HL Deb 05 August 1867 vol 189 cc844-7

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


, in moving that the Bill be now read the second time, said, that it was one which had a very important bearing on the relations between employers and employed in this country, and as such was deserving, and he was sure would receive, a very careful consideration from their Lordships. The main object of the Bill was to do away with certain inequalities which existed in the proceedings taken between master and servant on the one side and servant and master on the other. As the law at present stood, where a complaint was made by the master against the servant, either for neglect of work or misconduct, the case was treated as a criminal offence; whereas in a complaint of a servant against a master the case was treated only as a civil matter. The main principle of the Bill was directed to the removal of that distinction. But that was not the only point where the law was defective. Where a servant was complained of by his master either for neglect of work or misconduct, the usual course pursued was to take out a summons against him, but it was in the power of the master to get a warrant issued in the event of its being supposed that the servant was likely to abscond. Now the power of issuing a warrant worked at times very harshly, and if it had not been much complained of it was because, happily, it had not been frequently resorted to. In a case of wilful neglect or misconduct the only course left the magistrate was either to inflict the punishment of imprisonment, to order a deduction from the servant's wages—which in many cases was objectionable—or to discharge the servant from his employment, which could hardly be considered a punishment, because work generally was so easily obtained. But there was a still greater objection to the law as it stood, which was that, the proceeding being of a criminal nature, the man complained of could not be heard in his defence, whereas in the case of the servant against the master both parties were heard. Now the Bill provided that a summons should be taken out in the first instance, and it was only in the event of the servant not appearing that a warrant could be issued against him. The Bill further provided that all cases should be heard at Petty Sessions before two magistrates, and upon the hearing of the case the magistrates might require the servant to fulfil his contract, or might assess the injury which might be supposed to be inflicted by the servant's default, or where that would not meet the justice of the case might impose a fine not exceeding £20. The power of fine would remove a great part of the difficulty attending those cases in which the only question was between imprisonment, abatement of wages, or discharge. In an aggravated case imprisonment without fine might be inflicted. As far as the employers of labour were concerned, they had, on the whole, accepted the principle of the Bill, althought it would work a considerable alteration in their relations with those whom they employed. The Bill came up from the House of Commons under very favourable circumstances, so far as its principle was concerned. Mr. Cobbett, in 1865, moved for a Committee to inquire into the subject; but he lost his seat at the dissolution which took place that year, and in 1866 the Committee sat under Lord Elcho as Chairman. The Committee having reported, the noble Lord brought a Bill founded on the Report of the Committee under the notice of the Government. He was informed that the Government looked very favourably on the proposals of the Committee, and promised to give the measure a careful consideration, but declined to bring in a Bill on the subject. He could not help thinking that resolution on the part of the Government was very much to be regretted, because questions of that sort could scarcely be expected to be satisfactorily dealt with by a private Member; and he was confirmed in that opinion by finding that the Bill which he now asked to have read a second time was very defective in many of its details, and would require several alterations before it could be put to into such shape as to pass through a Committee of their Lordships' House. If their Lordships should read the Bill a second time and accept its principle they would do much to remove some of the ill-feeling which one could not help seeing had sprung up of late years between employers and employed in this country.

Moved, "That the Bill be now read 2a."—(The Earl of Lichfield.)


said, he entirely agreed with the noble Earl that the subject dealt with by the Bill was one of great importance both to agricultural and manufacturing communities, and deserved their Lordships' serious attention, and his noble Friend had won credit for himself for the care he had bestowed on the subject. Her Majesty's Government entirely agreed with the noble Earl that the Bill should go through its present stage without opposition, but it certainly demanded considerable alteration in Committee. For example, considerable delay would take place, as the Bill now stood, before disputes could be settled, particularly in the agricultural districts, in some of which the Petty Sessions were not held oftener than once a month. If the dispute occurred five days before the sessions the summons could not be answered until after five weeks. He threw out this point for the consideration of the noble Earl, at the same time assuring him that the Government would be happy to assist him in making any Amendments in Committee.


said, he had not been unmindful that such an objection might be raised, and there was some difficulty in meeting it. But it was rare that Petty Sessions were not held once a fortnight; and throughout the districts where the Bill was most likely to operate they were held once a week. The case, therefore, would very seldom arise, and the Bill met the claims of justice in the great majority of cases.


thought that as every meeting of two magistrates formed a Petty Sessional meeting, and as notice was constantly given of meetings to try cases of summary jurisdiction, it would not be difficult to make opportunities for expediting the hearing of these cases.


said, that cases of this description were just those which required adjudication as speedily as possible, and the delay which would often take place under the Bill would, therefore, be peculiarly undesirable.

Motion agreed to.

Bill read 2a accordingly, and committed to a Committee of the whole House on Friday next.

House adjourned at a quarter before Nine o'clock, till To-morrow, Eleven o'clock.