HL Deb 28 June 1900 vol 84 cc1274-9

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, I trust that the Bill which is now submitted to your Lordships for Second Reading will meet, not only with your formal assent, but also with your full approbation. Your Lordships will remember that for some time past attention has been called to the very large number of accidents which occur to railway servants. In consequence of that state of things, the President of the Board of Trade, at the commencement of last session, introduced a Bill into the other House of Parliament to deal with the subject. A great deal of criticism was applied to that Bill, and the view was expressed that, as it imposed very serious obligations on the railway companies and the means for carrying them out were uncertain, it was advisable that the matter should be deferred until after an inquiry had taken place. My right hon. friend Mr. Ritchie yielded to that view, and a Royal Commission was appointed. That Commission has now reported, and this Bill is almost an echo of that Report. I will place before your Lordships the main facts upon which the Bill is founded. In the year 1898—I take the figures of 1898, as they were the figures before the Commission—there were 534,141 railway servants employed in the United Kingdom, and of those persons 542 were killed and 13,000 were injured. The relative proportion may be thought not very excessive, but these figures have to be first analysed and then considered. It must be remembered that of these 534,141 men many run no risk at all. For instance, there are 53,800 clerks employed in offices who can incur no greater danger in their service than any one of your Lordships sitting in his library, and 77,000 mechanics who work in factories under the supervision of the Home Office, and in respect of whom no return of accidents has been made. Without making these deductions the figures I have quoted show that 1.24 of every 1,000 servants employed are killed in the year and thirty-one in every 1,000 injured. But, as I have said, those figures do not represent the real facts upon which this Bill is founded. There are different degrees of danger. The clerks, as I have said, run no danger at all, while of 25,543 signalmen only nine are killed and 175 injured. We found that we could localise the dangerous portions of the operations, and we were able to demonstrate that a certain portion of the work of railway operatives represents the most dangerous trade that is carried on in this kingdom. The danger mostly comes in dealing with the wagons engaged in the goods and mineral trade when they are in motion, and the persons who are principally employed in what are called the shunting operations, and who are, therefore, exposed to the greatest danger, are the goods guards and the shunters who have charge of the making up of the trains, and the marshalling of the carriages which form the trains. There is also another particularly dangerous trade—that carried on by the platelayers. Of the 14,720 goods guards employed, forty-three were killed and 902 injured; of the 63,360 platelayers employed 122 were killed and 1,020 injured; and of the small number of shunters employed—9,244—forty-seven were killed and 793 injured. Therefore, of the goods guards, about 3.92, or, substantially, four men in every 1,000, were killed and sixty-one injured; of the platelayers, l.9 per 1,000 were killed and sixteen injured, and of the shunters, 5.08 per 1,000 were killed and seventy-eight in every 1,000 injured. May I ask the House for one moment to consider what these figures mean. If any one of your Lordships found that out of 1,000 men he employed five were killed and seventy-eight injured per year he would feel that a duty was cast upon him as the employer to see that some steps were taken to remedy that state of things. Whilst accidents to railway servants generally have decreased during the past thirty years—every credit is due to the railway companies for what they have done in that direction—accidents to shunters have, unfortunately, increased. The number of shunters killed in 1872 was twenty-five, but in 1898 it was forty-seven. The trade in this country which is generally supposed to be the most dangerous is that of the mercantile marine, but, while in 1898 there were 5.2 deaths per 1,000 in the mercantile marine, the number of accidents which are not fatal is exceedingly small. Therefore the figures in the trade which is supposed to be the most dangerous do not come up to those which T have just quoted in respect of goods guards, shunters, and platelayers. In regard to other trades which have been treated by the Legislature as dangerous. I find that in coal mines 1.28 per 1,000 are killed, as against 5.08 per 1,000 of shunters; in metalliferous mines, 0.96 per 1,000 are killed; in factories in the non-textile trades, 0.2 per 1,000 are killed; in factories in the textile trades, 0.l per 1,000 are killed; and in the shipbuilding trade the number of fatal accidents is only 0.5 per 1,000. Therefore it is established that the work in which a certain portion of the railway servants are engaged is by far the most dangerous trade in the country. So far as I know, it is the only dangerous trade now uncontrolled by the protection of the State; and we have to consider whether there is any reason why railway companies should cease to be excepted from the general rules of legislation. Railway servants who work in factories are already under the control of the Home Office. Is there any reason why railway servants who work under a roof and run very little risk of accident should be protected while those who work in the open air and run great risks should not be protected? That is the question your Lordships have to consider. It may assist your Lordships in coming to a conclusion as to whether we should proceed by some sort of legislation or not if you take into consideration the finding of the Commission. The Commission was composed of men the great majority of whom had had large experience of railway operations. The managers of railway companies, the directors of railway companies, and the operatives employed were represented, and they came to this unanimous conclusion—that the deaths occurring and the injuries sustained amongst railway servants are unnecessarily great in number, and can, by means of authoritative action, be diminished. Well, my Lords, that necessarily imposes the duty on someone to see that the authoritative action takes place. As far as I know there can be only two ways of dealing with a subject like this. One is by imposing certain statutory obligations upon railway companies and those who have the charge and the direction of these workmen. That is clearly a very un-elastic method. What is required for one set of things would not be required for another, and a general enactment imposing obligations of a fixed character which could not be altered to suit circumstances may produce great hardships and be perfectly insufficient to effect the object desired. Therefore, the Commission reported that it would be well to follow the precedent afforded by legislative action in similar matters, and to impose upon the Board of Trade the duty of regulating the matters dealt with in the Bill in the same way as the duty of making regulations for the carrying on of other trades is now imposed on the Home Office To what Department of the State ought the duty of regulation to be entrusted? There are at least thirteen or fourteen different powers now exercised by the Board of Trade in respect of railways, and it would be un-businesslike not to give that Board the power of regulating these dangerous trades. The Commission thought, however, that it would be very desirable that the great power, as it will be, which the Bill will confer should be exercised with great care and moderation. It is difficult to compare loss of human life and great injury with any other considerations. The railway companies do not ask that any consideration should be given to them on the score of expense. In their evidence they state— Do not let financial considerations interfere with the action of the Commission or the Legislature in dealing with this matter. In fact, I found nothing but a genuine desire on the part of the representatives of the railway companies to assist in carrying out legislation which will protect the men working on the railways from accidents. They are as anxious as anyone to see a remedy found for the dangerous condition of the trade. But there are some considerations that must be taken into account. It must be remembered that the railway companies represent the whole of the trade of the country, and therefore anything that throws such a burden upon them as will prevent them from carrying on their work ought not to be enacted. Therefore, throughout the Bill, every care has been taken to secure that the duty imposed on the Board of Trade shall be exercised after due consideration for the interests of the railway companies, so that they shall not be called upon to bear unnecessary burdens, but should at the same time be required to carry out such operations as will prevent accidents. Clause 4 provides that— The Board of Trade, in considering any objection to a draft rule, and the Commissioners in considering any objection referred to them, shall, amongst other matters, have regard to the question whether the requirements of the rule would materially interfere with the trade of the country, or with the necessary operations of any railway company. Power is given to the Board of Trade to draw up rules affecting the carrying on of operations in shunting yards, and in order to give the railway companies all reasonable protection power of appeal from the Board of Trade to the Railway Commission is given. Of course, the great question affecting the public interest in this matter is what is called the automatic coupling. It was the basis of the Bill of last year, and in that Bill the obligation was imposed on railway companies within a period of five years to attach an automatic coupling to every carriage used. A great deal is to be said on that subject. As far as the investigation of the Commission went, we were unable to say that a satisfactory automatic coupling had been found which would meet the requirements of our system in England, though we had 187 patents before us. The Commissioners were powerless to deal with the subject, but what is enacted in this Bill is that the railway companies shall co-operate with the Board of Trade in any experiment they undertake, which will make it practically certain that automatic couplings will come into operation when it has been established to the satisfaction of the Board of Trade, by practical testing, that any particular form is a success. The object of automatic couplings, of course, is to prevent men from passing between the wagons, but as there is no automatic uncoupler the men always have to go between the wagons for the purpose of uncoupling or to employ that very unsatisfactory appliance, the pole, for that purpose. It is possible that, by the co-operation of the Board of Trade with the railway companies, a lever coupling may be discovered which will perform both operations and remove the great risks which at present exist. I have stated in the main all the provisions of the Bill, and have given the House a general outline of them. I am aware that the Bill does not represent any heroic legislation, and that it has no political significance of any character. It may therefore attract but little attention, and excite no enthusiasm, but, at the same time, I do hope that your Lordships will be of opinion that a very fair attempt has been made to deal with the subject involved, and if the Bill becomes law I am certain that it will be no discredit to the Legislature that it gave a little of its time to passing a Bill essentially to benefit a portion of the community who are not undeserving of our attention.

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