HC Deb 04 August 1922 vol 157 cc1975-86

It is not my in tention to pursue the subject which has occupied the attention of the House during the last few minutes, but to claim the indulgence of the House while I raise one or two points on the White Paper, issued under the auspices of the Minister of Labour, relating to the administration of the Trade Boards Acts of 1909 and 1918. Owing to complaints made against the administration of the Trade Board, chiefly by employers, a Committee was constituted, over which Viscount Cave acted as Chairman. The Terms of Reference were, "To inquire into the working and effects of the Trade Board Acts, and to report what changes, if any, are required. The objection to the administration, in fact, to the existence of any Trade Board whatsoever from the employing side, in my view, was just that opposition which always comes when people are desirous of improving the conditions of labour in factories and workshops. For instance, the Cave Committee itself states that the principal charges made against the Trade Board system by representatives of the employers are "that the high level of the minimum rates fixed by the Board, together with the absence of any provision for differentiation in regard to special local conditions, have caused loss and dislocation of trade and the closing down of workshops and have contributed to the prevailing unemployment." This statement reminds me of speeches delivered in this House that I have read in the OFFICIAL REPORT, where employers in the cotton mills of Lancashire used to say, nearly a century ago, that if you took away children of eight and ten years of age from the textile industry, that industry could not possibly be carried on at a profit, and the statements made by employers, particularly in the distributing and allied domestic trades, before this Cave Committee, are just of that type which are made from age to age by bad employers in all parts of the world. This Committee issued a Report and made recommendations. On this Committee, we shall be told by repre- sentatives of the Government, there were several Members of the Labour party, and that the Committee reported unanimously. That is true—

But what I want to come to is the White Paper to which I have referred. It indicates the policy that the Minister of Labour intends to pursue as the result of those recommendations. The Minister does not adopt all the recommendations, but this is one of the points in the recommendation that he proposes to adopt. He states that "In accordance with the recommendations, it has been decided that no trade board is to be set up unless certain conditions are satisfied, and then only- after public inquiry." The two conditions, apart. from t he public inquiry, are, "that the Minister of Labour shall apply the Trade Board Act in cases where he is satisfied that the rate of wages prevailing in the trade or in a branch of the trade is unduly low as compared with those in other employment," and "that no adequate machinery exists for the effective regulation of the wages throughout the trade." I want to bring to the notice of the House and of the Minister that when he lays down three specific conditions like these before he proceeds to establish a trade board. I think I am right in saying that no trade board will be established. These three conditions are, in the view of some of us, so drafted as to make it absolutely impossible for a trade board to be established in future. Take the case covered by the words that the rate of wager prevailing in the trade, or in a branch o the trade, is unduly low as compared with those in other employments. Who is going to decide what is "unduly low"? If it were left with the Minister of Labour, it could he said—I have cases to prove it—that the Employment Exchange in June,1921 offered to an adult woman work as a lift attendant in Tottenham Court Road at a wage of 15s. a week for about 65 hours. If the Ministry of Labour can, through an Employment Exchange, offer that wage to an adult woman in Jane, 1921, when the cost of living was approximately 120 per cent. above the 1914 rates, I for one have not very much faith that the Ministry of Labour will consider, in a generous way, what is meant by "unduly low wages." Who is going to say what. is "efficient machinery for regulating wages"? Take the distributive trade of this country. It has had a trade board in existence, and although it has laid down rates of wages, the Minister declines to adopt them, and put them into operation. With regard to the regulation of wages in the distributive trade, the Minister of Labour will probably be aware that there are employed in the domestic and allied distributive trades in this country about. 1,500,000 people, mostly women and girls. There are two trade unions, in the main, covering the distributive and allied trades, but these two trade unions cannot, at the moment, cover more than one-fourth of the people engaged in the distributive and allied domestic trades. In that case I take it, that the Minister could, under the policy outlined on page three, say: "We are not going to put the trade board scales of wages into operation here, because there is efficient trade union organisation in existence." The employers, apparently, on the other side, so far as the Minister of Labour is concerned, will also be regarded in the same category.

The three qualifications set up are, in my view, an impossible trinity. I have heard them described as the infernal three; and I feel sure that the Minister of Labour, when he comes to carry out this policy, will find himself up against considerable difficulty. What woman engaged in any of these sweated trades would go to a public inquiry and expose her employer, because he is paying her 12s., 13s. or 14s. a week? If she went to the inquiry and gave such evidence, she knows full well that she would be dismissed next week, or probably the next day. That is one point against the policy of the Government as outlined on page three. Now I come to point two in the White Paper, where the Minister, as pat of the policy of the Government in this connection, lays it down that he will expedite the machinery for the regulation of rates of wages and conditions. He declares that he will, within 14 days, issue an Order. Why did it take the Minister six months to confirm Orders when wages were increasing?

The MINISTER of LABOUR (Dr. Macnamara)

It was because of the law.


Yes, but strange to say the Minister, in this White Paper, gives an interpretation of the law which I feel sure he cannot sustain in a Court of law. When wages were increasing all over the country, and employers could not avoid increase of wages, it took the Minister six months to confirm the rate of wages laid down by the Boards, but now, because wages are descending, he says in the White Paper: "I will confirm the rates of wages within 14 days." A good way in which to deal fairly and generously with employers of labour! On page 4, the Minister, as part of his policy, is going to intimate to the present trade boards that they can proceed to appoint district committees. District boards in some cases, and district committees in others. Supposing we had a district committee or a district board in Liverpool and another district board in Manchester. What would happen? These two committees would wait, in common parlance, "to see how the cat. jumps," and you would get nothing done. We plead for a continuance of the policy already adopted, and that when a Trade Board lays down rates of wages, those wages should apply to the whole country in respect of that trade. The trade board system is in operation mainly in connection with those trades that affect our own people only. Very few trade boards affect those occupations which manufacture for foreign export. Therefore the argument cannot be used that this country cannot compete with Continental countries because we are hampered owing to the high wages imposed by the trade boards.

I would like some explanation from the Minister of Labour in regard to Professor J. H. Jones. I am credibly informed that Professor Jones, who was one of the members appointed in connection with the metal and hollow-ware trades by the Ministry of Labour, and proved a. very efficient and intelligent member, was dismissed, and for some reason, which has never been given by the Minister, and in spite of the fact that every member of that Board asked the Minister why he dismissed this professor and appointed another man in his place, no adequate reason has been given. It is only right that this House should know the reason why an eminent man like this, who served the State so well, has been deposed. After this opportunity has been given to us to discuss a topic as important as any that has been raised on the Adjournment, I want to pay some tribute to the work of the Ministry of Labour, done by the present Minister of Labour and by the trade boards, who have rescued at least 3,000,000 people, mainly women and girls from the sweating carried on in this country some years ago. I trust that the time will arrive soon when the State will lay it down that no person shall be employed in any capacity below a living wage, and shall not work more than eight hours a day. When people say that this country, and its industries, cannot afford this, I can tell them to look through the newspapers to-day, and see how six or seven men have made about £14,000,000 profit, mainly by manufacturing cotton and putting it on wooden reels. It is wrong to say that we cannot afford to pay these wages. I trust that, after this discussion, the Minister will, if possible, alter his policy, make it more generous, and give no heed to those who are employing thousands of women and girls and exploiting them. There are at present in the City of London women, employed in cafes at 10s. a week, for more than 48 hours a week, who are being sweated. I trust that the House will take heed of what has been said on this subject from time to time and will help the Minister of Labour to prosecute the object of laying down a universal minimum wage.


I am very glad that this subject has been raised. It enables me to get things into their true bearing. I know that my hon. Friends opposite, and their friends in the country, say," Here is an utterly reactionary Government trying to scrap a great piece of social machinery which was set up to protect the workers in badly organised trades against the kind of employment which was called sweating." There is not a shadow of foundation for that charge. It is a charge which men, who have been glad to devote their best energies to the amelioration of the social conditions of the people, are entitled to resent, and do resent. On the contrary, as I hope to show, we have rigidly, and in spite of the greatest difficulties, adhered to the true historical purposes of trade boards, and, further, if the system has been kept alive, it is due to the action which the Government have taken.

I am afraid that I cannot deal effectually with this without a little rehearsal of history. As my hon. Friends are aware, the original Act to deal with this matter was passed in 1909. It was the result of a growing feeling in the country, crystallised, as will be remembered, by the Anti-Sweating League, that there existed in certain trades social conditions which were no longer tolerable. That being so, it became the duty of the State to intervene, and this intervention first took form in the scheduling of four trades in which, by general agreement, the working classes required special protection. These trades were tailoring, box making, machine made lace and net finishing, and chain making. In addition there was power, by special Order, to apply the machinery of the Act to other trades, and nine additional trades were included under the original Act between 1909 and 1918. The Act could only be applied to trades where wages were exceptionally low, that is, to a sweated industry, and the main object was to provide a bottom level below which, in such industries, no worker should be paid, and machinery was devised with this end. It set up a board representative of the workers, and representative in equal number of the employers, with three or more impartial persons added to prevent a deadlock, and the boards existed to fix minimum wages which, if confirmed by the Minister, were enforceable by the criminal law upon all employers covered by the definition of the trade.

That Act remained in force for nine, years and evoked little notice. In spite of the criticism which later developments have brought about, there is a general feeling that the principles of the 1909 Act are sound and must be maintained. In 1918 the position was considerably altered. War experience had altered completely the wages position. The then Minister of Labour the right hon. Member for Norwich (Mr. G. Roberts) introduced an amending Act which took a much wider sweep, and, under that Act, there was a considerable and rapid extension of the trade board system. The establishment of trade hoards proceeded rapidly under my immediate predecessor, the present Chancellor of the Exchequer, who gave notice of his intention to apply this Act to the distributive trades, a wholly new departure and a step which, in view of the special work of those trades, presented rather more difficulty than the case of directly productive trades. However, there was very little criticism of that extension until you come to September, 1920. That period was one of prosperity, artificial if you like, but times were profitable and things were of such a character that employers were not concerned to look closely into the machinery of the Act.

With the arrival of the acute depression which came upon us in the first instance in September, 1920, and from which we had been suffering ever since, things took a very different turn. Certain defects of the machinery, which I freely admit, became manifest, and, in hard times, were resented. The result was a strong agitation against the trade board system and there was a contention that trade board wages were in fact causing unemployment. My hon. Friends opposite pooh-poohed the idea—the last speaker has done it to-day—that trade board rates of wages were bringing about unemployment. They have pooh-poohed the idea all the time. I wish I could have done so, too. But I knew this—that I should be doing an ill-service to the people whom I sought to assist if I merely helped them into the streets to swell the already alarming ranks of the unemployed. I do not say that the criticism that trade boards were causing unemployment was not sometimes stated too emphatically. I do not say that some employers were not attributing to trade boards what really belonged to industrial depression. But that there was considerable force in the contention and that I was justified in giving full weight to it, is established by paragraph 42 in the Report of the Cave Committee. As a friend of the trade board system, and believing in the necessity of its continuance, I decided that I must go slowly in these times of depression. Accordingly, during 1921 and 1922 only three new trade boards were established under my regime, and those in very small trades. I exercised the greatest care and took every precaution to examine as far as I could the possible objections to confirming rates submitted, always bearing in mind the possible effect on the unemployment problem. My hon. Friends opposite criticise me in the House and out of it. But I am confident that if I had gone full steam ahead the whole thing would hare foundered. That is my profound belief. I do not wish that any more than they wish it. Notwithstanding going slow, and notwithstanding the setting up of such few trade boards, the agitation continued and the criticisms grew in volume.

In September, 1921, I appointed a powerful Committee, under Lord Cave, "to inquire into the working and effects of the Trade Boards Acts, and to report what changes, if any, are required." That Committee was a powerful Committee, with strong representation of both employers and employed. Who were the members? Among them there were my hon. Friend the Member for Ormskirk (Mr. John Bell, M.P.), Secretary of the Oldham Weavers' Association: Mr. E. L. Poulton, ex-Chairman of the Trade Unions Congress and Secretary of the National Union of Boot and Shoe Operatives; and Mr. A. Pugh, Secretary of the Iron and Steel Trades Federation, to say nothing of my hon. Friend the Member for the Bridgeton Division of Glasgow (Mr. MacCallum Scott), to whose sound progressive thought in all these matters I cheerfully bear testimony. The Committee did its work with great thoroughness. I would like to repeat the tributes I have paid in the past to the work it did. But the most striking thing is that its report was unanimous. It is suggested that it was a reactionary piece of work. I may he a hard-faced man, and a reactionary, though I must say that I am sometimes charged in his House with tendencies of an entirely different character. But is it not rather silly to suggest that the gentlemen I have named would sign their names to an obscurantist and reactionary report?

What are the facts? This reactionary report begins by asserting that the principle of trade boards embodied in the Act of 1909 is right and deserves support. That does not sound particularly reactionary. They then go on to inquire what has led to the volume of criticism which the later administration of the Acts has encountered. They call attention to three main points, which I will state quite shortly. They call attention to the lack of elasticity and adaptability in the working of the boards, as a result of which rates cannot be altered with sufficient speed to suit changing circumstances. They call attention to a tendency on the part of boards to depart from their original function of protecting workers against sweating and becoming wage-regulating bodies. They call attention to a tendency to ignore special local circumstances and local needs. As a result of their examination of the problem they made elaborate, closely-knit and well-conceived recommendations.

To give effect to many of these recommendations legislation would be required. What did we do? We proceeded immediately to examine the proposals with a view to preparing a Bill. We found, upon examination, that it would not be possible to put a Bill through during the present Session. Such a Bill calls for great care if it is to be made an effective piece of machinery. The experience of the past showed that. Therefore, I have taken action upon the lines recommended by the Cave Committee, in so far as such action can be taken by me with my existing powers. In the meantime the Bill is being carefully considered by a Cabinet Committee. One of the most important of the proposals that do not require legislation is to speed up operations. I have issued an order that that should be done. I rather gathered that that is something in the nature of an offence to my hon. Friend who spoke last. I should have thought that by common consent the machinery was far too cumbrous and slow and creaky, and that we ought to work more swiftly. Apart from the administrative changes, the most important recommendation of the Cave Committee is that relating to the powers exercised by the Boards in respect of the fixing of wages. I do not think I can deal with that point better than by reading paragraphs 53 and 54 of the Report. They say: Is it the intention of Parliament that the coercive powers of the State should be used to prevent the oppression of the worker by forcing him to work at wages below the level of subsistence, and under conditions injurious to his health; or is it desired that they should be applied (through the medium of the Trade Boards) to the general regulation of wages? In other words, is the intention of the Act of 1909, which we believe to have been directed to the prevention of sweating, to prevail; or is effect to be given to the interpretation widely put upon the Act of 1918, namely, that it is to be used as an instrument for the public regulation of wages throughout the industries concerned? In our opinion the former is the correct view. Paragraph 54 says: It appears to us that while the coercive powers of the State, and particularly the criminal law, may properly be used to prevent the unfair oppression of individuals, and the injury to the national health that results from the sweating of workers, the use of those coercive powers should be limited to that purpose, and that any further regulation of wages should be left as far as possible to the processes of negotiation and collective bargaining. I wonder whether a single hon. Member will dissent from that proposition.


What about those cases where there is no organisation?


They go on to say: It is one thing to say drat an employer shall not pay to his adult worker a sum insufficient for his or her maintenance under the conditions of the time, be the sum 35s. 40s., or 50s. per week; it is quite another thing to Provide that he shall not pay to a, skilled worker of a particular class less than 706., 80s., or 90s., even though the worker is prepared to work at a lower wage, and that if he does so, he shall be liable to fine or imprisonment. It may be desirable that the higher wage should he paid, and it may not be unreasonable for a trade organisation to insist on that wage being paid and to enforce its decision by economic means; but to compel the payment by the threat of criminal prosecution appears to us to he an oppressive use of the powers of the State. I think that any endeavour to force the trade board system along the line of fixing standard rates is bound to fail, whereas the protectior of the lower-paid worker is, by common consent, its proper function. It seems that some of my hon. Friends opposite, in their zeal for State direction and State control, are inclined to put trade unionism on the shelf among the antediluvians. What is happening is that where there is organisation an attempt has been made to use the trade boards to do what ought to be done by the trade unions themselves by collective bargaining. I conceive the trade boards to be a provision by the State for the protection of the worker, but I draw a distinction between that and the use of this machinery for the purpose of fixing standard rates of wage. The Government policy and the Cave Report are denounced from the political Labour party platform as further evidence of an alleged conspiracy to screw down wages below the barest subsistence level. That ridiculous contention would be blown out of the water if I had the time now to rehearse to this House, in detail, the actual rates which I confirmed during the present year. I have not the time to do so, but I can summarise them in this way. In the present year the rates confirmed by this reactionary Minister, who wants to screw the workers' wage down below the subsistence level range, in the case of men, from 78s. a week, a special rate in the stamped or pressed metals trade, to general rates of 48s. a week in the general waste trade. As regards women, this year the rates confirmed vary from 42s. special rate in the stamped or pressed metals trade to 29.s. a week in the hollow-ware trade.

These figures show how utterly wrong is the contention that there is any desire to take part in any conspiracy to screw these poor people down. If time permitted I should have dealt with this matter in greater detail because I resent the suggestion very strongly. It is my desire to utilise this great social instrument for its proper function. In my opinion it has been utilised outside its proper function, in so far as it has been used to do what ought to be done by collective bargaining and by Whitleyism, if I may respectfully use that expression. Regarding the case of Professor Jones, I gave an answer On Thursday to the hon. Member for the Forest of Dean Division (Mr. Wignall). Professor Jones was appointed a member of the Stamped or Pressed Metal Wares Board for a period of two years. At the, end of that period, after careful consideration of all the circumstances and in the exercise of the discretion given to me under the Statute, another appointment was made. My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary has discussed the matter with the board and they have been informed that the decision already taken cannot be varied. It is net for me to say even half a syllable in regard to Professor Jones's great distinction as an educationist. I agree he is a great educationist, but here we are dealing with the stamped or pressed metals trade, and it does not always follow that a great professor, a great lecturer, a great student of pedagogics, is necessarily intimately acquainted with all the practical details of that trade; so in his place we have appointed Mr. A. B. Pilling, who has considerable business and public experience. I think on reflection my hon. Friends opposite will agree that we have done the right thing.


Before leaving this subject, I wish to explain to the right hon. Gentleman the gravamen of our charge against him. I believe he knows it and has deliberately evaded it. Whether the Act of 1918 was good or bad, we have no right to repeal it by administrative action instead of by Act of Parliament. The right hon. Gentleman is trying to substitute the action of a Department for the action of the House of Commons, and he has no right to do so. The case he has made out to-day against the. Act of 1918 would have been much better made out had we a Bill before us repealing that Act, and then we might have known exactly what the Act was and in what respect it required amending. Instead of that we have merely had. ex porte statements. There was nothing to be said for the Act which the right hon. Gentleman's own Government passed four years ago. Of course, this Government generally gives its Acts of Parliament a lease of life not so long as four years, but they generally have the decency to introduce a Measure repealing an Act of Parliament when it has passed that period. Had it not been for the fact that we were able to raise this question on the Adjournment this Act would have been repealed, the policy would have been reversed and the good old sound policy of 1909 reverted to, without this House or the country having a word to say about it. We are justified in complaining of action of that kind. The policy of the Government may not be perfectly correct, but we should have it put before us in the correct way. The right hon. Gentleman told me privately that the blunders that had been made in the. Woolwich Employment Exchange—


Not "blunders."


Shall I say "policy" adopted at the Woolwich Employment Exchange, had been dealt with? As I understood, this policy has now been reversed at the direction of the right hon. Gentleman's Department. If that policy has been pursued in other Employment Exchanges, has it been put right in the other places also?



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