HL Deb 13 February 1945 vol 134 cc981-5

2.4 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, the Bill which I am now commending to your Lordships is one of the most important pieces of social legislation presented to Parliament during the war. It goes a long way towards ensuring that every low-paid wage-earner will receive either a legal or a moral guarantee of a reasonable weekly wage, and in so doing it carries a step further the important obligation of the modern State to provide a minimum standard of welfare for all its citizens by means of social services or by the statutory regulation of conditions of work. But apart from discharging an obligation that has long been accepted and implemented by all Parties and by Governments of all political complexions, it will do much to stabilize industrial relations during the difficult transitional period between war and peace. Your Lordships will remember the epidemic of strikes and lock-outs that followed the last war. We cannot afford another period of acute industrial unrest, for our livelihood will depend very largely on the capacity of our basic industries to compete at world prices in a world market, and their efficiency would be fatally impaired by widespread and recurrent wage disputes between employers and employed. Hence the vital importance of preventive action to expand, as far as possible, the range of employment covered by collective agreements, to ensure against a temporary or permanent breakdown in existing negotiating machinery, and to leave no wide gaps in our industrial system that cannot be quickly covered either by voluntary collective agreements or, failing that, by decisions taken by a statutory body.

The Bill may be divided, for convenience of exposition, into three main divisions. These divisions do not, of course, correspond to the Parts of the Bill. The first brings up to date legislation relating to trade boards by giving these bodies the full significance they have acquired in practice and in law since the first Trade Boards Act was passed in 1909, a Bill which stands to the everlasting credit of the Liberal Government of that time. Trade boards in that Act were limited in scope to fixing the minimum hourly wages—6d. an hour for men and 2¾d. or 3¼d. for women—in certain sweated industries that had, at long last, aroused the conscience of Parliament. Since those early days, their activities have been increased and their potentialities have been realized, so that they now have responsibilities over a very wide field of industrial welfare, and are competent, among other things, to fix rates of overtime, to guarantee a minimum weekly wage, to provide for holidays with pay, and to advise on many subjects connected with the efficiency and well-being of industrial employees during their working hours. To mark the change that has come over trade boards in the last thirty years, a change that reflects a new attitude of society to the working man, it is proposed that they should henceforward be renamed "wages councils."

The second feature of this Bill provides additional procedure for establishing wages councils as a preventive measure when it is found that negotiating machinery is likely to break down and, as a result, a reasonable standard of wages will not be maintained. Hitherto the State has not been able to intervene to prevent voluntary machinery from falling to pieces, even when it was clear that the conditions resulting from the breakdown would make intervention inevitable in the long run. The State has been obliged to stand aside until a collapse in the wage structure has actually taken place. This Bill introduces an entirely new principle. It will enable the Minister to appoint an independent commission of inquiry, either on his own initiative or on a joint application, when the first signs of disintegration of joint machinery begin to appear; and if this commission recommends the appointment of a wages council as the only way out of a deteriorating position, he will then be able to step in with a statutory body.

The third important feature of the Bill is that which makes temporary provision until 1950 for the observance by all employers of a fair wage. It will be obligatory for employers engaged in any trade or industry in which the standards of wages and conditions are not subject to statutory regulations but are settled by voluntary agreements entered into by representative organizations of both sides, to observe terms and conditions not less favourable than those agreed in the district. This will ensure that during the difficult years following the war industrial agreements concluded between trade unions and employers' organizations representing a substantial proportion of the employers and workers in a trade or industry in the same district, are accepted as a fair wage by all concerned. This will prevent the standards of the good employer from being undermined by newcomers seeking competitive advantages from low wages. I commend this Bill to your Lordships as a valuable addition to our code of social legislation and as a contribution at any rate to industrial peace after the war. I beg to move that the Bill be now read a second time.

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

2.12 p.m.


My Lords, may I say that this Bill has the whole-hearted support of those sitting on these Benches. In our opinion it satisfies a very great need and we believe that it will hearten those who are at present serving in His Majesty's Forces. In saying this, however, we must not be regarded as giving unqualified approval to every clause as there are certain details in Clause 13 which may give rise to an Amendment in the Committee stage. None the less, we regard this as a good Bill and we hope the Second Reading will receive the full support of this House.

2.13 p.m.


My Lords, the noble Earl who has introduced this Bill did not exaggerate when he said this is one of the most important social measures that has been introduced into Parliament in the course of this war, and to my mind it is strange that it has aroused so little attention in the public at large as well as in Parliament. That may be because it is not, happily, a controversial Bill. Another measure, which embodies very much the same principles limited to the catering trade, aroused very intense opposition but this Bill, which applies to a vast variety of industries, is going through Parliament almost unnoticed. It is, of course, none the worse for that. It seems to me an admirable measure.

The noble Earl mentioned that it was founded upon the precedents of the existing trade boards, which were due to an Act passed in 1909 by the Liberal Government of that day. That was a complete departure from the old laissez faire tendencies which had prevailed in the Liberal Party in the previous century. An Act of this kind for abolishing low wages in the sweated industries and to bring in the power of the law to do the work which in other trades had been done by the trade unions was indeed a vast departure from previous tendencies. Again, in 1928, the Liberal Party appointed a special inquiry which resulted in the publication of a book Britain's Industrial Future which presented a policy for that time. Included in that policy was a principle very much like that which is now embodied in this Bill—namely, a much more wide extension of the measures adopted in the case of the Trade Boards Act of 1909. In those circumstances it is hardly necessary for me to say that this Bill receives the cordial support of the Liberal Party and is welcomed by noble Lords on these Benches.

2.15 p.m.


My Lords, I would like, by permission of the House, to thank the two noble Lords who have spoken on this Bill both for their support of it and for the support of the important Parties which they represent. I should particularly like to thank my noble friend opposite, Lord Southwood, for drawing the attention of the Government to Clause 13 and for the need for altering it in the light of criticism that has been expressed. I should like to assure him that the Government intend to amend Clause 13 during the Committee stage of the Bill. We take the view that, so long as the protection given to employees by the Truck Acts is in no way interfered with, certain deductions customarily made from a worker's pay at his own request should be included among the various deductions for the purpose of this clause.

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