HC Deb 09 April 1925 vol 182 cc2469-74

I desire to raise the issue of the International Labour Conventions, and I propose to put certain questions to the Government, in order, in the first place, to find out what is the policy of the present Government towards Conventions already adopted but not ratified by Great Britain, and to elicit information on the attitude to be adopted by the British Government delegates attending the Seventh Session of the International Labour Conference, to be held at Geneva in May. I make no apology for raising an issue of this kind on the Adjournment Motion, and, strange as it may seem, the question has now become very appropriate and topical. I have noticed within the last few days a growing criticism in this House from the Benches opposite of the work of the International Labour Organisation. Some of that criticism, I ought to say, is absolutely unintelligent and uniformed, and I wish very much that hon gentleman who criticise the work of the organisation could see it at work, as I have seen it myself. They would then probably alter their view when they actually saw the operations of the organisation at Geneva.

We on these benches are very interested in the work of this Organisation, because it was established very definitely in order to approximate the standard of labour conditions throughout the world. The British Labour Party have realised long ago that different conditions of toil throughout the world are a menace to the peace and security of all nations, and that inferior conditions of labour in other countries are being used as an argument in favour of depreciating our own standards in this country. As I said a moment or two ago, I have seen a growing hostility in this House to the work of the International Labour Organisation, and an hon. Member on the Benches opposite, whom I am sorry not to see in his place to-day, complained of the cost of the Organisation. He said, in effect, "Just imagine this country spending £28,000 per annum on this Organisation." I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman had ever thought for a moment what it means. This Organisation was established by the Treaty of Versailles in a grand effort—a majestic effort, if I might say so—to try to secure peace between the nations of the world; and, surely, if a country could spend £6,000,000 a day on waging battles on the Continent of Europe and elsewhere, it can afford about £80 a day in an effort to try to solve the problems of peace and war.

I was astonished, if I might say so, at the ill-informed criticism that came from the hon. Gentleman to whom I refer. He said, too, that the delegates to the last Annual Conference of the International Labour Organisation cost this country £100 per week each. I do not know in what school he was trained or educated, but I would ask him very respectfully to look at the figures again, when he will find a very different result.

With regard to the signs of hostility of which I have spoken, I wish that the Secretary of State for War were here now, because I should like to know from him whether he has been influenced by the Federation of British Industries, or a section of it, to withdraw the order which was in force, whereby the War Office decided some time ago, in connection with the painting of buildings under their care, that they would not use white lead in paint. I am authoritatively informed that the order, which was issued a long while ago, is now cancelled, and that the War Department is at the moment using white lead in paint, to the detriment, in my view, of the operative painters.

One strange criticism of the International Labour Organisation is that it has done too much, while some people declare, on the other hand, that it has done too little. Great Britain is a member of the Organisation, and, if I may say so with some pride, it is a, very influential member. Indeed, I might almost say that it is the most influential member of that Organisation; and I declare, therefore, that it ill becomes us to criticise an Organisation of which we are such an influential part.

I was a little disturbed at the reply given the other day by the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour. On the 6th April, in reply to a question in this House, he said:— The Treaty of Versailles imposes no obligation on members of the International Labour Organisation to ratify draft conventions or accept recommendations adopted by the International Labour Conference, even if the Government delegates of the member have voted for the draft convention or recommendation. "—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 6th April, 1925; col. 1818, Vol. 182.] I know the words that follow, but I want the Government, of whatever political colour it may be, when it sends delegates to Geneva or any other place where the Conference may be held, and when it instructs its delegates to vote in favour of a Convention or recommendation, to deem it to be a moral obligation to carry that Convention into law in our own country. I know that there is no legal obligation, even under the Treaty itself, but I would hold the Government to a moral obligation, at any rate, because it seems to me simply absurd that we should send Government delegates to Geneva to take part in the Conference and actually vote in favour of Conventions, and that we should then get a statement to the effect that there is no obligation upon the Government to translate those recommendations into law.

I should imagine that Great Britain has as much interest as, if not more than, any country in the world in this Organisation, because complaint is always being made in this House, and rightly so on occasion, that the conditions of labour in this country are such that we cannot compete successfully with other countries. I am sorry that the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs is not here at the moment, because I wanted to know, if it were at all possible, whether the Ministry of Labour, in conjunction with the Home Office in charge of these several conventions, have made representations at all to the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs to use diplomatic channels in order to secure the adoption and ratification of these conventions by other countries.

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I would sum up the precise points that I want to put on that issue as follows: What has this country done to promote ratification by other countries of conventions already adopted? I am not speaking' now of what the Home Office or the Ministry of Labour may have done by bringing Bills before the House. I am anxious to know what influence has been brought to bear by the Government on other countries in order to secure the ratification of Conventions by them. I would put the question in another form. What are we doing to insure that the machinery of the International Labour Organisation will in future be used to the best interests of this country by bringing the conditions in other countries to the British level?

The House ought to know something about the Conventions which have already been adopted by the Organisation. Seventeen Conventions have already been adopted. Of these, Great Britain has ratified eight. An examination of the figures shows that it is far from being the case that Great Britain is the only country which ratifies Conventions. Apart from France and Germany, Great Britain has not done a great deal more in the way of ratifying Conventions than have the majority of other important industrial countries. For instance, Great Britain has never been the first country to ratify a Convention, and only once has she been one of the first three. I make that statement because it is always assumed in this House and outside that we are the first people to take heed of the decisions of the International Labour Organisation. The Conventions which Great Britain has not ratified are, the Washington Convention on hours of labour, four relating to conditions of labour at sea, one on maternity, one on the minimum age for employment in agriculture, one on the prohibition of the use of white lead in paint and one on a weekly rest day in industry.

I will leave the question of the eight-hour day to my right hon. Friend the Member for Preston (Mr. T. Shaw) who knows more about the subject than I do, but I should like to ask the Home Secretary whether he can give us to-day information as to the policy of the Government, more particularly in regard to the use of white lead in paint? I am very interested in that question, and I am a little disturbed as to the growth of the number of cases of lead poisoning as shown in the reports of the Home Office. I will give them as far I have been able to secure them. The number of cases of lead poisoning in 1922 was 246, with 26deaths; in 1923, 337 cases and 25 deaths; and in 1924, 486 cases and 32 deaths. I feel sure that figures of that kind will appeal to the Home Secretary and that he will favourably consider ratifying the White Lead Convention by bringing before this House a Bill very shortly to deal with the whole of this intricate and important problem. I trust he will bring in a Bill on the same lines as the Labour Government introduced a Bill last year. That is to say we are not satisfied merely with a Bill to regulate the problem. We want a Bill to prohibit the use of white lead in paint on all occasions and in all connections. There may be a difference of opinion in that connection, but I make the appeal to the right hon. Gentleman in that way.

I would sum up therefore, on the question of past conventions as follows. Most of the newer, and many of the older countries as well, have not waited for Great Britain to set an example before they ratified conventions. The countries which have made no effort to ratify conventions are countries of practically no industrial importance. The countries which have a specially bad record in regard to non-ratification of conventions are France and Germany. The British Government ought to take some positive measures to try to induce them to improve their record and we ought also to urge further progress by Japan. I say that because my right hon. Friend the Member for Preston commenced negotiations with the Ministers of Labour of other countries and I understand he did very good work in that connection last year. I would appeal to the right hon. Gentleman to follow suit and see what can be done to hasten ratification by other countries.

With regard to the future, the House will be aware that the next session of the International Labour Conference will open at Geneva on 19th May, and I am very anxious to find out what attitude the Government propose to take and what are the instructions to the delegation on behalf of the British Government at that Conference. The three issues which will come before the Conference are these. There is, first, the question of workmen's compensation—equality of treatment—and I want to urge that we shall not give definite instructions to our Delegation in such a way that they will be tied hand and foot and will not be able to arrive at a compromise with other countries. Having attended the Conference myself, I am convinced that no international agreement of any kind is possible if the British Government lay it down beforehand that the delegates shall not be able to compromise at all, I trust they will have what I will call plenary powers, not only in connection with workmen's compensation, but there is the second question of a weekly rest in glass manufacture. There is also the third question of the prohibition of night baking. I know full well the difference there is in the treatment of this last question on the Continent and in this country. In this country we proceed, to begin with, by safeguarding the interests of the workman. We leave the employer to do what he likes. I am not sure whether that is the right course or not, but that is what is done. On the Continent, however, the countries which have adopted the Convention are prohibiting night baking even by employers, large and small. In fact, they extend the prohibition even to workhouses, asylums, hospitals and hotels. I do not know how far we can agree in that connection between ourselves and Continental points of view, and the best way, I repeat, is to allow our delegates to have, a great deal of power of compromise.

I would ask the Home Secretary whether it is his intention to incorporate the suggested convention and the Recommendations of the Departmental Committee which met on the question some time ago on Night Baking, in the Factories Bill, which I understand he is going to introduce soon after Easter. I urge that we should have a reply to that point to-day if at all possible.

Then I come to what is to me a very thorny problem but a very important one, that is the question of anthrax. That matter concerns the Home Office, except that the Minister of Labour last year, I understand, when there was a very intelligent Government in office in this country, called together representatives of the Dominions who are affected by the import and export of wool in order to find out whether we could secure agreement in regard to its disinfection.

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