HC Deb 04 January 1916 vol 77 cc866-72

No person shall be subjected to any penalty under the principal Act or this Act for refusing to work on Sunday.—[Mr. Pringle.]

Clause brought up, and read the first time.


I beg to move, "That the Clause be read a second time."

This question of Sunday labour has for a considerable time occupied the attention not only of all who are employed on munition work, but also of the Ministry of Munitions themselves. A Committee was appointed to investigate this question along with the general question of fatigue in connection with overtime, and I understand that that Committee came unanimously to the conclusion that Sunday labour should be restricted within the smallest possible limits. This Clause does not propose the abolition of Sunday labour. All it proposes is that the refusal to work on Sunday shall not be an offence under either the original Act or the Bill we are now considering; in other words, that none of the new penalties of this special penal code should apply to a man who, for any reason, whether on conscientious grounds or because he thinks he is too fatigued to undertake the work, refuses to work on Sunday. It will still be possible to obtain Sunday work, when Sunday work is a necessity. Both the Admiralty and the Munitions Department will be able to obtain it -when necessary. The only difference will be that instead of being under this new penal code, a working man will be under the ordinary law. If his contract entitles his employer to call upon him to work on Sunday, he will be liable under the ordinary law for any breach of that agreement. I believe the Secretary to the Munitions Department has already recommended that Sunday labour should be dispensed with as much as possible. That advice has been largely followed, and it has done something to meet the case I am endeavouring to put forward. At the same time I think the Department might quite well dispense with its powers in regard to Sunday labour under the Munitions Acts. There are plenty of men who, when the necessity arises, will be willing to work on Sunday, and I do not think there would be any case in which where necessity arose the Department would find themselves hampered or trammelled by the absence of these powers.


I beg to second the Motion.


I am glad that my hon. Friend recognises that the Ministry of Munitions have not lost sight of the important questions he referred to. I think myself we have approached them in the proper way. We inquired, in the first place, how far Sunday work was necessary in the interests of the output of munitions—that is to say, whether by working people in general seven days a week you got more munitions in the long run than if you gave them a regular rest. It was recommended unanimously by the Committee that workers needed the regular rest—that is, in the interests of the output of munitions as well as from the point of view of the health of the workers themselves. When we had the matter clearly before us we issued these recommendations to the controlled establishments. The hon. Member recognises that there are some operations which it would be quite unreasonable to say should not be carried on Sunday. For instance, you have to keep going continually engines, repairing work and a large number of other operations. It is therefore obvious that you cannot contemplate the abandonment of all work on Sunday.

My hon. Friend proposes that no persons should be prosecuted for refusing to work on Sunday. The cases must be exceedingly few—I believe there have been two or three—where workpeople have been prosecuted under the Act for refusing to work on Sunday. I am sure those must be very extreme cases, but if we put this matter through with the qualifications that prosecution shall not take place for this, that, or the other, we shall burden the provision with so many exceptions that it will make it very difficult to work. Surely we may trust the tribunals in view of the fact" that the Ministry of Munitions has gone out of its way to reduce work on Sunday. It is the desire to administer the Act in the letter and in the spirit. The Ministry of Munitions has considered the question solely in the interest of the output of munitions. In view, therefore, of our action, and in view of the strong recommendation which we have made to controlled establishments, I think no munitions tribunal is likely to penalise a workman unless there is something very extreme in his refusal to work on Sunday, or unless the case is one where his refusal is of so entirely unreasonable and factious character that it would be detrimental to the output of munitions. Considering the circumstances of the case, I am quite sure we can leave the matter to the munitions tribunals. I sincerely hope that this and other specific Amendments dealing with minor points will not be pressed. We ought to leave the matter to the munitions tribunals in view of the fact that we have specially reinforced the Act with an appeals tribunal so as to get uniformity.


I feel I cannot let this Amendment go without saying one word in its favour. I do not want to say anything that is hostile to the Munitions Bill or hostile to the work of the Munitions Department. On general principles I agree far more with the hon. Gentleman who has just spoken than with the Mover of the Amendment, but, after all, one cannot help feeling deep in his heart that it is a very great shame that the House of Commons of Great Britain should attempt to penalise any man for refusing to work on Sunday. I quite agree that it is very unlikely that what has been suggested should happen. I quite agree with nearly all the hon. Gentleman has said in regard to the unlikelihood of a munitions tribunal fining a man for refusing to work on Sunday. I do not know that I should have moved this new Clause, but as it has been moved, and put before the House, I feel that I cannot sit still, but must say a word. So far as I am concerned, I should vote for this Clause in order that the House of Commons may lay it down that under no circumstances should any workman be fined or penalised for refusing, for whatever reason, to work on the Sabbath Day. It may be that those views may be unpopular with those wile run the Munitions Department. I know how important it is to get as much work as possible out of the men; but, after all, we are fighting this War on rather high principles. We claim to have higher principles than the Germans. Only a couple of days ago the whole country joined in Intercession for a blessing on our arms. I feel rather strongly in this matter. We are appealing on the one hand for victory to our arms on the highest grounds, and we ought, therefore, to make our position perfectly clear that no man shall be penalised for doing what I believe every man is justified in doing— refusing to work on Sunday. There are many men to whom my views will not appeal in the slightest degree. There are many men who do not mind working on Sundays; let them work if they wish to do so. But if there is only a minute fraction of men who do not want to work on Sundays, I say that the House of Commons ought to make it perfectly clear that these men ought not to be penalised.


I do not want unnecessarily to take up the time of the House; I am anxious to assist the Government in getting the War ended as soon as possible. But I cannot help saying a few words in favour of this Amendment. I cannot for a moment conceive how any Government should propose to punish a person for being anxious to keep the Sabbath Day. At any rate I do not think the Government ought to do so. What do public authorities do when they open their museums, libraries, and picture galleries on Sunday? In the City of London we simply say to the attendants, "Stop if you like; if you wish to keep Sabbath Day at home and in your own way you will not be penalised or interfered with in any way whatever; those that like to stay can stay." I do not think it is too late for the Government to put on a little righteousness in this cause, and at this time to do what is right. It would show the country that they are still in favour of keeping the Sabbath Day holy, as we have been taught to do. Being all my life strongly in favour of keeping one day of the week for rest, and that being the Sabbath Day, for public worship also, I trust the Government will accept the Amendment in some form or other and so show that they have a strong feeling in favour, as far as possible, of keeping the Sabbath Day holy.


I am very sorry indeed that the Government has not seen fit to accept the Amendment. I think it is an entirely reasonable Amendment, and I am quite sure that it would not in any way interfere with the work of the Ministry of Munitions. There are men here and there who from the standpoint of conscience do not desire to work on Sunday' and will not do so. That may be a view which is not shared by many others, but in the case of these people it is a matter of deep religious conviction. Under this Act they can be fined and punished for refusing to work on Sunday; and that is all the point that is raised in this matter. We are not asking that men shall not work on Sunday. We are asking that as far as possible—and I am quite sure the Ministry of Munitions is with us in this—Sunday labour shall be reduced to the very lowest possible dimensions. From the standpoint, not of religion or of conscience, but of the consequent fatigue and exhaustion, it does not pay to work people in the way suggested, for you do not get the best out of them. What we are asking is in regard to a minority of people who have got deep convictions in this matter. We are asking that they shall not be penalised for refusing to work on Sunday. If the Ministry of Munitions will accept this Amendment I think that it will make no difference so far as the work is concerned, for the work, I believe, will go on quite as well as before. Unless this point is conceded I am afraid we shall be compelled to divide the House.


I hope this Amendment will be pressed to a Division. Certainly I shall only be too glad in this matter to go into the Lobby against the Government. May I call the attention of the House to the very half-hearted way the deference of a refusal to accept this Amendment was put forward from the Treasury Bench. The work of the Ministry of Munitions will only be assisted, not hindered, by our passing this Amendment against the Government. In no spirit of antagonism, therefore, to the work of the Ministry of Munitions I shall most gladly go into the Lobby in favour of this Amendment.


I hope the Ministry of Munitions will maintain this Clause. It appears to me that so many people in this House quite forget that we are at war. There seems to be very great conscientious objection to men being made to work on Sunday, but not the slightest objection to men being made to kill Germans on Sunday. If a warship comes in on Sunday the nation needs that warship out as quickly as possible, and men, women, and children, it may be, must be at the service of the State to do the State's work. Whilst people can swallow with a certain degree of comfort, and without any compunction, the fact of soldiers being compelled to kill on Sunday, the workman must not be compelled to work on Sunday. I fail to see the cogency of this argument. I hope that these minor objections to work which is needed by the Ministry of Munitions will not be pursued. The Ministry have already said that all possible has been done by the Department to discourage work being done on Sunday. It is a well-known fact that Sunday work does not pay. One may be perfectly certain, therefore, that no man will be compelled to work unless it is really necessary, and, if it is necessary, then men should be compelled to work.


I hope the Ministry of Munitions will not be swayed by the remarks of the hon. Member who has just spoken. It is quite true to say that soldiers are called upon to kill the Germans on Sunday, but it must not be forgotten that sometimes the men in the trenches do get relief on Sunday. So far as the factories and workshops are concerned, it is well known that in many cases workmen have worked themselves almost to a standstill. A great many men have worked for six weeks on end, including the Sundays—this being six weeks of seven days each. It is physically impossible for men to work under such a strain. My own son, who is only seventeen, and an apprentice, has worked on four or five consecutive Sundays as well as during the week. In this case the result would have been, if he had refused to work on the Sunday that, under this Act, he would have been penalised. It is too much to expect men on day shift to continually work seven days a week, and for men on night shift to continually work seven nights. I am, if need be, going to a Division against the Government upon this particular proposal.


The question before us in one worthy of consideration by the Minister of Munitions. I am sorry the right hon. Gentleman is not in his place, because I feel he would have received this Amendment with an open mind. It is not a question of whether labour should or should not be done on Sunday; you can get the Sunday labour done. The Secretary to the Ministry of Munitions said that certain things must be done on the Sunday, such as repairs, and so on, so that things must be kept going. That was done years and years ago in all these places, and before the Munitions Act. Anyone who knows anything about these large works throughout the country knows that certain Sunday work had to be done on purpose that the men might go in on Monday. The work was done on Sunday but no penalising Clause was needed to get the work done. I have had the experience of ray Constituency, where there has been an enormous amount of munitions work done. I have had case after cage brought to me where men have worn themselves to exhaustion doing seven days a week after week. All we ask is that men, after doing many weeks work of long hours, and Sundays, should not be penalised if they think they need a rest. I am not putting it from a conscience point of view, but that if a man is so exhausted that he feels he must rest that he shall have the right to stay away without a penalty overhanging him. I trust the Government will give way; they will lose nothing, but win the respect of a number of people by accepting the Amendment.


I do not know whether or not it is at all possible for the Ministry of Munitions to meet this matter by in some way prohibiting proceedings being taken for refusal to work on Sunday except with the consent of the Ministry of Munitions. So far as I see the difficulty is this: The whole House is desirous of venting more work on Sunday than is really necessary. But I suppose it is conceivable that an occasion may arise where it is really vital that certain work should be done. You may in such a case have a, contumacious crowd who, not for religious reasons at all, but for some other reason, and who for the moment want to make themselves awkward, say, "We will put you in a difficulty," or, at any rate, "We will not Work." By doing that, such people may cause very great delay and difficulty. The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Munitions has already told the House that the policy of the Department is to discourage work on Sunday. If that is so, might not the difficulty be met by a provision in the Bill that, at any rate, proceedings shall not be taken against a workman for refusal to work on Sunday except with the consent of the Minister of Munitions?


I hope it will satisfy the hon. Member it I promise to give effect by Regulations to make prosecutions for this offence not possible. We will make Regulations prohibiting it, but I do ask him not to put an isolated case of this kind into the Bill. I promise we will make Regulations under which these prosecutions shall not take place.


I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion and Clause, by leave, withdrawn.