HL Deb 02 August 1897 vol 52 cc64-75

, in asking the House to Read this Bill a Second time, briefly stated the reasons that had induced Her Majesty's Government to deal with the subject. The purpose of the Bill was to prevent the importation of foreign prison-made goods. Our own prisoners were not allowed to compete with outside labour, and Her Majesty's Government could see no reason why goods made in foreign convict establishments should be allowed to enter into trade competition. We were under no obligation to provide this market, and it would be entirely contrary to policy to continue to do so. It was obviously right and proper that we should go as far as we possibly could to stop such trade without interfering with legitimate trade and industry. There could be no doubt whatever of the opinion of the House of Commons on the subject. In February 1895, during the tenancy of office by the late Government, this Resolution was proposed, and after an evening's Debate was accepted by the then President of the Board of Trade:— That in the opinion of this House it is incumbent on Her Majesty's Government, in the interest of the industrial classes of the United Kingdom, at once to take steps to restrict the importation of goods made in foreign prisons and by the enforced labour of convicts and felons. After its acceptation by the late Government this Resolution was unanimously adopted by the late House of Commons Since that time a General Election had taken place, and without saying that the subject was given any very great prominence, still it would be found on looking over the addresses of those who were now Members, and those who were then candidates for membership of the other House, that a very considerable number of addresses mentioned this subject, and with still greater frequency it was referred to in speeches at election meetings and in the questions and answers that formed part of such proceedings. Since the accession to power of the present Government, a Committee appointed by the late President of the Board of Trade had finished its Inquiry. He did not wish to attach undue importance to the proceeding, but after the House of Commons accepted such a Resolution as he had read, one might feel considerably surprised that it was thought necessary to appoint a Committee at all; however, that course was taken, and the Committee had presented its Report. Since the present Government came into Office efforts had been made to come to an understanding on the subject with the Governments of other countries, but they were not entirely successful, and it was necessary therefore to have recourse to legislation. The facts would not he thought be disputed that some classes of goods made in foreign prisons, or if actually in institutions we should know as prisons, by forced labour of the convict classes, did come into competition in this country with the productions of outside labour. If there was any doubt about that it would be removed by the Report from Mr. Reginald Power, the second Secre-to the Embassy at Berlin, to the effect that the work of 29,200 convicts in Prussia, Bavaria and the Thuringian States competed with outside industry in various trades, and in Prussia alone 8,000 convicts were employed in such labour, and Mr. Power said there was a great deal of opposition to the employment of prison labour in productive work in competition with private industry. Mr. Strachy, Charge d'Affaires in Saxony, reported that in 1892 4,000 Saxon prisoners were employed for 1,350,000 days at the rate of 8d. per day, and there was such complaint and denunciation of the system that legislative restrictions were placed on the sale of prison productions within certain districts. Mr. Poulett also described the system by which prisoners were hired out at rates varying from 3d. to 1s. per day, according to their capacity for work, or by which payment was made for the finished articles, and he also described how he had seen prisoners at work on various articles from English models before them, and he enumerated the various articles thus imitated. It seemed almost adding insult to injury that goods should not only be made by prisoners to compete with our free labour, but in imitation of English models to suit the English market, while such competition was not permitted in the country where the goods were produced. He did not think this could be defended; he should be surprised if any noble Lord should maintain this was right in principle. It might be alleged that the attempt to stop this importation would cause an undue interference with trade, and it had been said that it would infringe the principle of free trade, but that he altogether denied. It was no interference with free trade to endeavour to stop the competition of goods made by subsidised labour. It was sometimes said this matter was small in amount and not worth taking account of. It did not seem to him to matter whether the traffic was large or small. If it were to be alleged that the traffic was a large one, then there was the larger case for putting a stop to it. If it was only small then it seemed to him much better to stop it before it had time to grow up and before anything in the nature of vested interests could be said to have grown up in regard to it. He did not say it was a gigantic evil, but what he did say was that as a practical question of business, that as a practical question of wages in some departments of labour—principally in the production of mats and brushes—it was a matter of great importance to some people. He put it as high as this—that to stop this traffic was a question of justice, and it did not matter whether it was a large traffic or not, because few people were just as entitled as many to justice if their legitimate interests were interfered with. He anticipated one other objection—that the Bill which was now proposed would not be effectual. That was a matter of opinion and of prophecy. Whether the Government or those who made this criticism were right could not now be determined. For his part, he believed it would be to a very considerable extent effectual; but, whether effectual or not, he attached the greatest importance to Parliament declaring that it was a thing which should be stopped. If the Bill was not effectual, then he hoped they might be able to devise something which might be more effectual still. If noble Lords opposite said it was not an effectual Measure, he was sure they were not jealous of allowing them any credit in the matter. If they would help to make it more effectual he was sure their assistance would be welcomed on that side of the House. If the House was good enough to give the Bill its Second Reading he should, in conformity, with a pledge given in another place, move Amendments for the purpose of excepting goods in transit, or not imported for the purposes of trade, or not of a description manufactured in the United Kingdom. They did not wish to go further than was absolutely necessary, but they did say that, as a matter of general principle, where goods produced in this way came into competition with legitimate free labour on this side, they were only doing what was right to take every step in their power to put a stop to that competition. He moved the Second Reading of the Bill.


said that, as Chairman of the Committtee appointed to inquire into the whole subject, he ventured to make a few observations on the Bill. He was told that they were only doing justice, if there was a grievance, to remove that grievance. But, supposing there was the grievance, he could not understand how they were required to bring in a Bill of this kind. As a general rule, a Bill affecting trade seriously was brought in on the complaint of some influential bodies, or on some admitted grievance. What was the genesis of this Bill? In 1894 a sensational article was published in The Hardwareman with regard to prison labour. On the initiative of that paper, the subject was taken up by his Friend, Sir Howard Vincent, who brought in a Bill in the Session of 1894 exactly in the terms of the present Bill. It did not proceed to a Second Reading, but in the Session of 1895, on exactly the same evidence, Sir Howard Vincent passed a Motion in which the Government were asked to restrict the importation of prison made goods. No further Parliamentary proceedings were taken on the Motion, and no further evidence had been adduced except that which was produced before the Committee in 1895. Therefore the whole of the subject matter of this Bill rested upon the evidence that was produced before that Committee. What was that evidence? They had not the advantage of hearing Mr. Towers, nor the other gentleman whom Lord Balfour had mentioned. They had the advantage of hearing Mr. Pollitt, who was in fact the correspondent of The Hardwareman. They put 12 advertisements into the provincial papers in May; 29 into papers of other descriptions in June; they asked Chambers of Commerce and Committees of the Trades Unions to come forward, and yet they had only evidence that two trades could really complain—the brush-makers and mat-makers. With regard to the brush-makers' trade they found that the evidence proved beyond all possible contradiction that though there might have been some diminution in the cheaper sort of brushes the trade had not been injured at all, and could not be injured by prison labour, because it was not cheaper than free labour. They proved, further, that what was cheaper than either free labour or prison labour were the machines which were making an enormous number of brushes in England. Therefore if they could disprove the case of there being no injury to the trade they did disprove it. Then came the mat-makers. It was proved, no doubt, that there had been some competition, which the witnesses, rightly or wrongly, attributed to prison-made mats, but there again they found that free labour in Belgium, where it was asserted these mats came from, was cheaper than prison labour, and that therefore the only effect of stopping prison-made labour would have been to have set on foot free labour factories in Belgium, with exactly the same result to the English market. Therefore they said, and he repeated it in that House, that there was no case whatever. So that the whole thing came to this, that in two trades only, relating to two countries only, Germany and Belgium, there was some complaint of prison-made goods competing with their manufactures, and that those complaints were absolutely and completely proved not to exist, and could not possibly exist. In order to investigate whether any steps could be taken to stop it, they asked the Commissioners of Customs whether declarations could be relied upon, and they said they believed they would have no effect. What was the "sufficient evidence," according to the President of the Board of Trade, the Commissioners of Customs were to require in this matter? Any rival manufacturer might trump up any case he liked before the Commissioners of Customs; he might delay his rival's manufactures and there were no means of punishing the false witness, however false he might be. He admitted that one of the witnesses did say that they could enforce the Act if they gave bribes high enough, and had informers corrupt enough. They were to go in for a system of espionage of the most villainous description in order to keep down a competition that did not exist. He was most surprised to hear that the President of the Board of Trade was reported to have said that this Bill extended to the Colonies, and that the expression "foreign goods" under this Bill and in the principal Act included the Colonies. Had they had all this talk about a United Empire, to be told that the Colonists were foreigners, and that British subjects were to be treated as if they were foreigners? As far as he could make out there was not the slightest ground for believing that any Judge would construe the word "foreign" as including the Colonies. He could only say that the statement of the President of the Board of Trade was the most extraordinary proposition he had ever heard of. This Bill rested upon no grounds whatever. It was proved that there was no grievance, that there could be no grievance, that the remedy was worse than the disease, and that the remedy could not be effectual. If the Prime Minister condescended, as he did sometimes condescend, to notice what he had said, he trusted the noble Marquess would not tell their Lordships that the evidence he had brought forward from this Committee was invalidated, because the Chairman was an old man, and perhaps an incompetent man. At all events, servility and incompetence were not infectious, and the Members who sat with him, and signed the Report were as competent to judge of evidence as any Member of that House. If that evidence were not disproved, this Bill was perfectly unnecessary—was a bogus and a sham. The Bill could do no good, and it must do harm to the commerce of the country. ["Hear, hear!"]


said that his noble Friend had shown that on the facts there was not a shadow of foundation for the Bill. He himself proposed to challenge the principles on which the Bill was founded. Even if there had been a real and serious competition with the trade of this country, arising out of goods made in foreign prisons, that would be no justification for the Bill. Why were the consumers of goods brought from abroad to be prevented from getting them on cheaper and better terms because those goods were prison-made? How far would the Government carry the principle? Were they going to inquire into all the circumstances under which goods were produced in foreign countries before allowing them to be imported? Some years ago the noble Marquess had tried to deal in that way with bounty-fed sugar, and he had enough of that attempt. He doubted whether, even with pressure from the West Indies, the noble Marquess would repeat the attempt. There was the question raised many years ago as to the exclusion of slave-made sugar, and it had been, recently proposed, in the same quarters from which the demand for this Bill proceeded, that we should inquire into the wages of men employed in foreign countries, and that goods should be excluded if the wages paid in the production were less than the wages paid in this country. He had heard that it had been proposed to the Admiralty and in the London County Council, that ships made on the Clyde should not be purchased because the wages paid there were lower than the wages in London. Was the Government going to that extent? Once entered upon the career of exclusion, the Government would be landed in every absurdity, and finally in the destruction of free trade. But the real foundation for this Bill was what had already been done in this country. At the bidding of the trade unions—and it was one of the worst biddings ever made—the Governments of both parties had consented to exclude English prison-made goods from the markets of this country. That was an offence against the common principles of humanity. How could prisoners be reformed unless they were taught to do something useful? And if they were allowed to make useful goods, those goods must be sold. But let the matter be looked at from the point of view, not of humanity in general, but of the British workman. Prisoners were sustained out of the taxes laid upon honest labour. Were they, then, to do nothing for their own maintenance? On the strictest economic grounds, and having regard to the pecuniary interests of the free British workman, it was madness to prevent prisoners making useful goods, or those goods from being sold. But these prison-made goods were to be used in Government establishments. To do that was just as much to displace goods made by free labour as if they were sold in the open market, because Government establishments must buy in the open market if they did not buy from prisons. In speaking on the really admirable Workmen's Compensation Bill the other day, the Prime Minister said that some of the arguments in favour of that Bill were above the average level, while some were below it. The arguments in favour of this Bill were all of them much below the average level. The practice in England on which this Bill was really founded was a sham and a piece of administrative hypocrisy perpetrated at the bidding of the worst and most ignorant section of the trade unions. He had had conversations with some of the most efficient and able representatives of labour, who were of opinion that nothing could be worse for the workmen than the present practice. If this proved to be the case with workmen generally, the Government in this matter had not only committed a crime; they had made a blunder, and he hoped and believed that at the elections it would be found to be so. He was forcibly reminded of a conversation he had had with the late Mr. Bright soon after the last democratic Reform Bill had been passed, when Mr. Bright said,— The people have now the power in their own hands. If those whose duty it is to speak to them speak the truth, all will be well. But if, instead of speaking the truth to them, they flatter their prejudices, God help them both!


I suppose that as both the noble Lords who have spoken did me the honour to allude to me, I must do what I should not otherwise have done—take a short part in the Debate. I must say that I think they were somewhat hard put to it for argument. The noble Lord who first spoke belaboured me because I had criticised a Bill of his on the pollution of the river streams. The noble Lord who has just sat down wont into questions of sugar bounties, which are perhaps a little antiquated now. Then he turned round upon me and attacked me for what I said on the Workmen's Compensation Bill.


No, I praised it.


Well, it is the same thing. [Laughter.] My only remark on these observations is that they do not seem to me to be very relevant to the question now before the House. The noble Lord who had just sat down was preaching a doctrine which he has preached for many a day. But the stream of time has gone past him, and he finds himself, as the somewhat belated advocate of a rather outworn doctrine, standing preaching in the wilderness. [Laughter and "No!" from Lord FARRER.] The noble Lord is the advocate of the consumer, and of nothing but the consumer. For him, the producer does not exist. The consumer is the only person to whom the State ought to pay any attention, or of whom it ought to take any care; and the producer is to be entirely neglected. I do not propose to enter upon such a thorny and difficult question. I only wish to point out that the noble Lord is taking up a position which in point of time is rather outworn, and that those who belong to the party of the supremacy of the consumer no longer have the undisputed dictation which they formerly enjoyed. The noble Lord gave us a refreshing flood of abstract principles to guide us through our hot and weary way. [Laughter]. I am very desirous to follow all those who will furnish, in this difficult study of politics, abstract principles which will spare us the labour of reflection or inquiry. But my difficulty is that, with all my desire to constitute myself a humble follower of high and great principles, I find that the great principles will run into each other's way. There is the noble Lord, with the great principle of ultra-free trade, as we used to worship it 30 or 40 years ago. On that principle he says that we ought to allow the prisons to become, on State credit and by the power of the State, manufacturers of saleable goods and sellers of those goods to the people. But there is my noble Friend opposite (the Earl of Wemyss), who will tell me that that is Socialism, and that, following the high principle of Individualism, and obeying the great doctrine of the liberty of the subject, I am bound to resist to the utmost any effort of the State to take over the duties which are discharged by the free individual in modern society. Which of the two am I to obey? I do not understand how prison labour can be supported for purposes of sale on any but strongly Socialistic principles. I do not understand, again, how the sale of prison-made goods can be opposed on any ground which is not contrary to the high Free Trade doctrine preached by the noble Lord (Lord Farrer). I am bewildered and confused by this conflict of high principle, and all I can do is to deal with the little morsel of fact before me, which is that Governments, good or bad, honest or dishonest, to whichever side of the House they belonged, have coalesced in this—that they will not allow goods made in English prisons to be sold outside in competition with the ordinary labourer. Finding that to be the fact, for the same reason as I should object to a customs duty, if it had not an excise duty to back it, I say that if you have instituted this prohibition—and I find it there without the slightest chance of its being abandoned—the only thing you can do in consistency and justice to your own people is to deal with the foreigner and his prison-made goods precisely on the principles on which you deal with English prison-made goods. Being satisfied of that small fact, in this conflict of high doctrine I shall vote for the Second Reading of the Bill. ["Hear, hear!"]


The noble Marquess said that this principle was upheld by both Parties in the State. I suppose he was referring to the action of the late Government. In that case, I am bound to follow an example which has often been set on the other side, by saying that in that matter I did not agree with my Party. [Laughter.] Having freed myself thus far I have further to say that it must be remembered that since that Motion was passed there has been an Inquiry on the subject which certainly does not seem to have afforded any strong support to the Measure which was shadowed forth in the Resolution moved by Sir Howard Vincent. I am not going to put this matter very high. I think this is a very trivial, small, and unimportant Bill. But the Secretary for Scotland spoke of the great injustice to the British workman of allowing the products of subsidised labour to find their way into this country in competition with the articles which he produces. I think that is a very far-reaching argument indeed. The noble Marquess said he would not go into the question of the sugar bounties. Neither shall I. But taking simply the producer of sugar—I am not now dealing with the question of the advantages to the consumer—it seems to me undoubtedly a hardship that he should have to compete, not with the free labour of other countries, but of that labour supported in the great countries of France and Germany by enormous bounties. I am one of those antiquated Free-traders of which the noble Marquess spoke. I will not, however, occupy the time of the House in the discussion of abstract principles. I will only make the remark that when I hold to the old doctrine that you should look mainly to the interest of the consumers, I do so for this very simple reason, that no man can consume anything without paying for it, and therefore if you consume largely you must produce largely to pay for what you consume. I therefore believe that if a country buys largely of foreign competitors it sells its own produce, because in no other way can it pay for what it buys. I sympathise with my noble Friend Lord Farrer in what he said as to the effect of this Bill upon our prison system. I do not think that is a slight matter. Unless we can employ our prisoners on useful work—and in order to do so we must sell that work if it is over and above what we can consume for State purposes—I believe it will be found impossible to maintain a satisfactory system of prison discipline. I was struck very much indeed by a short Report from the United States which, has been laid on the Table of the House, and from which it appears that in New York they prohibited prison labour absolutely, and the effect on the prison labour was most deplorable in every way. Therefore, whatever opinions may be entertained as to whether prison-made goods should be allowed for sale, it is a, matter for serious reflection indeed, how far you can carry the principle of this Bill in this country or in any other country in regard to the treatment of criminals. To be consistent you ought not to employ convicts on the great dockyards, or in the construction of other great Government works, because for every convict you employ you must necessarily dispossess so much free labour. The question is a very wide one, and for that reason I do not like the principle of the Bill. Its effect, I think, will be next to nothing. It may catch the support of a certain number of ignorant people in the country, who may imagine that you are doing something for labour; but its practical result will be little indeed.

Motion agreed to; Bill Read 2a accordingly, and committed to a Committee of the whole House To-morrow.