HC Deb 19 July 1927 vol 209 cc241-6

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to remove the prohibition contained in the Lead Paint (Protection against Poisoning) Act, 1926, of the employment of women in panting buildings with lead paint. The object of this little Bill is to remove what I think the House will regard as a defect in the Act dealing with lead paint poisoning which was passed last year. The Act contains a number of Regulations to be observed by painters of buildings, and Section 2 states: It shall not be lawful to employ any woman or young person in painting any part of a building with lead paint. That sweeping exclusion of women is qualified, however, by an exception in favour of apprentices under certain approved arrangements and for special decorative work, and in respect of women who are already in the employ of painters. The object of this Bill is to remove the ban on women and to put them on exactly the same footing as men, that is to say, to allow them to work in the industry under the Regulations set out in that Act. I think the time has come in out' history when we ought to cease to draw any discrimination founded on the mere basis of sex. No doubt there are many occupations for which men are more fitted than women, just as there are many occupations for which women are more fitted than men, but, in my submission, there ought to be no statutory bar against either sex. Let their capacity and the appropriate economic laws be the true discriminator. Women are particularly adapted for the work of painting buildings. It does not involve heavy manual labour, and it includes decorative work and the mixing of colours, in which pursuits women are, if anything, more skilful than men. Already a large number of women are employed in the industry, and the number is increasing, and in these circumstances I think the House will agree that this provision to exclude them ought to be withdrawn. If it could be shown that while the Regulations made the painting of buildings safe for men they did not suffice to protect women then, of course, women ought to be excluded, not on the ground of their sex, but on the ground of their greater susceptibility to lead poisoning; but no one has attempted to make out such a case.

A few days ago I attended a meeting in one of the Committee Rooms at which I and other Members interested heard statements on this subject from various medical experts, and according to what we were told women are by no means more susceptible than men; according to the statistics, they would appear to be less susceptible. We were told that after 1898, when all women were excluded from working in lead factories and in pottery work, the proportion of cases of lead poisoning amongst the workers rose instead of falling; and, on the other hand, when the men were called to the front in 1914 and their places had to be taken by women the number of cases of poisoning fell instead of rising. I am told there has been no scientific investigation into the point, but I think I am justified in saying that no case has been made out for asserting that there is greater susceptibility to lead poisoning on the part of women. Another argument which has, been put forward is that the consequences might be more harmful from the racial point of view in the case of women, but the experts are quite satisfied that the percentage of defective maternity cases is no greater among women workers in the lead industry than amongst women workers in any other industry, and as a matter of fact the poison is quite as deleterious to the paternal as to the maternal function.

4.0 p.m.

I have one other observation to make. The only ground whatsoever upon which this exclusion can be based appears to me to be this. It may be said that the Act ordering the promulgation of Regulations is in itself experimental. The Home Secretary told us that if it did not work there must be prohibition both of men and women in the paint industry, and, of course, it may then be said that, during the experimental stage, do not let us try it upon women, but let us, instead, experiment on men, according to the axiom Fiat experimentum in corpore vili. But the comfort which the women might derive from seeing this experiment practised on the vile body of man might be more than counterbalanced by the reflection that they might find themselves out of employment. I certainly think the time has come when we ought to cease to make these rigid distinctions purely on the basis of sex. Distinctions will exist, arising out of the fitness of men or women for any occupation. Let public opinion, let their own tastes, let their own capacity, let the laws of economy separate them into this occupation or that occupation; but do not put upon the Statute Book a law to say to women, "Thou shalt not work in this or that occupation" when, in all other respects but sex, they are singularly fitted for them. Therefore, I hope the House will be good enough to give me leave to bring in this Bill.


I hope the House will do nothing of the kind. The arguments to which we have just listened are exactly the same kind of arguments as were used in the eighties by the Freedom of Labour Defence League against protection for those women suffering from wrist-drop, phossy-jaw and a number of other evils which, thank goodness, we have been able nearly to exterminate by means of protective legislation. What is wrong about this question is that this House has not ratified the draft Convention. Regulations are not satisfactory to the men working in the paint industry. Regulations are not regarded as a sufficient or adequate defence for men, but even if men prefer to go on being poisoned, that is absolutely no argument why women should go on being poisoned until we have discovered some other way of dealing with this subject. With regard to the Convention, there are 13 countries, including France, Belgium, Czechoslovakia and Sweden which have, in fact, ratified the Convention for the abolition of white lead in connection with paint, and the only effect of the action of this House last year is to slow down the pace of the application of other forms of ingredients which could be regarded as entirely satisfactory for the painting of houses or any other form of painting.

Let me tell the House of the manner in which this was brought vividly to my attention in connection with members of my own union. Women employed in painting babies' perambulators with white lead paint were taken violently ill and died. How long does the House think that any form of ingredient which contains within it a mortal danger to susceptible persons is to be used for such things as perambulators? It is surely commonsense to say that an ingredient which has proved to be so dangerous to people who have handled it, should be prohibited, just as we have prohibited phosphorus in matches, and a number of other dangerous things which are not absolutely necessary for carrying on the trade or industry concerned. This is one of those questions about which there is great feeling in the country, particularly amongst the working classes themselves, and I want to say definitely and emphatically, on behalf of the working women, that we have not asked for protective legislation merely for the sake of getting it.

We have never raised this question of special Regulations for women unless we have had direct experience of the necessity for such Regulations, and it seems a very amazing thing that all the objections to protective legislation should come from women who are not themselves working women. The main argument is that it is going to restrict the field of women's employment. I do not think that is a sound argument at all. Since we have had our factory Regulations, since we have improved the conditions of women's work by protective legislation, there are more, and not fewer, women working in connection with these trades, and with regard to experts' opinion, I can quote just as many experts showing that the situation is as bad, or worse, in connection with this business in relation to women. The hon. and learned Member quoted figures for 1908. I can give much more recent figures. Dr. Alice Hamilton, whose capacity for investigation no one questions, says: During the War the English found that T.N.T. poisoning was worse among women munition workers than among men; the Germans found that dinitrobenzene poisoning was decidedly worse among women; and the Amercans found that women in the smokeless-powder works suffered more from ether poisoning than did men. In all these matters we have to exercise commonsense. Those who represent the working-women are satisfied, by investigation and expert evidence, as well as by practical day-by-day experience of the workshops, that lead poisoning can be abolished, and ought to be abolished, and if we have to wait some time longer for men to get rid of this evil, then we will not wait so long before women get rid of it.

Question, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to remove the prohibition contained in the Lead Paint (Protection against Poisoning) Act, 1926, of the employment of women in painting buildings with lead paint, put, and negatived.

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