HC Deb 03 July 1923 vol 166 cc252-4

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to limit the hours of employment. The purpose of this Bill is to establish by law a maximum working week of 48 hours, and I emphasise particularly the word "maximum." It is not intended that that limit should constitute a minimum. It is provided in the Bill that, where in any industry a shorter working week has been secured, or may hereafter be secured, by agreement between employers and workers, that shorter working week shall be laid down, by a special Order having the force of law, as the maximum working week for that industry. With regard to overtime, systematic overtime is rendered illegal by this Bill. Overtime, if it be worked at all, may be worked only for purposes of emergency or breakdown, or for purposes of an exceptional character within a fixed limit of hours per week, and, if worked, it must be worked in accordance with an agreement made between employers and workers, and it must be paid for at a rate at least 25 per cent. above the normal time rate. With regard to the workers included in the Bill, all workers are in the first instance included, with, of course, the important exception of the mining industry, which has its own Statute on the subject of the limitation of hours; but, of course, time and opportunity are allowed by the Bill for any industry, where the employers and workers agree that the limitations of the Bill cannot be applied to that industry, to make application for an exemption, whether partial or total, from the provisions of the Bill. But the onus of proving that an exemption is necessary rests upon the industry concerned.

I should like to point out, what many hon. Members will realise, that this Bill is broadly following the recommenda- tions of the National Industrial Conference, which met in 1919. Those recommendations were made by employers' as well as by workers' representatives, and were signed by, among others, the hon. Member for South Croydon (Sir Allan Smith), well known in connection with the engineering industry, so that they do not represent the conclusions of one side alone. Those recommendations were embodied shortly afterwards in a Bill which was introduced by the then Chancellor of the Exchequer in the Coalition Government. That Bill was accorded a First Reading by this House on 18th August, 1919. The provisions of this Measure are also on the lines of the Washington Convention on the question of the hours of employment—the Convention agreed to at the First Conference of the International Labour Organisation established under the Treaty of Versailles. This Convention has already been ratified by a considerable number of countries, though not yet, I regret to say, by this country. The question is of something more than national, it is of international importance and significance. The Washington Conference was merely one part of a very great movement of immense social importance which took place for the shortening of the working hours in 1919–20. The movement is one in which we think this country ought to take the lead instead of lagging behind; and the worst of it is that our bad example is taken as an excuse by other countries, notably and conspicuously just now by Poland, as an excuse for not adopting the Washington Convention.

I need not say much about the reasons that render such a Measure as this necessary. Most hon. Members will agree that there are few darker and blacker pages in our industrial history than the hardship, exhaustion, ill-health, irritation, ruin of family life, and denial of opportunities for recreation, rest, and education, which have been involved in the long hours—the unnecessarily and scandalously long hours—to which generation after generation of our fellow-countrymen have been sentenced in times past. And even if some economic loss were to follow, we might fairly say that we are prepared to put up with some diminution of production, and compensate for it by a better distribution, rather than permit the continuance of a system so injurious from a human and social point of view. As a matter of fact, we are not faced with that alternative. We have official and unofficial evidence, evidence of the employers themselves—and the most enlightened employers at that—to prove that the shortening of the hours need not necessarily be followed, and has not in fact been followed, by a diminution of output. In many cases quite the contrary. It is quite true that there has been some advance in this matter. Something has been gained. I think it is hardly an exaggeration to say that the gain in the case of their working hours is almost the one and only gain that has been secured by the working classes since the War. There are about 2,000,000 of the workers of the country who are working 48 hours or less per week. That, however, does not alter the position of the millions who are still working more than 48 hours per week, particularly in the unorganised trades, and among the women workers. And it does not alter the fact that though the situation is not so difficult at the moment, it is highly probable that when trade improves the conditions will become much more serious, and that attacks upon the hours of labour, of which there are already sinister signs, will become much more determined and much more widespread than now. In my constituency, with the textile workers especially, the danger is felt to be a very real danger indeed. The thought of returning to the old working hours of 55 and 56 per week is one that haunts their minds like an evil dream. It brings back what, to them, is a vivid and hateful memory. It is against such evil possibilities that I propose, by this Bill, to erect a legal barrier which will not easily be broken down.

Question, "That leave be given to introduce a Bill to limit the hours of employment," put, and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Charles Buxton, Mr. Clynes, Mr. Duncan, Mr. Greenwood, Mr. John Hodge, Mr. William Robinson, Mr. Thomas Shaw, Mr. James Henry Thomas, Mr. William Thorne, Mr. Tout, Mr. Turner, and Mr. Robert Young.