29 JANUARY 1960, Page 3

Have No Truck

TN 1956 Pyc Radio Ltd. decided to change from 'paying its employees' wages in cash to paying them by cheque, and so encountered Section 8 of the Truck Act of 1831, which requires that cheques be issued only with the consent of the employee, and only on a bank within fifteen miles of the point of wage payment, licensed to engage in the general business of banking and licensed to issue bank-notes. Pyc had secured the consent of the employees individually and of their union: but the firm's legal advisers warned that because changes in the banking laws had eliminated the issue of bank-notes except by the Bank of England, a rigorous interpretation of Section 8 might hold any agreement for payment of manual labourers by cheque illegal.

It is not uncommon for statutes originally designed to prevent abuses to create, in time, abuses of their own—or, as in this case, unneces. sary inconvenience. The cost of paying wages in cash is heavy; so is the cost of wage-bag robberies. The only surprise, in fact, is that the repeal of the Truck Acts has been so long delayed—partly, no doubt, because of old Left-wing prejudice against cheques as something fit only for salary earners, not for wage earners; and partly because of the inertia which makes governments reluctant to introduce reforms in case they stir up un- expected trouble.

There is no reason to suppose that the Payment of Wages Bill, which is now being debated in the Commons, will meet with serious resistance; but in case it should strike sparks on the flint of old prejudices, it is worth remembering that even from the start the Truck Acts were not designed to prevent payment by cheque; and that they did not give any real protection to the worker. Sec- tion 8 of the Act was simply an adjunct to the Act's prohibition of arrangeMents whereby an employee was compelled to deal with a company store. In the collieries in the early nineteenth cen- tury, a labourer was usually compelled to deal with a company store if he wished to have an advance on his wages. When the truck system was prohibited in coal mining in 1817, some colliery owners in the Black Country had tried to evade the prohibition by issuing bogus cheques as shop tickets; they paid monthly wages in notes and coin, but paid advances on wages by cheques on Birm- ingham banks, telling the employee that the cheque was to be used only for groceries at the company shop, and that he would be discharged if he went to Birmingham to cash it. The Act was designed to stop this—not to prevent payment by cheque.

And the Truck Acts never provided a valuable protection for the worker. The Act of .1831, the most important of them, was a dismal failure; in the 1840s the truck system was at least as prevalent as it had been before 1831. Cheques were still being issued as shop tickets in the Black Country in the early 1850s. In 1849, an attorney defending an employer in a truck proceeding at Wolver- hampton, questioned whether a conviction ought to be made under a Statute that had become a dead letter. When the truck system eventually dis- appeared it was largely because of its un- popularity with individual employees and their unions, not because of legislation.

Since that time, not unnaturally, most of the major actions arising under the Acts have been anomalous. In 1909 the Stockton Co-operative Society was fined £2 for urging its own employees to deal with it. In the case of Pratt r. Cook (1940), a packer for a firm of wholesale drapers was able to recover £397 10s. (the aggregate value of dinners and teas provided by his employer between 1920 and 1935) because his employer had thoughtlessly provided him directly with the meals —without instead increasing his wages by 10s. per week and then securing his written consent for a deduction of 10s., as the Act of 1831 required.

In short, there is nothing to suggest that the repeal of the Acts will remove any safeguard, in • practice; and in theory, whatever may be the need for statutory regulation of wage payments, they obviously cannot be satisfactorily dealt with by Acts originally designed to prevent employers in the nail trade and in the Midland collieries from forcing their workers to deal with slibps of a kind which disappeared nearly a century ago.