HC Deb 04 July 1910 vol 18 cc1339-43
The SECRETARY of STATE for the HOME DEPARTMENT (Mr. Churchill)

I beg to ask for leave to introduce a Bill "to consolidate, amend, and extend the Shops Regulation Acts, 1892 to 1904."

I ask leave of the House to introduce, or, rather, to reintroduce the Shops Hours Bill. This Bill is the same as that introduced in the last Session of the last Parliament by Lord Gladstone, the then Home Secretary. The House is therefore familiar with its general provisions, and it will only require the very briefest explanation. I will venture to make a general observation with regard to this measure. Any measure "which seeks to restrict by law the hours of labour for adult males is rightly subjected to severe scrutiny by the House of Commons. The House always insists that good and special reasons shall be shown in every case. But in the case of the regulation of the hours of shop assistants, while all the arguments in favour of the limitation of their hours can be stated at the very strongest, the principal argument usually urged against such limitation does not in this case apply. There will be, there can be, no reduction of output in consequence of the Bill. We are not dealing with any branch of production at all. We are not seeking to touch, wisely or unwisely, rightly or wrongly, any form of economic or productive activity. It is merely a question of distribution. It is more a question of making good arrangements to govern the distribution of articles already produced and certain to be consumed. We are merely seeking to make such arrangements for this distribution as shall secure to the distributors a reasonable opportunity of rest and leisure. That cannot be done by themselves, as has been abundantly proved. Shop assistants cannot by their organisation effect this reform; they cannot do it by any form of organisation. The shopkeepers cannot do it by agreement. That has been tried, and has failed. Both sections ably supported by the public, and energetically supported by a section of the public, have attempted to effect these alterations of hours, and both have succeeded so little that I think we are entitled to say that voluntary effort in this direction has conclusively failed. The conditions are so varied and the interests are so tangled and complicated that neither the shopkeeper nor the shop assistant, nor the customer, have the power of themselves to draw the line and make the rule. They must come to Parliament if this reform is to be achieved.

The Bill is one which affects intimately the lives, it has been computed, of nearly 1,000,000 shop assistants and perhaps 500,000 shopkeepers, whose work at present is sprawled all over the day and all over the week to their own detriment, to their own injury, and without any corresponding gain or advantage to the general public. The one general observation I would venture to make is this: We must bear in mind throughout the immense variety of conditions which are dealt with in this sphere of legislation. There are shops in which shop assistants are employed, and shops managed by the occupier, or by the occupier and his family, and this latter class exceed the former class by over ten to one. There are shops which serve the needs of the rich and the leisured class, which are able to close earlier. There are shops which serve the poorer class, which must necessarily open late, and remain open still later. There are shops which provide largely the necessaries of life, which sell food which is needed. There are others which deal with purchasers whose urgent needs must be promptly met, as in the case of medicines. There are some shops which have to open very early in the morning, like those which sell milk and newspapers, and there are others which have practically no business before nine. There are others whose chief custom is, in the time of public amusement, or bank holidays, and half holidays, at night. There are those that have no business in these hours, and there are some shops in which there is a system of business which is practically unaltered throughout the day. There are others with busy periods, but intervals of several hours in between, and at the extreme end of the scale there are shops whose business is so intermittent that the shopkeeper has to be summoned from the parlour by the ringing of a bell. Therefore, it is quite clear that any provision for attempting to regulate the hours of persons serving in these shops, so infinitely varied in character and circumstances, must be flexible and elastic in its character. There must be exemptions and restrictions, and those provisions necessary if this legislation is to be successful and generally accepted, constitute, I think, the main details of the Bill which is now brought before the House for the second time.

My Noble Friend who preceded me at the Home Office as well as myself and the Department have very closely considered and examined in conjunction with many advisers the details which are necessary and the detailed examination and inspection which are necessary if this Bill is to become a practical measure. And we quite agree that all provisions of this character will greatly gain by close and thorough examination by the House of Commons. The Bill which is now introduced represents our views, as at present informed upon these points of detail, and I should like to take this opportunity of saying that I shall be ready to profit by any information which is given me during the course of the discussion from any quarter of the House. The Bill, in certain general provisions, does not touch the small shops which are served by the occupier alone, or by the occupier and his family. It does not touch those except in certain general provisions. In the main it deals with the hours that shop assistants may work, and with the hours that shops may remain open. It provides that the shop assistant shall not be worked for more than sixty hours in any week; that he shall not be worked after eight o'clock on more than three afternoons—subject to the exemptions and restrictions to which I have referred—and that he shall have proper time for meals. These are the main proposals, and they are the new proposals of the legislation of this character. But, further, the Bill provides for a universal half-holiday. It provides for the closing of shops on Sunday, subject to the necessary provisions for Sunday trading, which are rather complicated in themselves, but are well known to many Members of the House. It enables the local authorities to retain the power of making further closing orders, with a view to remedying excessive hours in particular districts or particular trades at the demand of a two-thirds majority. That provision has been very successful in previous, legislation, and it is reembodied in this consolidating Act. The Bill also contains provisions with regard to ventilation and the provision of sanitary convenience, and it re-enacts and carries on the legislative provision which secures seats for female shop assistants, without which undoubtedly they suffered injury during the long hours they were standing. That is the Bill, and the House generally is familiar with its principles. Let me say one word about its prospects. I shall endeavour as far as lies in my power to carry this Bill into law this Session, but I recognise it can only pass if it is regarded, not only as a non-party Bill, but as a non-controversial Bill.


I object to it altogether.


I do not mean that there may not be differences as to detail. I have no doubt there are, nor do I think that there ought not to be a detailed and careful discussion and examination of many of the provisions of this Bill, though I hope they can be overcome. But if the Bill was seriously resisted in any formidable quarter of the House, that is to say, in any quarter of the House that was formidable and implacable, I recognise its prospects would not be good.

4.0 P.M.

I can make but very moderate demands upon Parliamentary time, but the Grand Committees are standing idle, and this is a Bill which is especially suited for discussion in Grand Committee. It is there it will receive the fullest examination. Every point of detail can be thrashed out and every interest affected can be considered with a view to the conciliation of interests which are concerned, or, failing that conciliation, with a view to the adjustment of minor differences. It is to the Grand Committee that we shall ask the House, if it assents to the Bill on Second Reading, to consign this measure. Although I am not blind to the difficulties of the existing situation so far as the passage of Bills is concerned, I confess I am not hopeless, on the contrary, I am hopeful, about the prospects of this measure. I believe this new House of Commons is very well disposed towards social legislation of this class. I have often mourned the hard fate which threatens so virtuous and admirable an Assembly with the possibility of an untimely Dissolution. Although our days are uncertain, and although the tale of legislative achievements of this Parliament may perhaps be brief, we can, I believe, with a little goodwill and a little diligence, do this. We ought to do it. We ought to do it now. We ought to do it for the credit of our own reputation as a Parliament. We ought to do it out of consideration for an intelligent, deserving, hard-pressed, overstrained multitude of young men and young women who look to the House of Commons as the bulwark of their needs.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Secretary Churchill, Mr. Masterman, Mr. Herbert Samuel, and Mr. Solicitor-General. Presented accordingly, and read the first time; to be read a second time to-morrow.