HL Deb 24 April 1912 vol 11 cc812-22


Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, I ask your Lordships to give this Bill a Second Reading to-day. I am fortified and encouraged in this request by the fact that a very influential deputation laid the points of this Bill before the Home Office and were given to understand that, for reasons with which I need not trouble your Lordships, the House of Commons was otherwise engaged, and it was suggested to the promoters of the Bill that the measure should be introduced in your Lordships' House. The object of this Bill is to ameliorate as far as possible the conditions of life of those who earn their bread in circumstances to which existing legislation does not effectively apply. Those conditions are already contemplated by certain Acts, but for reasons which I shall state to your Lordships those Acts do not effectively apply. The persons whom it is proposed to benefit by this Bill are those who carry on their employment in underground workshops workrooms or workplaces. At present there is no statutory definition of a "workplace," but in Committee I shall move to insert one.

The well-dressed portion of society walk about the London streets, especially in the West-End and look at the well-appointed shops where they buy their clothes and other things but a great many of those persons are not in the least aware that underneath the shops there is a vast mass of employment going on under conditions of light and ventilation which are not consistent with health. Owing to the high rents and the high value of land in the more crowded portions of London and of other towns there has been a temptation to let off the upper parts of shops as flats for dwelling purposes and to put workpeople into the basements. I am not going this afternoon to make a frontal attack on employers of labour, because those who are most anxious to see this Bill pass admit that there has been during the last ten or fifteen years a very large increase in the benefits which employers have given to their workpeople in underground basements. Many employers have done their best to alleviate the conditions, and a great many employers are in a sense unfairly treated in the matter, because they have taken premises which have already been passed as suitable for warehouses and that sort of thing in the full belief that they would be able to use the basements as workrooms later on. The same amount of cubic space per workman is contemplated in a basement by existing Acts as in an upper room yet it is obviously desirable that there should be fewer people employed underground than upstairs, where there is full access to air and light. Therefore the employer who does submit to some sacrifice in order that his workpeople may have a suitable workroom upstairs with full access to air and light is in no better position than the employer who compels his workpeople to work in the basement.

What I am putting before your Lordships this afternoon is not only what I have been told. I have taken a certain amount of trouble, dressed in the costume of a sanitary inspector, to go round and see several of these places on my own account. I am informed that I have been shown only those which present the most favourable conditions, and that there are many places, into which I should probably not have been allowed to penetrate, where worse conditions prevail. But having seen underground workrooms where the conditions have been represented to me as being the most favourable, I am absolutely convinced from ocular demonstration that some strengthening of the law is necessary. This Bill has nothing to do with wages, and does not contemplate the sweated industries of the country; but I should like to tell your Lordships that I know of an authentic case of a coat made in the East-End of London for which the workman employed on it only received 8s., but which was afterwards sold, perhaps to a member of your Lordships' House for£8 8s.

It is not, of course, suggested that all work underground is necessarily injurious. There are degrees of injury. Where work is carried on by men and women who are constantly moving about the circulation is kept going, and the work is not so injurious to the general morale and health of the workers as in the case of sedentary occupations. It is particularly at sedentary occupations that this legislation is aimed in this respect certain trades are scheduled at the end of this Bill. It is a schedule upon which I do not insist, and which is inserted more in the nature of examples of the trades particularly affected than anything else; and it will be seen that they are trades which involve sedentary occupation and also a strain upon the eyes. Not only that but the whole morale of a person working all day long in artificial light and without proper ventilation must be very seriously affected. Sedentary work all day long affects, among other things the lungs, and it cannot be denied that working underground where there is no really fresh air is bound to produce in women an anæmic condition which is particularly bad from the eugenic point of view for the future of the race. I need not labour this point, because I am sure your Lordships all agree that on account of the absence of light and fresh air and on account of the dampness and the difficulty of excluding what is called ground air in these places. the general health of those who work in basements is bound sooner or later to suffer.

It is quite true that if you go into the underground places below some of our large stores in the West-End of London you will see a life going on which has apparently very little the matter with it, and you will find people there who are cheerful and contented and who have worked there for a considerable time. But the answer to that is that those whom you find there and who have worked there for a considerable time represent in reality the survival of the fittest. The general rule with regard to occupation of this kind is that it does not last very long, and nobody will undertake it unless he or she is obliged to do so. This is particularly noticeable with regard to the domestic servant class, who are, perhaps, more able to pick and choose the houses in which they will work than others of the working classes. There is a growing tendency among the domestic servant class not to take situations in houses where a great deal of the work has to be carried on in basements. In this connection it is interesting to notice that since regulations with regard to domestic servants sleeping in basements have been stringent in the last few years, the Legislature is in this rather peculiar position. It contemplates the undesirability of a domestic servant sleeping in a basement unless certain conditions are complied with, yet at the same time it apparently has no objection to a large number of workpeople working all day long in a place the nature of which has already been condemned for the purposes of sleeping. I make no specific charge in this respect, for it is only hearsay evidence; but I am told that even Government offices are not entirely exempt from some of the bad conditions contemplated by this Bill.

The existing legislation with regard to underground workshops and workplaces is not in a satisfactory state. In the Public Health (London) Act, 1891. is set out Section 91 of the Public Health Act, 1875, and with your Lordships' permission I will read the section. It runs— Any factory, workshop, or workplace which is not a factory subject to the provisions of the Factory and Workshop Act relating to cleanliness, ventilation, and over-crowding, and…is not ventilated in such a manner as to render harmless as far as practicable any gases, vapours, dust, or other impurities generated in the course of the work carried on therein that are a nuisance or injurious or dangerous to health…shall he nuisances liable to be dealt with summarily under this Act. This section makes it easy to deal with nuisances arising from special circumstances such as the use of an unventilated gas-stove, but it is not so satisfactory when dealing with insufficient means of Ventilation due to structural conditions. The crux of this matter lies in the fact that, even if all the intentions of the Factory Acts and the Public Health Acts could be mobilised with regard to these places, the structural conditions which prevail are not of a character which would allow proper lighting and Ventilation to be carried out.

There is another matter with regard to existing legislation which I think ought to be cleared up in this Bill. It is not in the Bill at the present moment, but I am going to ask your Lordships' permission at the Committee stage to introduce into the Bill a definition of a "workplace," the absence of which definition at the present moment causes a considerable amount of confusion and renders the Legislature unable to deal with places of this kind. I shall move to add to the Bill this definition— A 'workplace' is any place, not being a factory or a workshop, where work is done permanently and where people assemble together to do work permanently of some kind or other. There is no doubt whatever that the whole system of sedentary occupations in basements, where there is no ventilation possible except the air that comes immediately from the surface of the street, which is very often charged with noxious matter, and where on most days in the year it is impossible to work except by electric light, or, what is still worse for the eyes, a light which is half natural and half artificial, is very undesirable in the public interest and in the interest of the health of the nation. It is therefore in spite of the fact that a great many employers have shown a most laudable desire to improve the condition of their workers in underground workplaces that this Bill is introduced, and I hope that it will mark a tendency to fortify legislation in this matter and make it easier for those persons who are charged with the duty of seeing to the public health to carry out their duties.

I will not go through the Bill at any length now. Clause 1 makes a general provision with regard to existing places and Clause 2 aims at a still further strengthening of these provisions in a few years' time. I know that it is exceedingly difficult to propose legislation which shall have the effect of doing away altogether with work in underground work places. In the City of London, for instance, owing to the way in which all available space is built over, it would be exceedingly difficult and would create great hardship and a great deal of opposition; but there is much that can be done by giving power to district councils to pass places to be used for the purpose of underground workshops, and also by—as is proposed in Clause 7 of the Bill—enabling the Secretary of State by a special Order, which I imagine he would be able to alter from time to time, to draw up a general set of provisions which should be applicable by the district council in all districts.

The second paragraph of Clause 6 reads— As respects every underground factory, workshop, or workplace, the provisions of this Act shall be enforced by the district council of the district in which the premises may be situated, and not by an inspector under the principal Acts, and for the purposes of this Act the medical officer of health and the inspector of nuisances of the district council shall have and may exercise all the powers of entry, inspection, taking legal proceedings, and otherwise of an inspector under the principal Acts. It is proposed at a later stage to omit the words "and not by a sanitary inspector under the principal Acts." This legislation is in its essence really tentative in this regard, and it will be quite possible in the future, even in places where land is already very much built over, to make underground places more habitable by insisting on what is called the open area, or, in other places where the open area has, as is sometimes the case, been deliberately built over, by requiring the front portion of the shop in which the goods are exhibited to be raised in such a manner that there shall be a window above the street level which shall admit a certain amount of light and air into the underground workplace. I feel sure that your Lordships will see the desirability of dealing with the condition of these people by means of legislation, and I have great confidence in asking you to give this Bill a Second Reading.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Lord Willoughby de Broke.)


My Lords, the noble Lord has given a lucid exposition of the objects which his Bill contemplates, and has pointed out its main provisions. I may say at once that the Government sympathise with the objects that the noble Lord has in view. He referred to a deputation which was received by my hon, friend the Under-Secretary for the Home Department, and to the advice which my hon. friend gave to the members of that deputation to promote a Bill in this House with the view of having the subject discussed and inviting criticism and consideration of it. The noble Lord told your Lordships that many of the objects he has in view are already covered, though only, perhaps, partially covered, by existing legislation. The first nine clauses of the Factory and Workshop Act of 1901 deal with the subjects of ventilation and sanitation, and they are applicable to underground workshops just as much as to any other. But I admit that in the case of underground workshops such as those to which the noble Lord refers in this Bill there is a necessity for rather more stringent regulations than are possible under existing legislation; and it is, of course, quite a different thing to oblige an employer to obtain a certificate of the suitability of his premises for the work from merely making him amenable to the general provisions of factory legislation.

The Government agree that the noble Lord has made out a case, and that with regard to underground workshops more stringent provisions are necessary with regard to light, ventilation, sanitation, and so forth. The question arises, What should those provisions be? The Bill which the noble Lord has introduced contemplates two main provisions. One is that all existing underground workshops which come within the scheduled trades must have a local authority's certificate. Presumably the certificate is to be based on regulations to be issued by the Secretary of State, but that is not clear. That is the first provision. But the Bill goes further and lays down, as far as I understand, that no new underground workshop shall be started. The drafting of the Bill is not very clear. It either prohibits them altogether in future, OR prohibits them unless they comply—


Unless they comply with subsection (2) of Clause 2 of this Bill.


The prohibition is limited to the case of their not complying with subsection (2) of Clause 2. The position of the Government on these two points is this. The Government agree to the first proposition—namely, that underground premises should only be carried on if they have a certificate from the local authority—but with regard to the prohibition, although it is a limited prohibition, the Government think that it would be going rather too far. The noble Lord alluded to the fact that the great and growing pressure on space in big towns was largely responsible for the state of things which we now deplore That is no doubt true. But if it is responsible for the present state of affairs it also, I think, indicates that we should not take any unnecessary step to further limit the accommodation which is now so limited in the case of large towns. To prohibit all underground workshops subject to this Very stringent provision seems to me to condemn premises which are as yet unbuilt. It may be perfectly true that few existing premises can be considered satisfactory. There may be structural difficulties which render proper ventilation almost impossible. But the difficulties of light and ventilation have as a matter of fact, I believe, been overcome in some of the most modern buildings, and there is no reason to suppose that there is any structural impossibility to give proper light and ventilation.


Not if there is the open area.


The Government, at any rate are not prepared to go so far as complete prohibition. And we do not think it is necessary, because if underground workshops are to be subject to regulations framed by the Secretary of State and applied by the local authority, those regulations of themselves, we think, should be sufficient to obtain the objects which the noble Lord has in view. We think it would be undesirable to make this prohibition, limited though it is, in view of the fact that the results should be obtainable by the regulations which the Bill contemplates. On general lines that is the position of the Government with regard to the measure.

I do not propose to take the House at this stage into any details, but I should like to be allowed, in passing, to refer to the Schedule. It is not very easy to see upon what principle the selection has been made. The noble Lord referred to sedentary occupation and strain on the sight-as being the objects which guided him mainly in selecting these particular trades, but I think they want looking into very carefully. We should not like to commit ourselves at this stage to agreeing to this particular Schedule; and I think the noble Lord stated that he put the list forward rather as examples than as a complete or exhaustive list of the trades to which he would like the Bill to apply. I do not know, for instance, what the hair trade is. I understand, however, that the noble Lord is prepared to accept suggestions from the Government on the subject of the Schedule. Then the noble Lord has included in the Schedule the preparation of food for sale in restaurants and coffee houses, and also typewriting. I would point out to him in regard to both of those trades that there is likely to be considerable controversy and. farther, that neither of them is at present included under the Factory Acts and they do not come within the purview of the Home Office. These are matters which will have to be discussed in Committee. I say, in conclusion, that the Government will be prepared to render the noble Lord any assistance they can with a view to improving this Bill, and if he will accept their assistance and submit to certain Amendments in Committee the Government hope to be able to give the Bill their support through its remaining stages.


My Lords. I think your Lordships always view with a certain amount of caution any advance in the direction of restrictive legislation upon trade. That is a proper frame of mind in which to approach any legislation of this kind. At the same time it must be admitted that Parliament is already committed to a large extent on the subject of underground premises. Underground premises are already not permitted to be used for certain purposes, sleeping and so forth and for bakehouses, I think, under a recent Factory Act. Parliament having committed itself in that direction, we may consider that the door is open to a further advance. I think, speaking for myself alone, that Parliament was well advised in making this distinction, because it is clear that the conditions of underground premises in regard to light and air do render them much less fit for human habitation and work than ordinary premises. Having therefore, as it were, established the principle, the only question for us is whether my noble friend is wise in trying to extend the principle, and I think he has made his case out so far as the main outline of this Bill is concerned.

The noble Lord who spoke on behalf of His Majesty's Government seemed to think that no distinction ought to be drawn between existing premises used for this purpose and similar premises to be hereafter erected. I cannot quite agree with him there. After all, so far as existing premises are concerned, the persons who are using them have a certain position in which they can ask Parliament for gentle treatment. They have already embarked their capital and enterprise in the business, and have premises of this kind in which to carry it on. They did not know that restrictive legislation was going to be imposed, and they naturally would be reluctant to be put to any great expense in consequence. That is the case with regard to existing workplaces under the conditions contemplated by the Bill, but it is not the case with future ones. It seems to me that we might be well advised in imposing greater restrictions on buildings hereafter to be erected than on existing buildings. I do not mean to say that it is right that any existing underground workshop should be permitted whatever its conditions. I think my noble friend is probably right that it should be made necessary that a certificate should be obtained from the proper authority that the premises are in a fit condition for such work, but I cannot go the full length of the doctrine of the noble Lord who spoke on behalf of His Majesty's Government that no distinction us to be made between their case and the case of workplaces hereafter to be established. Therefore I rather welcome the distinction between the two which is drawn in the Bill.

Whether my noble friend has been judicious in the exact limitation which he has made in the two cases I do not go into at the moment; but broadly speaking, it appears to me to be a good distinction. As to underground premises hereafter to be used as workplaces, what you in fact will provide is that no such premises will be erected except under the well-known conditions imposed by the local or central authority, which it is necessary to comply with in order to obtain the certificate. People will be subject to no hardship whatever. They will know in the future what the conditions are; they will comply with them, and no difficulty will arise. But when you are dealing with existing buildings, of course the difficulties are much greater. Therefore I think the distinction is of value. To some extent you must put up with existing buildings even if they are not ideal, but you need not put up with similar buildings in the future. In their case prevention is better than cure. It is far better to see that the buildings are put up properly than to go with an inspector hereafter and insist upon structural alterations which may be very difficult to carry out. Therefore I hope that the Government will not absolutely make up their mind that there should be no distinction between the two cases, although I do not wish at this moment to prescribe in any way what the conditions should be in either category. I think the Government are well advised in subjecting this; Bill to very careful scrutiny. It is a Bill which could only be passed after proper consideration by the Government Department concerned with their expert knowledge. I cannot help hoping that after that process has been gone through, my noble friend will be able to congratulate himself upon having added to the Statute Book a useful piece of legislation.


I should like to explain one point. I am advised that as the Bill now stands all future underground workshops would be prohibited. That is the point I tried to make. We do not think we ought to go as far as that. We think, as the noble Marquess said, that future premises should be so constructed as to comply with the regulations made, but that there should not be complete prohibition.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.