HC Deb 13 February 1914 vol 58 cc537-46

(who had given notice of an Amendment, to add at the end of the Address the words, "But humbly regrets that no specific reference is made to the long promised and greatly needed measure of Temperance Reform for England and Wales"): I rise, not to continue the general discussion upon the Address, but to draw attention to a widespread and justifiable feeling of disappointment that exists, both inside and outside this House, at the absence from the Gracious Speech from the Throne of any specific reference to a measure of temperance reform. Members of the House and of the Government will know that in giving expression to that feeling of disappointment I am representing a great body of opinion throughout the country. The demand for a further reform of our licensing law comes not alone from temperance organisations; it comes in ever-growing volume from the Churches, from benches of magistrates, from the medical profession, and from social reform workers of every kind throughout the country. A few days ago I had the honour of presiding at a great meeting in Queen's Hall held upon this subject. It was a crowded and representative meeting. I will venture to read to the House the names of the speakers of that meeting. They were: The Bishop of London, representing the Church of England, and Dr. Clifford, who spoke for the Free Churches; we also had a Roman Catholic priest speaking, while we had a lady representing 160,000 women who are members of the British Women's Temperance Associations. We had my hon. Friend the Member for Barnard Castle (Mr. Henderson), speaking for the Members with whom he is associated and we had Sir Victor Horsley, repre- senting the medical profession; and I think I am justified in asking the Government what other question there is in their programme which would command such widespread and, let me say, respectable support as this question? That varied platform supported a resolution which I will read to the House:— This demonstration, consisting of temperance reformers of all religious denominations and political parties, expresses its profound regret that the Government have not yet introduced their promised Temperance Bill for England and Wales, and, in view of the admitted urgency of such a measure, calls upon them to carry it through the House of Commons this year. I do not think that anyone in the House will deny that this temperance reform is needed. In introducing the Licensing Bill of the year 1908, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, who was then Chancellor of the Exchequer, said:— Everyone will agree that effective reform of the licensing laws is long overdue. And he said that it was the most urgent and most pressing of all the social problems of the day. Every year that passed since 1908 has made the question more urgent, more pressing, more important to be dealt with. The reduction scheme in the Act of 1904 has confessedly broken down all over the country. We were promised a reduction of 2,000 licences under that scheme. The real reduction has been about half that number, and it is diminishing in ever-increasing ratio. The compensation plan, instead of facilitating reduction, is a positive barrier in the way of reforming magistrates dealing with the redundancy of licences. The justices have lost control of the licences in their district. There was a case that occurred in Newcastle-on-Tyne the other day. The chairman of the bench and his colleagues had been to view a certain public-house in their district, and the chairman called attention to the state of affairs there. He said, that looking from the door, separated by a wooden petition, they saw a small room, access to which could be gained from the street. When the magistrate visited the House they found that room which was only twelve feet square, occupied by women packed liked herrings in a barrel, and he said a more disgusting sight he had never seen, and the magistrate's clerk said to the licensee, "The matter is entirely in your own hands; you could refuse to serve them." That is the condition of things to-day. The matter is no longer in the hands of the licensing justices. The justices have lost their control over these houses. Then the drink bill is increasing again; we have not got the figures for this year, but judging from the returns published of the taxation, it is evident that there has been a considerable increase of consumption this year. The convictions for drunkenness have again gone up, and the chairman of the Liverpool bench only last week drew the attention of his colleagues and the public to the fact, that in 1909 the convictions in Liverpool were 9,773, whereas in 1913 they were 16,054. He says that that was partly due to a more severe administration of the law, but it is also true that a great deal is through increased drinking, which had been going on in Liverpool. The people have no protection against the trade, and the justices had been deprived of what powers they had. I do not think anyone can accuse temperance reformers of having been impatient in this matter. Dr. Clifford, addressing the Government the other day, said he had this to say to the Government:— We have waited long, we are waiting still; You use no other friends so ill.

The PRIME MINISTER (Mr. Asquith)

Oh, yes, we do. Dr. Clifford says just the same about Nonconformists.


I have heard him say that in regard to this question. May I say that we come to the Government, not exactly as suppliants in this matter, but as creditors. It is more than thirty years since Mr. Gladstone promised an immediate revision of the licensing laws to include local control. Sir Henry Camp-bell-Bannerman promised legislation before the General Election of 1903. Then came the Licensing Bill of 1908, and all temperance reformers owe undying gratitude to the Prime Minister for what he did in connection with that Bill, because he made it his own personal concern. I recall with satisfaction a speech made at. Birmingham in 1908 by the Prime Minister, when he said:— This is a Bill for which I myself am primarily responsible. I staked my own political fortunes, and as far as I could those of my party and the Government, upon it. We were told it was a very foolhardy thing to do but we shall see. For my part I believe we never did a wiser tiling I do not forecast the Parliamentary or electoral fortunes of the Bill, but whatever course they take, we shall persevere with it. The Parliamentary fortunes of the Bill are well known. It was passed on the Second Heading by a majority of 246, and the Third Reading was carried by a majority of 237, and it was rejected by the House of Lords without a Second Reading. Following on the rejection by the House of Lords of that measure, the Prime Minister met his followers of the Liberal party at dinner at the National Liberal Club in December, 1908, and he said:— The result is to entrench once more in a position of intolerable security the most powerful and most pernicious of the rested interests of this country. It is a rail to arms of all who love liberty, and he invited the Liberal party to-night to treat the House of Lords as the dominating issue of politics. That was addressed to the Liberal party. A similar appeal was addressed to a deputation from temperance organisations in March, 1909, and I will again quote the Prime Minister's words:— Does any human being suppose, I will not say in this room, but out of this room, that the matter is going to rest here? Is all this labour to be in vain, are all these hopes to be frustrated, is this great chance to be absolutely thrown away? And then he goes on to say:— That Bill in its main provisions represents not the most, but the least measure of reform in regard to this great and growing evil with which you and we and the country ought to be content … It will be in the forefront of the controversy, and if, as I not only hope but believe, the people decide that controversy by determining that they will be masters in their own House, I cannot doubt that one of the first fruits of victory will be that that measure will take its place upon the Statue Book. 'That was in 1909. Two elections followed. We won both of them, and they were both won, let me say, with the help of the temperance voters of this country. In the spring of 1911, after the elections, the temperance organisations again waited upon the Prime Minister, and the Prime Minister told us:— He adhered to and repeated the pledge to which Mr. Leif Jones had referred, that this legislation should lie among the first fruits of our recovered Constitution. He expressed the determination to introduce in the House of Commons a measure on the lines of the Licensing Hill of 1908, as a minimum, and it was his hope and expectation to pass such a measure through the House of Commons during the lifetime of the present Parliament. That was before the passing of the Parliament Act. The Parliament Act passed in the autumn of that year. The first fruits of it was the Insurance Act, and was not the Temperance Bill. In 1912 there was no temperance legislation. I do not know that we can fairly complain of that, and the Prime Minister, I think, will do us the justice to admit that he had no complaint from the temperance forces in respect of the legislation of that year, but in December we did come to him again and ask him if we could have our Bill in the Session of 1913. He said that he could make no promise then, but he added that we were not to take that as indicating that the Government abated one jot in their desire to effect this great and long overdue social reform. There was nothing in 1913, and now again we are at the beginning of a new Session and a new year and there is in the King's Speech no specific reference to a measure of temperance reform. It is quite true—at least, I hope it is—that the phrase "other social reforms, if time and opportunity permit," do cover some lurking hope in the minds of the Government that they may be able to bring in a Bill this year. "If time and opportunity permit" is a somewhat ironical phrase in the mouth of a Government. The Government control the time of the House of Commons, and I suggest it is for them to create the opportunity for carrying this Bill through. I will venture to tell the House how. We could not have our Bill last year, we were told, because the Members of the House of Commons were in no state, physical or mental, to meet for an Autumn Session and carry a Bill of this kind. He told us— The machine will break down; the men will break down; the thing cannot be done. Nobody can say that of the House of Commons to-day. I think you might look in vain for any assembly in London to find so healthy looking a body of men as the Members of this House are at the present time. They have just had six months' holiday. We are ready for hard work, and I am here to suggest that, as it was in the Autumn Session of 1908 the Government carried the first Licensing Bill, we should have an Autumn Session in 1914 to carry a Licensing Bill now. I ask the Prime Minister if he cannot do this. How else is he going to fulfil the repeated pledges he has given to the temperance reformers of this country? I venture to say to the Government that it will not be well for them to go back to the electors of this country without having attempted to redeem the very extensive pledges I have read out to the House. I am asking for no extension of their legislative programme. This measure Is a necessary and fundamental part of the policy of social reform of the Government. Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman called it the corner stone of social reform. The Government tell us that they are making war on poverty and disease, and the Prime Minister has said:— Drink is the most potent of all the causes of poverty and crime in this country. All poverty is really due to waste—waste of human life, waste of material resources— and what waste is there comparable to the waste that goes on in this country in connection with drink? By their Insurance Act the Government have shown themselves determined to fight against disease. It used to be supposed that alcohol was a remedy against disease. Every doctor knows to-day that it is a fertiliser of disease—preparing the human body for the reception of the germs of tuberculosis and other deadly diseases. I have extracts here from the reports of medical officers of health, showing that the public-houses in this country are, in the language of the distinguished medical officer for the City of Manchester, "centres of infection, spreading deadly disease." It is idle for this House to attempt to deal with tuberculosis and other diseases if it will not attack the source and origin of them. I claim that the needs and demands of the people, the pledges of the Government, the fulfilment of their own social programme all enforce this appeal to the Government that they should without delay carry through this long-promised and long-deferred measure of temperance reform.


I do not wish to avoid the hon. Member's appeal. We know very well that he is an earnest advocate of this cause; we know that he is the spokesman of a large number of our most ardent social reformers, both inside the House and outside. The present Government, as my hon. Friend will be the first to admit, have given hostages to fortune in this matter. The Bill of 1908, of which I was myself in charge, was the fruit of two years' very careful and very laborious preparation. When it was brought forward it was presented, not only as a serious, but as the chief measure of the Session. We held an Autumn Sitting for the express purpose of enabling us to pass it through all its stages in this House; and when it had been subjected, as it was, to a process of searching examination in the House of Commons—and I shall be the first to admit that in the course of that process it was amended in a valuable way—we all had the hope that it would take its place on the Statue Book of the realm. That hope was frustrated through no fault of ours. But the work which was then begun has been carried a stage further with the full force of the Liberal party after it has been engaged in two successful General Elections, and since the present Parliament has been in existence.

I listened carefully to my hon. Friend's enumeration of the things which we had done and the things which we have not done, without being able to detect any suggestion on his part that at any time we could have effectively introduced and pressed forward legislation of this kind. I am speaking now of the present Parliament. We did last Session make a substantial contribution to temperance reform in the shape of the Scottish Temperance Bill, which now, by consent of both parties, is on the Statute Book, and which I believe, from what one hears, is likely to prove successful in its practical operation, and which will afford an invaluable precedent in regard to many of its principles for legislation for other parts of the United Kingdom. I cannot admit, nor will the hon. Member, as a fair-minded man, suggest that we have been wholly idle in this matter. I can quite, understand the desire, which I share to the fullest possible extent, that legislation for England and Wales on the lines of the hill of 1908 should be introduced, pressed forward, and passed into law. I always listen with alarm to any hon. Member in any part of the House, and more, perhaps, to hon. Members behind mo than to those in front, when they begin to enumerate, chapter and verse, the various pledges I have given in respect of the intentions of the Government and the prospects of Parliamentary legislation. I was therefore a little anxious when my hon. Friend began his narrative, and it was with a considerable sense of relief that I heard him concluding, because I was following him very closely, and I ant sure he has made the most of his case, as he always does, and if he had had anything more incriminating to suggest in nay declarations than those which he has produced we should have heard it.

I am glad to think that I have kept strictly within every pledge I have given on the subject. I repeat what I said to a deputation two years ago, that it is our intention, within the life-time of the present Parliament—I do not say anything more—to prosecute legislation of this kind. It is no good whatever—my hon. Friend is a practical man and so are his supporters—introducing a controversial measure of first-class importance if you do not intend to proceed with it. You do far more harm than good, as all experience shows. Therefore, I think the Government would have been acting unwisely if they had included in the Gracious Speech from the Throne on the present occasion an expression of intention to pass legislation upon those lines during the present Session without having, as they could not have, any reasonable expectation of being able to make their proposal effective. It would not have been sincere or honest to do it. We have left, as my hon. Friend was careful to point out, a loophole of which we shall be only too glad to take advantage. If expectations more sanguine than I am able to entertain as to the time of the Session are realised, we have left ourselves a loophole for the introduction of this legislation, but I should not be dealing honestly with him if I said that at this moment, with all the forecasts we can make of Parliamentary prospects and possibilities, that I thought it would be in the interests of the cause which he and I alike are anxious to promote, to produce and lay upon the Table of the House proposals of which we have no bonâ fide or honest expectation of being able to carry into law. It is, therefore, not from any slackening of zeal, but simply from a prudent and cautious measuring of Parliamentary opportunities that we have on this occasion been silent on the matter, and I adhere to everything I have said as to the urgency of the matter, and as to the duty and obligation which rests upon the Government and the party the Government represents to see that it is dealt with promptly and effectively.


I beg to move, "That the Debate be now adjourned."

Debate to be resumed upon Monday next.

Whereupon Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 3.

Adjourned at two minutes before Five o'clock till Monday next, 16th February.