HL Deb 05 July 1900 vol 85 cc571-7


Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, in moving the Second Reading of this Bill I would remind your Lordships of the debates which took place in this House and elsewhere on the passing of the Workmen's Compensation Bill of 1897. That Bill introduced a novel principle in the matter of trade and business, making the business itself responsible for the risks of that business. Great apprehensions were entertained at the time that the Bill was going a good deal too far, and many persons, I believe, thought that such legislation would be a serious interference with trade and manufacture, and that great losses would be sustained by those engaged in such trades. There were other objections taken to the passing of that measure, not that it was too large, but that it was too small and did not include workmen in agriculture. The Government, whether rightly or wrongly—in my opinion rightly—said they would not include agriculture in the Bill of 1897 until time had elapsed, and they had been able to see whether the Bill would work well between employer and employed, and whether any serious mischief would arise from the passing of the Bill. Three years have elapsed since the Bill became law, and two things have happened. In the first place, although the Bill has very often been before courts of law in order that a legal interpretation might be obtained of that measure—which was no doubt complicated, and in some cases difficult of interpretation—the principle is now fully understood, and it is well known what the meaning of the Act really is. In the second place, those apprehensions which were conscientiously entertained as to the wisdom of passing the Bill and introducing this novel principle have really come to nothing. The Act has worked very smoothly and has been entirely satisfactory, I believe, to employers and employed. After three years experience of the Act of 1897 the Government are of opinion that it would be wise that the present Bill—which was introduced by a private Member in the other House, where it was thoroughly discussed, and which has for its object the extension of the Act to agricultural labourers, whose exclusion in 1897 was the subject of much comment—should be passed into law this session. I should like to say one word with regard to the first clause. The Bill as originally introduced was simply to extend the provisions of the Act of 1897 to agriculture entirely. It was felt in the discussions in the other House, and I believe outside, that there should be some limitation as to the extent to which the Bill should go. That matter was most carefully discussed and the clause amended, it being felt that if there was no limitation in the case of small farmers, who might simply have an allotment and employ casual labourers, great hardship might be done, such farmers probably being in no better financial position than the casual labourers whom they employed. The first section of Clause 1 was altered, and now reads as follows— From and after the commencement of this Act, the Workmen's Compensation Act, 1897, shall apply to the employment of workmen in agriculture by any employer who habitually employs one or more workmen in such employments. That was to exclude very small men, and to include every bonâ fide farmer. The best words to secure this object which could be found in the other House were those embodied in the Bill. I hope your Lordships will accept the Bill as it has come up to us and pass it into law in the course of the present session. During the discussion elsewhere there were two or three other points raised which had not been foreseen by the private Member who introduced the Bill. In many cases farmers pay by piece work and not by day work, and in order to meet such cases the following section was introduced— Where any such employer agrees with a contractor for the execution by or under that contractor of any work in agriculture Section 4 of the Workmen's Compensation Act, 1897, shall apply in respect of any workman employed in such work, as if that employer were an undertaker within the meaning of that Act. On large farms a great deal of the work is done by a contractor who brings with him machinery for the purpose of threshing and ploughing, and it was thought that it would be very hard on the farmer if he had to pay damages to workmen employed by this contractor, who ought to be himself responsible for the safety of his own men. Therefore, the following clause has also been introduced— Provided that where the contractor provides and uses machinery for the purpose of threshing, ploughing, or other agricultural work, he, and he alone, shall be liable under this Act to pay compensation to any workman employed by him on such work. That would not relieve the farmer to any extent so far as his own men were concerned, but it would relieve him of responsibility for any injury to the servants of his contractor. I do not think I need trouble your Lordships by referring to any of the other matters in the Bill. I will content myself by expressing the opinion that it will be of very great advantage to agricultural interests generally, and I trust that your Lordships will read it a second time.

Moved, "That the Bill be now read a second time."—(Viscount Cross.)


My Lords, I have certainly no objection to the principle of this Bill. I never could understand, and do not now, after the explanation of the noble Viscount, why the Government thought proper in the preceding Bill to exclude the industry of agriculture, and I am rather surprised to hear the argument which appears to be now used in favour of that course having been taken. The application to artisans only seems to be supported on the principle of fiat ecperimentum in corpore vili. That seems to be rather remarkable. I should have thought that the artisans were so important a class that it was not upon them that you should try experiments. I congratulate the noble Viscount on the extraordinarily rosy view which he takes of the working of the Workmen's Compensation Act. The principle of it seems to be generally recognised as good, but I have been myself under the delusion—as I suppose I must call it—that there was very wide discontent with the framing of that Act, that very great difficulty had occurred in applying its machinery, and it was said to be in great part unintelligible, making frequent application to courts of law necessary. I am sure the opinion expressed by the noble Lord as to the smoothness of the operation of the Act cannot be shared generally by those who have paid attention to what has been passing in the Courts. The noble Viscount is persuaded that all the questions which arose under that Act have now been so completely settled that there is no probability of further difficulty. I have no information to lead me to contest that statement, but it certainly seems to me to be a rather sanguine view to entertain. I shall not trouble the House with any remarks with regard to the limitations of the Bill. It may possibly be that these limitations may be necessary, but I should like to ask the noble Viscount for some explanation of two of the sections to which he referred. I understood the noble Viscount to say that the second section of Clause 1 was inserted in order to meet the very common practice of a labourer undertaking work by piecework. I confess that it rather puzzled me, when I saw the clause, to find that a man who undertakes the very ordinary operation of agriculture by piecework is a contractor. If that is the proper legal term I have nothing more to say, but I should like to see a word used which would be more intelligent to the ordinary reader. I am certain there is no farmer in this country who would imagine that a man he employed to hoe turnips at so much an acre was a contractor. I hope the section is perfectly sound in law. I am not a lawyer, but I should think that applications to the Court to interpret the word "contractor" will be far from improbable. With regard to the machinery of the Bill I have nothing to say. I think it is rather surprising that this Bill was left to a private Member to bring forward. I should have thought the Government, having made up their minds that after three years working of the Act of 1897 it was safe to apply it to agricultural labourers, would themselves have brought in a Bill. I do not want to make this a matter of party at all; but certainly the agricultural labourer will have no reason to thank the Government for having passed this Bill.


My Lords, I do not rise to offer any opposition to this Bill. On the contrary, I approve of its provisions, and I have never been able to see why agricultural labourers were not as much entitled to be included in the Act of 1897 as any artisan or labourer of any other kind. I have only one remark to make. I wish to call the noble Viscount's attention to Sub-section 2 of Clause 1, to which the noble Earl the Leader of the Opposition has just alluded. That section says that Section 4 of the Act of 1897 shall apply with a certain proviso. I hope the provision for indemnity contained in Clause 4 of the Act of 1897 will also be inserted in the present Act, and I would submit this point in the hope that the noble Viscount will consider it between now and the Committee stage.


My Lords, I should like to express my satisfaction that Her Majesty's Government have taken up this Bill, and thereby practically ensured its passing into law this session. I do not think that anybody suggested during the debates in this House in 1897 that the Workmen's Compensation Bill of that year was applicable only to those trades which were particularly dealt with by that Bill. I think it is not an unfair thing to say that the extension of the Bill to agricultural labourers was the expectation of those who supported it, and the warning of those who objected to it. There were one or two Members of your Lordships' House who did object to the Bill. The noble Marquess who is now Postmaster General said that nobody had asked for it. However true that may have been at the time, I think there is no doubt that the agricultural labourers now take a very decided interest in this Bill, and desire that it should be passed. On the few occasions on which I have addressed audiences partly composed of agricultural labourers during the past year, I have found that next to the war in South Africa this is the only question which really seems to rouse interest in them. If it is admitted that the principle should be extended to agricultural labourers, the only point is whether it can be done so that no undue hardship or burden is placed upon the employers of agricultural labour. It seems to me that that becomes a question of insurance, and I do not think anybody can say that the terms which are now offered by insurance companies for the insurance of agricultural labourers would place any severe burden on the employers. I understand that certain insurance companies are willing to insure for 3s. per £100 of wages paid, and, though there is a limit of 5s., below which amount the companies will not insure, the very small employers of labour can get out of that by combination. In that way I venture to think that no real hardship will fall upon small employers of labour. Those connected in any way with the land know that one of the difficulties farmers have to contend with is that of obtaining labour at particular times of the year. I do not suggest that the absence during the past three years of the protection of this Compensation Act has been the cause of the difficulty of getting labour, but I do say that a disparity and disadvantage of this kind will make it still more difficult for farmers to obtain labour, and give workmen a still greater inducement to go to the towns. I think it is of the greatest importance that the benefits of the Workmen's Compensation Act of 1897 should be extended to workmen in agriculture as speedily as possible, and I wish again to express my satisfaction that the Government have taken the Bill up, and that there is some chance of its passing; into law.


My Lords, I am glad that Her Majesty's Government have got this Bill so far safely on its way, and that there is a good possibility of a measure becoming law this session which will help to keep labourers on the land. The noble Earl behind me, the Leader of the Opposition, expressed himself as rather afraid of litigation arising, but under the system of insurance which has lately been advertised and set on foot there will be no such risk, because insurance companies will compensate in all cases without the necessity of litigation. Last year I insured all my labourers in Cheshire, and this year I have done the same in Anglesey, and between those two occasions the rates have been lowered from 3s. 6d. to 3s. 3d. or 3s.—I am not quite sure which, but there has been a. considerable reduction. The only case where it might possibly press hard would be that of the small farmer, but he must hope that good luck will prevent him having any serious accident.


Far be it from me to, say that the ingenuity of the lawyers would not enable them to raise fresh points on the Act of 1897. What I meant to say was that the more prominent points have already been decided, so that the Act is much more intelligible now than it was when passed. With regard to what fell from the noble Earl below the gangway, I cannot say that subsection 2 of Clause 1 is in the best form in which it could be put, and I will take care that the observation he has made shall be considered by the lawyers, and if it can be improved in form I will see that some amendment is made at a later stage. That the Act of 1897 has on the whole worked satisfactorily, and that the evils which were apprehended have not proved real, is shown by the fact that the insurance companies are asking much lower rates than were asked at first. If we want any proof that the Act is working satisfactorily we have it by the action of the insurance companies.

On Question, agreed to. Bill read 2a accordingly, and committed to a Committee of the whole House To-morrow.