HC Deb 18 November 1919 vol 121 cc411-25 The provisions of the Wages (Temporary Regulation) Act, 1918, which are specified in the Schedule to this Act shall, subject to the modifications specified in the second column of that Schedule, continue in operation until the thirtieth day of September, nineteen hundred and twenty.

I desire to draw attention, to a point of Order with regard to the first two Amendments on the Paper, standing in the name of my right hon. Friend the Member for Widnes (Mr. Henderson). The first Amendment, to leave out the words, "which are specified in the Schedule to this Act," would have the effect of re-establishing the Wages (Temporary Regulation) Act, and of continuing it from the date when it expires, namely, the 21st November, until the 30th September of next year. That would incidentally have the effect of continuing in existence the Interim Court which has been dealing with these questions in dispute for the last year. In the first part of the Bill we have set up a new Industrial Court—a permanent Industrial Court, which is intended to deal with the very same questions; and accordingly I venture to suggest that these Amendments are now out of order, looking at what has been passed in connection with the initial portion of this measure. It would obviously be impossible that you should have two Courts set up under the same Act which were to exercise the same functions but which would have contradictory proposals attached to them. For example, the Interim Court would be entitled to make certain decisions compulsory upon employers, whereas the very scheme of the Bill as adopted has been to set up a purely voluntary Court. Upon that the Committee was agreed, and indeed the House was agreed upon it on the Second Reading. Therefore I venture to submit that the first Amendment standing in the name of my right hon. Friend, and also his second Amendment, to leave out the words, "subject to the modifica- tion specified in the second column of that (Schedule" are out of order, considering what we have already done in relation to this Bill.


Before you, Mr. Whitley, reply to the point of Order raised by the right hon. Gentleman may I be permitted to ask whether it is not in order for the Committee to continue all or part of the Wages (Temporary Regulation) Act referred to in the Clause with which we are about to deal? The Wages (Temporary Regulation) Act deals with a considerable number of subjects, amongst them being the setting up of prescribed rates and the arranging for hearings whereby awards may be given; and when those awards have been given they become the substituted rates in place of the prescribed rates. Our object in moving to amend Clause 6 is to secure, not the machinery part, because we are aware that new machinery is being set up, but to maintain the power of the employers on the one hand, and of the workmen on the other, the one to go for a change of rate by way of reduction and the other to go for a change of rate by way of increase. That has been possible ever since the Wages (Temporary Regulation) Act was first passed, and that is the power which we seek to maintain and which we were led to believe by the right hon. Gentleman still remained in his present Bill. I hope that I shall be given an opportunity of stating my case with regard to that. I now merely put the point as to whether if this carries on the Wages (Temporary Regulation) Act, it is not possible for us to carry on that part which we desire to carry on, and to retain the powers of both parties which they have had since the Act was first passed.


I am afraid I have not made myself quite clear to my right hon. Friend. His first Amendment proposes to drop out words which, if they were excluded, would make Clause 6 read as though the whole Act should be continued, and not merely the powers which we propose to continue. That is the point I wish to make. We propose that only certain sections of the Act shall be continued, those sections being consistent with what we have done in previous parts of this Bill. It is perfectly plain that if you continue the whole Act you are going to have two inconsistent things in this Bill, because we set up first of all an Industrial Court of a voluntary character, which is to deal with the very same questions as the Interim Court at present deals with. Accordingly it would be impossible, as it seems to me, to consider my right hon. Friend's Amendment as being now in order without making the Bill absolutely nugatory. If his only desire is to secure that the new permanent Industrial Court shall be able to deal with applications for increases, I can assure him at once that it will. If he looks at what the subsequent part of the Bill proposes he will agree as to that. What it cannot do, of course—and I wish to make this point perfectly clear—is to make compulsory a decision which it gives. The Interim Court was entitled to issue compulsory decisions with regard to wage questions—decisions, at least, which were compulsory on the employer, but not on the workman. As I stated to the House on the Second Reading that was one of the things which we desired to get rid of, and the House accepted that. The whole scheme of the Bill is one which enables the decision of, and the coming to, the Court, to be voluntary on the part of both parties. What my right hon. Friend is now asking under this Amendment is to have two Courts which are to do the same thing, and that, I venture to submit, renders the Bill either a mass of inconsistencies or an entirely unworkable measure.


I should like, if I may, Sir, to offer a suggestion to you. To the ordinary Member it is quite impossible to understand, owing to the system of legislation by reference and schedule, what really is going to happen under even such an Amendment as this, and what I venture to suggest to you is a course which you have more than once adopted to my own knowledge, where a large amount of dubiety has existed in the Committee, as I venture to say is the case on this occasion. It is that you might allow the Amendment to be moved, and see, by the explanation of it given by the Mover, what his intention is, and what reply the Government make to it. By that time the Committee themselves will be fully seised of the point, and, if I may say so with much respect, perhaps you yourself will also be better informed of what the Amendment may mean. I therefore respectfully put forward the suggestion that you allow the Amendment to be moved, so that the matter may be made somewhat more clear to the Committee as a whole.


These two Amendments have been tendered to Clause 6, and I notice that there are also two Amendments to the Schedule standing in the same names, and also an Amendment to the Schedule in the name of the right hon. Gentleman who is in charge of the Bill. I do not feel that it is my duty to say that it is impossible to modify Clause 6. I could not take it upon myself to give a ruling as to the exact legal effect of certain Amendments. It would seem to me that if the Amendment first offered, to leave out the words, "which are specified in the Schedule to this Act," be read along with the Motion to leave out the Schedule, that would leave the Bill in an inconsistent condition; but I think the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Widnes (Mr. Henderson) is entitled to put his case on that point. It may be that he proposes to read some of these other Amendments into the present one, and in that case I think the Committee will deal with it on its merits.


I beg to move to leave out the words "which are specified in the Schedule to this Act."

I do so in the hope that I may raise the question as to the future operation of the Wages (Temporary Regulation) Act. It will be necessary for me to explain, first of all, what has been the position of both employers and workmen under the Act since it was passed last year. It was there laid down that the rates of wages, including war advances and war bonuses, paid in November, 1918, should become what are known as the prescribed rates They were statutory rates which an employer must observe as minimum rates. There was nothing, however, in the Act to prevent the employer from paying more than the minimum so laid down, but he was compelled to pay the minimum. It was also provided that the Court of Arbitration which succeeded to the powers of the old Committee on Production were given power to hear applications for variations of the prescribed rate, and in their award they could either award a further advance or they could make a reduction. Where an award provided for a new rate, that became the substituted rate, and had the same force in law as the prescribed rate originally agreed upon. I think it has worked out in practice that where the Arbitration Court did vary the rate it was usually in the way of an increase of the original prescribed rate; I do not know that there was any case where it resulted in a reduction.

I think I am right in saying that it was possible for the workman to go to the Court without the consent of the employer. If the Bill now before the Committee is agreed upon as proposed by the Government, I think the position will be completely changed. I think it will be no longer possible for the workers to go to the Court, even to the new Court and with the new machinery that is provided under the Bill, without the consent of the other party. What the Bill does is to stabilise the wage as it is at present. I may say in passing that we have an Amendment down, which we hope the right hon. Gentleman will accept, making quite sure that the award issued a few days ago will be so safeguarded that it will hold good just as if it had been given several months ago.


I have myself an Amendment down to that effect.


I was going to say that is a point upon which we are agreed, but I think I am right in saying that wages will be stabilised without variation up or down until 30th September next year. This is one of the most glaring cases of tacking that I have ever seen. The trade unions asked for a continuation of the Temporary Wages Regulation Act. It must be admitted that there is very little in the Bill of the old Act, but there is a good deal of new matter, for which the trade unions and for which the employers never asked, tacked on to it. This does very seriously affect their position. Wages will be stabilised, and the right of one party to go and ask for a reduction and the right of the other party to go and ask for a further increase will be lost. This is one of the most serious parts of the Bill. We know how the cost of living varies. We know, when the trade unions about four months ago went to the Interim Court of Arbitration, that they were refused any advance because there had not been a sufficient change in the cost of living. When they went again at the end of the week before last, an award was promulgated giving them an increase of 5s. because of the increase in the cost of living. I do not think that even the right hon. Gentleman will be prepared to tell the Committee that there is no prospect between now and 30th September of a further increase in the cost of living. I do not think that he will be prepared to tell the Committee that we have now got to the position when there is no possibility of a further and serious increase. Unless he can give us some such assurance, is it wise, with the present temper of organised labour, not only as we see it in this country, but also in other countries, to expose the workers to the risk of a further increase in the cost of living, and yet take away from them for the next twelve months the power of going to the Court or to any form of arbitration?

We ask that the position under the Temporary Wages Regulation Act should continue in order that they may have the opportunity of presenting their case and asking for a further increase owing to the cost of living. We are all exceedingly anxious to encourage arbitration and to prevent strikes. We constantly hear, and rightly so, about the need of increased production in the interests of the nation as a whole. Is it going to make for increased production if the cost of living goes up and these men are told that they are no longer to have the right of going to the Court to state their case? I must emphasise the fact that under the Government Bill no applications can be considered without the consent of both parties. The right hon. Gentleman admits that point. It has been said more than once in the Committee that the Bill, because of this tacking and because of the introduction of this new matter, has received a considerable amount of opposition from the trade unions. They have agreed to fix their final attitude towards it when they have seen what the Bill is like as it emerges from Committee, and an important conference is to be held on Friday next for the purpose. I want the right hon. Gentleman to consider that aspect. I know of nothing in the Bill that will exercise such an influence upon that conference as his position with regard to the appeal that I now make to leave in the possession of the organisations this right to go to the Court without the consent of the employer, if they think that the cost of living has increased. We have given the right hon. Gentleman, without very much opposition, the new form of machinery that he desires, and we have agreed to these Courts of Inquiry. Surely, remembering that the trade unions asked for a further extension of the Wages (Temporary Regulation) Act till 30th September next year, it is not asking too much that he should amend the Bill, and return to the workers this very important power which they feel is being taken away from them.

May I explain why we are moving our Amendment? If the Government want to do no more than that which is represented by their Amendment, there is a very much simpler way of doing it. In view of the fact that the right hon. Gentleman does not want the machinery of the old Wages (Temporary Regulation) Act, and, in view of the fact, also, that there is not much in the Bill except machinery and the laying down of the principle that the employers on the one side shall be able to go for a reduction and that the workman on the other side shall be able to go for an increase, why did he not in one single Clause clearly and explicitly do what was done in the railway agreement? One paragraph of that agreement, as the right hon. Gentleman knows full well, merely says that the wages will be stabilised till 30th September, 1920. When the railway representatives were negotiating with the Government they clearly understood that language. Here, instead of that, we have a short Clause, and then we proceed by the objectionable method of reference to a Schedule. I have had this Clause and the reference to the Schedule interpreted in different ways. I am going to charge my right hon. Friend with interpreting it in the first instance as we interpret it. I myself spoke to him and asked him a question as to whether the power remained to the trade unions to go and ask a Court for an advance owing to the cost of living, and whether the power remained to the employers to go and ask for a reduction, and he said that I was right in my interpretation.




It is so?




The Solicitor-General, who is here, will tell us that it is not. We could not do what the right hon. Gentleman suggests unless we had the consent of the employer. Let us be quite frank with each other. Is that the position that has obtained since the passing of this Act? I am asking, by way of Amendment, that we should continue the position in which we have been since November last year, when the Act was passed, and that as workmen we should have the right, without the consent of the employer, to go to the Court because of the cost of living. If we are to be asked to go to arbitration and to try and prevent strikes, is it right that we should not be able to go to arbitration without the consent of our employers? Is that the position into which we are going to be forced? If we are forced into that position it will create an amount of unrest. The workmen will feel that some advantage has been taken of them, because all that the employer will have to say will be that he does not agree, and then, in spite of an increase in the cost of living, wages will remain as they have been fixed until 30th September next year. I want to press that point home. On the Second Reading my right hon. Friend the Member for the Platting Division of Manchester (Mr. Clynes) said: I would like the right hon. Gentleman, or whoever may reply in the later stage of this Debate, to express some view on the point as to whether, should the Bill become law, they will continue and guarantee in law only those rates which now exist, or will they make legal the payment of those rates which might be secured as the result of further awards or further arrangements between employers and employed? Sir R. Home: I may say at once that the latter position of my right hon. Friend is right."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 6th November, 1919, col. 1719, Vol. 120.] My right hon. Friend put that question in order to elucidate this very point to which we attach so much importance. The right hon. Gentleman's answer led us to believe that our interpretation was right, and that we should be in a position to go to the Court. Imagine our surprise when we read the memorandum that has been circulated to-day, and the Amendment of the right hon. Gentleman to find that that right to which the trade union movement attaches so much importance is to be taken away. The promise of stabilisation is obviously meaningless if wages are to remain at the present level. We feel that the machinery whereby we have been able to get some relief from the cost of living should remain open to us, free and unfettered, without our having to ask the employers for their consent.

I would especially appeal on this point for women workers. After all, unfortunately, in many trades, the organisation of the employers so far as women workers are concerned, is not nearly so good as in the more highly organised employers' federations and associations. Those of us who have had to do with sweated trade legislation and with the Trade Boards know how difficult it is to get some em- ployers to respond at all to public opinion —these employers who are in trades that are either sweated or are on the borderline of sweated trades. The right hon. Gentleman knows the appeals we have been making to increase the number of Trade Boards, because of this difficulty, and yet here we are getting on very slowly with the Trade Boards, and now this machinery that the women have been using and that the other great organisations have been using is going to be taken away. I hope even now the right hon. Gentleman will reconsider the position and let us have, if not our Amendment, at least some Amendment or modification of his own Amendment in the Schedule that will restore this right to the trade unions. I believe nothing would contribute more to industrial peace than the granting of this condition.


I take great blame to myself for the way in which I have presented this Bill, first of all, on the Second Reading, and later in Committee. It is perfectly apparent from the speech of the right hon. Gentleman—I admit it is my fault—that he has not yet appreciated what is the main characteristic of this Bill as distinct from the Interim Wages (Temporary Regulation) Act. At the risk of wearying the Committee and with the desire to make the matter clear, I will re-travel some of the road which I travelled on the Second Reading, and to some extent in the Committee discussion. First, what was it the Interim Wages Act did? It stabilised the wages—I use the phrase generally because it did not stabilise all, but it stabilised wages up to the 24th November of this year—wages which were in the form of prescribed rates, speaking generally, district rates. But it did more than that. It gave an opportunity to apply to a Court for an increase or a reduction of those wages, to have, indeed, a rate substituted for the prescribed rate. In general that was taken advantage of in this way. Workmen applied for an increase owing to the increased cost of living, and, on the other hand, on one occasion at least, the employers applied for a reduction because the cost of living was going down. At the time when the Interim Act was passed most people thought that the cost of living was going to come down, but what the Act did was to make it certain that without a reference to a Court no employer could reduce wages. That was the advantage which was given to the workmen. The Act operated only one way. If the workman wanted an increase in his wages he could hale his employer before the Arbitration Court, and the employer was bound to come. After the Court had decided, the employer was bound to act in accordance with the decision of the Court. An employer who wanted to bring his workman to the Court to get a reduction of wages could not compel the workman to come, and the workman could stay and use his opportunity of striking. Again, where a decision was given, while the employer had to abide by the decision, the workman was not compelled to abide by it. That is the reason why we have had during the last two months a strike of ironmoulders which has been of the greatest disservice to the country.

The trade unions came to me and asked me to have the Interim Wages Temporary Regulation Act changed. I told them quite frankly on 20th October, at a meeting they had with me, that from what I knew of the temper of the employers, especially after the experience of the iron-moulders 'strike, that they were no longer going to consent to a lopsided Act and that they would not agree to any further stabilisation of wages if the Act was to be in that form. They were perfectly prepared to agree to the workman getting the advantage of knowing that his wages would not be lowered between now and 30th September and that the employer should be under compulsion to pay those wages till that time, but they were not going to be in such a position that the workmen could force them to a Court for increases, while, if the decision was given against the workman, he might still strike.

I explained all this on the Second Reading Debate. I thought the House understood it. The principle upon which the present measure depends is that both parties are on the same footing, except this—which is an enormous advantage to the workman—that the workman can legally compel the employer to pay the the present wage right up to 30th September, no matter how much the cost of living may fall. That was chiefly what the trade union organisation wished. Why was it we had a railway strike? Was it not explained on the ground that the men feared that their wages were going to be reduced? I hope the Committee clearly understand that the basis of the present Bill is purely voluntary arbitration, and that there would have been no stabilisation of wages unless the arbitration was voluntary. We provide first of all a rate of wages which cannot be reduced till 30th September; we provide that if the workman wishes to get an increase he can ask his employer for an increase. If the employer refuses, there is then a difference between the parties. That difference being reported to the Minister of Labour is a matter for him to deal with. He sees if he can contrive a settlement by conciliation or any other arrangements which are in existence in the particular trade. If he cannot, he may refer to the Industrial Court. If he refers it to the Industrial Court, it is true that neither party is compelled to go, but both parties can go if they wish, and, therefore it is quite erroneous to say that the workmen may no longer go to a Court of Arbitration. The Court is there for the workmen to go freely to, for both parties to go voluntarily to. But what my right hon. Friend has been asking is that the employer should be compelled and the workmen not. It is impossible to continue that system in the present conditions.

I think it only requires honest explanation to the trade unions to make them clearly appreciate what has been done and to enable them to realise that there is here, as ready a means for the settlement of these disputes as there has been during the last year. I do not expect that any case will arise in which a workman says to his employer, "We want to go to the industrial Court," and that the employer will refuse. He will be only too glad to take advantage of the opportunity for a peaceful settlement of the question. It is because of that hope that I look with the greatest anticipation to the efficiency of the Courts which it is proposed to set up. I hope I have made it plain that the means of resort to a Court of Arbitration is here within this measure. Nothing is dropped out of the scheme which was necessary for that purpose. All that has been dropped out is that element which compelled the employer and did not compel the workman. My right hon. Friend (Mr. Henderson) has misunderstood the passage in which I replied to my right hon. Friend the Member for Platting (Mr. Clynes). He did put a question which, as I understood it at the moment, was precisely the question which I thought the right hon. Gentleman himself originally asked me when he began his speech, I understood both the ques- tion at the beginning of his speech and that of the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Clynes), which has been quoted, to be this: "Is the means for reference to a Court of Arbitration to be taken away?" My answer was: "No, it is not. It is still here." It appears to me that my right hon. Friend now, as always, has got behind his head, if he does not say it, that a decision once given must be legally binding on the employer and not on the workman. If that had been added I should then have given a totally different answer to my right hon. Friend the Member for Platting (Mr. Clynes). I certainly never understood him to be asking a question which involved this. Immediately afterwards, when I was informed that there was some misapprehension, I saw the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Clynes), and explained to him the whole matter. He perfectly understood, and I am very glad my right hon. Friend has given me an opportunity of explaining to the Committee. I venture to submit that the scheme of the Bill is totally contrary to the Amendment which is now proposed, and that the provision of the Bill which the Committee so readily accepted would be wholly inconsistent with the Amendments which are now on the Paper, and accordingly, Mr. Whitley, I venture to ask you to give the ruling which I originally submitted.


I have already put the Question, and I think the very course of the Debate shows how wise I was in allowing the Debate, for it is apparent that there has been a genuine misunderstanding as to the effect of the Clause. Certainly I understand it in a way in which I did not half an hour ago.


I was under the impression that in the Second Heading Debate we had secured a continuance of the operations of the Wages Act. The difficulty we are in to-night is this: We are supposed to be discussing a Bill which is of a voluntary character in relation to arbitration, but we find that the Bill has in it something that is voluntary and something that is to be compulsory for a year. We also find in it something that is of a really temporary character and something which is meant to be more permanent. We argue that it was a great mistake to mix these two things, and consequently we are anxious to impress the right hon. Gentleman (Sir R. Home) with the necessity of separating these things and of making the Bill such that the workers can understand that the privileges they had under the temporary Act would still apply. Now the right hon. Gentleman has circulated a Paper and he says he is going to stabilise wages for a year up to 30th September next. But it is still possible for the workers to make application, with the consent of their employers, for an increase of wages, and, on the other hand, I assume it is still possible for the employers, with the assent of the workers, to make application for a decrease in wages. I want quite frankly to say that, in spite of what my right hon. Friend has said, I do not think any employers during the next year would readily consent to an application of that character, and I am going to be equally candid and say that I do not think any trade union would consent to an application for a reduction of wages during the next year. Apart from that, what is the good of one side or the other making an application and going before this Board to get a decision which neither side is under any necessity of carrying out? I see no good in it at all. Therefore, we are forced back to the position that it is necessary the workers should have some safeguard against the economic conditions which may arise during the next year.

The cost of living, for all practical purposes, may remain just as it is now. On the other hand, the cost of living may increase through the operations of this House in relation to subsidies. Is it contended that real wages are stabilised for twelve months if the subsidy for bread is removed? The removal of that subsidy would mean an immediate increase in the expenditure of thousands of working men's homes, and there will be nothing to make up for the loss. The working man would then be suffering an actual reduction in real wages outside the operation of the Bill. I think my right hon. Friend (Mr. A. Henderson) is justified in raising this matter now. I regret the speech of the Minister of Labour in relation thereto. Had he separated these two parts, he would have had a voluntary Bill which would have been of great use in future, because it would have done something to draw together the employers and the employed. The whole operation of the Bill for the next year, at least, is prejudiced because of this dual condition, namely, that it has within it that which is com- pulsory and that which is non-compulsory, that which is temporary and that which is meant to be permanent.


The last words of the hon. Member seemed to be a most convincing argument against the Amendment. He has asked the Committee to reject the principle of preserving voluntary and compulsory features side by side. The very object of the Amendment is to perpetuate a one-sided compulsory system side by side with a voluntary one. I know I can speak on behalf of a very large number of employers who are most anxious to see this Bill go through and to give every possible opportunity to arbitration and conciliation. It is always difficult when statements are made in Debate or in Committee referring to understandings reached at meetings between Ministers and other persons, or as to undertakings that have been given. But I am perfectly certain that the right hon. Gentleman in charge of this Bill has never once gone back on any undertaking he has given and he is always clear in the statements he makes. The issue here really lies in a very narrow compass. Hon. Members opposite cannot blow hot and cold. They cannot argue, as they did with force in the Debate two days ago, against compulsion—argue that every shadow of compulsion ought to be taken out of this Bill, and then come here to-day and argue that a most unfortunate and one-sided compulsory feature should be allowed to remain. I am glad this is not decided as a point of Order but as a point of principle. It goes to the root of the whole Bill, and it is a principle which we established on the Second Reading, namely, that the time is not yet ripe for compulsory, but that every possible opportunity ought to be given to voluntary, conciliation. We are advisedly substituting for compulsion in a Statute the compulsory force of public opinion. It is at the bar of public opinion that these differences are to be judged in the future, if there is one test which public opinion is going to lay down and insist upon it is the acid test that the same principles should be applied to employers and employed in industrial disputes and settlements. I am certain that the great majority of employers and of workmen, who want to see their way to industrial peace, agree that unless that principle is established we shall not even make a. beginning in getting our problems settled.

Amendment negatived.

Amendment made: At the end of the Clause, add: (2) Where, before the passing of this Act, any matter has been referred for settlement under the Wages (Temporary Regulation) Act, 1918, and has not, at that date, been settled by the person or persons to whom it has been so referred, the Minister may by order transfer the matter to the Industrial Court, and where any such matter is so transferred the award of that Court shall have effect as if it were an award of the Interim Court of Arbitration made under that Act."—[Sir R. Home.]

Clause, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.