covered therein. I have heard remarks to-night in favour of a Committee, a Commission, or something else, to inquire into the state of the law, and, at the same time, each of the speakers has admitted that the law is in an unsatisfactory state. That is the reason why Bills have been introduced into the House for the specific purpose of putting the law on a satisfactory footing; but if this Motion is adopted to-night it will prejudice the chances of any of these Bills being carried, for it will be said that a Royal Commission or a Select Committee is inquiring into the subject matter of the Bill, and until it has reported the judgment of the House must be withheld, and hon. Members will not be inclined to give the Bill their support. It is all very well for hon. Gentlemen to offer us their sympathy, and I am obliged to them for it. But last year we had a Motion before the House in which we wanted the appointment of a Committee on practically the same lines as that proposed by the hon. Member for Sunderland, that the Government should do something to codify the law so that employers and workmen, lawyers and judges might know how to deal with these matters. On that occasion hon. Members refused to support it. Perhaps I am not right or fair in suggesting that if we were not in a favourable position for bringing our Bill before the House, we should not have had a Motion of this description at all.


SO far as I am concerned that is not my intention; and, as a matter of fact, I supported the Motion last year.


I fully accept the hon. and learned Member's explanation, and I am much obliged to him for the support he gave us on that occasion. For once, perhaps, I am in agreement with the employers. I received to-day a circular from them asking me, along with others, to oppose this Motion.


I was in no way interested in the circular.


I do not suggest that the hon. Member was interested in it. I simply referred to the fact that such a circular had been sent to me. The arguments adduced by the hon. Member for Manchester are really arguments against the Motion and in favour of the Bill. I know the hon. Member tor Manchester holds very different views about Trades Unions from what I do, and that is perhaps really the reason why he wants a Commission, or the House of Lords, to inquire into this matter. However, the action of hon. Members in the House, in refusing us support when we asked last year for a Committee of Inquiry into the state of the law in order that it might be codified, has raised a storm in the country which has had the effect of inducing hon. Members opposite to support this Motion and to show that they are in favour of something being done. The Parliamentary Committee of the Trades Union Congress, which represents 1,500,000 of the workers of this country, has made up its mind on this subject, and we are going to test the opinion and sympathies of this House by bringing forward our Bill on May 8. I ask the House, and especially those who sympathise, or even say that they sympathise, with the Trade Unions, to vote against both the Motion and the Amendment, and to be in their places on May 8 to give their support to the Bill.


I would like to say a word on this Motion, associating myself for the moment with my hon. friend behind me and at the same time associating myself with the hon. Member for Sunderland. I do not think that the views of these hon. Gentlemen are necessarily inconsistent. Personally I share profoundly the opinion expressed on all sides of the House that the existing state of the law is extremely unsatisfactory. I also share the feeling of my hon. friend behind me that it ought to be amended at the earliest possible date. But I am not so sanguine as he seems to be that the 8th of May will see an alteration made in the Statute Law. In all probability the extremely slow operation of the legislative machinery of this House will involve the elapse of a considerable time before the necessary changes are introduced. But, in the meantime, it is surely of the utmost importance that we should ascertain definitely what the state of the law is before proceeding to legislative action. I defy any lawyer to expound the law at present in clear terms. Before we can amend it, or before we can consider the rational application of the proposed changes, we should know the specific subject-matter to which these changes are intended to apply. I trust that within the limits of the very narrow groove which you, Mr. Speaker, have announced in reference to this Motion, I shall be able to indicate what should be the subject which this House should refer to a Committee or Commission.


Order, order. The hon. and learned Member has been really for the last five minutes arguing the question of the Bill. I hope he will not pursue that course.


Of course I accept your views, Mr. Speaker, but it is difficult to justify a reference to a Committee without, in some measure, trenching on the subject-matter of the Bill. I|think I might be in order, if it is the fact that the state of the law we propose to change is uncertain, in arguing that there should be some preparatory inquiry to ascertain what exactly the law is.


The hon. Gentleman is repeating the same thing, although I quite appreciate the difficulty he is in.


said he supported this Motion in the hope that the legislation proposed might be final, and that the result would not be a further conflict between the constructions of the Statute and the views of the judges, and he trusted that there would not be further confusion between Statute Law and judge-made laws. He thought all this might be avoided by some form of preliminary inquiry.

MR. BROADHURST (Leicester)

said that all those who were specially interested in Trades Union legislation could not view with favour the Motion made by the hon. Member for Sunderland. What the Labour Party contended for was that their difficulties were well known and their dangers well defined, and that they had a remedy sufficient for the purpose in the form of a Bill which would shortly be introduced. Therefore an inquiry, rightly or wrongly, could only be used as an excuse to evade a direct issue on the 8th of May of what was required. Holding those views it was impossible to agree in any measure whatever with any view or policy that would lead to delay of even an hour on this great question. The Tory Government in 1874 found itself in a similar position. In the year 1872 he himself was in a responsible position, and he remembered that the Government were sorely pressed, and indeed oppressed with the operation of the Law of Conspiracy and the Law of Contract. In the General Election which took place in February, 1874, they heckled every candidate in the country on the issue which came out at that General Election. The overwhelming majority of members returned in February, 1874, were steeped in pledges in favour of the views of the Labour Party at that time. When the Government was formed in the year 1874 by Mr. Disraeli, a similar Motion to the one now made by the hon. Member for Sunderland led to the appointment of a Commission against the clear declarations of all parties that the House should proceed to legislation.

Their case now was that there was no necessity in their judgment for this inquiry because the facts were before all parties, and any willing draftsman wishing to relieve both sides of this dilemma could do so at very short notice.

The Commission he had referred to was appointed, and the hon. Member for Morpeth was invited to join the Commission, but he refused. A number of the leading Labour leaders refused to give evidence before that Commission, and the Government was forced to bring the inquiry to a close. After that, a draftsman within a few weeks drew a Bill, both with regard to conspiracy and the law of contract, which, if not entirely satisfying all the demands of the Labour Party, was so well grounded that it satisfied the wants of the Labour world for a great number of years. If the House now agreed to the appointment of this Committee it would be taken purely as an evasion, and as a means of avoiding the expression of the opinion of the House on a direct issue, and all such policies were undesirable. It was on those grounds that they viewed with disfavour this proposal, because they thought it would be taken as a way of escape from saying directly "aye" or "no" to a straight question which would be put to Parliament on the 8th of May. Therefore they were bound to oppose this Motion, and all well-wishers of Trades Unions, and all who desired that peace should reign between Capital and Labour in this country, ought to oppose this Motion. He held strong opinions upon this subject, and he sincerely hoped that both sides would join in rejecting this suggestion for an unlimited delay in legislation, because legislation upon this question was a most urgent need, in order to protect the interests of hundreds and thousands of the workers of this country.

* MR. STUART WORTLEY (Sheffield, Hallam)

said that nobody was asking for delay in regard to this question, and he did not think legislation of this sort would be hastened by speeches made in such a spirit as that which had just been delivered by the hon. Member for Leicester. [OPPOSITION cries of "Oh, oh!"] The time had gone by when either the House of Commons or the public outside could be driven into any such course by the use of minatory and brow-beating language. He had a strong preference for the appointment of a Royal Commission rather than a Select Committee. There was a much more difficult question before the legislature in the year 1867, when a Royal Commission was appointed. At that time Parliament appointed a strictly impartial Committee, and they recommended legislation which was strong enough to last for a generation. There was another precedent in 1893, when the right hon. Gentleman the Member for East Fife appointed a Commission to deal with certain riots arising out of a coal strike in that year. If in the present case they got from a Commission appointed a report so luminous and valuable as was produced on that occasion it would be a great advantage, and he did not think any more delay than was absolutely necessary need be feared. He hoped if there was to be an inquiry it would be by a Royal Commission, and that it would not be constituted by the discredited method of giving representation to those contending parties from whom it was impossible to get an impartial judgment.

* MR. SHACKLETON (Lancashire, Clitheroe)

said he was sorry the hon. Member for Sheffield had introduced words which were calculated to give offence to hon. Members. He did not think anything had been said to justify the remarks which the hon. Member for Sheffield had made, and as far as he was personally concerned he should endeavour to keep from remarks which would give offence to anybody. What they desired was that the opinion of the House should be given on this question. The employers were perfectly satisfied in their own opinion as to what the law was, but the workpeople, so far as the decisions which had been given from time to time, were not satisfied, and they were anxious to get away altogether from the legal decisions which had been given within the past few years. They wished to lay clearly before the country the position which they desired to be in—


Order, order! If I allow the hon. Gentleman to proceed on these lines, I shall be inviting a discussion which I have ruled to be out of order.


said he would bow to Mr. Speaker's ruling, and what he was going to say was that they did not feel that the Committee of this House, chosen as suggested from those not interested in the case either on one side or the other, would be of any advantage at all. They were also of opinion that the appointment of a Royal Commission meant delay—certainly of months and might be years—and he appealed to the House, for the sake of peace in the country, and in order to be able to conduct any future disputes in a proper manner, that this matter should be settled by Parliament as soon as possible. He thought the House would be wise in accepting the advice of the employers on the one side and of the representatives of Labour on the other side. The employers distinctly advised that this question should be settled, not that night, but on the 8th of May, and the Coal Miners Association advised the same thing, and these two associations represented 75 per cent. of the employers of this country. He appealed to the Government not to give any encouragement to this Motion, because he felt sure the people would take it as an attempt to delay legislation and nothing else. He hoped the House would defeat the Motion.

MR. WHITE RIDLEY (Stalybridge)

said he sincerely hoped the Government would see their way to grant a small Commission. He thought they might take it that it was the general sense of the House and of the country that the law upon this question was in a state of chaos, but they were not all agreed that the bringing of a Bill before the House was the best way to remedy this state of chaos. It was possible that a small Commission would be able to put the state of the law into some coherent code, and that would probably be the best way of settling the question, which they all admitted was of a very complicated character. The Homo Secretary had stated that the Government would not shrink from making an inquiry if they thought it was necessary, and therefore he thought they might take it that the Government was not entirely averse to the principle of an inquiry. In order that they might arrive at a fair judgment and come to a decision he thought that some such inquiry as that proposed by his hon. friend the Member for Sunderland was absolutely necessary.

MR. ASQUlTH (Fifeshire, E.)

Without any disrespect to the hon. Gentlemen who have taken part in this debate, I venture to record my own opinion, which is that I have rarely heard a more unprofitable discussion—unprofitable not from any fault on the part of those hon. Members who have shared in it, and not from any lack of interest on the part of the House upon a subject which, if we had been able to approach it, would have engrossed universal attention; but unprofitable owing to the conditions under which the debate is carried out, which preclude us from discussing even the subject matter. We cannot approach even the outskirts of the subject; our tongues are tied and our hands are fettered, and we are really beating the air to no purpose. [An HON. MEMBER: Ploughing the sands.] I agree with the suggestion that at the earliest possible moment this discussion should come to an end. It appears to me that neither the representatives of the employers nor of the employed are anxious for the passing of the Motion which has been suggested. For my own part I agree with my Iron. and learned friend behind me that there is, at any rate, a considerable area of the existing law which is covered by recent decisions with obscurity and confusion; and, as I have said before, I do not believe that any lawyer who has studied the decisions of the Courts could advise with any confidence in any given state of circumstances what Acts were legal and what were illegal, and what constituted a conspiracy and what did not. But there are certain defects of the law which are patent and obvious and capable of a clear remedy which have been revealed by recent decisions. There is the law of picketing, for instance, and some branches of the law of agency.


I must remind the right Iron. Gentleman that the points enumerated by him are specifically dealt with in the Bills which have been introduced.


I have unconsciously illustrated my own contention that it is impossible to discuss this subject with any profit under existing conditions, because the moment you approach a concrete fact you are pulled up and you cannot get on. I would strongly deprecate any Commission or Committee of inquiry as likely to be relied on as an argument against immediate legislation; and since it is clear that neither of the interests concerned desire the inquiry I appeal to the mover to withdraw his Motion.


I only rise to re-echo what was said by the right Iron. Gentleman opposite, and I agree with him that whatever importance there may be attached to this Motion if we were free to discuss it—and I am far from saying that if we were free there might not be a great deal to be said in favour of the course which is suggested—I still do think that on the matter introduced by my hon. friend the mover, which is one of extreme importance, we do find ourselves almost in a ludicrous position in trying to come to any conclusion. What is the position in which we are placed? The Motion suggests that we should ask for a Committee or a Commission to examine into the existing law as it affects Trades Unions. Sir, your ruling prevents us from even talking about what that law is. The Motion goes further and asks that the inquiry should also be an inquiry as to what the alterations of the law should be. But we are not allowed to refer to such alterations, and therefore we are really during the whole of this debate talking in the abstract, and we are unable to illustrate a single argument by a concrete example, and we are in such a position that I hardly think the House—with the exception of those hon. Gentlemen who have gone minutely into these decisions and happen to know them—is in a position to discuss this question at all. Sir, in addition to that we have hon. Members getting up and saying that they do not want this Motion, and therefore I do not really see what use it is to proceed with the discussion. I therefore join with the right hon. Gentleman in asking the hon. Member to withdraw his Motion.


With the leave of the House, I should like to withdraw my Motion.


And I also ask leave to withdraw my Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.