HL Deb 09 December 1920 vol 39 cc3-6

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, the main object of this Bill is to enable the British Government to ratify the International Conventions which are set out in the Schedule of the Bill, and which were adopted at Washington by the International Labour Organisations of the League of Nations, in regard to the employment of children in industrial undertakings, to work by young persons, work by women, and the employment of children at sea.

The acceptance of these Conventions makes little practical difference as regards employment in this country. As to the employment of children in industrial undertakings, the Education Act of 1912 prohibits the employment of children under twelve and of children under fourteen in factories, workshops, mines, and quarries. The employment of children between twelve and fourteen years of age in industrial undertakings which are outside the Factory and Mines Act is not at present prohibited by law, but the requirements of the Education Act that children shall attend school full time to the age of fourteen prevents their regular and continuous employment. Therefore the extension involved by the Convention is small. The Bill does not affect the employment of children as errand boys and messengers.

As regards night work by young persons, the provisions of the Factory Act and Mines Act are similar in the main to the provisions of the Convention, but the Convention applies to certain industrial undertakings—for example, works of construction—which are not covered by these Acts, and to this extent therefore the Convention imposes additional restrictions. The employment of women at night in factories and mines is forbidden by the existing Acts, but is not prohibited in other classes of work to which the Convention applies. In practice there is not much employment of women and young persons in works covered by the Convention, but it is necessary to prohibit such employment by law in order that we may carry out our obligations in ratifying the Convention. That is, as regards Clause 1.

In Clause 2 there is a provision permitting the employment of women and young persons on a two-shift system, and perhaps that requires a little more detailed explanation. By the Factories and Workshops Act, which provides for a fixed daily period of employment, the two-shift system is practically prohibited for all women and young persons, but during the war the provisions of the Act of 1901 were modified by Emergency Orders and women were employed on the shift system. When the Armistice was signed it was decided by the Government, on the recommendation of a strong representative Committee, that there was justification during the transition period for the continuation of these shifts, but of course when the war is legally at an end the power to continue the shift system will lapse. Therefore, having regard to the recommendations of the Reconstruction Committee and the representations of Factory inspectors and others who are interested as to the difficulties which would be caused by the abolition of this system, a clause was introduced into this Bill providing for its possible continuation, but in another place the clause as originally drafted met with considerable opposition and a Departmental Committee was appointed by the Home Office to report upon the whole question. That Committee, which was presided over by Mr. Inskip, examined all the evidence on the subject and reached a unanimous conclusion that the Home Office should be allowed to have power to sanction the employment of women and young persons on the two-shift system between the hours of 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., subject, of course, to such conditions as the authorities might consider necessary for safeguarding the welfare of the workers. Furthermore, the Committee recommended that these Orders should not be extended to those under the age of sixteen, and that the power should be granted for five years in the first instance; that is to say, a limited period might be fixed in order that the scheme might receive a proper trial. The Report of the Committee has been laid before Parliament, and in pursuance of the Report an amended clause was added to the Bill, the effects of which are in the first place that an Order allowing the two-shift system in a particular factory or group of factories can only be made if the employers and the workers in those factories agree by asking for it. Secondly, if the whole of the industry concerned of which that factory or group of factories forms part object to the two-shift system; and the employers and workers in the industry at large make a joint representation to the Home Secretary no more Orders can be made for that industry, and those which already have been made will lapse. It will be seen, therefore, that the clause does not impose the two-shift system on the workers, but merely enables it to be adopted if the workers and employers agree in asking for it. That seems to be consonant with the spirit of the Whitley Report—that any question affecting any industry should be settled by agreement between the employers and the employed.

As I have already mentioned, the two-shift system has been in use during the war and in certain factories it is still employed. Therefore I think your Lordships will see that if it were suddenly abolished a number of women would be thrown out of work. Moreover, its continuation helps to absorb the surplus of trained female labour. If your Lordships will peruse the Report you will see it points out that production is increased thereby, since it is possible to use the same machinery for longer hours with a consequent reduction of overhead charges. Lastly it affords a passage, perhaps, to the adoption of shorter hours. I do not think there is any necessity for me to make any further remarks, and I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(The Earl of Onslow.)


My Lords, I am glad that my noble friend has alluded to the acute controversy which took place over this Bill in another place and also outside. This is a matter that may come up again, but as it is at present a matter of compromise after that acute controversy I respectfully suggest to your Lordships that you should pass this Bill without any substantial Amendments. The two-shift system is very much objected to in the textile trade as a reintroduction of the system of long hours and early morning hours which formerly existed, particularly for women and children in those trades. As one of the industries connected with this two-shift system exists in Lancashire—namely, the glass industry of St. Helens—Lancashire was very much perturbed at the idea of the two-shift system being brought into that county again. But the Home Secretary has announced his intention of not applying it to the textile trades, and of only applying it to other industries upon representations from factories or groups of factories and without opposition from the industry itself. The industries to which it would apply are chiefly those that have arisen during the war, particularly the manufacture of cotton-covered wire. If that industry was stopped at the present time it would not only prevent the production of goods which are eighteen months in arrears for the Post Office, but it would also throw a very large number of women and from 15,000 to 20,000 men out of employment. Women's work—which it appears that men cannot do—is so bound up with this particular industry that it would be a most serious matter for the production of electrical work if the two-shift system was not allowed to continue. But the Committee, under the learned chairmanship of Mr. Inskip, a man well versed in industrial affairs, unanimously passed a resolution that the two-shift system was in an experimental stage, that it should not continue beyond five years, that it should be given a trial, and should be the subject of a considerable number of restrictions. In those circumstances it appears to me that it would be unwise to disturb the arrangement which has been finally come to and which is clearly in the nature of a compromise, and that this trial of the two-shift system should be made in the interests of the industry concerned. I am informed that there are only about 15,000 women now employed on this two-shift system, and therefore in relation to the interests of the nation as a whole it is a comparatively small matter unless it is the introduction of the thin end of the wedge, and it is a very small matter indeed compared with the general contents of the Bill, which are to ratify an arrangement of an international character arrived at at Washington.

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