HL Deb 05 August 1853 vol 129 cc1322-6

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


in moving the Second Reading of this Bill, said, no one more strongly deprecated than he did the system of strikes, or was more convinced of the injurious effects thereby produced on the trade and commerce of the country. Certain enactments had been found necessary to control those who combined together for the purpose of striking and raising their wages; he thought, however, that are would be equally necessary to prevent employers being placed in a more advantageous position than their workmen, so as to be able to combine and reduce wages. Petitions most numerously signed by the working classes had been presented; and he did not deny that some of the petitioners believed that the Bill would give them greater powers of combining and forcing heir employers, by strikes, to raise their wages; but he was authorised distinctly to state on the part of the promoters of the Bill, that their object was not in any way to alter the present common or statutory law against those offences as the law at present stood. All they asked was, and he thought it only reasonable, that the terms of the Act should be clearly defined. Different constructions had been put upon the words "molestation" and "obstruction" by different legal authorities, and it was to set that question at rest that this Bill had been sent up from the other House of Parliament. Considering the great anxiety which prevailed among the working classes upon this subject, and considering their admirable conduct during the past year, he trusted their Lordships would give the Bill their fullest consideration, to see whether they could not clearly define what was the meaning of previous Acts of Parliament without altering the present state of the law.

Moved—"That the Bill be now read 2a."


said, that this Bill professed to be called for in consequence of a difference of opinion on the part of the Judges as to the construction of the present Act: but he was unable, after the strictest inquiries, to discover that any such difference of opinion had ever existed. Two of Her Majesty's Judges had given consistent opinions in two cases where the facts were totally different; and the mistake was to suppose those opinions were expressed on the same state of facts, and were applicable to the same point, and, therefore, that they clashed with one another. There was, therefore, no call for the present Bill. The law as it now stood, made liable to prosecution for conspiracy persons who should be guilty of coercion, molestation, or obstruction of workmen in reference to the rate of wages, or the hours of labour: and the present measure was to declare that the "peaceable persuasion of workmen by others should not be held to be such molestation or obstruction. There was a distinction attempted to be drawn between "peaceable persuasion" and coercion and molestation. But he put it to their Lordships whether, in the event of a number of men waiting upon another man day by day, walking with him to his work in the morning and home from his work in the evening, and besetting him at all times when it was possible to do so, for the purposing of "peaceably persuading" him to follow any particular course, that might not in reality amount to molestation or obstruction; and whether, under such words as were here used, the greatest amount of force and coercion might not be employed? The law at present prevented the seducing away workmen in another person's employment, and he wanted to know for what reason the law was to be altered? They ought not to wish to hold out to the working classes false expectations that they were willing to grant that which was clearly at present not in the power of any one to grant. If the Bill went into Committee they might be asked by some words or other to declare, that when men in employment were not parties to any association, it should be competent for those who were associated together to invite, which was another word for seduce, those workmen to quit their master's service. He was convinced that "peaceful persuasion" would amount to coercion, and that the Bill would relieve workmen from the maxim of common law, that no man should do anything to the injury of others. If nothing but peaceable persuasion was intended, it was legal to employ it now, and the Bill was unnecessary. If, on the other hand, it was meant, under cover of the words "peaceable persuasion," to give legality to acts which were at present illegal, the Bill was one which their Lordships ought not to pass. He considered they could not grant the powers proposed without injustice and injury to others; not only to the employers of labour, but the general public, and he should therefore feel it his duty strongly to oppose the Bill.


agreed with his noble and learned Friend that the Bill was calculated to do more harm than good, even to the parties for whose supposed advantage it was proposed—for it would tend to mislead them. He believed it was intended to set at rest a supposed difference of opinion between the Court of Queen's Bench and himself, in a case which he had decided about six years ago at Liverpool. But he had never been able to ascertain what that difference of opinion was. Some expressions might have been dropped that did not seem to harmonise with one another, but there was no substantial difference. He could not understand that any doubt existed on the point that it was not illegal for workmen to attend meetings of their fellow-workmen. It was not illegal at present to use "peaceable Persuasion;" but for a body of men to combine together to ask another to join with them was not "peaceable persuasion," and it was difficult to say that there could be any "peaceable persuasion" without some kind of molestation. In consequence of several communications which he had received on the subject, he had drawn up some alterations in order to make the Bill less objectionable if it should go into Committee; but he would suggest to his noble Friend that it would be infinitely better for the persons whose cause he had espoused, and whom it was certainly desirable to consult upon such questions as this, in order that any real grievances they had might be redressed, that the Bill should be withdrawn. It would do worse than nothing, for, doing nothing in reality, it would appear to do a great deal, and would lead the persons it was intended to benefit into errors of which they would deeply regret the consequences.


looked on the Bill with the greatest alarm. The result of it would be a combination of all workmen, who would misunderstand its affect, and then the masters would have nothing left but to protect themselves by likewise combining. Its title seemed to offer a notice to the public that combination was to be the order of the day—at a time, too, when circumstances showed the Bill to be altogether unnecessary, for they every day saw continual strikes taking place for all sorts of purposes, and the law did not in any way interfere with those strikes. They had even seen Parliament itself obliged to concede largely to those who had combined for one of those strikes. "Peaceable persuasion" might be of such a description that large bodies of men might assemble for the purpose. He had no hesitation in rejecting the Bill, from an entire conviction that it would militate against the best interests of the people it was desired to serve.


said, he was willing in Committee, to omit the words "peaceable persuasion," It had been held to be illegal, and as an obstruction to trade, if workpeople in a body quitted their employment; and they were liable to fines and penalties. This was hard upon the workmen, seeing that their employers might combine, as had been decided by magistrates and justices. He admitted that the present was rather an unfortunate moment to bring such a subject under the consideration of Parliament. No one could more lament the existing strikes than he did, for he believed they operated most injuriously upon trade, and would ultimately affect injuriously the interests of the working classes themselves. But seeing the feeling of the House, though he knew it would disappoint the feelings of the work- ing classes, he should withdraw the Bill, though he had promised to take a division upon the second reading.


said, that the law would reach combinations of masters equally with those of workmen.

Bill (by leave of the House) withdrawn.

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