§ Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.
My Lords, I find myself to-day in the fortunate and unusual position of making a Motion for the Second Reading of a Bill which, I understand, is entirely non-contentious, and I shall therefore tell your Lordships in the fewest possible words what its object is. In the Electricity (Supply) Act, 1919, Section 16 provided for compensation for disestablishment or worsement of employment under, or in consequence of, operations or schemes under the Act. There was a provision that the workmen to whom this should apply must have been permanently employed in or about the undertaking at the date of the Act—that is, May 8, 1919. This provision was, no doubt, an unusual one, and I need not detail all its history, but it was, I suppose, then assumed that schemes would not take more than two or three years, or at the outside four years, to mature and develop. They have, in fact, taken very much longer, and it has come to a position where men who have nine or ten years service are not eligible for compensation because of the provision fixing the date at May 8, 1919.
369 That difficulty has already been felt, and in 1926 an attempt was made to overcome it by including in the compensation Provisions words to the effect that Section 16 of the Act of 1919 should apply to—Any officer or servant who before the closing, acquisition or imposition of the restrictions was regularly employed by any authorised undertakersfollowing the date of the Act, and this was supposed to be satisfactory. It has since been found, as was apparently not anticipated when this was thought satisfactory, that this provision can apply only to schemes authorised under the Act of 1926, so that the mischief caused under the Act of 1919 is still left unremedied. The Bill to which I ask your Lordships to give a Second Reading to-day is designed to put this right. As your Lordships will see, it has only one operative clause, and that clause merely provides that in the original Act of 1919 the words "before the said eighth day of May" shall be omitted wherever they occur in Section 16.
I think your Lordships will appreciate that this matter is non-contentious from the mere fact that the Bill has reached your Lordships at this early period of the Session, after passing through all its stages in another place. I understand that no opposition is offered to it on behalf of the Government because it is regarded as merely putting different classes of employees in the same category and removing what was felt to be an injustice. I beg to move.
§ Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Earl Russell.)
§ LORD ASKWITH
My Lords, before your Lordships decide to give a Second Reading to this Bill I should like to raise one or two questions regarding it. The noble Earl who has just sat down mentioned that he thought that the Bill was non-contentious and that it passed easily through another place. The fact of the matter is that the electricity companies had really no opportunity of dealing with this Bill. This is an amendment of a Government Bill that was debated at enormous length in this House. I do not know whether the Government now intend to support it, after having opposed similar provisions on two occasions through Cabinet 370 Ministers. I understand that this Bill was read a first time in the House of Commons on November 13. It was read a second time on November 21 and, being a Bill which, as the noble Earl said, cannot be amended, no Amendments were put down and the Bill was hurried through Committee and Third Reading on November 29. It has now come up here for Second Reading and no real consideration has been given to it.
So long ago as 1919, when a similar point was brought up in the Standing Committee, the Home Secretary said that it was intended to deal with people who were employed before May 8, 1919, and continued to be employed since. That was a known date, which was put into a public Act of Parliament. Now a Private Bill comes along to provide for anyone who has gone into this industry since 1919, and apparently to hang round the necks of the companies for years to come a provision that anyone who goes into the electricity industry must be compensated by Act of Parliament if he is affected by authorities being taken over or by amalgamations. This seems to me a most extraordinary thing to do. The Home Secretary said in 1919:If they went, into the employment since that date, they went in with their eyes open.—the date being May 8, 1919. Then again, with regard to a similar proposal in 1925, the Minister of Transport said that he could not possibly accept it, and he used these words:—The people before May, 1919, were probably put in a worse position, and it is right that they should be compensated, but those who came in with their eyes open, under new conditions, when the Act of Parliament was in operation, knew exactly what was going to happen, and it would be putting an unfair burden upon the industry to do this. These people are really not entitled to it. I am sure the Committee has shown itself very sympathetic to the claims of the staff and the wage-earner.The Government, through their Ministers, have said on previous occasions that they are not prepared to accept this proposal in a Public Act, and if a Second Reading is given to this Bill to-day I propose that a very long period should be given, since no Amendment is possible, before the Third Reading, so that your Lordships may consider whether you would be pre- 371 pared to vote for the Third Reading of the Bill "on this day six months," rather than pass it in such a hasty manner.
§ LORD GAINFORD
My Lords, a very far-reaching principle is being introduced in this Bill. It appears to have passed through all its stages in two sittings in another place without a single word being spoken in favour of it, and it has been sent to your Lordships' House. My attention was called to its provisions only this morning, but it seems to me to be a Bill of a very far-reaching character and I hope that your Lordships will hesitate before you give it a Second Reading. Accordingly I am prepared at once to propose that the Bill be read a second time this day six months.
This Bill, as the noble Lord who has just spoken has explained, arises out of the Electricity (Supply) Acts of 1919 and 1926, and, as the noble Lord has said, on both occasions the Minister of the Crown in Committee denounced this proposition as being one which could not be justified. Mr. Wilfred Ashley, who was in command of the Bill, pointed out in very distinct terms that it was quite impossible to accept an Amendment of this kind, because it would introduce the principle that a man had to be compensated when he had entered into a service with his eyes open. I ask your Lordships to take a simple illustration. An Act of Parliament is passed and a great many schemes are introduced. These electricity schemes, so far as I know, may go on for years and years, and yet any individual who, after the passing of that Act, is employed in that industry may ask for compensation, and has a right to ask for compensation, if he is disturbed in any way in connection with his work; in other words, the electricity companies in this country will have no opportunity of displacing or altering the duties of any of their servants without compensating them, even although they give them adequate notice.
Suppose they employ an individual at the rate, say, of£300 a year, as an electrician. That man is found is to be quite incompetent to do his work, but he has been employed, say, for two or three years, and he has to receive compensation under the provisions of this measure if he is discharged. Thus a burden will be placed upon that industry, not only in connection with that man, but in connection with any other man who may be em- 372 ployed in that industry and who seeks compensation. An individual like that may easily get£1,500 compensation because he has lost his job. We all are in sympathy with the man who has lost his job through no fault of his own, but that is no justification for compensating a man and placing an obligation upon the employer to pay for the loss of that job to that man, by a lump sum that may be awarded to him. It is an absolutely new principle under our legislation, and it is one which I hope your Lordships will hesitate to adopt.
The position may not be very serious for the particular undertaking, and there may be, for all I know, not a great number of applicants for compensation, but if there is to be compensation because a man is dismissed for inefficiency it is going to put a premium upon inefficiency, because at the present time men go into the electrical industry knowing perfectly well that schemes are going to be imposed. They take the risk in their own case, and if their work is altered, or they are dismissed at any time, they cannot seek compensation any more than anyone else in any other industry. If the obligation is to be put upon the electrical industry to compensate individuals of this kind, it will be equally competent, with very little stretching of the principle, for any individual in any occupation to seek compensation from his employer if he is dismissed. I believe in the absolute liberty of the subject. I believe that the individual workman has a right to be employed where he likes, and to accept what pay may be offered to him. I equally believe that the employer, if he finds an inefficient workman, ought to be able to get rid of him, and if he is not competent to do the work the workman ought to be given notice and no burden should be placed upon the industry in consequence. It is because of that far-reaching principle that I beg to move that the Bill be read a second time this day six months.
Leave out ("now") and at the end of the Motion insert ("this day six months").—(Lord Gainford.)
§ THE FIRST COMMISSIONER OF WORKS (THE MARQUESS OF LONDONDERRY)
My Lords, when I came down to the House I had no idea that my noble friend was going to take the course which he has taken, but I knew that Lord 373 Askwith was proposing to say something on the Bill. Unfortunately he did not furnish me with any of the questions which he proposed to ask until I reached your Lordships' House. The attitude of the Government in this House is naturally the same as the attitude which they adopted in another place, and it does seem to me surprising that the objections which the noble Lord, Lord Gainford, has put forward so forcibly were not put forward by his friends in another place. I would venture to ask your Lordships to give the Bill a Second Reading, and, if the noble Lord feels so strongly about it, on the Committee stage he can move an Amendment, or he will have further facilities later on for taking the course which he is endeavouring to take to-day. The noble Lord, Lord Askwith, has given us quotations in regard to the previous history of this particular measure, which is really only an amendment of Section 16 of the Electricity (Supply) Act of 1919. As to the earlier Amendments that were proposed, I have not had an opportunity of going into them myself, but I would like to point out that an Amendment on the lines of the present Bill was brought forward during the passage of the Electricity (Supply) Act, 1926, and that it concerned Part II of that Bill, with which, for reasons that may be familiar to your Lordships, it was not deemed expedient to proceed, so that the Amendment lapsed at the same time.
The Bill which the noble Earl is putting forward is an amendment of Section 16 of the Electricity (Supply) Act, 1919. That Act laid it down that employees who had suffered loss by reason of loss of employment etc., could only claim compensation if they had been employed in the undertaking before the eighth day of May, 1919. I think your Lordships will realise that this might quite easily lead to the exclusion of equitable claims, and the proposed amendment which is embodied by the noble Earl in this Bill removes the qualifying date of May 8, 1919, and thus enables employees to claim compensation for disturbance under, or in consequence of, the Act of 1919, provided they have been regularly employed in or about the undertaking. The Electricity (Supply) Act of 1926 states the principle that genuine employees, whatever the initial date of employment, may prefer claims 374 for loss of employment in consequence of the operation of that Act. Therefore I venture to say to your Lordships that the Government are taking no objection to the Bill put forward by the noble Earl, are taking perhaps I might say a benevolent view of it, and are willing that it should pass into law, provided the electricity undertakings themselves are willing to undertake the liabilities which the Bill may involve.
My Lords, I do not know whether to be glad or sorry that the two noble Lords who have spoken have deprived me of the opportunity of being engaged in a non-contentious matter. In one sense a contentious air is what I am rather more familiar with, but I had hoped to establish a record to-day. Before we finish with this stage of the Bill I think I ought to put one or two matters right. The noble Marquess opposite, speaking for the Government, has, I think, corrected some of those misapprehensions. The noble Lord, Lord Gainford, seemed to suggest that it was impossible to deal in the ordinary way with your servants—that you could not discharge them for incompetence. Nothing of that sort happens here. The employer has a complete right to get rid of a man if he thinks he is no good, or for any other reason. All that the principal Act, which we are now amending, provides is that where, owing to an electricity scheme under the Act, certain men are squeezed out of their places by the amalgamation, they shall receive compensation. That is a principle which, as the Bill was introduced, applied to directors and people in receipt of large salaries, and it was thought at that time not inequitable that it should apply also to those in receipt of weekly wages. That is the only compensation that is given. It has nothing to do with anything like permanent employment or a right to be employed—the men can be dismissed in the ordinary way: but if a good servant is employed and loses his job, through no fault of his own, because of an amalgamation under the Act, then, and then only, does he become entitled to compensation under this scheme.
As to the suggestion that there was no discussion on this matter, I ought to say that there was a long discussion on the Second Reading in July of last year on this same Bill, and after that discussion 375 the Bill passed in another place without a Division. So that it cannot be said that the other House did not know what it was doing, or that this Bill passed through inadvertently. The reason why it passed quickly this year was that was fully discussed and the principle was assented to last year. I am glad to think that at any rate I was right in saying that it was not contentious so far as noble Lords opposite are concerned, and that I have their support to-day.
§ On Question, Amendment disagreed to: Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.