HL Deb 26 July 1867 vol 189 cc164-7

asked, Whether Her Majesty's Government intend to postpone Legislation upon the Subject of Public Agricultural Gangs until the Commission, lately re-appointed, has reported? The noble Earl (the Earl of Shaftesbury) had lately introduced a Bill on this subject, and showed the very great evils arising from public agricultural gangs in use in five or six counties only, and involving the employment of some 6,000 or 7,000 children. After the second reading of this Bill it was withdrawn, but some further explanation seemed to be required from the Government, on the subject. It appeared to him that the question of agricultural gangs was capable of being dealt with apart from the general question of the employment of children in agriculture. In his opinion the subject was one which imperatively demanded immediate legislation. One of the Assistant-Commissioners, speaking of the system in its most favourable form, said— The subjection of the gangworkers to one of their own class, however respectable he may be, as their only master and employer, places them in an anomalous position as labourers, deprives them entirely of those motives for good conduct or respectable behaviour which naturally accompany the relations beween the employer and the employed, and encourages a feeling of independence as regards the upper classes of society which shows itself in that rude and disorderly behaviour which characterizes the gangworkers in almost every parish where this system prevails. This was the main objection to the system. The next point was that the children engaged by these public gangmasters were generally much younger than those employed in the ordinary course of agricultural labour. On this point the same Gentleman (Mr. Longe) said— It would appear, moreover, to be the tendency of the common gang system to bring even younger children into field work than the private gang system. Wherever the two systems are found working together the younger children are always in the common gang. The faculty of making little children work is the peculiar art of the gangmaster, and the common objection of farmers to employing children themselves is the difficulty of getting any work out of them without a regular gangmaster. Then the wages of the children of course suffered material reduction, part of their earnings going into the pockets of the person engaging them. Moreover, children of tender age—five, six, or seven years old—were sent to a distance from their homes and employed by a farmer who had no interest in them, and knew nothing about them. This was another of the evils attending the employment of children in public agricultural gangs. Now, without in any way raising the very difficult question of what was necessary in the way of legislation for regulating the employment of children in agricultural labour generally, he thought that one thing was necessary for the proper conduct of these public gangs—namely, that the person who had the control of them should have a licence from the magistrates in Petty Sessions. That licence might be granted upon a certificate of fitness to have children employed in gangs from either magistrates, Boards of Guardians, or other respectable persons living in the neighbourhood; and a condition might be imposed upon the gangmaster to the effect that he should not employ mixed gangs of boys and girls. But that the hour was so late, he would have made some remarks upon the serious subject of the employment of mixed gangs. The statements made on this point in the Report of the Children's Employment Commission must have startled all who read them. He felt strongly that, if it were possible, there ought to be immediate legislation with the view of checking the very great evils that had been brought to light. If it went merely to the extent he had suggested, it would do much to check these evils for a time, and until the whole subject of the employment of children in agriculture could be dealt with by the Legislature.


said, the subject was one of very great interest, and deserving of some consideration. On the publication of the Report of the Children's Employment Commission a measure was introduced in that House by a noble Earl (the Earl of Shaftesbury)—who took great interest in all questions affecting the welfare of the labouring classes—which would have met to some extent the difficulty and the evils of the gang system. That measure had been withdrawn, the noble Earl thinking that the questions involved in it could not be discussed with any probability of the Bill being passed this Session. This occurred at the end of last week, and it was then the question arose as to what course could be taken with regard to the public gangs working in certain districts. As soon as his attention had been called to the subject by the Notice given of this Question he conferred with the Secretary of State for the Home Department, and he was now able to state that the opinion of the Government was that, although the questions raised in the Report concerning public gangs were much intermixed with those affecting private gangs, and the whole question of the education and condition of the agricultural labouring classes was involved, yet there were two points connected with public agricultural gangs that could be dealt with. The Report showed that in a comparatively small district, in which, perhaps, 7,000 or 8,000 children were employed in public agricultural gangs, there was a state of things which was a crying evil, and almost a shame to the county, and which could not be permitted to pass unnoticed any longer. The Government were of opinion that, late as it was in the Session, it would be their duty to introduce a Bill which should go to the extent of requiring the masters of these gangs to take out licences from Petty Sessions and of prohibiting the employment of mixed gangs; and the Government hoped and believed that such a Bill might be passed this Session, while, in their opinion, it would materially reduce the evils of the gang system, it would not be a measure commensurate with the evils which had to be dealt with. The Government did not yet possess all the information necessary to enable them to deal with the whole question, which was not likely to be ripe for discussion for some time, but they thought they would not be warranted in delaying the attempt to legislate upon the two points he had named, and, therefore on an early day, a Bill would be laid upon the table of the House. Whether it could pass or not this Session depended very much upon the feeling of Parliament in both Houses. Members and noble Lords had been in possession of the Report of the Commission since the commencement of the year, and knew the extent to which the evils in question had already gone, and the probability there was that, if they were left alone they would be greatly increased and intensified. He could not say more than that Government would attempt legislation this Session upon the points he had indicated.


hoped that this House and the other House of Parliament, seeing that there was a great evil demanding an immediate remedy, would be inclined to pass the Government measure this Session.