§ Motion made and Question proposed," That this House do now adjourn "—[Mr. Gulland.]
I desire to call attention to a matter arising out of the question which I asked the Financial Secretary to the Treasury to-day and a question which I asked on the 18th of last month in respect of prosecutions undertaken by the National Insurance Commissioners against members of the Berkshire Farmers' League. I am not going to enter into the whole of the circumstances attending the genesis of the trouble that has arisen except to say that, rightly or wrongly, farmers who are members of this league thought fit for the first two quarters after the Insurance Act came into operation not to comply with the provisions of the Act with reference to the stamping of the insurance cards of persons employed by them. According to law they were wrong, but they had right on their side according to their own views as to their interests and what they thought were the interests of those they employed. Matters went on up to the 1st January this year, when the inspector, Mr. Curtis Bennett, on behalf of the Insurance Commissioners, met the committee of the Berks and adjoining Counties Farmers' Defence League at Oxford.
Attention called to the fact that forty Members were not present. House counted, and forty Members being found present—
The secretary of the league, Mr. Bayliss attended the meeting, which took place in the Clarence Hotel, Oxford, and with him were two of the best known farmers in that part of the country. I have no reason to doubt the impression which was left on their minds 2330 as the result of this meeting, that if they worked the Act forward from the 15th January this year and made themselves responsible for any benefits which would accrue to their employés under the Act should they fall sick during the time, the rest of the year, no prosecutions would be undertaken. I am inclined to believe that that is the fact, because at the prosecution that took place last week at Witney, Mr. Curtis Bennett, in the witness-box, was asked:—It was a condition that, in the event of the league coining into line and working the Act in the third quarter, they would not initiate the proceedings for the payment of arrears unless there were specific cases of complaint.The members of the league kept loyally to this agreement they came to on 1st January. They issued a notice to their members on 13th January as to the agreement, and they have repudiated any members who have failed to comply 'with the memorandum which they then sent out. It was not until the 18th January that Insurance Commissioners issued a notice that they did not know of this or of any bargain made on their behalf, or of the fact of the agreement in the case before Mr. Curtis Bennett and the Committee of the Defence League. I am inclined to think that this view was held by Mr. Curtis Bennett as late as 5th March this year, because one of the members of the committee, who was a witness and was present when the agreement was come to, was interviewed by Mr. Curtis Bennett on the question of some men who had left his employment. This was a Mr. Adams, who is a very large farmer in the western part of Berkshire, and employs a very large number of men. In his evidence, given in the Witney prosecution, he said:—Mr. Curtis Bennett came to him with a list of names and they went over three or four men on the list that had left his employment, and Mr. Curtis Bennett asked him as a favour to stamp their cards, as it made a difference to their benefits. The inspector ticked off their names, and said that if they paid their benefits they would hear no more about them.It was even in Mr. Curtis Bennett's mind so late as the 5th March of this year; he, at any rate, was under the impression that the Commissioners had fallen in with the agreement he had drawn up, and that no prosecution would take place. This was an agreement drawn up between the committee and the inspector. On that the deputy of the Defence League had advised that they should work it. It was not brought up in writing, but there was a distinct understanding between the committee and the league, and no one can 2331 doubt their integrity at all. They were not men who would make a false statement all through. Those who have attended the committee—I have seen them myself on many occasions—they have given evidence to the same effect. No doubt when they came away from the meeting on the 1st January, after being interviewed by Mr. Curtis Bennett, for whom they entertained a great respect, they realised that he was working in their interests as well as in the interests of the Insurance Act, and that he was endeavouring to make as good a bargain as possible. That is the impression which they always left on my mind, that they had discussed it with Mr. Curtis Bennett. In respect of the prosecutions, which were not taken prior to the 15th January, they consider that they have just reason. There is some misunderstanding evidently, because the right hon. Gentleman says Mr. Curtis Bennett was not empowered to make this agreement or to make any agreement to exempt persons from complying with the provisions of the Act. That may be the fact, but still Mr. Curtis Bennett, who is an inspector of Insurance Commissioners, did, if I may say so, as the servant of the Commissioners, meet this body of men, and, after consultation with them, came to sonic form of agreement whereby the Act would be worked forward from 15th January. Undoubtedly if that meeting had not taken place, and if the committee had not advised their members to work the Act from 15th January, in my opinion, and I think I know a very large number of members of the league, and although I have not advocated the action which they took from the outset, but personally, as a matter of fact, advised them to the contrary altogether and to work the Act, at the same time I do feel they are suffering under an injustice to-day, and I do think something should he done in order to show them that either Mr. Curtis Bennett was to blame and not themselves. Also I may say that no person in their employment is suffering any loss for their cards not having been stamped, because they are paying full benefits without charging anything for maintenance, as they would under the Act have paid nothing for those benefits. Now those farmers are working the Act according to law, and I do think it is very desirable they should be placed in a position of understanding where they are. If the Insurance Commissioners are 2332 going to repudiate the agreement or understanding which was come to, then I am afraid they will not place trust in the Insurance Commissioners in future, and I can only foresee considerable trouble in the district. It is in order to avoid that trouble that I am now asking the Financial Secretary to hold out some hope to those men that something may be done to clear up the position, and, if possible, to place the action of. Mr. Curtis Bennett in some form so that the undertaking which was then made on behalf of the Commissioners should be carried into effect.
§ Mr. MASTERMAN
The moderation and evident sincerity of the hon. Gentleman who has just spoken prevents me saying a good deal which I might say, but I must say this, I agree he has taken every step he could by peaceful persuasion to make this particular group come into the Insurance Act and work the Act. But if he asks me to have any sympathy with that Association because they deliberately set themselves by criminal conspiracy to defy the law, and in the hope to get them out of obligations made under the law, I should have no sympathy with them in the first place, and I would de nothing to get them out of the consequences. Here is an organisation of prosperous farmers who from 15th July set themselves deliberately, knowing what it was they were doing, to break the law of the land. It was not poor people. The poor employers paid in the East End, while these rich prosperous farmers resisted the Act, and for a long time did not pay. Now the hon. Gentleman asks if I can let them off paying what they ought to have paid for six months, in order that there may be peace and harmony. What is the position of the men who paid from 15th July. What is the biggest complaint made over the country where this sort of action is being taken. Law abiding citizens Conservatives as well as Liberals, even in this district, refused to join this absurd, and I am not sure criminal conspiracy against the law, and paid from the 15th July, and their employes are receiving from the 15th January maternity and sickness benefits as a result. These people said, "It is all right. don't you pay. What fools you are to pay for these first two Quarters. Either the Act will he repealed soon, or we shall get out of paying for these first two quarters." Nothing has caused more disturbance in the country districts than the 2333 fact that these people are now saying to the law abiding population, "You see, we did not pay for the first, two quarters; you have been fools enough to do so, but we have got out of it all. That is what can be done if you are good Conservatives."
§ Mr. MASTERMAN
Or "that is what you can do if you have sufficient faith in Conservative statements that the Act will be repealed in a short space of time."
§ Mr. SPEAKER
It seems to me quite unnecessary that the right hon. Gentleman should have dragged in that statement. The hon. Member who brought forward the question did not bring it forward in any party spirit at all. [HON. MEMBERS: Withdraw."]
§ Mr. MASTERMAN
If you, Mr. Speaker, think I am out of order, I will gladly withdraw, but as a result of considerable examination of this subject, I think it is largely a question of party politics.
§ Mr. SPEAKER
It was a most provocative statement, considering the very moderate speech made by the hon. Member who raised the subject. It was totally uncalled for and unnecessary. [HON MEMBERS: "Withdraw."]
§ Mr. MASTERMAN
I have not been asked to withdraw, and I shall not withdraw. If Mr. Speaker advises me to withdraw, I will do so with the greatest pleasure in the world.
§ Sir. W. ANSON
I understood that you, Mr. Speaker, ruled that the statement of the right hon. Gentleman was most provocative and uncalled for. In these circumstances I should have thought that it would have been common propriety to withdraw the statement.
§ Mr. SPEAKER
It was not unparliamentary, and therefore I did not ask the right hon. gentleman to withdraw.
§ MR. MASTERMAN
I would gladly with draw if you invited me to do so. Now I come to the question raised by the hon. Gentleman. He very rightly stated, and I thank him for it, that there was a misunderstanding between one of our inspectors and these people. I do not know whose fault that misunderstanding was. Of necessity I must take the opinion of my 2334 inspector, who I believe is a thoroughly, reliable person. There were confidential: conversations between various members of this resisters' league and the inspector. It is very difficult, after confidential conversations, unless you have something in writing, to be sure which side is entirely right. I am assured by the inspector that he never in any circumstances gave any countenance to any idea of anything that was illegal being passed over as legal in. this matter. I must confess that, though. I have the utmost admiration for this inspector and his work, I doubt if it was altogether wise of him to go, into negotiation with this society in view of what subsequently occurred. His duty was to get everyone to obey the Act. Na doubt he thought that he would be able to get everyone by peaceful persuasion to: obey the Act, and he has done considerable work in that direction. It was not only impossible for him—he declares he never said it—it was quite impossible for him to promise in the name of anybody in the world that a definite legal obligation laid upon persons to pay from the 15th July to. 13th January, 7d. per week in respect of insurance should be abrogated, and that those persons should commence to pay, and should be allowed to do so from 13th January, abandoning six months of contributions, during which period the friendly societies to which these members belong receive no money at all, while other people who are obeying the law are paying the full contributions. I cannot go behind that, nor can I help in the matter in any possible way. I think those persons ought to have paid from the beginning. I am glad to hear that the hon. Member (Major Henderson) has exercised what influence he possesses to persuade them to pay from the beginning. I cannot have much sympathy with the persons who talk about agreements made afterwards, and who have not paid from the beginning. I consider their action was unworthy. So far as I can, whether these persons like it or dislike it so far as I can by control over the action of the Commons, I shall make these persons pay just like ordinary persons, in order that the friendly societies may receive the full amount, and that the labourers shall receive the full amount too. Never at any time or with any circumstances has any notice ever gone out from the Commissioners, saying that the law would be suspended. It would be a very grave matter if the Commissioners did any such thing, and would be- 2335 a reason for the impeachment of the Commission before this House. That is the answer that I give the hon. Member. I have a conflict of evidence, arising from a confidential statement, between three members of this active resistance league, and my own inspector. I believe my own inspector. Whatever happened at that meeting there is not the slightest doubt that within two days every one in that district was informed individually, after the answer had been given, that no such compact had been entered into and that these particular farmers had to obey the law like hundreds and thousands of farmers who had paid in other parts of the country. They cannot say they have been demnified by any sort of agreement whatever. They were not told so, some are paying, those who did not pay will have to pay. There the matter stands so far as the Insurance Commissioners are concerned. I might before I sit down express my regret to the hon. Gentleman -opposite if I was unnnecessarily provocative in my personal allusion. I did not want to provoke feeling or make any imputation. I really wanted to go through the case as it stood.
§ Mr. MASTERMAN
I will not go into that. I have only to express my regret and to say that I am very sorry that this misunderstanding has arisen. I hope the hon. Gentleman will continue to use his influence from his side, as I shall con- 2336 tinue to use my influence from my side, to make these people conform to the law, just as the hundreds and thousands of other employers.
§ Mr. BOOTH
I want to say that from the point of view of the approved societies this would destroy the whole foundation of their business and reserve funds. The fact that no immediate benefit is given is a most absurd statement to make. I am not surprised that Conservative Members get up and run away. The reserves have got to see these men through until they are seventy years of age. If the contributions are not paid in the earlier years the society cannot take them in. That groups of law breakers in Oxfordshire take up this stand ought to be condemned by every supporter of law and order in this House. It is a most disgraceful proceeding. They ought not only t) be heavily fined, but they ought to be made to smart. Employers of labour, including myself and others, have paid for our workpeople, and to say that these agricultural labourers are to be placed at the mercy of employers of this description for the rest of their lives is a most monstrous proceeding, and is deserving of nothing but the most vigorous condemnation that can be passed upon it by this loyal House of Commons.
It being half-past Eleven of the clock, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House, without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.
§ Adjourned at Half after Eleven o'clock.