HC Deb 25 March 1904 vol 132 cc794-802


Order for Second Reading read.

SIR CHARLES DILKE (Gloucestershire, Forest of Dean)

said that in moving the Second Reading of this Bill he had to state to the House that there were two Bills at the present moment before Parliament on this subject. He wished he could say that they had a third one, because the Government had pledged themselves to the introduction of a Bill on the subject, and it would not have been necessary for him to have moved the Second Reading of this Bill that day but for the extraordinary paralysis which had overtaken Government legislation, and which had hitherto prevented them from bringing in the measures promised in the King's Speech. It was an unheard-of thing that Easter should be reached without the days being fixed for the introduction of the Bills mentioned in the King's Speech. The date for the introduction of the Workman's Compensation Bill and their Shops Bill had not been fixed or announced. When the late Colonial Secretary left the Government after driving his enemies out of it the legislative capacity of the Government seemed to have departed with him. Some insects had the capacity of stinging another insect into a state of coma; the Government appeared to have been driven into a state of legislative coma. He should like to state to the House what was the Parliamentary position on the subject of shops, the need of legislation on which was universally admitted— with the exception, perhaps, of the hon. Baronet the Member for Peckham. When the Bill was formerly before Parliament they had to prove the evils which were admitted now. Those who used to be most opposed to legislation for short hours in shops were represented by the late Lord Salisbury, but even he had been led by examination of the evidence given before the Committee of the House of Lords, to concur in the evils of late hours in shops. The Select Committee of the House of Lords stated that, in the opinion of the Presidents of the Royal College of Physicians and of the Royal College of Surgeons, there was an urgent need for legislation on this subject, and that Committee also decided unanimously that the hours in shops could be greatly and safely reduced by legislation. They also stated, what they could not have stated a few years ago, that the shopkeepers, quite as much as the assistants, now urgently desired legislation of this kind. In 1892 the right hon. Member for West Birmingham, who had long taken a considerable interest in this question, pledged himself on behalf of the Unionist Party to immediate legislation. At that time he only spoke in general terms, of general action, and general legislation; but in 1894, speaking at Liverpool, he said he was in favour of local option on the hours of shopkeepers, and of their assistants. The Report of the Select Committee of the House of Lords on Lord Avebury's Bill was a very remarkable one, because it not only admitted the evils which existed, but contained an operative programme. The Report stated that the evidence had convinced the Committee that early closing would be an immense boon to the shopkeepers and shop assistants, and that the present hours were grievously injurious to health, and under these circumstances they recommended the Early Closing Bill to the favourable consideration of their Lordships' House. Lord Salisbury moved to strike out the words "The Early Closing Bill," and carried unanimously the insertion of the recommendation— That town councils should be authorised to pass Provisional Orders making such regulations as might seem to them to be necessary for the areas under their jurisdiction, and that— These Provisional Orders should he submitted t o Parliament in the usual manner for confirmation and acquiring the force of law. When Lord Avebury's second Bill, into which he had put additional restrictions without leaving out the old ones, reached this House last year, after passing through the House of Lords, where some unnecessary restrictions were retained even against Lord Avebury's wish, it was blocked by the hon. Baronet the Member for Peckham. Last year, while, these matters were occurring in another place, a Motion was brought before the House of Commons which raised the question to which he had referred, and it was the most important question of detail which divided them, namely, whether it was necessary to legislate, as this Bill did, not only for the hours of shops but also for the working hours of shop assistants. The Resolution which was submitted to the House of Commons last year, and unanimously adopted, was as follows— That borough and district councils should be authorised to obtain Provisional Orders making such regulations in respect of the closing of shops and the limitation of the hours of labour of shop-workers as may seem to them to be necessary for the areas under their jurisdiction; thus effectively carrying out the recommendation of the Select Committee of the House of Lords. This Motion was opposed by the Government on account of those particular words upon which he had laid stress, and the Government were then prepared to accept a general local option Resolution, although they objected to the words "and the limitation of the hours of labour of shop-workers." Nevertheless those words were insisted upon by the House, and the Government unwillingly allowed a Resolution containing those words to be unanimously carried. That was the point to which he desired to specially direct their attention of the House. He should be prepared to withdraw his own Bill if the Government promised a Bill of their own containing a pure local option clause, and if that clause were wide enough to cover the limitation of the hours of shop assistants. What he wanted was a Bill unhampered by the restrictions of Lord Avebury's Bill. This particular Bill had actually been before Parliament for Second Reading in the House of Commons when the noble Lord the Member for Greenwich moved and carried the adjournment on a Party Division. Some hon. Members thought his Bill went too far, and others supported it as it stood. This Bill had the support of every body of organised workers in the country without exception. He thought that was a very important point, because it was often said that restrictions upon shop hours would press heavily upon the working classes. This Bill had been supported year after year by the Trades Union Congress, Scotch Trades Congress, Irish Trades Congress, forty-two trades councils, including all great towns; and, on the employers' side, by the Grocers' Federation, the London Drapers' Chamber of Trade, and many other bodies, who desired the Second Reading, some of them washing for some Amendment in Committee.

He did not propose to trouble the House with any discussion of the details of this measure. What was essential above all, in this Bill was the principle he had laid stress upon which was contained in the Resolution he had quoted, and which was partly embodied in Clause 5 and partly in Clause 10. Clause 10 dealt with the length of employment, and it fixed shop hours as factory hours were fixed in the factory legislation of this country. That was the principle to which the Government were opposed. The Government were only prepared to give local option, and their proposals were short of the two clauses to which he had referred. It was, therefore, more honest to say that it was upon the principle contained in those two clauses that there was a sharp division of opinion amongst them. It was not of much value to discuss smaller details, because obviously it was not a measure which a private Member was likely to succeed in carrying through the House. Those details, however, could be threshed out before the Standing Committee. The matter which was really before them was the question whether it was necessary to give local authorities power not only to close shops but also to limit the hours of shop assistants. The working classes had a very strong opinion on the subject, because the thought it would be insufficient to deal only with shop hours without dealing with the hours of shop assistants. At the present time the custom existed of employing shop assistants for a very considerable number of hours after the shops were closed, and there was also work to be done before the shops were opened. Without such a provision as he had suggested, he was afraid there would be the grossest evasion of the law. He begged to move.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a second time."


said that the subject was not new to him, as he had served on Committees and had been interested in similar Bills for many years. The question involved could not be dealt with lightly. It affected adult labour; and it was only after the most complete proof of the most urgent necessity that the House should proceed with such legislation.


said that the hon. Gentleman must be referring only to male adult labour, as the hours of labour for women had already been dealt with.


said he agreed. His second point was that it was a much more serious thing to regulate the distribution of goods than the manufacture of goods, as the former affected the daily lives of the whole population. He confessed that there was a great, deal of confusion in the recent report between the new evidence which had been given and the evidence which was given years ago. But mention was made of recent evidence from Liverpool and other places which could not be ignored and which was entitled to the greatest respect. It should be remembered that there was a large amount of labour in this country which was not organised; and he had never been able to understand why the voice of unorganised labour should remain unheard. As to the details of the Bill, he desired to express disapproval of the proposal prohibiting the employment of children under the age of fourteen years. There was abundant evidence given last year that the employment of children under conditions which were not injurious to their health and education was beneficial to them. They were kept away from the dangers of the streets, received a certain amount of discipline which was of value to their general character, the money they earned was of great use to their parents, and they felt a pride, which ought to be encouraged, in increasing the family earnings by their humble and simple contributions. Again, there was not sufficient provision made in the Bill to meet the requirements of different classes of traders. Some trades were more healthy than others. The hardware trade, for instance, was absolutely healthy, but distribution in the case of some other trades was apt to be dangerous to health. All he asked was that they should legislate with caution, and bear in mind the necessity for the most deliberative and vigilant action as they proceeded. There was another provision in the Bill which ought to be excised. That was the clause which provided that any person found in a shop other than a customer should, until the contrary were proved, be regarded as being employed in the shop. That would mean that if a party of ladies went into a West-End shop, and one lady bought a yard of ribbon, the others would be deemed to be in the employment of the shopkeeper until the contrary was proved. That was an illustration of the hasty manner in which the Bill had been prepared. The necessity for legislation as regarded the general principle was fully admitted; and he hoped that the subject would find a place in the Government programme, and that a wise and well considered Bill dealing with it would be passed even before the end of the present session. He begged to move that the Bill be read a second time this day six months.

SIR FREDERICK BANBURY (Camberwell, Peckham)

said he had much pleasure in seconding the Motion of his hon. friend, who gave very good grounds why the House should not accept the Second Reading of the Bill. Like his hon. friend, he had been many years interested in the subject, but he had never put his name on the back of a Bill dealing with it. The reason why he objected to the Bill, and to similar Bills in the past, was that he believed it was very hazardous to pass legislation having for its object the limitation of adult labour. He was not prepared to deny that there were evils; but the remedy proposed was a very drastic one and he was not quite sure it was a remedy at all. The right hon. Baronet was in favour of the limitation of hours of labour generally; but hon. Gentlemen on that side of the House were not favourable to any legislation that would prohibit male adults doing the best with their labour. Women and children were in a different position from men; and legislation to limit their hours of labour was not only desirable but necessary.

Amendment proposed— To leave out the word 'now,' and at the end of the Question to add the words 'upon this day six months.'"—(Sir Francis Powell.)

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

Debate arising.

And, it being half-past Five of the clock, the debate stood adjourned.

Debate to be resumed upon Friday, 10th June.