HL Deb 29 July 1918 vol 31 cc1-5

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, this is a Bill to amend the Trade Boards Act of 1909, and the amendment takes the direction of a simplification and extension of its functions. Nine years ago the Trade Boards Bill was passed. Its main object was to secure minimum rates of wages, and I think it was stated in the debate that the change, if not initiated by, had at all events a great deal to do with the work of, the Sweating Committee which had sat some years, and of which I had the honour to be a member. That Bill received a most cordial welcome from all parts of the House. The procedure was that the trades—four in number—were put in the Schedule of the Act in the first instance, and the number of those trades was subsequently increased by means of a Provisional Order. The experiment—for experiment it was—suceeded very well indeed, and it is now hoped to increase the numbers of the trades by an easier means.

After three years other trades were added to the Schedule, with the result that some 390,000 people came within the purview of the Act, of whom 80,000 were women. It was a great benefit to them, because women were the people who principally suffered from sweating. It is rather interesting to observe that in this legislation we took a leaf from the book of an Oversea Dominion. The Colony of Victoria had for some years had Wages Boards, which answered in every respect, I believe, to the new Trade Boards in this country. Victoria's legislation was very successful, and we followed their example, though our experiment was on a much smaller scale than the Victorian one. At the same time we profited in proportion, and it is fair to say that not only did the workers profit but the trades also.

As reconstruction goes on its way it is extremely desirable to try to ensure that these women, who have suffered so from sweating, shall not fall back into their prewar conditions, and that their wages and position shall not be prejudiced so as to render them liable to the social evils which go in the wake of low wages and bad circumstances. Even now there is a danger of that, for I understand, though it is generally believed that the wages of women have increased, perhaps not quite to the same extent, but in like ratio to those of men in certain localities where there are large munition works and there is great competition for labour, that in out-of-the-way places where there is not very much employment the wages of women are still lamentably low, and we want, if possible, to prevent the risk of their falling back into the pre-war conditions.

The process for increasing these Trade Boards was by Provisional Order, but the Provisional Order, as your Lordships know, necessitated a Bill to confirm it, and if there was opposition there had to be a Select Committee of inquiry with its attendant delay and expense. It is, therefore, proposed by this Bill that the place of the Provisional Order should be taken by Special Order. The old process is thought somewhat cumbersone, though it served its purposes in the past. The Trade Boards now are a recognised portion of our industrial system, and it is considered advisable to give facilities for their being more rapidly increased. While the Provisonal Order and the Confirmation Bill will be withdrawn, this does not mean that the control of Parliament will also be withdrawn, because the Special Order will have to lie on the Table of both Houses of Parliament for forty days, and those must be forty days of Parliamentary time, as your Lordships will see if your look at Clause 2. The Special Orders, therefore, could not be put upon the Table of the two Houses of Parliament just before a Recess and eke out their time of forty days when the House is not sitting. The words of the Bill are "within the next subsequent forty days on which that House has sat." If it is thought advisable, an Address to the Crown can be moved and objection taken. This procedure, as your Lordships know, we do not enact for the first time, for the Secretary of State, under the Factory Act of (I think) 1901, in regard to dangerous trades, is empowered to make Regulations and to put them on the Table of the Houses of Parliament for forty days. The Special Order corresponds to those Regulations. But that is not all. The Select Committee disappears, but an opportunity for revision exists in the Schedule. In the Schedule there is provision for a public inquiry by a competent man not in the Government's employ. That exists for forty days before the Order is laid on the Table of the Houses of Parliament. Therefore it will be seen that there are two periods of forty days. The action of the Secretary of State in regard to these Regulations has, I understand, never been called in question, and I think that we need not anticipate, with respect to the Minister of Labour, that equal confidence may not be shown.

I may point to one or two things in the Bill. The period of raising objections used to be one of three months. It is proposed to reduce that to two months. The President of the Board of Trade had to wait for another six months before he could confirm the Order. This in a familiar phrase was found to be "asking for trouble." First of all the workers wanted to have their minimum wage fixed as soon as they could, and during the six months the employers themselves did not know what view other employers might take of the rates, and it was found that many employers contracted with their workpeople out of the arrangements for this six months. In regard to apprentices, there is a proviso in Clause 7 that bona fide apprenticeship shall go on, and there is to be a four weeks' trial. The reason for putting something into Clause 7 in regard to apprentices was that it was found that if a rate was fixed, we will say at 6s., the former wage having been 2s., some employers have a plan of charging a premium and working that out at 4s., so that they got the 4s. back, and really only paid 2s.

In the other clauses certain flaws in the Act are put right, and Trade Boards may make recommendations to the Government Departments in various directions. As your Lordships, know, in a Bill of this kind there are a great many technical details. Perhaps I have said enough to ask your Lordships to give a Second Reading to a Bill which, I think you will agree, will be very useful. If there are matters upon which your Lordships desire further explanation I shall be very glad to give it, if I can. If I cannot do so now, I can ascertain and let your Lordships know at a later stage what you desire.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Viscount Sandhurst.)


My Lords, I certainly do not rise for the purpose of criticising this Bill. On the contrary, I rise for the purpose, so far as I can, of entirely blessing it. It is a Bill which takes a great step forward, and it is well that we should realise how great that step is. In the first place, the Ministry of Labour becomes still more than at present a Ministry of Employment, charged with the form of public assistance which assumes the shape of regulating the terms of employment in certain trades and industries. There are certain trades which were the subject of the Trade Boards Act of 1909, in which that was a very necessary interposition of the Legislature. It is a great mistake to be always considering whether you will interfere with the liberty to carry on industry by fixing wages and making them higher than they are at present. It is much better for the country that, where a trade can subsist only by means of sweated wages, conditions should be imposed which would even make it impossible to carry on that trade in this country. It may be better to let the articles required be produced in some country where labour is cheaper and conditions are easier, and that we should manufacture something else and export it in exchange for those things. It certainly is not good that any section of the community should be forced by economic pressure to work at sweated wages.

This Bill takes a great step forward in that beneficial process by increasing the powers of what is called the Ministry of Labour but is really developing into a Ministry of Employment under this Bill. To begin with, it is quite right, I think, to follow out the principle of the Act of 1909, and to put matters within the discretion of the Minister, subject to his responsibility to Parliament, which seems adequately provided for. It is impossible to regulate these matters by making a mere Schedule in the Act of trades to which the Act is applied. Not only does this Bill do what the noble Viscount has told us, but it enables the Ministry of Labour, subject to the approval of Parliament if the Special Order is not objected to, to repeal the Schedule to the Trade Boards Act of 1909, and to substitute other trades and take out trades which are in the Schedule. I think this is a very valuable addition to that Act. Not only may you make a Special Order about any particular trade, but you may alter the Schedule of the existing Act.

The Bill is a step towards what is becoming more and more apparent—the necessity for the State fixing certain minima below which it is not to be expected that people can live and be at the same time good citizens of the State. It develops the principle of the minimum wage. We are already thinking of the minimum home; we were engaged last week in developing the minimum of knowledge; and when these three minima are adequately carried out and the country begins to live up to them, then indeed we ought to have a fruitful soil for the beginnings of the growth of an improved commonwealth.

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