HL Deb 27 July 1906 vol 162 cc13-28

rose to call attention to the exceptional position at present occupied by the laundry industry under the Factory Act, and to ask His Majesty's Government whether, in view of the declared policy of successive Governments, they would undertake to introduce legislation in the next session of Parliament for the effective regulation of all laundries, or whether if a Bill were introduced into this House similar to that which was passed in 1902, they would give special facilities for its passage through the other House of Parliament.

The noble Earl said: My Lords, my object in placing upon the Order Paper the Notice which stands in my name was, first of all, to draw attention to the present position of a question which, though not of very general interest, is one, nevertheless, upon which many strong opinions are felt, and which is considered of considerable importance, not only by the laundry interest as a whole, but also by a large number of people who take an interest generally in factory legislation; and secondly to try and elicit some definite statement from His Majesty's Government as to their intentions in the matter. The subject may be divided into two distinct branches. First of all there is the question of the regulation of the hours of labour in all laundries; and, secondly, there is the question of the inclusion within the law of two special classes of laundries which are at the present moment exempted.

Let me take, first of all, the case of ordinary laundries. In 1895 a Factory Act was passed by a Liberal Government which extended to ordinary commercial laundries, and certain clauses were embodied in that Act that were intended to regulate their hours of labour. the object of those clauses was to prevent excessive hours been worked in an industry which is exceptionally severe and which entails very considerable hardships on those who are engaged in it both as regards the character of the employment and the conditions under which that employment is carried on. That was the object of the clauses, but in practice they have entirely failed to carry out that object; in fact, they have proved altogether unworkable. As many as fourteen hours a day may be worked on any three days in the week, so long as the weekly total does not exceed sixty. Year after year the Factory Reports have testified to the impossibility of finding out whether or not this weekly limit has boon exceeded, or of preventing very excessive hours being worked upon particular days.

In the Factory Report for 1905, which has just been issued, mention is made of one firm where several young women were employed for twenty eight hours, from 8 o'clock on Friday morning till 12 o'clock noon on Saturday. An interval of two and a half hours was given during the night when the girls were allowed to lie upon the floor with their coats for pillows in order to take a rest. In another firm one worker had been employed for thirty-seven consecutive hours and another for thirty-two and one-half. These hours are, of course, illegal, and the firms were prosecuted for allowing them; but those cases are mentioned in order to show how necessary it is for the hours of labour to be strictly, regulated. The Report goes on to mention that a great increase has taken place in the legal hours in laundries, owing to the fact that of recent years employers have come to find out how very elastic the law is, and what a very largo margin is allowed to thorn. In fact, the Report shows that it is quite legal for young girls to be kept employed for sixteen hours at a stretch, provided they have had two hours in that time for meals. Mr. Ritchie, when he was Home Secretary, frankly admitted that the law had been found unworkable. Speaking in 1901, he said— the law has been found practicably incapable of enforcement, for many reasons. On another occasion he spoke of the almost complete failure as regards the working of the Act in reference to laundries.

The law, as it stands at the present moment, is not defended by any one. It is condemned by the factory inspectors. Year after year they protest against it and urge that it should be amended. Those who are engaged in the industry itself, whether as employers or employed, are equally agreed in condemning it, and it has boon declared unworkable and unsatisfactory by the spokesmen of both political Parties. Not only that, but clauses have been already drafted for its amendment, which were agreed to by the Employers' Federation of Laundry Associations, and received the unanimous approval of the Grand Committee on Trade in the House of Commons. Was ever a stronger case made out for legislative change? Yet we have still the unsatisfactory state of affairs left unchanged, and we are no nearer an amendment of the law to-day than we were in 1901, when this general agreement was arrived at. So much for ordinary laundries. I desire to ask His Majesty's Government whether they have made up their minds to take up this question, and whether they will introduce legislation making all laundries either factories or workshops.

Now for the exemptions. Under the law at present two classes of laundries are exempted from the law, namely, those which are attached to religious or charitable institutions and those in which not more than two persons are employed. I am aware that on this question there is less unanimity than there is upon the question of ordinary laundries. Some opposition still remains to the inclusion of these two classes, but even upon this point there is a greater measure of agreement than is usually found on any question of importance. Proposals for the inclusion of both these classes were submitted to your Lordships in 1902, and received the support of noble Lords opposite as well as noble Lords on this side of the House. Support was further given by the most rev. Primate, who was at the time Bishop of Winchester, and by other members of the Episcopal Bench. With regard to the smaller laundries in which only two persons are employed, I have only this to say, that the worst cases or overwork and also of insanitary and unsuitable premises are reported from this particular class. It will surely be agreed that it is most undesirable, in the interest of the community as a whole, that clothes should be allowed to be washed under the conditions which prevail in some of those places; and, moreover, no logical argument can be brought forward to sustain the position that you may employ two persons for longer hours and under worse conditions than you would be allowed to employ three persons. The distinction is both arbitrary and unjust.

The opposition to the inclusion of institution laundries is another matter. The opposition to this arises, I think, from three sources. First of all, it arises from ignorance as to what is exactly meant by inspection, and by a fear that inspection might lead to some interference with the authority of the sisters in these places. That this fear is chimerical has already been proved. During the last two or three years many of the most reasonable of these institutions—and let me say that it is not a question between Catholic and Protestant institutions, but it applies equally to institutions of all denominations—have voluntarily submitted to a system of inspection by factory inspectors. They have found in practice that whereas they have been able to receive advice as to the guarding of their machinery, as to the nature of their premises, and the hours of their workers, no attempt has been made, and no attempt is likely to be made, to interfere in any way with the authority of the sisters over their inmates; and the opposition which arises on that score is already breaking down. The second reason for oppostion arises, I think, from a consciousness of the very genuine difficulties of applying the law to these particular places owing to the character of the women who are kept there. But these difficulties it has already been shown might easily be overcome, either by special provisions in the law or else by giving to the Home Secretary a very wide discretion. The last ground of opposition comes from those who claim that there is no need for the inspection of these places; but that cannot be maintained for a moment in view of the overwhelming case which, as I shall show presently, can be made out against it. But if that opposition were ten times greater than it is I should still insist that a change in the law was necessary, first of all, in justice to the laundry interest as a whole, and, secondly, in the interests of the institutions themselves.

It is urged by those who are the supporters of those particular institutions that since their laundry business is carried on not primarily for profit but for the good of the inmates, they cannot be said, in the ordinary sense, to compete with commercial laundries. I am very anxious not to be misunderstood on this point. I was misunderstood when I spoke on the Second Reading of the Factories and Workshops Acts (Amendment) Bill in 1902, and I am anxious to use this opportunity of clearing up any misunderstanding which my words gave rise to on that occasion. For instance, I spoke of the House of Mercy at Clewer as being in competition with a commercial laundry for the washing of Eton College. I received a few days afterwards from the warden of that institution a letter pointing out that my remarks were untrue, and that they were very unjust to the institution of which he was in charge. He pointed out to me that no attempt had ever been made by their institution to take away the business of the commercial laundry; that, in fact, they themselves were the first in the field, and that as the commercial laundry had come upon the scene many years later it was unjust to say that his institution was competing with the commercial laundry. Indeed, he thought, it was rather the other way about. What I meant to imply was this, that where large profits are made, as they are made, by these institutions out of their laundry work it is impossible to urge that they do not compete with other establishments. That large profits are made I showed in 1902, but I will quote some passages from the Factory Report for 1905, which has just been issued, bearing on this particular point. On page 260 the following passage occurs— Knowing as we do the great pressure which often occurs in commercial laundries, and the amount of organisation which is needed to deal with it, we feel that either a great deal more overtime is worked in commercial laundries than is needed, or that the information obtained in institution laundries is quite unreliable, for one fact we very clearly ascertained, viz., that the work in both classes of laundries is identical. We found washing being done for clubs, restaurants, hotels, private customers, ships, colleges, schools and churches, involving the difficulties which attend contract and seasonal work. A few pages further on an appendix is inserted, in which are quoted some of the sums made by these institutions. The Report says— We have been unable to obtain any evidence on this subject in any of the large and nourishing places, but we append a few notes gathered from the smaller places. These figures, therefore, apply only to the small institutions. The first institution referred to is a Protestant rescue home. The receipts by laundry work amounted to £1,275, and the receipts from other sources to £113. In the case of another rescue home, the laundry receipts amounted to £1,207 and the receipts from other sources to £104. Next we are given the figures of a female penitentiary. The laundry receipts were £1,711 and the receipts from other sources £58. I only quote these figures to show the extent of the business carried on and that very large sums are made in this industry. It is not fair, when two laundries are engaged in doing a particular business and are in a state of competition with each other—I will use the word in a passive rather than an active sense — that you should impose on the one restrictions and limitations which necessitate the spending of considerable sums of money and the working of shorter hours, and that you should leave the other one entirely free.

It is particularly unfair when the branch of the industry which is exempted starts with the advantage of not having to pay any wages. It is perfectly true that instead of wages they provide board and lodging for their workers which is not done by the ordinary commercial laundry; but I would point out that the provision of accommodation isquahome and notqualaundry, and that the provision would be made whether the laundry was conducted as part of the institution or not. I say it is unfair, in the interest of the trade, that laundries which do such a large amount of business should be exempted. I went on to show, on the last occasion that I addressed your Lordships on this question, that an amendment of the law was required in the interests of the inmates of these institutions themselves. In 1902 we could only guess at the conditions which prevailed in many of these places. Now, in 1906, we have positive evidence on that point. As I mentioned just now, many of the institutions have lately submitted to voluntary inspection, and we have in the Report which has just been issued evidence as to the state of affairs which that inspection has revealed.

Though long extracts from Factory Reports and Blue Books are generally tedious I must ask your Lordships' indulgence if I read one or two from this Blue Book. I am sure that the facts here disclosed will be far more conclusive than any arguments I could bring forward. First of all, I am happy to find among the reports of the men inspectors a very high testimony to the excellent manner in which a good many of those places are managed. I will quote one as typical of what I mean. Mr. Shuter, of Plymouth, writing about laundries connected with religious institutions, says— the buildings are admirably suited for the purpose for which they are used, being lofty, well lighted, and well ventilated. The greatest attention is paid to cleanliness, lime washing, etc., while the hours worked are very few compared with those permitted by law in other laundries. The inmates present a most comfortable appearance and, so far as I am able to judge, these laundries have nothing whatever to fear from being placed under ordinary inspection. There are several other Reports of the same kind showing that many of these laundries are well conducted, and—and this point I ask your Lordships to notice especially—that inspection has been welcomed by the authorities of the institutions.

But, if we turn later on in the Bluebook to the Report of His Majesty's lady inspectors, we find the matter treated far more exhaustively, no less than ten pages being devoted to this one subject. Twenty-seven English institution laundries and 59 Irish institution laundries were inspected. There were examples of places well conducted, but there are many accounts in these pages of conditions which can only be described as far from satisfactory. For instance the hours of labour are often found to be excessive, and mention is made of one Magdalen asylum, founded in 1765, where laundry work has been abandoned in favour of less trying and exhaustive work on the advice of the consulting physician, whose experience has led him strongly to disapprove of laundry processes as an occupation for these particular women. There is an interesting passage on this point, to the effect that the statement which is most generally made with reference to penitentiaries, that laundry work is beneficial for the development of the character of the inmates, is one which cannot be accepted without grave consideration. It is said to be a question whether women, many of whom are inebriates, are best employed in a kind of work which not only induces thirst but provides them with a trade in which the temptations to drink are rampant.

On another page we have further testimony as to the need for inspection. I will quote the passage — In another orphanage laundry reported on by Miss Deane, after three years' voluntary inspection (also English), one unfenced power-driven wringer was found being fed by a girl of 15, another by a feeble-minded girl; a girl of 16, with loose hair, was tending the dangerous uncovered hydro, with friction cones and driving belt totally unguarded. The sister-in-charge stated that she put the new-comers to feed the unguarded calendar ' in order that they might get accustomed to the heat of the ironing-room,' and added that in any case only ' the stupidest girls' tended this machine. Miss Deane reports that on being informed that this was a very unsafe arrangement, the sister was ' greatly surprised.' Mention is also made on another page of a laundry connected with an institution which has been built almost entirely of galvanized iron and has been planned with every defect possible except that of being underground. It is impossible, with a voluntary system of inspection, to get any reforms carried out.

There are many other passages showing the urgent need for legislation in this matter. Yet we stand in exactly the same position to-day as we did in 1902. I submit that these extracts make out an absolutely overwhelming case; that they bear evidence of a state of affairs which cries aloud for further regulation and reform, and that no Home Secretary, after having road this Report, would be justified in allowing the matter to rest where it is. My object in speaking this evening is not to convince your Lordships that there is a case made out for reform. The action which this House took in 1902, when a Bill containing provisions for reform was passed through all its stages without a single division, is sufficient to prove that your Lordships do not stand in need of conviction. My object is to induce His Majesty's Government to take up this question. Let me remind them that their predecessors for the last five years have altogether neglected their opportunities, and have failed to carry out their promises; and let mo say this to the members of His Majesty's Government that, although they may find in the action of their predecessors many admirable qualities which I am sure they will be anxious to imitate, I would ask them not to choose their action in regard to this question as one for imitation.

The case was first made out by a Liberal Home Secretary and it was afterwards stated even more strongly by a Conservative Home Secretary. In the first instance the case was not dealt with because the Government had not a sufficient majority. In the second case the majority was there, but the Bill was introduced so late in the session that sufficient time was not allowed for the discussion of this somewhat contentious question. But it was on the distinct understanding that the Government would return to this measure at the earliest possible opportunity that they were able to get their Factory and Workshops Bill through in 1901. That was five years ago, and we are still waiting for that earliest opportunity. I hope that noble Lords opposite will take note of these two facts. They are pledged up to the hilt to deal with this question. They have an oven larger majority than the late Government and therefore cannot plead want of support as their excuse; and I trust that if they bring forward proposals dealing with this question they will not allow them to be crowded out for want of time.

They are pledged up to the hilt to deal with this question, not only by the words of their own Home Secretary but by the remarks which were made by their responsible loaders in this House in 1902. In that year the present First Lord of the Admiralty, Lord Tweedmouth, used these words— If there was one trade in which the Factory Act should be applied more than another it was the laundry trade. He did not think that because a laundry was under religious or charitable management it should escape inspection. Indeed, history went to show that it was exactly in those institutions that it was cesirable there should be publicity in order to secure the institutions dealt with from suggestions of abuse. The Bill having been supported by the thon Government and no guarantee given that facilities would be provided for its discussion in the other House, Earl Spencer, who at that time led the Opposition in your Lordships' House, rose and said— I confess I heard with dismay the statement of Lord Belper that the Government would not give any facilities in another place for carrying this Bill into law. I have risen to enter an emphatic protest against the course which the Government propose to follow. In view of those words I do sincerely trust that if this Bill is again introduced next session, or a Bill on similar lines, for I think the measure is now capable of some improvement, the responsible Leader of the House will not make a statement which was heard with dismay in 1902, or propose a course which at that time they themselves protested against in the most emphatic manner.

It may be asked why, if so good a case has been made out, this matter has been allowed to rest for the last five years. It is not due to any indifference or to any slackening of interest on behalf of those who care about this matter. It is simply due to the fact that in 1903 the Fiscal question came upon the scene, and from that moment held the field almost to the exclusion of any other question, and that for the last two years of its tenure of office the existence of the late Government was, to say the least of it, precarious. It was not thought desirable to ask a Government, which was in such a condition, to take the question up. But we have now a now Government—a strong Government—and I therefore take the earliest possible opportunity of reminding them of their obligations in this matter.

The questions I have to ask are perfectly explicit. They are, first, Will they undertake to introduce legislation so as to establish effective regulation of all laundries? Secondly, Will they definitely promise to undertake this legislation next session, and include it in their programme? Let me make this clear—that we who care about this question will not be satisfied with vague expressions of hope that some indefinite measure may be produced at some indefinite time. If the noble Earl who represents the Home Office has nothing more to tell me than that, I hope he will keep it to himself. We have lived upon hope for many years and are rather tired of the diet. Let me tell the noble Earl who represents the Home Office that unless he has something more satisfactory than that to give us, unless some quite definite promise is given, we, who care about this question, will return to it again and again, and that we will make use of every opportunity which the machinery of Parliament affords us for inducing the Government to take up reforms, which they themselves approve of, and which they have no excuse for neglecting any longer.


My Lords, I do not intend to intervene at any length between your Lordships and the debates upon the Bills which are before you tonight. I shall answer the noble Earl as shortly as I can. I am sure it will not be any surprise to your Lordships, who know for how long the noble Earl has taken an interest in this question, that he should have urged the Government to take steps in this matter. This is not a question of Party controversy, though I was sorry to hear some of the words which fell from the noble Earl, which tended to make this a matter of Party difference between one side and the other. I am quite sure that members of your Lordships' House on both sides are concerned and interested in this question, and the noble Earl who then led the Opposition, Earl Spencer, spoke very strongly on this matter in the debate in 1902.

With regard to the question of the noble Earl, I may say that His Majesty's Government are not able to promise that facilities will be given to a Bill introduced by a private Member; and for this reason. They consider that this question is too important to be left to a private Member either of your Lordships' House or of the other House. The wish of His Majesty's Government is to introduce next session a Bill to amend the Factory Acts, and it is their intention when that amending Bill is introduced that the position of the laundries shall be effectively dealt with, and, they hope, dealt with in a manner which will be satisfactory to all parties.

At the same time it is obviously impossible for any member of His Majesty's Government to give, on behalf of the Home Office, the definite promise that the Factories Acts (Amendment) Bill will be introduced next year. I do not think that such a course would even be a usual one to take at this period of the session. I should like to refer the noble Earl to a speech which was made by the Secretary of State for the Home Department on March 19th, which seems to have escaped his notice. Speaking on the laundry question to a deputation from Scotland the Home Secretary said that the position of laundries under the Factory Act seemed to him to be the weak spot in the Act, and that he was in favour of progress being made. I do not know whether what I have said is sufficient to satisfy the noble Earl, but I can assure him that the objects he has at heart have the sympathy of His Majesty's Government, and that if possible they do mean next year to deal with the matter.


My Lords, my noble friend who has presented this subject to your Lordships in such a clear and interesting speech has received an answer not very dissimilar from that which he no doubt partly expected. I do not know whether my noble friend is very satisfied with it. The reply on behalf of His Majesty's Government was hopeful and sympathetic, but marked by a good deal of indefiniteness. I daresay that is all that in the circumstances could well be expected. I am quite aware that with the present distribution of business in Parliament it is practically impossible for a private Member to expect with anything like certainty to be able to pass a Bill without Government assistance; but I hope, after the speech in which the subject has been introduced and after the reply of the noble Earl who represents the Home Office, that every reasonable effort will be made to deal with this important matter at an early date.


My Lords, I am anxious to endorse most strongly what has been said by the noble and learned Lord who has just sat down. The noble Earl who introduced the subject said that we had lived long upon hope in regard to this matter. I trust we may think to-night that the hope may now possibly be described as expectation, in view of the emphatic though guarded terms of the reply given by the noble Earl who represents the Home Office. It is because that expectation is held out that we are content now to wait a little while in patience in the trust that that expectation will be readily fulfilled.

The difficulties are not small, but promises have been so repeatedly given that the matter shall be dealt with at the earliest possible moment that I feel it would be almost mockery if it were postponed beyond the time which has been foreshadowed, I hope I may say, in the speech of the noble Earl. The noble Earl has asked on behalf of the Government that private Members should not press this matter forward because the Government wishes it to be dealt with in a Government measure. That it must be remembered, is the position. We are asked to abstain until such time as the Government move in the matter, and I trust we shall not have to wait long. I speak in this matter, not only on behalf of charitable and religious institutions to which laundries are attached, but also on behalf of laundries elsewhere, in which grave wrong is daily being done to the workpeople by lack of additional regulations.


My Lords, having taken great interest in this question in 1901, and having been instrumental in obtaining a promise on this subject in that year from those with whom I was generally in accord, I should like to say a word or two on the present occasion. For my part I certainly shall not introduce Party spirit into the few words I shall say, and I do not think, by the way, that my noble friend behind me (the Earl of Lytton) said anything which could be described as introducing Party feeling. Having myself afterwards become a member of the Government which gave this original promise, I certainly am very sorry that we were not able to deal with the question. I am afraid it is one, of which there are not a few presented to Parliament, where both sides agree that the subject should be dealt with, but where there is not sufficient driving power behind it in the matter of general interest to induce the Government to give up valuable time in another place at the expense of some other measures which they think of more importance. I was glad to hear the undertaking which was given by the noble Earl who represents the Home Office that it is the intention of His Majesty's Government to introduce a Bill of a larger nature in which this question will be dealt with, and I trust that at the earliest opportunity this measure will be brought before Parliament and carried into law.


My Lords, I am sorry that we have not got something-more like a promise from the noble Earl on behalf of the Government. I think the noble Earl who has just addressed us rather misunderstood what my noble friend Earl Beauchamp said, for, although he stated that it was the intention of the Government to bring in a Bill to amend the Factory Acts, of which this question would be part, he guarded himself by saying that the time next session was very much mortgaged, and the Government might not be able to introduce the Bill. Therefore we are left in a state of uncertainty as to the intentions of the Government.

The area of the question has been fully covered by the noble Earl who raised it but I should like to say one word about the small two-handed laundries. As a visitor under the Ring Edward VII. Fund, I was to day visiting a large hospital, and I remarked to my co-visitor, who is a doctor, that I was obliged to got back to the House of Lords because of this debate on the laundry question. My co-visitor at once replied that the fact that no legislative action had been taken in connection with these small laundries was a hazard to the public health. We have it, on the authority of Mr. Ritchie and Mr. Asquith, that the law as it stands is incapable of enforcement, and I think that is a great slur on our legislation. I venture to think that the declarations of Mr. Asquith in the other House and of Lord Spencer in this House, constitute au obligation which the Government cannot put aside by a nebulous promise of the kind that has just been given.


My Lords, I cannot help expressing regret that we can got no definite undertaking from the Government on this subject. Those occupying the Ministerial bench are represented as the Party of progress; yet they are standing in exactly the same position on this question as was occupied ten years ago. I was a member of the Standing Committee of the other House which investigated the Bill of 1901, and I know well that at that time the question had reached a degree of agreement on the part of all sections which really made it a matter of general and not of party concern. We now have in power a Government which, at any rate, commands a large majority, and here is a useful measure which is demanded by all sections of the community and by noble Lords of every shade of opinion in this House. Yet we can get no definite undertaking from the Government beyond shadowy and vague words.

The noble Earl who represents the Home Office referred us to a speech made by the Home Secretary. I have taken the trouble to look up certain remarks by the Prime Minister in answer to questions in the other House. In one answer the the Prime Minister said— I understand that the Home Secretary contemplates legislation next Session dealing with convent laundries. After that definite statement by the Prime Minister further questions were put, and the Prime Minister was asked what he meant by his statement. He replied that a Bill would be introduced— If it is found to be within the competence and the necessities of the Government to introduce it. That is a phrase which means everything or nothing. I do not think we on this side would place the competence of the Government highly, but I suppose they are the best judges of their own necessities. What we have heard to-day, however, amounts to no undertaking of any kind whatever. I sincerely hope that my noble friend who has raised this question will not relinquish his efforts until some more definite undertaking on the subject has been given by His Majesty's Government.


My Lords, it is unfortunate that the noble Viscount who has just sat down should have introduced into this discussion an element of Party discord. The whole of his speech was an attack on the Government of the day. The subject was introduced in an excellent and exhaustive speech by the noble Earl opposite, and I think it would have been better if the tone of the debate had been kept to that standard. It is perfectly true that the noble Earl who represents the Home Office did not give a definite promise on the part of the Government, but he certainly led us to believe—and the most rev. Primate so interpreted his statement— that if private Members would not press upon Parliament their own measures there would be every chance of the Government taking up the matter in the future. The object we have at heart is supported by both sides of the House, and has been supported in Opposition both by Mr. Asquith and by the noble earl Lord Spencer, whose absence from this House we all regret. Although it is perfectly true that the noble Earl who replied to-day on behalf of the Government did not give us any definite promise on the subject, we may hope that the Government will give it their anxious consideration and that next session they will bring in a measure dealing with it.