HL Deb 26 October 1908 vol 194 cc1558-64

LORD AMPTHILL rose "to ask whether His Majesty's Government have considered the evidence taken before, and the Report of, the Select Committee which was appointed by the House of Commons to consider and report upon the conditions of labour in trades in which home work is prevalent, and the proposals, including those for the establishment of wages boards and the licensing of work places, which have been made for the remedying of existing abuses; and whether having regard to the recommendations made by the Committee in favour of legislation at an early date to secure the establishment of wages boards in selected trades, and to make other provisions for improving the conditions of home workers in sweated industries, it is the intention of His Majesty's Government to introduce or to facilitate the progress of legislative measures to carry out such recommendations."

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I am sorry that my Question should be the occasion of a meeting of the House which would not otherwise have taken place, but I could not foresee, of course, that such would be the case. I desire to ask His Majesty's Government whether they intend to take any action on the Report of the Select Committee of the House of Commons in regard to home work. Much can be said on this subject, but personally I intend to say very little. My object is merely to obtain the bare information which I ask for in the Question on the Paper. I shall leave it to others more competent that myself, and with a better right to speak on the subject, to deal with the intricate economic and social aspects of the question either on this or some more appropriate occasion. I am sorry that my noble friend Lord Milner, who is particularly interested in this question, cannot be in the House as he is abroad, but I am glad to see that the noble Earl who took a leading part in this question some eighteen years ago, (the Earl of Dunraven), and my noble friend Lord Lytton are both here, and from them your Lordships might expect, either to-day or on some future occasion, to hear much that is valuable and interesting.

Your Lordships have, presumably, read during the recess the Report of the Select Committee of the House of Commons, and I would only ask for permission to remind you of two or three salient passages. The first is that no marked diminution of the evil of sweating has taken place since the Dunraven Committee reported in 1890. What the Committee say is that they are unable to find proof, either that it has increased or decreased. Secondly, the Committee state that sweating still exists in such a degree as to call urgently for the interference of Parliament; and, thirdly, there is the statement that the Committee regard it as extremely desirable that the subject referred to them should be dealt with by legislation at an early date. I think your Lordships will agree with me that we have cause to be ashamed, both as a nation and in Parliament, that eighteen years have been allowed to elapse since the Committee appointed by this House and presided over by the noble Earl, reported that the evils of sweating could hardly be exagerated—that those eighteen years have been allowed to elapse without any effective remedy being applied, or without any very determined attempt being made to do so.

Surely, my Lords, it is a blot on our civilisation and humanity—that humanity of which, in so many respects, we are justly proud—that such an evil should exist at all, and still more, that it should have continued to exist for so long. It is my distinct impression that there is no depth of human misery so profound as that of the lot of the victims of sweated industries. It is a life of ceaseless, grinding, monotonous toil, commencing from tenderest childhood and lasting to the grave, and that in squalid dens and evil surroundings, with never the slightest taste of the joy of life or of that elementary satisfaction which the hunted savage even can derive from an occasional full meal, or from the healing influences of nature and sunshine. And to what end all this ceaseless, unending toil? For no other end than to maintain the barest vitality in poor, stunted, suffering bodies; for such is the fundamental instinct of nature, that love of life will not yield even to the greatest suffering.

I cannot believe that the sufferings of the victims of pestilence, famine, fire, and food, wherever such calamities occur, are greater than those of these poor people. After all, those calamities are but incidents in an otherwise normal existence. Yet we as a nation are always prompt with sympathy, with succour, with material help, even when these calamities occur in distant lands. Again, I doubt whether those who are subjected to battle, to murder, to torment on account of religious or radical persecution, endure more than the workers in sweated industries. After all, their agony is more short lived. But here, again, we as a nation are ready to do anything, to risk much, in order to help them. It is only in the case of this greater, certainly equal, suffering which exists in our own midst that we do nothing. There is no popular sympathy or indignation, there are no clamourous appeals to Parliament, there is no eloquent advocacy in Parliament. Surely, my Lords, as a nation we neglect in a very strange manner the maxim that charity begins at home.

It would be deplorable—I think your Lordships will agree with me—if the interest in this all-important question which has lately been aroused in various ways, notably by the Sweated Industries Exhibition, and, more particularly, by the Report of the House of Commons Committee to which my Question refers—were allowed once more to die out as it did before. That interest has been aroused by the devoted and strenuous work of philanthropists and social reformers, who had an uphill task seeing that they have none of the advantages of possessing a political party or other widespread organisation at their backs. I gladly admit that my own interest in the subject, my own feelings of sympathy and indignation, were first aroused by the works of a lady whose name must be well-known to your Lordships. I refer to Miss Olive Malvery, and particularly to her books entitled "The Soul Market," and "Baby Toilers." The heroic enterprises of this lady in the cause of philanthropy more particularly interested me from the fact that she is not an English woman, but is of Indian birth. The interest which these books aroused in my mind naturally led me to seek for further information in such classic hand-books as that of Messrs. Cadbury and Shann, in the very admirable Fabian tracts which must also be familiar to your Lordships, and, finally, in the records of Parliament. His Majesty's Government are engaged on a policy which is primarily one of social reform, and I would venture to ask the noble Lord who will reply for the Government whether, in his opinion, or in that of His Majesty's Government, there is any branch of social reform which calls more urgently for attention than the lot of the victims of sweated industries.


My Lords, my right hon. friend the Home Secretary has asked mo to reply to this Question rather than leave it to be answered departmentally, because, as we understand, the noble Lord's object was not so much to discuss the very important question with which his query deals as to ascertain what the intentions of His Majesty's Government are in the direction of legislation. The noble Lord has not over-stated the importance of this question, which in all its aspects, I think, appeals to the sentiments of humanity of every Member of both Houses without distinction of party. That was made very clear by a debate which took place in the other House towards the end of February of this year when the Sweated Industries Bill was brought in by a private Member. A general measure of sympathy was expressed with the actual Bill, accompanied, however, by a very considerable degree of nervousness as to the particular remedy which the Bill proposed. I daresay some of your Lordships may have read the debate. Though, as I say, the sentiment of sympathy was a unanimous one, yet marked differences of opinion, by no means following the ordinary lines of party discussion, were expressed by Members of the other House.

It was, I think, generally agreed that for the system of mere cheapness in these industries there was nothing to be said on the ground of economy, any more than on the ground of humanity. That, I think, was common ground. It was generally agreed that these miserably low wages do not really mean in the proper sense cheap production, and there was a feeling that something ought to be done to put a stop to the system. The poor people who suffer under these disabilities cannot help themselves in the way in which other trades have helped themselves, by organisation. That is a cardinal fact in the whole situation. If they could organise as other trades have organised the question would settle itself; but that, owing to the conditions of work for one thing, is primarily impossible, and it is rendered less possible still by the differences of race and by the class of those who are subjected, or, indeed, subject themselves to these lamentable conditions of work.

The noble Lord, in his Question, asks us in so many words whether, having regard to the recommendations made by the Committee in favour of legislation at an early date to secure the establishment of wages boards in selected trades and to make other provisions for improving the conditions of homo workers in sweated industries, it is the intention of His Majesty's Government to introduce, or to facilitate the progress of, legislative measures to carry out such recommendations. I wish I could give an answer to the noble Lord, but I am in fact not in a position to do; and, if he comes to think of it, I think he will see that his Question is not, I will not say a reasonable one, but one to which he could expect to receive a definite reply. We are now in the progress of an autumn session, and we still find ourselves with two of the principal measures of this year's legislative work suspended in the balance. In these circumstances I think the noble Lord will agree that it is hardly fair to suppose that I at this moment, speaking on behalf of the Government, can make any indications whatever of what our political attempts will be next year.

We have been told sometimes—it is not for me to say whether there is any colour for the charge—that our zeal for social reform has led us to ask Parliament to do more than it can reasonably be asked to perform within the period of any single session. We have been told so this year not for the first time, and, consequently, we are bound to walk warily in that respect, and even if we agree that regarded as a measure of social reform this, as the noble Lord says, yields in importance to no other, yet it would not be possible for us at this time of the year to make any promise of the kind which the noble Lord asks us to make. I am perfectly certain, and I think it was evident to anybody who read my right hon. friend's speech in the House of Commons in February last, that he has the matter very sincerely at heart. At the same time it would be deceiving ourselves to pretend that this is an uncontroversial question. The remedies of which the noble Lord speaks, not to say anything at this moment about their merits, are certainly not remedies which will be accepted as a matter of course by all. Legislation on the matter will be a complicated, long, and a difficult process, and in these circumstances I must ask the noble Lord to relieve me from the necessity of giving anything like a definite answer to the Question he has put.


May we understand from what the noble Earl has said that His Majesty's Government are not pledged to the principle of a minimum wage fixed by law?


That is undoubtedly so. If the noble Earl will read my right hon. friend's speech he will see that he stated so in so many words in the debate to which I have alluded.


And the matter remains in the same way at present?




My Lords, I think your Lordships will be grateful to my hon. friend for having asked this Question, for this House has not been second to any in the sympathy it has shown for the lowest class of this country, commonly known as sweated labour. I do not think the noble Lord has in any degree exaggerated the sad conditions under which these unfortunate people try to make a living. At the same time, I think that he perhaps exaggerated a little in saying that nothing had been done to better their conditions during the last eighteen years. For although their circumstances are very far indeed from what they ought to be, I do not think there can be any doubt that the factory legislation that has taken place during the last eighteen years has benefited them at any rate to some extent.

As the noble Earl opposite has said, this is a most difficult and complicated question. Perhaps the main factor in the case is the thorough registration and proper inspection of all places where this class of labour is carried on. That brings one at once against a very delicate question, as to how far it is legitimate and proper to interfere with people in their own dwelling-rooms, for a great deal of this work is carried on in the rooms in which the people dwell. The noble Earl the Leader of the House is perfectly right in saying that the main difficulty in the case is that these trades are totally unorganised. They are unorganised for the reasons which the noble Earl gave, and, I think, mainly for another reason why he did not give—namely, that they are constantly subject to the influx of the lowest class of foreign labour, which renders organisation practically impossible.

I agree with the noble Earl that it is, perhaps, somewhat unreasonable to ask for a definite answer at the present moment as to what steps the His Majesty's Government intend to take, or whether they intend to take any steps. The programme of His Majesty's Government, especially in matters of social reform, is tolerably overburdened as it is. But I would venture to say that it appears to me that in matters of social reform perhaps the wisest course may be to begin at the bottom, and attempt to remedy those cases in which distress is most severe; and I would express the hope that if His Majesty's Government remain in office for some years, as I have no doubt they will, they will in a future session deal with this matter of sweated labour and make it one of the principal planks in their programme for the session.

House adjourned at five minutes before Five o'clock, till Tomorrow, half-past Ten o'clock.