HL Deb 09 July 1940 vol 116 cc821-3

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.

4.55 p.m.


My Lords, this is a little Bill, but perhaps your Lordships may think it of some interest and some importance. Our industrial code contains, as your Lordships know, provision for prohibiting truck, that is to say, prohibiting arrangements with workmen by which they are remunerated otherwise than in coin of the realm. This Bill arises from a decision, given in your Lordships' House judicially, after much difference of opinion at every stage of litigation, in a case that was tried last February called "Pratt versus Cook." Mr. Pratt was a packer and he brought his action against his employers, Messrs. Cook, who, I think, are wholesale drapers in St. Paul's Churchyard. His point was that for many years he had served his employers under a written contract by which he was paid 53s. per week and in addition received daily his dinner and his tea which were agreed to be of the weekly value of 10s. That particular form of arrangement exists in many businesses and it has generally been supposed to be lawful, but Mr. Pratt had the satisfaction, after going through three Courts, of getting, after a great deal of argument, a decision that it was not lawful.

As a consequence, he recovered the sum of £400, representing the dinners and teas valued at 10s. weekly which in the nature of things he could not return, but which, as it has turned out, he received under the contract unlawfully instead of wages. In fact, this is one of the very rare instances where one may say a man keeps his cake and eats it. It would be intolerable that a large number of persons should follow Mr. Pratt's example and similarly recover sums of money in respect of meals they have already eaten. If the agreement in Mr. Pratt's case, instead of saying he was to be paid 53s. in addition to getting dinner and tea worth 10s., had said he was to be paid 63s. but that there was to be deducted from that 63s. a sum of 10s. which represented his dinner and tea, there would have been nothing to dispute about in the Courts of Law. It seemed, therefore, reasonable to the Government—not indeed that we should correct the decision given, for unquestionably it is for the Judges to declare what the law is and for the Legislature to consider whether the law needs to be altered. It is not proposed to alter the law for the future, but to ensure that there should not be any imitator of Mr. Pratt in respect of agreements already entered into. Therefore, the Bill provides that no action can be brought in respect of agreements already entered into of this kind, provided they would have been perfectly lawful agreements if they had been put into the alternative form which I have explained.

The only other provision in the Bill is put in for caution. If it happens that there is any proceeding now already started in which it is sought to secure the same result, then it is provided that the proceedings shall be dismissed, but the Court shall consider what is the appropriate thing to do in reference to costs. Mr. Pratt himself retains the results of his ingenuity but will remain a solitary example of what can be done by an ingenious and persevering litigant. Before the Bill was introduced in another place its terms were the subject of discussion with representatives of the Trades Union Congress and they agreed that this was a reasonable provision to make. The Bill therefore comes before your Lordships' House not only with the support of the Government, but with the approval of those who naturally would take care to protest if it were proposed to do anything unreasonable. I think your Lordships will approve the Bill and I beg to move that it be read a second time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(The Lord Chancellor.)

5 p.m.


My Lords, as the noble Viscount has intimated, one has heard this Bill discussed at considerable length by those who are intimately familiar with trade union procedure, and I should like to support the correctness of the statement which has been made by the Lord Chancellor in respect of the feeling about the Bill. I believe, however, that it was not arrived at without substantial misgiving, because, of course, they are very anxious that there should be no extension of facilities for payment by truck; but I am assured that nothing of that kind can occur as a result of the passage of this Bill. It appears that if there had been as good relations between the employees and employers in this particular case as there are in a good many others where this kind of thing happens habitually and has happened for a long time, this ingenious litigant would never have emerged. It also appears that you can do the same thing legally if you word it one way and quite illegally if you word it another way, although the Act is identical in both cases. Such however, are the ingenuities and mysteries of the law. In the circumstances, I only have to say on behalf of those for whom I speak that we concur in the Second Reading of this Bill.

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