HC Deb 30 May 1906 vol 158 cc485-94
MR. CLYNES (Manchester, N.E.)

said that, in calling attention to the eviction of workmen, particularly during a trade dispute, and moving the Resolution standing in his name, he did not wish to imply that the grievances to which the Resolution alluded were in any sense general. Although organised workmen had many troubles with employers of labour, the instances in which such grievances arose were happily rare. At the same time there had been a number of cases during j the past few years where organised bodies of workmen had been most harshly treated by men who had been both their employers and their landlords. In the case of many disputes in. the coal industry in Scotland he had information showing that evictions had taken place solely with the object of compelling the men to accept industrial conditions which the employers desired to force upon them. He would not go over the minor instances in relation to this complaint. He would, however, refer to what took place not very long ago in connection with the colliery dispute at Hemsworth. A report he had of what occurred stated that- Hunger and starvation not having subdued the men, the colliery company evicted 111 occupants of houses with their wives and children, numbering altogether 615. This failing to subdue the men, the company took over eighty more houses from another landlord, and evicted the miners from those houses, and this brought up the total of people evicted to 1,071 persons. The miners evicted had lived there from ten to twenty-six years, and in some thirty cases no rent whatever was owing, and rents offered weekly were refused in some eases. The company even evicted women whose husbands had lost their lives in the service of the company. Whilst evictions were carried out by the police, rain poured down, and through the bedding, and notwithstanding appeals to postpone evictions for a few hours, no grace or quarter were shown the suffering and starving people. Great difficulty existed to secure ground whereupon to fix bell tent, owing to the land being held by the Fitzwilliams and the Leathams, the latter threatening a certain man who felt inclined to place at our disposal his field held under lease. We had finally to Ditch against the local gas works, and upon boggy land, up to the ankles in mud after rain. Rain came through the tents, and mothers had there to sleep with children in their arms. He submitted that conditions such as these ought not to be quietly tolerated or permitted by our laws. He would read a note from a report he had received from Scotland in connection with a dispute in that country, as showing what it was in the power of employers who were also landlords to do. The report said— The threat of eviction is continually hanging over the heads of our men; and as nearly 25 per cent, of our miners are in coalmasters' houses, you will have some idea of the powerful influence the employer exercises. The Resolution pointed out that employers in many instances made the tenancy of their houses a condition of employment, and some had made it a condition that those who occupied those houses should not be members of a trade union. He would read the terms of an agreement relating to a body of men who some time ago had a dispute with their employer at the Craven Lime Works. The agreement was as follows— The tenant agrees with the landlords that he, the tenant, is not a member of any Labour Union, and will not become one so long as lie occupies the said cottage, and that whilst he has sufficient accommodation in such cottage, and wishes to take lodgers, he will give preference to respectable men in the employ of the landlords, but will not take or receive into such cottage any other lodger not being a wife or child of the tenant, without the written permission of the landlords. It had been said that the Englishman's house was his castle. It seemed that the English workman's house was his landlord's. He did not object to the exercise of the rights of property in the ordinary way, but he did not think our laws should tolerate a condition of things where the balance of power and advantage was left entirely on one side, and where employers were able to take the shelter from the heads of their workmen and turn them and their families out of their homes. They heard during the South African War of the necessities of the military causing women and children to be turned out of their homes, but even there some provision was made in order that suffering might be allayed and that innocent women and children should not be unduly punished. And yet in this country it was possible for employers of labour to turn out workmen and their families, and, having done that, instead of permitting provision to be made by others to meet their distress, they meted out threats to those who sought to succour the distressed. He did not think that Members of the House would allege that organised bodies of workmen in this country existed for any evil pur- pose. Their greatest desire in connection with industrial matters was to prevent disputes wherever it was possible, and disputes had frequently arisen because employers had declined to meet the accredited representatives of organised bodies of workmen. The employer was protected against the risk of damage or loss for the non-execution of contracts on account of strikes. Should there not be a similar state of things which would prevent that employer from taking away the shelter from the family while the head was engaged in a difference with his employer? The Resolution asked the Government to meet a difficulty which, though not frequent, had been both lamentable and severe in its character. They should recognise that property not only had its rights but also its duties. In this case property had the right to evict men from their homes, and these evictions had taken place despite the offer of rent in the ordinary way. The object of these evictions was not to improve the house or change the tenancy, but to compel the tenants to accept wages and working conditions which otherwise as organised workmen they would not accept. He thought they were entitled to call upon the House to deal with this matter in order to prevent the recurrence of such pitiable spectacles as had been recently witnessed in large industrial centres. He begged to move.

MR. E. EDWARDS (Hanley)

, in seconding the Motion, thought the House would agree that whatever the merits or the demerits of a dispute between an employer and his workpeople might be, there could be no justification for turning women and children out of their homes into the storm as had been done in certain parts of the country. Nothing accentuated differences between employers and employed so acutely as the power of eviction which the employer possessed. He thought there was a general desire that some solution of the difficulty between these two conflicting interests should be found. Whilst delicate negotiations were proceeding between the two parties intersted in a dispute it did not tend towards a harmonious arrangement or towards soothing the feelings of those engaged in the dispute when evictions were resorted to. This was a condition of things which ought not to be tolerated. An employer under such circumstances had not only power to deprive his workmen of employment but also power of evicting them from their homes and turning them adrift. The evil was not to-day so widespread as it was thirty or forty years ago. In modern mining, where large collieries were started, it was inevitable that a village for the workmen should be built side by side with the sinking of the colliery, because such an undertaking could not be carried on without the workmen. What generally happened was this. The colliery proprietors having decided upon their enterprise proceeded to build houses for their workpeople in the vicinity. Men living eight or ten miles away could not perform their ordinary functions at a colliery without shelter of some kind, and there was no town council or urban authority there to build houses for them. This meant that either the colliery owners themselves or some speculative builders must provide housing accommodation. The result was that, in a community like this, when a dispute arose the very serious problem had to be faced of what would happen to these workmen in case of a strike. It was manifestly unfair that the workers in a great industry should be placed in a worse position by reason of the colliery proprietors owning the houses in which the workmen lived than they would be in if the houses were owned by private individuals. Without desiring to accentuate the appalling misery of some of the recent evictions which took place in the depth of winter, he was satisfied that the House would at once realise that it was not consistent with our modern notions of civilisation that in the depth of winter whole families should be turned adrift without shelter. Whatever differences arose between employers and workmen ought to be fought out fairly and squarely, but the line should be drawn at inflicting unnecessary suffering upon women and children. For these reasons he should support the Resolution, and he urged the Government to see if it was not possible for them to do something to prevent such calamities as had happened recently in Yorkshire and in Scotland.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That in the opinion of this House the practice of employers, letting dwelling houses to their workpeople, making tenancy of such houses in many cases a condition of employment, and turning such workpeople out of their homes during a trade dispute, is most reprehensible, and it calls upon the Government to introduce legislation which will afford security of tenure during a period of dispute or such security as would exist if the houses were owned by ordinary landlords."—(Mr. Clynes.)

MR. WALSH (Lancashire, Ince)

said it would be seen that the Motion directed attention to the practice of employers letting dwelling houses to their workpeople and making the tenancy of such houses, in many cases, a condition of employment. It was not merely that the tenancy of the house was a condition of employment. It meant also that if at any time they left their employment or were desirous of leaving their employment, they must also leave the house. It did not matter how many years they had lived in that house, nor indeed what domestic affections might have grown up in the locality where they had lived for so long. The thousand and one ties were ruthlessly broken if a man was desirous of improving his condition by going elsewhere to seek employment. There were many cases in colliery districts were the employee had to sign a contract that he would be prepared to take the house let by the particular company by whom he was to be employed, and if at any moment he left that company he had also to face the prospect of leaving the house. There was no equity of contract or consideration in such conditions as these. For many generations Parliament had endeavoured to enforce equity in contracts of this kind. There was much truth in the old saying, "Once a miner always a miner." It was not easy for a man at middle age to find fresh avenues of employment, and if a man was bound down by special conditions of his calling he was deprived of that nobility which labour ought to possess, and which every honest working man endeavoured to secure. This was a despotic power which ought not, which could not, with safety to the interests of the nation be allowed to remain in the hands of unscrupulous employers. So far as he was aware the power had not been in a great many cases ruthlessly exercised. In Lancashire they had not had a case for thirty years. Although he was not one of the most friendly disposed towards employers, he said that while they possessed this power and refrained from exercising it they deserved the greatest possible credit. But in a neighbouring county the power had been most ruthlessly exercised. It was not merely despotism, because a despot might be benevolent. But when the power of despotism was used under conditions such as obtained in 1903. when 500 householders with their wives and children and old folks were turned out in the depths of bitter winter, it was indeed "methods of barbarism." The House ought to approach the question with the view of dealing with the despotic power. Oh ! it is excellent To have a giant's strength; but it is tyrannous To use it like a giant. The practices which he had described were grossly and disgracefully unfair to the workmen. It was not that fair and open competition which this House had in many cases endeavoured to secure. It was protection in the worst degree. The ordinary builder of property, who wished to meet the normal and natural demand of a locality, had absolutely no chance against such competition. This was a point which ought to appeal with special force to a free trade Ministry. A good deal had been said to-day by the hon. and learned Member for Waterford about the eviction of one man. He was glad that there was such a crowded attendance on the Ministerial Benches when the hon. and learned Gentleman brought that case before the House. He wished that this question, which affected many thousands of workmen, had attracted the same crowd of Members. The Labour representatives wanted the law to be made synonymous with something like justice, if not with clemency, to the poor. As at present administered in the mining districts the law was synonymous with oppression, and it had inspired a feeling among workmen of distrust, fear, and hatred. That was not a condition of things with which the people of this nation could remain content. The House should prevent the arbitrary and tyrannical exercise of the powers with which employers of the character indicated had clothed themselves. They had a right to see that there should be something like equity and freedom of contract and that the law should be made synonymous, with even-handed justice and fair play.


bore testimony to the fair and reasonable character of the speeches, and said he was aware that hon. Members admitted that, though harsh cases of eviction of workmen from their cottages sometimes occurred, they were, on the whole, rare incidents of trade disputes. It was difficult to find a solution of the question, because the tenancy of those who were attached to works could not be dissociated from the general question of tenure in respect of similar cottages throughout the rural districts of the country. It was impossible in many places to sink a coal-shaft without providing accommodation for the workmen, and some employers on that account owned hundreds of workmen's cottages. If a strike occurred and an employer used his legal powers to evict the workmen and their families in the interest of his industry, there was probably a sense in which recourse to such action might be described as harsh and even reprehensible. It was well, however, to bear in mind the other side of the case. If they were to give to the workmen something like fixity of tenure in these cottages during a trade dispute, or permanently, then the advantage would be on the side of the workmen, who would have the employer pretty well at their mercy. It was obvious, therefore, that there were great difficulties and some hardships arising out of the treatment of this question, and caution was needed before rash legislation was attempted. Hon. Members must remember that legislation could not be limited to any particular class of workmen. The workmen all over the country, holding cottages by a similar tenure, would have to be considered, and especially the position of the agricultural labourer and the tenure of his cottage. Since 1892 a Bill had been brought into the House on five occasions providing that where a tenant occupied his house as a workman his tenancy should only be terminated at three months notice. This measure had never reached the Second Heading stage, presumably because the practical difficulties of the question were felt to be so great as to be almost insuperable. Possibly some good might be done by a Bill which provided that a workman should not be; ejected from his cottage until after a certain period of notice. Three months would be too long, but it might not be unfair to allow a notice of three or four weeks. In the Land Tenure Bill of this session there was a provision to give to the agricultural labourer who was unreasonably disturbed some compensation; and the House might consider to what extent this provision could be more widely extended. The difficulties they were considering, however, arose out of the industrial divisions that had arisen in modern times, for strikes were the workmen's remedy in cases of dispute with the master. Nobody liked strikes, but in certain conditions they were inevitable, and the men who took part in them ought not to suffer more than their inevitable consequences. There was hardship in connection with evictions, perhaps in mid-winter, and all the suffering of the family which might prove a very serious danger. Now that they were engaged in considering this particular grievance he did not know whether a solution of the difficulty might not be found by some system of arbitration or by the direct action of legal proceedings. The only suggestion he could make now was that that was a matter which came within the scope of the reference to the Committee to which the hon. Member opposite had referred. He was sure that the question regarding the agricultural labourers came within the reference to the Committee on Truck. He had already mentioned the matter to his hon. friend the Lord-Advocate, who was Chairman of that Committee, and that hon. and learned Gentleman was going to consult his colleagues on the subject, and perhaps some suggestion might come from that Committee as a result of the present discussions.

MR. J. WARD (Stoke-on-Trent)

said that under the present condition of things all the powers and influences of compulsion, and threat were used by certain employers against their men when questions of disagreement as to the conditions of labour or the wages to be paid were in dispute. There was always a threat of turning the families of the workmen into the street, and that was one of the greatest hardships which workmen had to contend with in asserting their right of combination for the purpose of improving their condition generally. It showed that employers had a far more potent power to insist on what they regarded as their rights than the workmen had. As a matter of fact, almost the whole navvy population of the country were obliged, owing to the conditions of their trade, to live in their employers' houses. That was illustrated in the case of the Derwent Valley Water Works and the Avonmouth Docks, as well as in every other great engineering enterprise. He was afraid that the Committee would be ineffective, so far as influence on the question as to whether rent should be regarded as truck was concerned. Only in certain cases was rent regarded as truck, and therefore he thought that the State ought to step in and equalise matters as between employers and employed.


said that after the sympathetic statement which had been made by the right hon. the Home Secretary, he was willing to withdraw his Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.