HL Deb 09 May 1893 vol 12 cc429-38

Order of the Day for the Second Reading, read.

*LORD PLAYFAIR, in moving the Second Reading, said, this was a very important Bill, involving vast interests, both in regard to capital and to the hours of large numbers of servants on railways. The Bill had passed the House of Commons, and it was the outcome of prolonged attention by both Houses of Parliament to the subject of overwork on railways. This overwork did not always arise from employers exacting overtime and overwork; but it frequently arose from the fact that the servants themselves desired to make more wages by working overtime. A Bill on the subject was introduced by Mr. Channing in the other House in 1886. The question of overwork was considered by the House of Lords in 1888, when Lord De La Warr brought before the House the amount of overwork alleged to exist on railways and the oppression of railway servants. On August 8, 1888, their Lordships made an Order for a Return of all eases on railways where men worked for 12 hours, and in which they had not eight hours' consecutive rest. This was a voluminous Return, and it excited considerable public attention. It had been followed up by subsequent Returns in the other House, to which their Lordships' attention need not be directed. Their Lordships would recollect that two or three years ago there was a great railway strike in Scotland. During that strike very flagrant cases were alleged of overwork, and it was admitted to exist under certain circumstances. In 1891 the House of Commons appointed a Select Committee to inquire into the whole case. That Committee was presided over by a statesman of calm and judicial temperament—Sir Michael Hicks-Beach. It sat for two years, and it made its Report in 1892. The terms of the Report were moderate. The Committee said that a general charge of systematic overwork could certainly not be maintained against all railways, and that certain Railway Companies had recently, since their attention had been called to the subject, rectified the overwork on their lines; but they added— There are still too many cases in which excessive hours are habitually worked without adequate reason, and that no sufficient effort has been made by the companies generally to deal earnestly and thoroughly with this matter.". The Committee, through mistaking the extent of the Reference the House of Commons had made to them, limited their attention to two classes of servants. The first class were the servants at fixed posts of duty, such as signalmen, shunters, platelayers, and porters; and the second class wore the moving staff, such as drivers, firemen, and guards. The Committee soon found that it was impossible in the case of railways to establish a fixed working day of eight hours overall railways and for all classes of railway servants. In factories labour begins and ends with the ringing of a bell at fixed hours. On railways the state of labour could never be absolutely determined in point of time. Accidents, storms, snow, and fog disturbed the working of railways, so that it was impossible to fix an hour at which labour should end. To give an illustration from the evidence before the Committee. In December, 1891, a thick fog lasted for four days over the whole country. The North-Western line got blocked at Crowe Station, and had the railway labour ended at a fixed time, after eight hours' work, 200 trained men would have been required there to cope with the blocking of trains which ensued, and those 200 trained men would not have been required again for the other 361 days in the year. The Unions, in fact, scarcely pressed for a fixed number of hours of labour with any earnestness, though some of them desired that no railway labour should continue above a certain number of hours in the day. The Committee considered this proposal for a maximum, and they found that the individual exceptions would be so numerous as to prevent the exaction of penalties. They did not find it possible to fix the hours even with respect to special classes of labour, such as the men employed in signal-boxes. There were 15,000 signal-boxes throughout the country, and the intensity of the labour in them constantly varied. In London it was hard labour in some signal-boxes for men to remain on duty four hours; in others six hours were as long a spell as a man could properly endure; while in the case of country stations, where only two or three trains pass a day, eight, 10, and even 12 hours could not be considered hard work. The railways themselves had lately tried to meet this difficulty by classifying the boxes into six, eight, 10, and 12 hours boxes. That, of course, could be done by the railways; but legislation could not do it, because exceptions might happen requiring men in eight hour boxes to be relieved in six hours. Any attempt, therefore, at fixing the hours by legislation would be exceedingly difficult. Then, as regarded the running staff, the Committee found it was equally impossible to lay down any rigid labour time. There was, it appeared, great room for improvement in this class of work. According to a Parliamentary Return, there were, for example, certain drivers on the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway who in 1891 worked 16½ hours per day, whereas in 1892 the same drivers only worked 12½ hours, so that the railways themselves had to a considerable extent ameliorated the overwork amongst the drivers and guards. The strain on the attention of drivers, moreover, was just as great in variety as it was in regard to signalmen. For the driver of an express-six hours was a hard day's work; but for driving a shuttle-train, taking goods into various stations, eight or even 10 hours was not considered heavy labour. Some foreign countries had tried to grapple with this problem by fixing the hours of work. The French Government had received authority to take the police of the railways into their own hands, and they passed rules stating that no driver should work more than 12 hours in the day, and should get 10 hours' uninterrupted rest. What had been the consequence? The law had been wholly evaded, and the railways paid no attention to the rules of the Government in regard to working time on railways. Switzerland had tried the same plan, though with more success. Switzerland said no drivers or guards should work more than 12 hours with 10 hours' rest. The Federal Authorities had been obliged to make a great many exceptions to this law, but still it had not failed as the French law had failed, and some fair limitation of labour existed according to Swiss law. Their Lordships, however, would recognise that, considering the length of Swiss lines and the volume of traffic, Switzerland was scarcely an example which could be followed in this country, where the conditions were so different. He would proceed to explain to the House the nature of this Bill. The nature of the Bill was that it trusted very much to the moral force of publicity. Then in regard to the action of the Bill. A class of railway servants might report to the Board of Trade that they were excessively worked, and the Board of Trade was bound to inquire whether the complaint was substantial. If substantial, then the Board of Trade acted, in the first place, like a Board of Conciliation, and they asked the railway to prepare a schedule of time which would bring the hours into reasonable limits. If the railway did so, and carried its schedule into effect, there was an end of the case; but if the railway refused, then the Board of Trade could summon the railway before the Railway Commission, and that tribunal would examine the schedule and say whether it was fair and just. If the Commission was not satisfied with the schedule, it would ask the railway to prepare another schedule and to act according to it; and if the railway still refused, and continued an unreasonable overworking of its servants, the Rail way Commission could make an order that proper working time should be observed, and a heavy penalty of £100 per day might be exacted in default. In the working of the measure the Government believed the proceedings would rarely pass the first stage, because that upon the interference of the Board of Trade, the railways would remedy any overwork which had crept into their systems. Her Majesty's Government believed in the moral force of publicity, because, since the matter came before Parliament, there had been a very great amelioration in overwork on the railways of the Kingdom. Most railways had already improved their regulations so much as regarded hours of labour that there was very little left to be desired. They had, at heavy cost, arranged for increased traffic, had organised reliefs, and had taken especial care to provide comfortable accommodation for the workmen when off duty. Difficulties would not arise on the large and well-organised railways. The difficulty of working the Bill would be on poor and bad-paying lines, but even they would find that the law proposed was not a rigid and inelastic one, and by conference with the Board of Trade they would gain time to improve their system without going before the Court and undergoing penalties. The lending prin- ciple of the Bill was that the Board of Trade, as representing the Government, did not interfere in any way with the full responsibility of the railway managers. It was entirely loft to the railways to carry out the regulation of the traffic and to carry out discipline amongst their employed. The Bill extended to all railway servants in the Kingdom. It was a large order, because the railway servants numbered from 390,000 to 400,000. Of course, a large industry like the railways of this country might be inconvenienced—though there was as little restraint on them as was possible—by an examination of complaint on the part of their servants, but the numbers of the workmen and their grievances in the past entitled them to protection. Under the operative portions of the Bill as much friendly communication between the Board of Trade and the railways as possible, in the first instance, was secured; and it was only when the Railway Companies continued in default that the interference of the Railway Commission was brought in. He begged to move the Second Reading of the Bill.

Moved, "That the Bill be now read 2a." —(The Lord Playfair.)


would certainly offer no objection to the Second Reading of the Bill. The noble Lord in charge of the Bill had in the very able and exhaustive explanation he had given to the House fully stated the reasons which had prompted the Board of Trade and the other House of Parliament to take action in this important matter; but as he was at the Board of Trade during all the time that this question was before it, he wished to make a few remarks upon the Bill. In regard to its main features it would, he believed, meet with general acceptance, but there were one or two points in which it went beyond the Report of the Committee of the other House of Parliament and beyond what was generally recognised as necessary by the public. Up to the present time there were two considerations which mainly guided Parliament in interfering with the freedom of adult labour—the one was the health of those employed, and the other that nothing should be done which was contrary to the public interest or the public safety. The noble Lord had told their Lordships that the Bill did not impose any statutory limitation of time beyond which railway servants should not work. In acting on that principle their Lordships would agree that the promoters of the measures had exercised a wise discretion. He entirely concurred with the noble Lord that the conditions under which railway service was carried on were such that no hard and fast line could be adopted. Railway servants were of more than one class, as the speech of the noble Lord indicated. There were some who were engaged in the working of the traffic, and others who were employed in the factories or workshops, and who had nothing whatever to do with the moving of trains in any capacity. He understood the noble Lord to draw a distinction between the two classes engaged in the moving of trains—the guards and drivers, and the signalmen and porters. This Bill in the very first clause drew such a distinction, because it put the cases of persons engaged in working the traffic in a different category from "any class of railway servants" mentioned in the first two lines of the clause. With regard to the hours of labour of those who were engaged in working the traffic and moving the trains, the public had come very conclusively to the opinion that a case had been made out for legislation. Statistics had been systematically collected for five or six years by the Board of Trade, and since that time a Committee of the House of Commons had been sitting for two Sessions. In their Report it had been conclusively shown that a gradual improvement in the conditions under which railway servants worked had been brought about, partly by the force of public opinion, partly from the action taken by the railway servants themselves, and partly from the more enlightened views of the managers of some of the leading railway lines. In the case of most of the larger lines there was no great cause of complaint, but there were others in a different category, and most people would agree with the Committee that, after all was said and done, a case for legislation had been made out. At the same time, it must not be forgotten that there were great difficulties in regularly managing the traffic of a great railway. As the noble Lord has alluded to fogs, I may confirm his reference by saying that, in his evidence before the Committee, the late Sir G. Findlay stated that, even if he had 200 additional men, who would be useless for the rest of the year, during those particular days he would not have been able to do the work at Crewe Station alone with sufficient rapidity and complete efficiency. Then, in addition to difficulties from the elements, railway managers had sometimes exceptional volumes of traffic unexpectedly thrown upon them. In the case of a large cattle market in Ireland, owing to the circumstance that the owners in the early part of the day held over their cattle in order to get better prices, the whole business was done very late in the evening, and the Railway Company had to employ their servants to a very late hour. He did not wish to weary the House, but only desired to point out that statistics without explanation are not always quite reliable. When considering the statistics in conference with some of the officers of the Board of Trade, their attention was directed to an instance on the Brighton and South Coast Railway, in which an engine driver was said to have been employed for 16 or 18 hours. Meeting the manager of the railway soon after, he learnt that what the man had done was to run an excursion train early in the day from London to Brighton, and. in the evening from Brighton to London. He had done no other work, but spent the interval between the two journeys—some 10 hours—on the beach. At first sight the report looked very bad, for that driver was, of course, technically on duty all the time, but their Lordships would agree with him that the man was more likely to have had a happy day than otherwise. It was stated in the Report of the Committee that in some cases interfering with the hours would not be agreeable to the men themselves; that the great Railway Servants' Societies did not include all the men, and that it was universally admitted that railway service was extremely popular. Several railway servants protested against interference by the Legislature with their hours of work. On the other hand, it was right that the public safety should be considered, and that, although the men themselves might not be altogether desirous of having their hours of work limited, care should be taken that those in charge of trains should not be worked such long hours that they could not have their faculties completely about them. He did not know whether any opposition was to be offered to the Bill on the part of the Railway Companies. The noble Lord had stated that no opposition was offered in the Grand Committee by the Railway Directors then present to the inclusion of all their servants, those engaged in factories and works, in the purview of the Bill as well as those engaged in working the traffic. Of course, this was not the stage at which to offer any opposition to that provision, but he would not like to let the Bill go beyond this stage without calling attention to the fact that, so far as regarded those who were employed in factories and workshops and who had nothing to do with the moving of trains, if the Bill were passed in its present shape their Lordships would for the first time be interfering with adult labour without duo consideration. The Committee of the other House had sat for two years, and had not taken a particle of evidence with regard to that large class of railway servants; and, in fact, the very first sentences of the Report proved conclusively to his mind that the class alone who were engaged in working the traffic was in the mind of the Committee when they made their Report. The Bill itself contained words showing at the outset that it applied to railway servants connected with working the traffic, and he thought a very simple alteration would limit the Bill to that class and exclude the other large class working in the factories and workshops. He would content himself, however, at this stage of the Bill with calling the attention of the House to the question, and would leave for further consideration the advisability of making the alteration he had suggested. He shared the opinion and belief of the noble Lord in charge of the Bill, that if the Bill became law, as he hoped it might, it would be made operative through the pressure of public opinion, backed up by the Board of Trade, on the Railway Companies. But if it was necessary to have the big stick in the background, it was desirable that that big stick should be made as efficient as possible. The 4th clause provided that— If a Railway Company fail to comply with any order made by the Railway and Canal Commission in pursuance of this section, or to enforce the provisions of any schedule submitted to the Railway and Canal Commission in pursuance of any such order, and approved by that Commission, the company shall be liable to a fine not exceeding £100 for every day during which the default continues. Therefore, he desired to call the noble Lord's attention to the point whether, if a company was brought before the Railway and Canal Commission, and was fined for failing to comply with its orders, the Commission bad the means of recovering the penalty inflicted, or whether there was any jurisdiction on the part of the Commission to enforce the orders they made. He concurred in the belief that the Bill was likely to prove a very-useful measure, and he hoped their Lordships would give it a Second Reading.


, having been for many years much interested in and mixed up with railway matters, had only to express the hope that their Lordships would assent to the Second Reading, and he believed the opinion of most persons connected with railway management was in favour of the measure. Whilst admitting the distinction drawn by the noble Lord who had just spoken between the two classes of railway servants, he hoped that no alteration would be made in the Bill to necessitate its being sent back to the other House, and endanger its becoming law.

Motion agreed to; Bill read 2a accordingly, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.