HC Deb 24 April 1918 vol 105 cc1074-6

Order for Second Reading read.


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

I hope the House will treat this measure as entirely uncontroversial. Its aim is to remove a legal disability attaching to certain workpeople, likely most often to be women or children, injured in the course of their employment. This disability may even arise from the existence of an Act passed by Parliament for the protection of the person concerned. I will quote an illustrative case, that of Pountrey v. Turton, heard in the Court of Appeal on the 21st November, 1917: A boy aged thirteen was injured while leading a barge horse at three o'clock in the morning. The employment of a boy of this age at this hour is forbidden by the Employment of Children Act, 1903, and the Court felt bound to hold that, the employment being illegal, the contract of employment was also illegal, and the boy therefore could not recover compensation for his injury. I am sure the House would not wish such a state of affairs to exist just now when, owing to war pressure, women and children may here and there be employed in circumstances rendering the employment technically illegal. But in the present state of the law the committee, arbitrator or judge acting under the Workmen's Compensation Act, have no power to award compensation in such cases. The Bill therefore proposes to give them power in Clause 1, the material words of which are as follows: If … it appears to the arbitrator that the contract … was illegal, the arbitrator may, if, having regard to all the circumstances of the case he thinks it proper so to do deal with the matter as if the injured person had at the time aforesaid been a person working under a valid contract … The Bill does not require compensation to be awarded. Cases may well be imagined in which the illegality of the employment is such that a claim to compensation could not be recognised. The Bill leaves it entirely to the discretion of the committee or the arbitrator, or the County Court judge, sitting as the authority under the Workmen's Compensation Act, to use his discretion. I hope that the House will receive this very necessary Bill favourably.


Could the right hon. Gentleman inform the House whether there are any other cases of illegal employment except the case which he has just cited or cases which apply to children under age or women who are doing something which under an Act of Parliament they ought not to do?


There is another case that has been tried in Court, but I am afraid that a large number of cases do take place day after day, particularly during the pressure of the War. It is because we are afraid that serious injustice may be done—it certainly could be done—unless we brought in this measure that we venture to trouble the House.


I am afraid that I did not put my point quite clearly. I am not arguing that the case which the right hon. Gentleman has brought forward is not a reasonable case or that there is no justification for the Bill. I want to know what is an illegal employment. I could not understand what was illegal employment. The right hon. Gentleman has told us that if you employ a boy or a child under a certain age at a certain hour in the day it is illegal employment. The same thing applies to women. Are there any other illegal employments?


Yes; quite a number could take place.

Colonel THORNE

Look in the "Labour Gazette" for the prosecutions.


There are quite a number. For instance, a miner under pressure may work over hours. He may work more than the statutory eight hours. Before women can be employed in certain cases in factories you have to have a Home Office Order. It has not been unknown in the interval of seeking the order that the pressure has been such that women and children, too, have been employed illegally. Those are the kinds of cases which could arise. Although the Bill is a small Bill, it deals with a very vital point. It seems to me to be only fair, if people are illegally employed, that the fact that they are illegally employed ought not to be used against them as a reason for not giving them compensation if they are injured. I am glad to say that very few cases have arisen. Employers have been fair and reasonable, and if their workpeople have been injured when illegally employed they have paid compensation. We think, as a Government, that it ought not to be open either to employers or to insurance companies to go to the Courts on a technical point and get these cases ruled out when the persons concerned may have been rendering service to the State under great pressure. Consequently, we have brought forward this Bill, and I hope that the House will receive it sympathetically and favourably, and I should like to have all the stages of the Bill this evening.


I should be lacking in courtesy if I did not take this opportunity of thanking the Home Office for their promptitude in bringing forward this Bill in response to a pledge which the Home Secretary gave when I asked him a question on the subject not long ago. The one case which has arisen was peculiarly hard. It was the case of a child who was illegally employed and who was injured, but who was held not to be entitled to any compensation. As the Home Secretary rightly said, that could not be tolerated, and I can only thank him very warmly for dealing so promptly with the matter.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill read a second time.

Resolved, That this House will immediately resolve itself into Committee on the Bill.—[Colonel Gibbs.]

Bill accordingly considered in Committee, and reported, without Amendment; read the third time, and passed.