HC Deb 24 May 1911 vol 26 cc387-98

I beg to move, "That a humble Address be presented to His Majesty praying His Majesty to withhold His Assent to the Order, dated the 10th day of April, 1911, made by the Secretary of State for the Home Department, in pursuance of Section 54, Subsection (4), of The Factory and Workshop Act, 1901, extending the Special Exception by which a male young person may be employed during the night to male young persons of the age of sixteen years and upwards employed in the process of making artificial silk fibre carried on in non-textile factories."

I desire very briefly to move the prayer contained in this notice on the Order Paper, and in doing so, the first observation I have to make is one of protest against what appears to many of us the unnecessary increase of the number of these Orders that are being from time to time issued, and as many of us are afraid, issued without inquiry being made in order to see that all the interests of those affected are properly safeguarded. I think it may very safely be said that the legislature, when passing the Factory Acts and making arrangements for certain exemptions to be permitted by Order, were exceedingly anxious to protect, in certain cases, especially the youth of our country. I think that. everybody who is at all familiar with the Factory Acts will admit that they were not anxious that these Orders should extend the hours of overtime that might be worked, more especially the working of all-night shifts in connection with boys or girls, especially girls. In this case it is a question of boys from sixteen to eighteen years of age.

I do not know that I need trouble the House for a single moment as to the reasons why this anxiety existed at the time the Factory Act was being passed, but I think I may safely say that one of the primary reasons that influenced our legislators when the last Act was passed was the question of health. I think in the case I am moving—for it is the prevention of night work of boys of between sixteen and eighteen years engaged in the manufacture of silk fibre out of wood pulp—if my information is correct, there is a very strong case to be made out against the extension. I find that the Section under which the extension is made, Sub-section (4) of Section 54 of the Factory and Workshops Act of 1901, that the Secretary of State is given power to make an order permitting night work providing he is satisfied that such employment will not injure the health of the male young persons employed in it. The question of extension might be argued altogether apart from the very general but very important provision that the Act specifically lays down, but in the case before us I have a little information which, if it be correct, and if the Order that is about to be made (and I believe the forty days that the Order is to lie on the Table expires on Monday) applies, as I am afraid it does, to the making of artificial silk at Coventry, all I have to say is that we will have to search a long way back before we find an Order issued with such little justification, and, in fact, on the other hand, with such strong condemnation against it as in this particular instance. I find that these boys are working under this process in this particular town.


The Order does not apply to work carried out in this particular town.


I thank the Under-Secretary for his interruption, but I think he will have to convince the House, in view of the words contained in the Order. The words in the Order are:— The process of making artificial silk fibre carried on in non-textile factories.


It is only by courtesy I can intervene, but I do so to save time. The Coventry process, we are advised in law is not a non-textile factory.


I am very pleased to have that declaration. It is a very important declaration. I have endeavoured to find out, and I have not been able to find out, and those concerned in the process and those who are engaged in the process are apprehensive of the dangers. I think, notwithstanding the interjection of the Under-Secretary, that I ought to be permitted to give to the House the information as to the article to which I referred, because I think unless it can be shown beyond a shadow of doubt that the Order does not apply in the works at Coventry then I think it ought to be prevented from being confirmed. In the first place we are told that they are working, not only during the day, but during the night, in a temperature of 80 degrees. If in this House during an all-night sitting the temperature gets up to about 64 degrees, we are not long before we show signs of drowsiness and wish to be in more comfortable conditions. This is what the article in the local press declares:— The smell of the chemicals, acids, etc., used in this operation is well nigh intolerable, and calls for immediate attention from the factory inspector. The article further states that the workers so suffer that many of them are exposed or subjected to temporary blindness, that their eyes are badly inflamed and that they suffer as a result of these chemicals and acids the most excruciating pain. It is also declared to be a "loathsome, injurious and degrading occupation."

The article adds that the occupants of the houses immediately near the works complain that the fumes emanating therefrom are so strong that they find it well nigh impossible to remain in the houses, and I am told that but for the shortness of the supply of houses they would not remain in them at all. We have the ordinary objection to the continued increase in the number of exemption orders which are being issued by the Home Office; secondly, there are also the general objections to putting boys of sixteen to eighteen years of age on night shifts; and, thirdly, I am not convinced on the point in regard to which the Under-Secretary interrupted me. I hope he will be able to explain clearly the difference between a textile and a non-textile factory, and to show why, in regard to making artificial silk fibre at one set of works at Flint and making it out of wood pulp at Coventry, one is textile and the other non-textile. The words in the Order apparently cover the whole. I hope he will be able to show that the Order will not apply in any sense, either now or hereafter, to the works at Coventry. If there is any doubt at all, I would suggest that he should promise a full and complete inquiry, in order that we may satisfy all concerned that they will not be subjected to working overtime in this process under these obnoxious conditions and working night shifts as the Order provides. I beg to move.


In rising to second the Motion, I desire to refer to an answer given by the Home Secretary on, I think, the 15th of this month, when, at the close of an interesting reply, he stated that a copy of the draft Order had been forwarded to the Parliamentary Committee of the Trade Union Congress, and by that statement, I do not say intentionally, perhaps unintentionally, appeared to throw a measure of blame on that Committee. That Committee very much appreciate the fact that it is the custom of the Home Office to send them draft copies of these Orders in order that they, being in direct touch with the trades of the country, may forward the Orders to those who are immediately concerned and invite criticisms, should criticisms be necessary. When the right hon. Gentleman made that statement I was much surprised. As a member of the Committee I had not seen a copy of the Order, and I made it my business the following morning to inquire at the office whether or not such an Order had been received.

The statement made to me was that such an Order had not been received. A communication was sent to the Home Office to that effect, and the reply was that the Order had been sent on 27th or 28th February. It is perfectly true that Draft Orders have been received by the Committee, but there was no trace of this particular Order being received. With regard to the general question, may I say that it is a well-established and well-understood custom in this country that young people from sixteen up to eighteen years of age are not permitted to work at night? That practice is well supported by both employers and employed. Speaking for my own trade, the printing trade, were such an Order as this attempted to be introduced there would be in a sense a revolution. I understand that one reason given for this exemption is that it introduces into this country a new form of industry. I do not know from what country it emanates, but I understand it has been brought into this country under the provisions of the new Patents Act. I agree fully that it is very desirable that new industries should be started wherever they come from. But I would submit to the Home Office that if industries are to be started they should be started precisely on the same footing as industries already established in this country. I would submit to the Under-Secretary that if this exemption is once permitted it will be extremely difficult, nay, almost impossible, to prevent exemptions of this kind being made in the case of other industries and in other directions. I would again acknowledge the courtesy of the Home Office in sending us these Draft Orders, so that we of the Parliamentary Committee may communicate their purport to the respective trades, though we cannot find that this particular Order has been received. I beg to second.


I have seen the works at Flint; have been through them, and seen the manufacture. As far as I am able to judge it is a perfectly satisfactory occupation, a very simple process, entailing no physical labour. I may say my Constituency are very anxious that nothing should be done to discourage this new industry, and I hope when the explanation is given by the Home Office it will satisfy my hon. Friends below the Gangway.


May I say at the beginning how much I regret any mistake that may have arisen. I heard of it for the first time to-night from my hon. Friend the Member for Deptford. He will agree with me that when my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary stated in reply to a question that the practice of sending a copy of the draft Order to the Parliamentary Committee of the Trades Union Congress was carried out he stated what he believed to be the fact. I shall certainly enquire what happened, and if it has not been sent I will see why it was not sent, and perhaps I shall communicate with the hon. Member, because it is important when we make statements to the House they should be substantiated. I agree it is a point of importance and that when the custom was established, which is a statutory custom, it should be continued. As to the question raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Barnard Castle, I think I am right in saying he has two objections to the Order. One is very much stronger than the other for the moment. First he has a general objection to night work for boys between the ages of sixteen and eighteen, and I think a considerable number of us share that objection unless the night work is safeguarded in the most stringent manner. He has an especial objection to this Order because he thinks it applies to a very objectionable form of manufacture so far as the employment of boys is concerned. I am sure he will acquit me of any discourtesy when I interrupted him when he was going on to describe what were the conditions in Coventry, but I can assure him having gone very fully into the subject before the Order was drafted and having taken the highest legal opinion that this Order does not apply to the work at Coventry. In making that statement I neither echo nor deny the statements he quoted from the local newspaper. I have been told by our factory inspector that the Coventry trade is subject to dangerous fumes. No boys are employed at the present time, and no boys will be employed either by day or night under this Order. I should be perfectly willing to accede to the suggestion my hon. Friend made and to see that some inquiry is made into this exceptional process with a view to ascertaining whether the trade is dangerous or not quite apart from the employment of boys, and our Factory Inspector or the Labour Adviser to the Board of Trade shall make that inquiry now that the question has been raised on the floor of the House. The Coventry process for making artificial silk is a textile process defined upon the authority of the Law Officers of the Crown. It is a continuous process in which the filament is made from pulp, and in which the filament is twisted into thread, and that brings it under the definition of a textile factory. The unobjectionable system which is in operation in two factories was introduced under the Patents Act. The process of making the filament from the pulp is separate from twisting the filament into thread; the process of making the filament from the pulp is a textile process, but the process of twisting the thread is non-textile, and under Section 147, Sub-section (2) of the Factories Act may be legitimately subject to this Order, but the process of twisting the filament into thread, which is non-continuous, is a textile process, and therefore done in a textile factory.

Our inspectors advise us that the processes are quite separate secret chemical processes, and that the particular dangers found at Coventry from fumes do not operate in the systems at Flint and Yarmouth. Perhaps I may say a word or two on the general question. There is, I believe, an increasing feeling against the employment of boy labour at all at night in this country. May I point out that boy labour is employed not only in the exceptions allowed under the Factory Act of 1901 and subsequent Orders, but also in the mines of this country, in the newspaper offices, and on a part of the railways, and I submit that in dealing with the general question of boy labour between sixteen and eighteen it is unsatisfactory to impeach some particular kind of boy labour which may be better than that which is now legalised, and it would be better to deal with the whole question and see whether some general agreement could not be arrived at, in which case we should have to repeal this particular Section of the Factory Act of 1901, which authorises the labour of young persons between sixteen and eighteen in certain continuous processes.

Boy labour is sanctioned between sixteen and eighteen under certain conditions very definitely laid down. It must necessarily be a process carried on through the night—being a continuous process. Since the Factory Act was passed it has been extended through this provision to something like twenty of these continuous processes, and no objection was advanced to the Draft Order when it, was first laid before the House or afterwards when it was laid on the Table of the House. The conditions applying to boy labour are rigid. The employment is not to exceed twelve consecutive hours with the usual intervals for meals. Application has to be made to the Home Office with regard to the employment of boys in the manufacture of artificial silk in the non-textile portion al the manufacture as at Flint and Yarmouth. This is a growing industry giving considerable employment which has been brought to England by the operation of the Patents Act, and it is almost a new industry in this country. Out of 4,500,000 articles of silk, 370,000 are made in this country. This work has been investigated by both our Divisional Factory Inspectors in Wales and the District Factory Inspector, and they have reported that the work is suitable to be included under Section 54 of the Factory Act, 1901.

It is a continuous process which has to be carried on day and night. It is work suitable for boys, who can learn it at an early age, and it has this advantage, that it is not a blind-alley employment, because boys can obtain permanent work at considerable wages at this trade later on in life. It is work in which in Germany young persons are engaged, and it has been imported from Germany owing to the operation of the Patents Act. Our Factory Inspectors reported that if the Order was not granted there would be difficulty in getting the required number of boys, and the factories would be handicapped. At the age of twenty or twenty-one these boys are transferred to the other work. It is believed that this will be a good process, which can be continued in this country with advantage to all concerned. The conditions laid clown are stringent. The boys will be allowed to work eight hours with intervals of sixteen hours. As tie process is not continued during Saturday the boys will only work forty-three hours per week, allowing for the intervening time for meals. That compares with eight hours at night, or forty-eight hours a week in the coal mines, which may be their alternative, or with the sixteen hours' day of a vanboy, which is a blind-alley occupation, or with the seventy-four hours a week which is now legalised under the Shops Act.

I must say that, so long as night work is continued to be allowed for boys between sixteen and eighteen years of age, this presents a case far better than some alternative processes allowed at the present time, not only under the Special Order, but in work which is outside the Factory Act. On the other hand, it would be idle for me to deny there is a growing feeling that night work is undesirable for boys even of sixteen years of age, and certainly for boys over fourteen years of age, which at present is legalised under the Act of 1901, although not under this Order. The International Labour Congress which met this autumn reported that the time was ripe for some international agreement on this subject, although I must confess they suggested that agreement should allow exemptions which are not allowed under the English law, and should deny exemptions which are allowed under the English law. Immediately after that suggestion was formulated my right hon. Friend (Mr. Churchill) appointed one of the officials of the Home Office to undertake a thorough investigation of the nature of labour of young persons of the male sex between the ages of sixteen and eighteen at present legalised. That investigation is being continued, and I must say that at present it is not entirely in favour of the complete prohibition of this system. In response to the challenge of the hon. Member for Barnard Castle (Mr. Arthur Henderson), I may say, I am sure my right hon. Friend would be perfectly willing to agree that investigations shall be continued to cover the whole field and also this particular manufacture. I shall be very glad to have the whole question raised as soon as possible in the House. I suggest that such an opportunity will occur on the Home Office Vote, which I suppose will not be greatly delayed in this Session. We can then deal with the question as a whole and not piecemeal. We cannot deal with the further regulation of night work of boys between 16 and 18 by opposing one particular Order. It may be a better system of work for those boys than the alternative to which they may be legally subjected under the law as it stands at present.


Before we put off the discussion till the Home Office Vote comes on we want to be convinced that the conditions under which boys are employed in other trades are better. I do not think the Under-Secretary has tried to meet the case made out. He has told us the process is continuous and that the works are running day and night. Are these boys employed in the daytime as well as at night, or are they only employed at night?


The boys are employed at eight hour shifts day and night.


What is the meaning of the sentence the hon. Gentleman read out to us, that if boys are not employed at night young men of 18 cannot be taken on for training? I take that to mean these boys are employed at night only, otherwise that sentence is meaningless. Surely it means that boys are not employed except at night, and that they are employed at, night because they are cheap. Though the process may be continuous, and though it may be a new and valuable industry, you can pay too high a price even for a good industry. I do not think that the Under-Secretary has at all attempted to meet that case. The instances he quoted were those of cases in which the labour of young people at night was necessary—such as in mines and in connection with newspapers, where under modern conditions you must employ night labour. In this case he has not shown the necessity. I hope he is right in thinking the Order does not apply to the Coventry factories, and I trust that that fact will be made clear to the Inspectors. In view of the promise the hon. Gentleman has given to reconsider the whole question, I suppose we cannot go much further to-night. But may we assume that the whole question is open for reconsideration? The Conference to which reference has been made was a great advance on previous International Conferences, and I hope that this country will not keep in the background in this matter.


The House must be grateful to the Under-Secretary for the new fact of which he has informed us, that this is no question of "blind-alley" employment. When the Under-Secretary stated that the boys who were put on this work hereafter would be given continuous employment in this industry, that to some extent modified the position. It also took away altogether the reason for the Order, because if these boys, when they reach the age of 18 years, are still going to be employed in that industry, surely it is possible for the manufacturer, if he is prepared to pay them between the age of 16 and 18, to give a somewhat higher wage in order to have young men over 18 years of age to do this work. If he is going to employ boys over 18 hereafter, why not do it now—it would only involve a slightly increased wage? The fact we have elicited is important, because it finally takes away the reason for the Order. The argument of the Under-Secretary was one we could not wholly accept. He admitted that boy labour at night is not a satisfactory thing, be he added: "Do not let us deal with the evil piecemeal." I say at once this is creating a new evil which many of us are prepared to resist to the last, and I hope, therefore, that this Motion will be pressed to a Division.


I wish to ask the Under-Secretary if he cannot reconsider his decision if only for a few weeks. We none of us deny that he wishes to do his best with regard to young persons. We none of us deny that perhaps at the present moment complete prohibition may be impossible. There are two points in regard to this matter which really deserve every consideration. The hon. Gentleman has asked us not to attempt to deal with this matter piecemeal, and he has suggested that it might be allowed to come up for consideration on the Home Office Vote. But cannot we ask him to withhold his Order until after the time when the Home Office Vote is brought on? This Order is dealing with the question piecemeal in adding to the work which may be done by young persons under these conditions. Therefore, if the matter is to be reconsidered, then at least there is every reason just at the present minute for holding his hand, so that the Order should not come into effect until after the Home Office Vote has been taken. There is one other point. I would just suggest to the Under-Secretary that I can hardly believe that the reason that he gave holds good, namely, that this kind of work offers an occupation which will lead to adult occupation in the future. It may be that some young persons employed in this process may obtain adult occupation in the work afterwards, but the real fact in point is the proportion of young persons who will afterwards be absorbed in the trade. I do think my hon. Friend did not quite appreciate this fact, that if we have these young persons employed at night it means that there are a larger number of young persons employed than those who can be absorbed as daily workers in the same trade. If that is the case the defence is no longer good that this work is necessary in order to find employment for young persons, who will find daily work afterwards. I do not wish to press one or two other points which occur to me, but in view of that fact and in view of the fact that the whole subject will come up on the Home Office Vote, cannot the matter be delayed so that a fresh trade may not be added to the list? The fact that other trades already exist in which this kind of work is carried on is really no positive reason in favour, but rather a reason to the contrary why we should not add another against the general sense of the community until the whole question has been discussed on the Home Office Vote.


I should like to ask whether or not, there were any boys employed, before this Order was issued, at night, and, if not, who performed the duties they carry out? I also wish to press for delay in putting into operation this Order. There is a rather strong feeling as to boys working at night, and I trust the Under-Secretary will see his way to postpone the coming into operation of this Order for another month until the whole question can be debated.


I think the proposal made is a fair one if it can be carried out, but I am not quite sure that the Order can be arrested from coming legally into operation, but we can always start a rescinding Order, which has just as much validity as the Order itself. I am perfectly willing to consider the matter that all these Orders should be rescinded. There are twenty of them, and they deal with electric stations, sugar refining, galvanising, china clay, explosives, newspaper printing, and other industries. All these are cases of the night work of boys between sixteen and eighteen, and they are all under similar conditions, and the great majority of them under more objectionable conditions than this particular Order. If on the Home Office Vote it is the considered opinion of the House on the report of our experts that all these Orders shall be rescinded we will rescind them altogether and stop the practice. I do not think it is logical to deal with one which I consider is the least harmful without dealing with the whole. I hope the Committee will agree to that, and under the circumstances, although we may legally not be able to annul it without a Motion from both Houses of Parliament, I am sure it will not be put in operation while we are engaged in our deliberations.

Question put, and negatived.

And, it being after half-past Eleven of the clock, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House, without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order. Adjourned at Six minutes before Twelve o'clock.