HL Deb 26 February 1901 vol 89 cc1168-72

My Lords, when last year I had the honour of bringing an Early Closing Bill before the attention of the House the noble Marquess at the head of the Government intimated that, in his opinion, the subject had not yet been thoroughly considered, at any rate, by your Lordships. But in reply to a subsequent question the noble Marquess was good enough to say that the subject was one which it would be well to inquire into, but suggested that, owing to the lateness of the session, the inquiry should be deferred. I have every reason to believe that there will be no opposition to the motion standing in my name, and it will therefore be unnecessary for me to trouble your Lordships by going into the whole question, but I will only observe that the House of Commons have passed a unanimous resolution that the hours of labour in shops are excessive, and that legislation is necessary.

The Committee which sat in 1886 reported unanimously that in many places the hours of labour range as high as eighty-four per week, or thirty hours more than are allowed under the Factory Acts. I have satisfied myself that, though they are shorter now in some places, in others they are even longer. It is quite unnecessary, I am convinced, to point out to your Lordships how very injurious these long hours must be, especially in the case of women. Your Lordships will remember the strong testimony last year on the point given by Lord Lister, who speaks, of course, with much greater weight than it is possible for me to do. The Committee suggested a Bill drawn on the lines of that which we suggest, and which has been examined and approved by two subsequent House of Commons Committees. I am glad to say that in this case there is no conflict between capital and labour, between employers and employed. The shopkeepers of the country—and I say it to their honour— are most anxious to see the hours of labour shortened. We shall be able to satisfy the Committee that most of the Tradesmen's Associations through the country are in favour of the legislation which we suggest; and of the few which hold back some do so because they wish for a more drastic measure. The noble Marquess stated, very naturally, that the interests and convenience of consumers ought to be considered. No doubt the Committee will carefully consider them.

In the Early Closing Bill, which has several times passed its second reading in the House of Commons, the consent of the local authority is required before anything can be done. We thought that was a sufficient safeguard, though personally I feel sure that if the hour of closing is left, as three House of Commons Committees have agreed, to the shopkeepers themselves, there is no fear that they will select an hour which would inconvenience their customers. In this respect the opinion of the Trades Councils is most important, and they are strongly in favour of legislation. The long hours of labour in shops debar the small shopkeepers and their assistants from the opportunities of fresh air, exercise, amusement, self-improvement, and family intercourse which are open to other classes, and I believe no reform is more urgently needed or will do more to promote the health and happiness of the inhabitants of our great cities.

Moved, "That a Select Committee be appointed to inquire into the length of the hours of labour in shops; and whether any and, if so, what steps should be taken to diminish them."—(Lord Avebury.)


My Lords, there has been considerable discussion on this matter, mainly at the instance of the noble Lord, for nearly twenty years past, and I think, perhaps, the time has come when it would be desirable to obtain some fuller information on the subject as to the wishes of the classes concerned than we have to-day. This is one of the cases, like those concerned with temperance, in which the two Houses of Parliament occupy a somewhat difficult position. They are asked to legislate as to matters affecting the personal happiness and well-being or, at least, the comfort of a very large number of persons, of very large classes, to which with scarcely an exception members of the two Houses do not themselves belong. It is, therefore, very difficult for them without careful examination, and without obtaining evidence from the persons who are immediately concerned, to know how such a measure would interfere with the con-fort of the classes who are affected by it.

But what is quite clear is that the measure of the noble Lord is an absolutely new one. The Factory Acts have nothing to do with it. In the Factory Acts Parliament has provided certain hours beyond which persons concerned shall not work, and, consequently, sufficient attention has been given to the matter to ensure, to a certain extent, that no injustice is clone to either side by the limitation of the natural liberties of the working man; but that is not the case with the class of matters which the noble Lord has taken in hand. He does not propose any fixed rule whatever. He could not do so; but what he proposes is that the local authorities, which differ very much in different places, should have the power of determining whether or not men might work during the latter part of the day, and, what is; more important, whether the consumers of the necessaries of life should be allowed to buy them late in the day or not. It is a very striking interference with the liberty both of the consumer and of the shopkeeper. Whether it is wise or not is precisely the matter which this Committee for which the noble Lord has moved should inquire into. I thought from the few words he has dropped that the noble Lord's mind was considering more what employers and philanthropists thought than what was thought by the consumers, whose whole day is occupied by their avocations, and to whom, there- fore, it is a matter of extreme importance that there should be no hindrance to their making the necessary provision for themselves during the later hours of the day.

I am inclined to agree with the noble Lord that we had better obtain from those concerned all the information we can. I would only note the point that on such a matter it is very easy to get the evidence; of philanthropic persons who are urged to it by very strong motives, but it is very difficult to get the evidence of the ordinary consumer, to whom the danger which may seem to lurk in the proposal may be distant and unreal enough. I trust the noble Lord will do his utmost to let us have evidence of all kinds, that he will not bring forward merely philanthropic persons with extremely amiable sentiments; but that he will try to find out what the ordinary working men, who exist in millions, think of the limitation of their power of providing the necessaries of life for themselves and their families, what they think of the proposal, and whether they are of opinion that the relief given to the shopmen is adequate to the inconvenience and trouble that they would sustain. I hope the Committee may really do good and enable us to ascertain fully the feelings of the working classes on this point. It is entirely a matter of their feelings, but we must not be led into assuming that they have feelings which are merely lent them by persons who affect to speak in their name.

There has been a tendency in this House rather to claim that, when a Commission has been appointed and has agreed with more or less unanimity to a certain Report, there is an obligation incumbent on the Government to adopt the policy and wishes of the Commission. That is, of course, an entirely new contention, which until these later years no one has heard of but I only wish to say that in assenting to this Committee I absolutely repudiate the idea that this or any Government will be bound by the decision to which the Committee comes. The evidence which the Committee collects will be part of the material on which the decision of the Government will be based, but it will involve no obligation whatever on them. I have no objection to the Committee.


May I just explain that I do not propose that the local authority alone should fix the hours, but they should be empowered to act on the representation of the shopkeepers. I entirely concur with the noble Marquess that what we wish to have is not the opinion of philanthropic persons, but the opinion of those who are practically interested in the matter. There are a number of associations which I am sure the noble Marquess will admit are entitled to speak in the name of the shopkeepers, and which I shall be able to show are almost unanimous in supporting legislation; while, as to working-class opinion, there are the trades councils and trade unions, which are the official representatives and may be fairly taken to know the views of the working classes. I see that my noble friend shakes his head.' If there are other means of finding out the feelings of the working classes, and the noble Marquess will suggest them, it would be very desirable that they should be employed. Speaking as a man of business, I am sure that shopkeepers would never wish to shut up their shops at a time when they were doing any substantial business. But these are, of course, matters for the Committee.

On Question, motion agreed to. Committee ordered accordingly.