HC Deb 16 June 1871 vol 207 cc185-95

, in rising to ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department, If the new Licensing Bill will be framed as a complete measure with a view to its being a permanent settlement of the question, or whether it is intended that it should be merely a portion of a more extensive scheme hereafter to be introduced? to call attention to the great loss and deterioration of property that will accrue from any uncertainty on this point; and to move— That, in the opinion of this House, it is undesirable to pass any measure that does not afford a permanent and definite settlement of the Regulations and Licences affecting the property invested, directly or indirectly, in the Liquor Trade, said, that since he first placed Notice of the Question on the Paper, it had almost been answered by the course of events. A Bill on the subject had that Session been brought in, which was of the greatest pretensions, and which had caused a great depreciation in all the property which was either directly or indirectly connected with the licensing trade of the country. It was, therefore, extremely desirable to ascertain from the Government, if possible, whether that part of their scheme which, after ten years, would throw the licences of all the houses in the trade open to competition, was to be persevered with or not. For himself, he could conceive no principle so disastrous as that applied to property, whether its value were £50,000 or merely the value of a common publichouse. There were two great principles involved in the question—one being that the ratepapers of a district should under certain circumstances be enabled to prevent the sale of any intoxicating liquors within its limits, and the other that licences should be granted very much as hitherto. Everyone admitted that the present licensing system was very bad, and that it should be reformed; he therefore thought it was much to be deplored that the Government, after having made so many promises on the subject, should have withdrawn the Bill, and merely contented themselves with stating that they meant to propose some temporary regulations for the future. The fact was that if the measures of the Government had been better matured at the commencement of the Session, the waste of the time of the House, which was so much to be deplored, would not have occurred, and it would have been spared the miserable, fiasco of the Budget, the equally miserable fiasco of the Licensing Bill—which was one of the first innocents murdered this Session—and that wretched abortion of a measure, the Local Taxation Bill. As to the question of licences, he, for one, did not see why the ratepayers who felt themselves aggrieved by the existing state of things should not be allowed to exercise the authority which they might legitimately obtain; while, on the other hand, he knew of no good reason why the licensed victuallers should not be permitted to carry their principle, which he thought an equally good one, into effect—that of buying up existing interests from a fund created by themselves, and so diminish the number of publichouses in the country. He thought that a good measure with respect to licensing might have been carried during the present Session, but when a Bill assailing indiscriminately a powerful interest was brought in, no one could be surprised that it failed to receive a favourable reception. That, measure was most injurious to the higher class of houses in which liquor was sold, and hardly touched that lower class of houses which all wished to get rid of. Legislation, he believed, might do much to encourage sobriety. It might be done by diminishing the present competition for publichouses; they might place the liquor trade on a sound foundation if both sides would yield a little. A man, in England, sneaked into a publichouse. Abroad, gaiety and conviviality were the characteristics of the places where liquor was sold. And the reason of the difference was, that in England the keeper of the house was not made responsible for the consequences of supplying his customers with more than was good for them. They were now promised a Bill simply to regulate the liquor traffic; but no one could say what its provisions were to be. He was a landowner himself, and it was his custom in laying out land to be built upon to apportion, as far as possible to the circumstances of the case, the houses which, under certain restrictions, were to be used for the sale of beer and other liquors; but such a Bill as the Government introduced would render all his efforts nugatory, because at the termination of ten years anyone, in spite of the arrangements he had made, might obtain a licence without even having a house at the time to carry on the trade. Nothing could be more objectionable than the course winch the Government seemed prepared to adopt—namely, to hang up this matter for another year, and leave it uncertain whether that unjust principle respecting the ten years' licence was or was not to be adopted. He should have been content to have seen some portion, though not the extreme portion, of the Permissive Prohibitory Bill carried into law, but all the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for the Home Department now proposed to do was to establish some regulations in reference to the conduct of business in publichouses. This delay in dealing with the subject of licensing was to be deplored, because large interests were involved, the revenue derived from the liquor trade amounting to £25,000,000. A trade of that magnitude deserved better treatment than it had received, and it was very much to be desired that the intentions of the Government on the subject should be known this year, because the House would be called on to make up any deficit in the Revenue which might be produced by any Bill intended to be introduced by the Government. Surely it would only have been wise and fair at the beginning of the Session either to have brought in a Bill which the Government were resolved to pass, or to have left the question untouched. He believed that the country generally was agreed on the main principles on which legislation should be based, so that the hesitation or failure of the Government were the less to be explained. The hon. Baronet concluded by asking the Question of which he had given Notice.


said, if the hon. Baronet the Member for East Devon (Sir Lawrence Palk) had established one thing by his speech, it was that he had entirely failed to appreciate the magnitude of the question to be dealt with. He called upon the Government not only to introduce a fresh measure, but to introduce one which should deal with the whole subject at once—or, as he said, which should deal with the licensing system as well as with the regulation of houses. The hon. Baronet must know that the licensing system was one of the most difficult problems to deal with; over and over again successive statesmen had attempted to deal with it, and had shrunk from the difficult task; and if the hon. Baronet had undertaken the task himself he would have found the difficulties such that he might have considered even failure was no disgrace. The hon. Baronet called upon the Government at this period of the Session, with a large portion of the Estimates unvoted, and with measures they were pledged to carry unearned, to bring forward a measure dealing with the whole question, or to inform the House on what principles any measure they might introduce subsequently would be based. He thought the House would be prepared for the statement that he declined to give the required answer. He was quite willing to learn by experience, and, having discovered the shoals and rocks by which the question was surrounded, he would endeavour to avoid them in the future To all offers and suggestions coming from the licensed victuallers and from others he was willing to pay the most careful attention; and he was ready to admit that in the suggestions which were made after the introduction of his Bill, and not before, he had discerned elements of usefulness in the settlement of the question. From the hon. Baronet they had heard expressions of sympathy with distillers, brewers, and owners of publichouse property, and honestly and sincerely he lamented the injury which undoubtedly had been inflicted upon them by uncertainty as to possible legislation; but there was another portion of the community on behalf of whom he did not hear a single word of sympathy, for whom he felt much more, and that was those who suffered in morals and happiness, and all that made life more desirable and respectable, from the present condition of our licensing-laws. He had spoken of the present number of licences as if he forgot that, excluding London, there were of publichouses and beerhouses one for every 150 of the population—men, women, and children. [Sir LAWRENCE PALK said, on the contrary, he was in favour of diminishing the number.] The hon. Baronet would find he could not diminish the number without in some way affecting or injuring the interests of those whose rights he so strongly advocated. He called upon the Government to do that which was utterly impossible—to bring in a measure which should be easily carried—without affecting in any way the interests of the proprietors and keepers of publichouses, and that was impossible. He could only repeat that he was willing to learn by experience; but he should be injuring the cause he had at heart if he were to state, which, indeed, he was not prepared to do, what was the policy of the Government with respect to the licensing part of the question. The progress of Business did not inspire him with hope, but if the opportunity offered in the course of the Session he should be prepared to bring in a Bill to deal with matters of police and regulation; but the discussions which had arisen upon the licensing question imposed upon the Government the duty of re-considering the whole matter and seeing what fresh proposition could be made.


said, the question could not be treated as it ought to be treated at the end of a Session like this; and, if it were touched at all, it could only be by a measure suspending for a time any further increase in the number of publichouses, for if they went further and dealt with police clauses they would only prejudice a more comprehensive measure in the future. He should like to see the Government take a strong line without attempting to meet the views of either of the extreme parties to the controversy—a line which would gradually reduce the number of houses, without at the same time dealing with them so violently as they were dealt with in the Bill of the Government. This might be done by raising the rateable value of the houses, by restricting the discretion of magistrates to grant licences, and by curtailing the hours that they were open. It was impossible to lay down any fixed rule based upon population; because one house to 1,000 persons might be sufficient in one place, while in another one to 400 or 500 might be insufficient, on account of markets and other causes of influx, which could not be temporarily provided for. The attempt to deal with the subject, other than as a whole, would be injurious to the object all had in view—namely, the diminution of the deplorable amount of drunkenness now prevalent among the working classes.


said, he did not think the right hon. Gentleman the Home Secretary had answered the question put to him. Let him say boldly that the Bill he had withdrawn provoked so much opposition that he was obliged to leave the matter alone for the Session. The question to which it was desirable that the Government should give an answer was this—Did they mean, in any Bill which they intended to bring forward, to confiscate the property in which a large body of persons were directly and indirectly interested, as they had proposed to do in their measure so recently withdrawn? He thought a fairer answer ought to have been given by the right hon. Gentleman to that question, for this reason — that people ought to know whether the large amount of property invested in the trade was safe or not; and in connection with that part of the question he would remind the House, that in addition to the money actually invested in the trade itself, there were large sums of money invested in mortgages upon the houses used for carrying on the trade.


, while he thought the hon. Baronet opposite (Sir Lawrence Palk) was perfectly justified in putting his Question, conceived that there was no reason to find fault with the Home Secretary for the answer he had given to it. All parties, however, were agreed that some remedy should be applied to the existing state of things, and this being so he had no doubt that some remedy would be found. The licensed victuallers had no interest in the increase of the number of publichouses; and if too many licences had been granted by the magistrates, it would be hard to visit upon the victuallers the fault of those who had to carry out the law. A great many licences must continually fall in by effluxion of time, and with the increase of population, and the transfer of licences from one district to another, it would be easy to control the number of licences. He hoped that in any future Bill the right hon. Gentleman would recollect what he stated on the 13th of July, 1870, that it would be very unjust to deprive those engaged in this trade of their right to sell without giving them compensation. The ten years' clause in the last Bill was looked upon in the light of confiscation, and he was glad that the right hon. Gentleman had thrown aside his pre-conceived ideas, and would endeavour to do justice to all parties.


said, he believed that many of the persons who signed the Petitions presented to that House in favour of the Permissive Prohibitory Liquor Bill were actuated by a feeling very similar to that which influenced many of those who signed Petitions for the Ballot—namely, that they were dissatisfied with the present state of things, and wished for some improvement in it, they could hardly tell how or what. He regarded the feeling now existing among the working classes on this subject as a very healthy sign, and as the growth of public opinion rather than the result of any legislation, had put down drunkenness in higher ranks of society, so he hoped they would gradually see the same salutary change effected among the working class, He could not view the measure introduced and abandoned this year by the right hon. Gentleman the Home Secretary as one that offered the basis of a satisfactory settlement of that question; and he trusted that for their own sakes as well as for the sake of the public interest, the Government would be able at the commencement of next Session to lay a well-considered and matured Bill dealing with that important subject on the Table, with a full determination to submit it to the judgment of the House. With the enormous amount of property invested in the trade, it was not fair that the matter should be hung up, and he trusted that the right hon. Gentleman would make up his mind during the Recess as to the nature of the Bill to be introduced, and, coute qui coute, take the judgment of the House upon it. It was a ground, too, of just complaint that an opportunity had not during the present Session been afforded for a full discussion of the Government proposal, as the opinion of Parliament might have assisted the Government in the framing of their measure. But the interests of the public at large, and the interests of the trade concerned, were equally opposed to any trifling with the subject, and both parties, he believed, would willingly see a fair and liberal measure adopted; such a one, for instance, as, while it contented the publicans, would remove temptation from the working man.


said, the right hon. Gentleman the Home Secretary had exercised a wise discretion when he withdrew the Bill, because he could not conceive the pleasure of discussing a measure that was universally condemned. They had discussed the principle of the Permissive Bill, and there could be nothing more plain, clear, and decisive than to say that because drinking beer to a great extent was a bad thing nobody should have any to drink at all. The hon. Baronet the Member for Carlisle (Sir Wilfrid Lawson)had been agitating that principle for twelve years, and, notwithstanding what had been said to the contrary, the state of the country with regard to drink had gone on improving. Everybody said a Bill must be brought in, but nobody did it. The hon. Baronet the Member for West Essex (Sir Henry Selwin-Ibbetson) was the only person who had sketched out a plan which, by any possibility could be carried out, and as he had been so successful with his small beer Bill, he hoped he would attempt something with respect to the large beerhouses. The hon. Baronet had caused a panic amongst the beer-shop keepers, and although he had deprived them of many of their privileges they made no complaint, but great advantage had arisen from the legislation he had adopted. Although the hon. Baronet's course had been, to a certain extent, severe, still, at the same time, it had been extremely mild in comparison with the Permissive Bill and the Home Secretary's Bill, which were two extremes in opposite directions. He hoped the right hon. Gentleman the Home Secretary would mature a plan during the Recess and submit it at the Sitting of Parliament next Session, in order that it might be fully discussed.


said, he was not dissatisfied with the position of this great drink question, because where formerly nobody appeared to take any interest in it, everybody now had a remedy of some kind or other, and that showed him that drinking could not be diminishing in the satisfactory manner they would wish the public to believe. He would not discuss the Bill of the hon. Baronet (Sir Henry Selwin-Ibbetson) until he had seen it, but he would take that opportunity to thank the right hon. Gentleman the Home Secretary for the efforts he had made this year to deal with the question. The right hon. Gentleman had been attacked on all sides, but he (Sir Wilfrid Lawson) wished to pay his tribute to the honest and earnest attention he had paid to the subject. He was not surprised the right hon. Gentleman had failed, because of the difficulty of the subject. It would be impossible to bring in a measure which should be satisfactory to everyone. The reason why the right hon. Gentleman's Bill failed was because he did not excite the enthusiasm of the country, which he might have done had he trusted to his fellow-countrymen in this matter.


said, he must point out that it was strange that the right hon. Gentleman the Home Secretary should complain of the unreasonableness of his hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Sir Lawrence Palk), when for the last three years this subject had been under his consideration. That morning at an advanced hour a Bill—Intoxicating Liquors (New Licences) Bill—was read a second time which had reference to this subject, and he did not know whether the right hon. Gentleman meant to leave the solution of this question in the hands of Gentlemen whose names were at the back of that Bill. He hoped that the experience of the right hon. Gentleman would teach him how difficult it was to deal with vested interests.


said, he wished it to be clearly understood that when they talked about the drink question they really meant excessive drinking, and it was with that the Government were called upon to deal. The people never would submit to have the power taken from them of saying what they would drink or how they should drink it. Habits of drunkenness were not on the increase, and in the Army the soldiers were becoming increasingly sober as more amusements were being opened up to them, a fact which pointed out the way they should take in reforming the habits of the people generally.


said, he thought at the right hon. Gentleman the Home Secretary had great reason to complain of the course taken by the powerful association of which his hon. Friend (Sir Wilfrid Lawson) was the head, for they had given the right hon. Gentleman no encouragement in regard to the measure he brought forward at an early period of the Session. He believed that, however defective it might be in details, that measure was an honest attempt to solve a very difficult problem, and as such was entitled to the cordial support of the party which advocated temperance. The financial as well as the moral aspect of this question must be considered, for large bodies who had invested capital in this trade, in accordance with the legislation of the country, could not be expected to relinquish a lucrative business without receiving compensation. There was a general feeling that the number of beershops and publichouses was in excess of the requirements of the population, but he thought that before these could be removed compensation must be given. He hoped the Government would either support the measure of the hon. Baronet opposite (Sir Robert Anstruther), which was read a second time at an early hour that morning, or would introduce a similar Bill to prevent the acquisition of new rights.


said, he thought it might be assumed that the right hon. Gentleman after withdrawing his Bill would not in any future measure neglect to provide for adequate compensation, but he hoped the Government would distrust the proposals of so-called philanthropists. He was sure the Bill mentioned, putting an end to licences in the current year, would receive support from licensed victuallers.


said, it was desirable that if the Home Secretary proposed to bring in a Bill this Session to regulate the police department of the licensing system, he should give notice of his intention, rather than leave the matter in uncertainty, He trusted that whatever measure the right hon. Gentleman introduced he would take measures to ascertain the real feeling of the country, and if necessary appoint a Royal Commission, or institute an inquiry of that kind. His hon. Friend (Sir Henry Selwin-lbbetson), who could not again speak in the debate, had received statistics from various parts of England showing that there had been an absolute increase of convictions for drunkenness; but the police explained this by saying that keepers of houses being now afraid of danger from harbouring drunken people, turned them more readily into the streets, where they were arrested, so that there was no actual increase.