HC Deb 06 February 1945 vol 407 cc1945-53
The Solicitor-General

I beg to move, in page 22, line 24, leave out from beginning, to "were," in line 5, and insert: subsections (2) and (3) or any other person charged as a person to whose act or default the offence was due. The object of this Amendment is to bring the Scottish application Clause into line with the wording which the House has already accepted for the English Clauses. The next three Amendments are consequential.

Amendment agreed to.

Further Amendments made:

In page 22, line 27, leave out from beginning, to "Where," in line 29, and insert: subsections (2), (3), and (4) were omitted and the following subsections were inserted:— (2) In page 22, leave out lines 40 and 41.

In page 23, leave out line 7."—[The Solicitor-General.]

12.38 p.m.

Mr. Bevin

I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read the Third time."

I want first to make two explanations. In Clause 13, where the question of deduction is raised, a very difficult legal point has arisen because we cannot agree to any whittling down of the protection of the workers under the Truck Act, and we would like a few more days to look at the problem. We propose, therefore, to introduce an Amendment in another place, which I hope will meet the desires of the hon. Members concerned.

The other explanation I would like to make is that in the Committee stage, I made an error when dealing with Clause 10, largely, I think, due to confusion between the functions of the Commission and those of the wages council. In reply to the hon. and learned Member for North Edinburgh (Mr. Erskine-Hill), who asked whether the Clause meant that if the complaint was made in writing, there would be a right, unless the complaint was a frivolous one, for the man to be heard. I said, "Yes, that is so." I am afraid I had in my mind the Amendment that I have moved this morning on Report dealing with the Commission. On a wages council there is no right to give oral evidence, and there never was such a right in the whole history of the Trades Boards. When you make a wages order, you affect many thousands of people both on the workers' side and the employers', and you have to give the same right to both sides. It becomes quite obvious, therefore, that if a right to give oral evidence were granted, the whole machine would break down, so that the procedure to be followed is that when the order is proposed, it has to be posted to every employer concerned, who has to put it up in the workshop, or the shop, or wherever workers are, and both sides have a right to make written objections. These the wages council must take into account and, if necessary, they make a further investigation. I regret misleading my hon. Friend and I could not allow the error to go out without a correction on Third Reading, or it might be argued by the people affected, that I had given an undertaking which it was impossible to carry out.

I would like to express my thanks to the House for the help they have given in carrying through this Bill, and for the very valuable Amendments which have made it more workable. I hope it will give general satisfaction to millions of people in this country and make for stability during the post-war period of resettlement.

12.42 p.m.

Mr. Erskine-Hill (Edinburgh, North)

I wish first to thank the right hon. Gentleman for the Amendment he has been able to make in Clause 9. With regard to Clause 10, it was with a certain amount of disappointment that I heard he found himself unable to give effect to what had been stated in the Committee stage, but in view of the enormous number of people concerned, and the fact that we all want this Bill to work properly, I am impressed with the argument of the right hon. Gentleman. However, what he is trying to do, and what this House would like done, is to see that the small trader, with every other interest, is fairly treated. I would like to ask him, or somebody on his behalf, to give the House this assurance: in view of the fact that he cannot implement the promise he made, if it is found in the working-out of this Bill, that hardship does accrue to the small trader, that he will then be willing to introduce legislative Amendments, so as to ensure that the small trader has a fair deal.

12.43 p.m.

Mr. Alexander Walkden (Bristol, South)

On behalf of the Labour Party, I would like to thank the Minister for this great Bill and to congratulate him on the success he has had in passing it through its various stages. The Bill has occupied far less time than one imagined it would. I would also like to say how greatly the Measure will be appreciated in the country as a general guide to industry. Captains of industry will know how they should proceed; they can go on an even keel, without being upset by sweating competitors, who would, otherwise, create anarchy with wages conditions and upset the balance of many important industries. It will be a blessing and comfort to many millions of workpeople.

In that regard, one of my age cannot but feel what an enormous step forward the Bill is from the days of one's boyhood. When I was a lad, I read a book called "Alton Locke," which is the story of a boy who was nearly killed by the insanitary conditions of the tailor's shop in which he laboured. The suits of clothes made there went up to the West End of London, and carried disease into its stately homes. That has been changed in our time and this Bill has, I think, crowned those changes by establishing permanent machinery and stabilising conditions, so that never again can this country go back to the awful state of affairs that existed in the 19th century and was summed up in Hood's "Song of the Shirt" published in "Punch" many years ago. It described how poor women laboured for about a penny an hour, under shameful conditions which were a disgrace to our country. At about the same period, Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote a poem called "The Cry of the Children." Charles Kingsley wrote other books in addition to the one I have mentioned, and Walter Besant wrote "The Children of Gideon," which disclosed the horrible, sweated conditions under which many workers then existed. Now, let us rejoice that all that belongs to the past, and that after 100 years our country is well away from those dark waters and can go forward to a far better industrial career.

12.45 p.m.

Major York (Ripon)

With a great deal of what has been said by the hon. Member for South Bristol (Mr. A. Walkden) I agree, and I have no doubt that provided this Bill does not cause any undue and dull uniformity throughout our wages structure, it will be of untold benefit to the workers of this country. There is still a fear in my mind, which has been glossed over so far as we are concerned here, because the Clause which has interested a number of my hon. Friends and myself, could not be dealt with during the Committee and Report stages. When I was reading through the report of the Debate on the Committee stage, and considering some of the remarks made by the Solicitor-General, it struck me that there would be a great deal of uncertainty in the minds of employers and workers as to which forms of deduction from pay are likely to be legal, and which are likely to be illegal. When this matter is raised in another place I hope there will be some clarification of the matter for the benefit of those who are involved.

There is another point, which deals with the possibility of undue uniformity being practised by the wages councils. If the councils were to have too much of an urban bias, they would not give sufficient weight to the customs which are well-known and popular in country districts. I hope, therefore, that some provision which does not appear in the Bill at the moment, can be inserted in another place, to make quite certain that there shall be no undue attempt on the part of wages councils, to bring unnecessary and, indeed, harmful uniformity into the wages structure of our country.

12.49 p.m.

Sir Geoffrey Mander (Wolverhampton, East)

I would like to join in the congratulations which have been offered to the Minister of Labour on the passage of this Measure. It is a really great achievement and a landmark in the history of industrial relations and the wages structure of this country. Its operations will have a great effect for many years to come on the lives of millions of people. The only people who will be disappointed at the passage of this Bill will be the bad employers, for whom nobody will have any sympathy. It will tend to make them, compulsorily, into good employers. I am sure that my right hon. Friend realises that there are certain gaps in the Bill which might have been filled in a manner which I cannot elaborate at this stage, such as, for instance, a national minimum wage. He has, nevertheless, taken a big step forward, and I hope that some day he will fill in the few gaps which do remain.

12.51 p.m.

Mr. Leslie (Sedgefield)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Minister of Labour on having introduced a Measure of such real importance to stability after the war. Workers and fair-minded employers welcome this Bill, calculated, as it is, to prevent cut-throat competition by low wages. No class of workers will be affected more than distributive trade workers. During the Committee stage the hon. and learned Member for North Edinburgh (Mr. Erskine-Hill) expressed concern about the position of small traders. He seemed to imagine that the co-operative societies and multiple firms would dominate the wages councils, and that the small traders would have little say. I want to put his mind at rest. Take the joint industrial councils. In the distributive trades, to-day, every section of the trade is represented, and in actual fact co-operative societies and multiple firms are in a minority on those councils. Small traders who employ staffs are well-organised, and they are the traders who will be affected by the wages councils. I know of no section of the distributive trade which has not got an organisation. When the Sunday Trading (Restrictions) Bill was passing through the Committee stage, we were amazed at the number of organisations connected with the distributive trades.

The hon. and learned Member for North Edinburgh said that the natural representation in the distributive trade is that of the large organisation, and that small men, who are not organised, would have no representation at all. Well, if the trader is not in an organisation, what could he represent? Only himself. His knowledge would be confined within the four walls of his own shop. He could not speak for his fellow traders. What have the small traders to fear? We have had experience of trade boards in fixing rates of wages, and always the small man has had to be considered. On some boards it was insisted that the rates should be such as would enable the smallest man, in the meanest street, to pay them. Instead of moaning and groaning and fearing the worst, let the small man get into his trade organisation, and he can be assured that his interests will not be neglected. This Measure is the best possible safeguard that the small man can have against unscrupulous competition, which has been the curse of the distributive trade.

12.54 p.m.

Dr. Russell Thomas (Southampton)

I do not feel that I can join in the praise which has been given to the Minister with regard to this Bill. All the way through, people have sounded his praises; the only discordant note was that raised by my hon. Friend the Member for West Swansea (Sir L. Jones), who brought out some cogent arguments against the Bill. We have had nothing but sickly sentimentality from one hon. Member after another. It has been said that this Bill would complete the work of the Trade Boards Acts dealing with sweated trades, but I would remind the House that special conditions existed in regard to those sweated trades of long ago and that we are now dealing with organised industry, which has had a fair deal for a long time past, and, frequently, high wages [Laughter]. If what I say is so irritating to hon. Members, they need not stay here to hear me. The Minister said on the Second Reading that there was a moral obligation in regard to all these matters. Of course there is, when one enters into an agreement voluntarily. If I do so, I consider that not only have I a legal obli- gation, but also a moral obligation, but there is no moral obligation upon me as a rule to enter into an agreement, if I do not want to, which is a very different matter. That disposes of the lecture I received, on the Second Reading, from the Minister.

We have heard a great deal about the retail trades. An hon. Member said that the small trader will not suffer, and another said that the small trader should be protected. It is highly necessary that that point should be looked at, but when another hon. Member said on the Second Reading that the retail trade was longing for this Bill, I would point out that the retail trade in this country is practically inarticulate, despite what has been said. It is only the multiple shops and the co-operative societies who can make their voices heard, not the small retailer—

Mr. Leslie

There is no section of the distributive trade which has not got its organisation. If traders are outside that organisation then they have only themselves to blame.

Dr. Thomas

Hundreds of thousands of small retailers have not expressed an opinion on this Bill, and never could do so—many are in the Services. The big shops will fix a high minimum wage which the small retailer will not be able to afford to pay, and, bit by bit, he will be driven out of business—a good example of the combination of trades unions and monopoly. I seem to have met this Bill before, but not in this country. I remember a certain country I used to visit where I saw the provisions of this Bill at work. I had considerable knowledge of the industry of that country. Not only were the traders and business people in that country taxed, but they had to keep a certain number of employees, whether there was work for them to do or not, and also had to pay certain wages, whether they had any business or not. If they could not do it, or if they under-cut a little and made their own arrangements, they were reported to the local association, not to the magistrates' court. That local association was not known by the name "association." If traders were penalised by that so-called "association," more than once they had their businesses taken away. They had an appeal to another "association"—I will con- tinue to call it by that name for a moment—

Mr. Speaker

It is very interesting, but it is not in the Bill. We are discussing what is in the Bill, not a local association in another country.

Dr. Thomas

With deep respect, Sir, I was trying to make a fair comparison with the effects of this Bill. In the country I was referring to an "association" was called a corporation, and the State, a corporate State. However, I will not enter into any further details, except to say that my hon. Friends opposite above the Gangway well know the type of philosophy on which this Bill is based. The hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir W. Beveridge), who is not in his place—but I am sure he will not mind a compliment—well exemplifies what I say. The Minister of Labour during the last three or four years, fateful years, has endeavoured to accomplish in this House what he has failed to do in the years before. He says that the unstable period for wages will be five or six years after the war. He gave dates in regard to the last war, and mentioned 1919 to 1926, 1926 being, no doubt, a date he well remembers, and is fixed indelibly in his mind. I present this Bill with no garland; I give it no posy. On second thoughts, I will give it a sprig of rosemary—"that's for remembrance."

1.00 p.m.

Mr. Naylor (Southwark, South East)

It would be a great pity if this discussion ended on the discordant note which has just been sounded by the hon. Member for Southampton (Dr. Russell Thomas). He seems to have overlooked the fact that this Bill has been introduced in order to protect workers, and not for those who employ workers. If he is here in the interest of those who employ workers, I claim to be here representing the workers employed by those whose interests he represents. I represent a constituency which will benefit very largely by a Bill of this kind and I enter the discussion only for the purpose of identifying myself with the praise given to the Minister for having introduced the Bill. It will make industrial history. We congratulate the Minister on having established what is, virtually, a national minimum wage. He has taken the part of those who are unable to defend themselves, and has made it impossible for helpless men and women to be exploited by unscrupulous em- ployers, and we thank him. The hon. and gallant Member for Ripon (Major York) hoped that there would not be a dull uniformity in the administration of the Bill. If the wages are sufficiently high to guarantee a satisfactory standard of living for those who are going to benefit, I do not regard that as dull uniformity. We want to stabilise the standard of living of every man and woman in the country as far as it can be accomplished. My right hon. Friend has already, as a result of certain regulations he has made, given his name to a certain group. We know that there are "Bevin boys," and we are never allowed to forget it. There will now be Bevin men and women—who will thank him for the Bill.

1.3 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour (Mr. McCorquodale)

With regard to the point raised by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North (Mr. Erskine-Hill) we could not possibly pledge a future Government. We do not expect that there will be any difficulties in regard to small businesses but, if such difficulties did arise, we would certainly look into them. I thank the hon. Member for Wolverhampton (Sir G. Mander) for his kind words of welcome. The hon. Member did his best to bring in some new ideas; they were out of order, but I congratulate him on his ingenuity in getting an advertisement for them. With the exception of one lone voice, we have had in these discussions unanimity. It is remarkable that the House should show such unity on a great industrial question. I believe it augurs well for unity, co-operation and agreement in industry in the post-war years and I am convinced that, if we obtain that co-operation and peace in industry, one of the most important steps towards our national recovery, welfare and prosperity in the future will have been attained.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill read the Third time, and passed.