HC Deb 01 June 1904 vol 135 cc577-82


Order for Second Reading read.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a second time."

*SIR CHARLES DLLKE (Gloucestershire, Forest of Dean)

said he should not object to this Bill being taken now. It was quite unnecessary for him to detain the House by going into the history of the question, because it had been fully discussed this year already. He wished to state that it was his intention to divide the House against the Second Reading upon two grounds. He opposed the measure for the two reasons which he gave in the Resolution he had placed on the Paper, which was that this Bill— Is unduly hampered by restrictions, and, not providing for the regulation of the hours of shop assistants, fails to satisfy the terms of the unanimous Resolution of this House. These restrictions were matters which might be dealt with in Committee, and therefore he would not press them at this stage. His second objection, however, could not be dealt with in Committee. Last year they passed a Resolution unanimously which showed the feeling of the House, and the Government objected to one portion of that Resolution. The Resolution was to the effect that the matter might be left to the option of the local authorities, and that the legislation on the subject should include also the hours of employment of shop assistants. The Government objected to the words "shop assistants," but they were unable to divide the House, and they allowed the words to be carried against them in a unanimous Resolution. In the opinion of those who had given a good deal of time to this subject, it was unnecessary to hamper this Bill by forcing it to be put in operation by two-thirds of the shopkeepers in the district dealt with. They thought that was an undue infringement of the principle of local option, and that the matter might be left to the great local authorities in the country to deal with the matter as they pleased. He begged to move.

CAPTAIN NORTON (Newington, W.)

seconded the Amendment. It was very often lost sight of by the House that the closing of shops at certain hours would be no guarantee whatever as to the time during which shops assistants might be employed. It was no uncommon thing in certain businesses for shop assistants to be employed an hour before the business of the day opened, and very often they were engaged an hour or two after the business closed. At festival times such as Christmas and other occasions, the hours worked by the assistants were out of all proportion to the pay they received. They were obliged to do that work at the risk of dismissal. Cases were on record of men and women being employed continuously day and night with very short relaxation for sleep on those occasions.

Amendment proposed— To leave out from the word 'That' to the end of the Question, in order to add the words in the opinion of this House, the proposed measure for the early closing of Shops is unduly hampered by restrictions, and, not providing for the regulation of the hours of shop assistants, fails to satisfy the terms of the unanimous Resolution of this House.'"—[SirCharles Dilke.)

Question proposed, "That the words proposed to he left out stand part of the Question."

SIR FREDERICK BANBURY (Camberwell, Peckham)

said he did not approve of the Bill. The object of the measure was to ensure that for a certain time certain shops might be closed. A certain number of assistants worked too long hours on certain occasions, but he doubted whether this Bill would remove their hardship. It was a very great mistake for the House of Commons to be continually interfering with the liberty of the subject, and preventing people from keeping open as long as it was desirable in their own interest to keep open. In regard to large shops, he believed the Bill would be useless. The people to whom it would apply in a hard manner were the owners of small shops who worked the shops themselves with the assistance of their families. The people whom they served were of the working class, and they were unable to shop in the day time. It was, therefore, necessary that these shops should be open for their convenience. In a good many cases, though these small shops were open for a good many hours a day, very little business was done during the middle of the day, and the people in charge were able to sit down and rest. Unless there was very strong ground in the interest of the health of the community for such legislation, he thought it was a very great mistake for the Government to interfere with trade and business in the way proposed. He did not think any ground of that kind could be shown in this case. He wished to call attention to the constitution of the authority with respect to London. London was a conglomeration of large towns with divergent interests, and it was quite impossible for the London County Council to be the authority for the whole area for the purposes of this Bill. The local authority ought to have local knowledge, and he did not think it would be argued that the London County Council had that knowledge. It could not be denied that the work of the London County Council at the present moment was very arduous. While he was anxious that the education of London should be in the hands of the County Council, he did not think that for this particular purpose the County Council was a fit body, and he hoped that his hon. friend would, in Committee, substitute the Metropolitan Borough Councils for the London County Council. The reason for that was, that the borough councils were much more likely to know the needs of the locality, and the actual ways and means by which the different trades were carried on, than the London County Council. The borough councils were more in touch with the small shopkeepers and the inhabitants generally, and would be more likely to carry out the Orders under the Bill, and the wishes of the people. He must confess that the principle of the Bill was one which he should never have thought would have been brought forward by a Conservative Government; and if the right hon. Baronet the Member for Forest of Dean went to a division he should vote for him, but not for the same reason that actuated the right hon. Gentleman.

MR ASQUITH (Fifeshire, E.)

said he was not inclined to indulge in anything like hostile criticism of the Bill, but he thought it was a very mild and homœopathic measure of reform. He very much regretted that the Government had not so framed its title and scope as to make it possible to introduce Amendments in Committee to meet the cases of common occurrence where shop assistants were compulsorily employed either before the opening, or after the closing, of the shops. He had given a great deal of attention to this subject for many years, and he was satisfied that no measure would be really effective which did not couple with the power of compulsorily closing the shop itself some sanction by which the shop assistants should not he employed unless for a short interval after the closing hour. He very much regretted that the Government had not put some provision of that kind into the Bill, which would relieve the shop assistants from excessive hours of labour and ensure for them reasonable leisure. At the same time he should be very sorry that anything should be done to arrest the progress of this very modest measure of reform. He hoped, however, when the Bill got into Committee, that the Government would consider the other branch of the Amendment, and see whether it was not possible somewhat to simplify the local procedure. He quite agreed that the initiative should be with the local authority; but he should like to see a freer hand given to the local authority; nor did he see that it was at all necessary that Orders under the Bill should be laid before Parliament for forty days before they came into operation. Sympathising with every step forward in the direction of reform in a class of work which had been too long neglected by the Legislature, he heartily supported the Second Reading.

MR. LAWRENCE (Liverpool, Abercromby)

said that for many years he had opposed measures of this kind on principle, because they interfered with the liberty of the individual; but he quite recognised that there were certain districts of great towns where the action of the local authorities could bring about a natural and sensible means of increasing the leisure of those who had to stand behind the counter all day long. Therefore he was prepared to give this measure a welcome, as it dealt with a difficult question in a careful and moderate manner. In the constituency he represented there were two most important shops which evidently met a great local want in keeping open to a late hour, and, judging by the popularity with which these shops were patronised, there was little want for this Bill. At the same time, in the city of Liverpool there was a great desire to benefit the toiling masses in the shop districts, and he thought that some measure like this should receive the sanction of the House. He quite approved that the local authorities should have the initiative in this movement, and he agreed with the right hon. Gentleman opposite that there should be an appeal to this House for confirmation of the Orders.

*MR. THORNTON (Clapham)

said he would not oppose the Second Reading of the Bill, but, with some considerable knowledge of South London, he should not be very sorry if some Amendments were introduced in Committee which would allow an exemption of shopkeepers who were assisted only by members of their own families. He felt that there was a danger in the number of "ifs" in this Bill, and that shopkeepers might, on account of uncertainty, withdraw the weekly half-holiday on Wednesdays, which had been such a great boon to shop assistants, and which had been gained by voluntary agency and with the concurrence of all well-wishers to those who had often much too long hours behind the counter, towards the shortening of which time this Bill would indirectly tend. The principle of the Bill he could not oppose, and therefore he would give his vote for the Second Reading; but he would put down Amendments for the Committee stage on the point he had indicated.

And, it being half-past Seven of the clock, the debate stood adjourned to this Evening's Sitting.