HC Deb 30 July 1913 vol 56 cc551-4

I beg to move, "That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend and extend the Truck Acts, 1831 to 1896."

The Bill which I desire to ask leave to bring in is a Bill to amend the Truck Acts, 1831 to 1896. This Bill is founded on the Report of the Committee of 1908. It will be within the recollection of the House that there was a Majority Report and a Minority Report. Both Reports agree that the Act of 1896 was entirely inadequate, and that the workers still suffer grave injustice and injury. The Majority Report recommend that no fines or deductions should exceed 5 per cent. of the weekly wage, and that fines and deductions should be abolished altogether in the case of young persons under sixteen. The Minority Report, on the other hand, reports in favour of the complete abolition of fines and deductions. The words of the Report are:— In our opinion disciplinary fines fail in their purpose. We believe them to he not merely negative in good but active in harm, inasmuch as they maintain and ever create the very situation they are designed to destroy. Irritating in their imposition and ineffective in their result, they occupy in the organisation of industry where they exist, a place that should be held by supervision. This subject forms a hardy annual in the Home Office Debate in this House, so that there is no need for me to over-labour the necessity for reform or to produce any great number of instances of the inadequacy of the Act of 1896, but I would remind the House that the Act of 1896 said that for a fine to be legal it must be shown that something has been done likely to cause damage to the employer or a hindrance to his business, and, in the second place, that fines must be fair and reasonable. However, when we turn to the Report of the Committee and also to the annual Report of the Factory Inspectors, one finds numerous instances of most unjust fines for most trivial offences. There are, in Miss Squire's evidence before the Committee, instances of fines being extracted from workers for such things as sneezing, laughing, singing, and wearing hair-curlers, and as much as 6d. or 1s has been deducted from workers' wages for this offence. And also in last year's Factory Inspector's Report there are instances of fines being imposed for hair-dressing, whistling, and talking, and, again, there are other instances of girls earning only Ss. a week having fines of ld. a minute deducted from their wages for arriving late, and there has been furnished to me from the Industrial Laws Committee a monstrous case of deductions from most inadequate wages.

The worker in this case is a majolica paintress in the potteries. She is often on short time, and sometimes employed for not more than two days a week. The highest wages she has ever earned for a full week—on one occasion only—is 17s. 5d. When on short time her wages often do not exceed 5s. 9d. Her average wage is 5s. 6d. The deductions from her wages were: Sweeping, 2d for a full week and ld. for two days; washing overalls, 2d. per week; infirmary, 2d. per week; and gas in winter, 2d. a week. It may be urged that these fines are absolutely illegal. The Prime Minister used that argument when the deputation of women workers waited on him, but, to my mind, it is very cold comfort to tell factory workers that all these fines are illegal, when, owing to the inadequacy of the staff, a factory inspector cannot visit a factory or workshop more than once in two years. If a worker does complain most likely she suffers dismissal, and the hard part of it is that owing to the uncertainty of the law whenever a. case is brought into Court it is most difficult to get a favourable decision from the magistrate. Therefore the promoters of the Bill say that all fines and deductions should be swept away. There is nothing in this Bill, however, to prevent an employer from proceeding against a worker for damage for careless work, and there is nothing in the Bill to prevent the employer locking a worker out for lateness. Clause 2, Subsection (2) would prevent the device of calling part of the wages a voluntary bonus, and then alleging that the bonus had really been drawn, and Clause 3 extends the benefit of the law to out-workers. I hope that the Government will move soon in this matter and remedy the grievance. This Bill has no chance of passing into law this Session, but it is intended as a gentle reminder to the Government that they have been very lax in the matter. I hope that when the Government do bring in a Bill they will decide to sweep away fines and deductions, first, as a relic of barbarism, and, second, as a sign of a badly organised and inefficiently conducted business.

When labour is well organised and business is efficiently conducted there are hardly any fines. There is no grievance among the spinners and carders, and there are no fines and deductions. In 1Bacup and Clitheroe I am told among the weavers fines and deductions are rapidly being abandoned. Miss Squire, in her evidence before the Committee, said that where the foreman or forewoman know their business there is no need for fines or deductions. I think that I have said enough to show that the system of fines and deductions is not only an injustice to the worker but is a barrier to the more humane and efficient management. It may be said that you cannot make people either humane, efficient or ntelligent by Act of Parliament. I cannot help thinking that the influence of Parliament is sometimes underestimated in this respect, for it can be claimed, at all events, that the Trades Boards Act has had a very valuable educative effect on employers.

They are learning that it does not pay them to pay wages below the subsistence level, and I cannot help thinking that if Parliament in its wisdom was to pass an Act abolishing fines and deductions in a very few years' time there would not be a single employer of labour who would regret it in the least. D'Israeli, in "Sybil, or the Two Nations," referred to the great gulf that existed between the rich and poor, the employer and the employed. That gulf still exists, those two nations still exist, and I am afraid that they will always exist if this irritating and degrading system of fines and deductions is allowed. There is no hope of arriving at better feeling between rich and poor, between employer and employed, in this country unless we sweep away a system that leaves a rankling feeling of injustice in the minds of the workers.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Lord Henry Cavendish-Bentinek, Mr. Noel Buxton. Mr. O'Grady, Mr. Rowntree, and Mr. Stephen Walsh. Presented accordingly, and read the first time; to be read a second time upon Wednesday next, and to be printed. [Bill 289.]