The Bishop of Norwich
presented eight petitions from miners and others employed in collieries and mines in the neighbourhood of Wentwick and other places. Those petitions were very numerously signed. They were got up by the workmen themselves, and spoke in their own simple yet forcible language the sense they entertained of the shameful, disgusting, and disgraceful scenes to which they were witnesses, from the employment of young females and boys of tender ages in the mines. The statements of the petitioners were fully borne out by the reports of the commissioners who had examined the state of the persons employed in pits. The wretched condition of the people in the pits where women were employed, contrasted strongly with the better state of the people in pits in Ireland and in some places in England where no females and few young boys were employed. The petitioners prayed that a measure might be passed excluding all females and boys under thirteen years of age from employment in mines (one petition limited the age of employment of boys to ten years). He cordially concurred in the prayer of the petition, and hoped the measure which had been introduced on the subject would receive the sanction of their Lordships.
§ Lord Hatherton
would not, on the presentation of a petition, enter into a subject which must come on for full discussion at a future day. He did not deny that the collieries of South Staffordshire had been very badly managed some thirty or thirty-five years ago; but it was now admitted on all hands that the complaints as to bad management did not now apply to them, for that a great improvement had taken place with respect to them all. When these improvements had been brought about without the aid of such restrictions as were proposed in the Mines and Collieries Bill, he thought it would be unjust to press it. Great excitement had arisen amongst the owners of Mines and Collieries in consequence of the very exaggerated and overcharged statements which had gone forth with respect to the condition of persons employed in them. Some of those statements he could contradict from his own knowledge. Many 1167 of them were the most unjust, the most partial, which had ever been submitted to Parliament as the ground of any legislative measure. He thought that before any legislation took place on the subject, the masters, who had been infamously calumniated, ought to have an opportunity of bringing forward evidence.
§ The Duke of Richmond
reminded their Lordships that by the 108th standing order it was provided, that any bill altering the regulations of any trade, or altering the law of apprenticeship, could not be read a second time unless it had been referred to a select committee to inquire as to the expediency or inexpediency of the proposed change, and until the committee had reported to the House.
§ The Duke of Wellington
said, that a great impression had been made upon his mind by a perusal of the volumes which had been printed and laid upon the Table. But he thought it desirable that their Lordships should examine a little into the mode in which the evidence had been taken. The noble Lord who, by virtue of his office, had appointed the commission, was not present; but he observed, on reading the report and the commission under which the report was framed, that a certain number of commissioners was appointed, with power to administer oaths and to examine on oath —that was, a certain number of them were so empowered by the words of the commission. At the same time, a certain number of sub-commissioners were appointed by the Secretary of State, and employed under this commission, and these sub-commissioners were the persons who had been employed to take this evidence. Now, it was a very different thing for evidence to be taken by persons appointed under the commission and by sub-commissioners, and therefore it was very desirable that the House should take this circumstance into its consideration before it appointed a select committee to consider this bill; and that it should decide whether or not it was desirable to inquire in what manner the evidence was taken under the powers of the commission, and what was the nature of the evidence; whether it was taken according to the terms of the commission; whether the commissioners examined the witnesses themselves, or had trusted to the report of the sub-commissioners. The measure involved important considerations, and he wished their Lordships might be 1168 enabled to pass it; but he thought it desirable that they should know exactly how the matter stood, and he wished his noble Friend would defer the subject till the noble Lord who appointed the commission was present.
wished their Lordships might be enabled to pass the bill this Session; but, unless great expedition were used, it could not be done. Some parts of the bill were not matters of controversy at all. Two courses were open—either to examine evidence before the select committee, or for the select committee to report (if so advised) in favour of their Lordships entertaining the bill; and then a question might arise whether, with reference to the mode in which the evidence had been taken by the commissioners, it would be more satisfactory to take the evidence themselves.
§ Viscount Melbourne
said, the only question for the select committee was to consider whether the bill was fit to be read a second time, and he thought, as expedition was desirable, that a committee might be appointed now.
§ Select committee appointed.