[The Annual Report, which was published on July 20th 1932, was the subject of considerable notice in the Press.]

A Hundred Years of the Factory Acts

From Monday of this week child labour in the cotton mills of the United States has been abolished; as President Roosevelt put it “this ancient atrocity went out in a day.” Whether in an industry in which labour conditions have been notoriously bad, and which has never taken kindly to regulation, the hot fit of enlightenment will last it would be unsafe to prophesy. But the fact remains that for the present, according to law, boys and girls under sixteen are not to be employed in American cotton mills and are not to work more than forty hours a week. This is the highest point yet reached in the movement for humane conditions in industry, although it would be rash to say that the motive underlying the American reform is so much humanitarian as a simple desire quickly to lessen unemployment among adults. In this country we are celebrating the completion of the first hundred years of the effective regulation of conditions of child labour. As the report of the Chief Inspector of Factories and Workshops, noticed on another page, reminds us, this year brings the hundredth anniversary of the appointment of Government inspectors of factories, and with an imagination too rare in Government departments the opportunity is taken for a review of the century of State interference. The whole forms an admirable piece of social history which the Home Office need make no apology for publishing. We may have moved a long way from the Act of 1833, with its prohibition of factory child labour under the mature age of nine, its nine-hour day for children between nine and thirteen, and its twelve-hour day or sixty-nine-hour week for boys and girls between thirteen and eighteen. But we are still far from having reached a point at which we can overwhelm ourselves with congratulations. The British Factory Acts were the first and for a long time the best. Whether we still lead is in some respects a matter for doubt. But if we do lag it is not through lack of devotion and knowledge on the part of the State servants who administer the laws but through the indifference of the Governments and Parliaments that make them.

The great defect of the Factory Acts is that they are not a code but a mass of definitions, enumerations, and exceptions into which the layman ventures with fear. Every Home Secretary professes his burning enthusiasm to reduce them to order, to cure anomalies, and to bring the regulations abreast of modern standards and ideas. One Government after another makes pledges and forgets them; the present is the fifth successive Government to promise to put through a general Bill which was first drafted ten years ago. We are still, as the Chief Inspector says, working to the “fine old Act of 1901,” and in many respects to “fine old Acts” of considerably greater antiquity. In an age of interference we are working to rules born of an age when the theory of non-interference still nominally held, and when every regulation of the liberty of individuals had to be defended on particular grounds and not as the application of a general industrial principle. Our legislation has been built up by specific enumeration, and has left gaping holes. The first Acts dealt with the exploitation of children in cotton factories; next came textile factories generally; next the mines. But it was thirty years after the Factory Act of 1833 and twenty after the Mines Act of 1842 that other smaller industries were touched, and even longer before iron and steel were regulated. In the early sixties children of five were still working in the potteries, and children under ten were working fifteen hours a day. A generation of boys and girls in the cotton and woollen industries had been given some schooling under the half-time system before the pottery children were brought within the range of compulsory education. Present-day anomalies are less glaring, but the piecemeal method has given its impress to the whole body of legislation.

The most surprising anomaly is the way in which the legislative restrictions on hours of employment lag behind modern practices and tendencies. The 48 hour week is the rule, and the 40 hour week is a matter for serious discussion. Yet the only limitation of the hours of adult males in factories in our legislation is for certain classes of pottery workers. For women and young persons the maximum hours are still, as they were fifty years ago, 56½ a week for textile workers and 60 for other factory workers. On the other hand there is a case, as the Chief Inspector points out, for greater elasticity in the arrangement of working hours. The two-shift system for women and young persons can only be operated as a matter of special exception, and one possible way of advance towards a shorter working week is made difficult. One stresses the defects of the British system merely because the past contains such appalling reminders of the dangers of complacency and contentment. Gratifying as is the extermination of the worst abuses of the nineteenth century – overlong hours, the exploitation of children, insanitary conditions, unfenced machinery, unchecked industrial diseases, truck, and sweating workshops, – new dangers are always appearing. “As one industrial disease is conquered, or at least disarmed, another arises to be fought”. The newer post-war trades, for instance, have brought a host of fresh problems of industrial medicine. While, as the Chief Inspector justly claims, the difficulties which confronted the four first inspectors of 1833, in the ignorance, prejudice, and apathy on the part of employers, have almost gone, society demands increasingly high standards of vigilance, and this branch of State service can never rest.

Manchester Guardian, July 1932