HC Deb 11 May 1916 vol 82 cc1080-92

The principal Act shall be construed as if there were added to the grounds of exemption stated in Sub-section (1) of Section two the following paragraph:

(e) On the ground that it is proved to the satisfaction of the tribunal—

  1. (i) that he is the sole head of the business;
  2. (ii) that there is no other person available who could carry on that business on his behalf with reasonable efficiency;
  3. (iii) that in the event of his being called to the Colours there is a reasonable likelihood of the said business being closed down;
  4. (iv) that such a man has a wife and children dependent upon the business.

Clause brought up, and read the first time.


In rising to move, "That the Clause be read a second time," I do not desire to keep the House more than two or three minutes. I need not enter into the argument because I think the Clause itself, as set out on the Paper, explains exactly what we desire to bring about. We are face to face at the present time with thousands of these men who have no desire to shirk their responsibilities, or in any way to refuse to do military duty, but whose responsibilities are so serious that they feel that if they are called upon to come up, to cut their business with no one to look after it, they will have to shut down; everything would have to go, the district would suffer, and the rating authorities would suffer. I am quite sure of this, that neither the President of the Local Government Board nor any other member of the Government can realise how throughout the length and breadth of the land—from one end to the other—the liabilities that many of these men have to face would arise. There are thousands of these men who are simply bewildered as to what to do. They are told when they come before the tribunals that they must sell their businesses or get out of them. They are given a month in which to do that. We have cases before us to-day where men have sold their businesses to a company after having been refused exemption, and the companies have taken them over as managers of the same businesses, have applied and got them total exemption. I want to get this Clause accepted in order that the tribunals may have this put before them in such a way that they shall seek to deal justly and fairly with these men without crippling these hard-working tradesmen. I ask the Government if they will kindly give the Clause consideration.


I hope the Government will give sympathetic consideration to this proposal. There is undoubtedly a strong feeling that financial ruin stares these men in the face. The Government is giving the large establishments a certain proportion of their staffs to carry on; but in cases where the man's business is carried on by himself alone, if he has to go the fabric must tumble to the ground. It is all very well to tell him that his business is not of national importance. Taken in the aggregate these businesses are of national importance, and it is certainly a vital matter to the man. If the right hon. Gentleman does not see his way to accept this Clause at least I hope he will see that there is a Regulation directing tribunals to give this matter their special consideration. I represent a constituency where there are a large number of small shopkeepers, and I have been approached in various directions. I feel sure there will be a great and undue hardship to many men who are quite willing to help their country if it be absolutely necessary, but until that does happen I hope they will not be taken away from their businesses.


I would like to say a word or two in support of the principle of this Amendment. I have myself handed in a manuscript Amendment dealing with the same point, and as it elaborates the point a little more fully I should like to read it. The ground of the exemption is expressed under three headings.




The one of which I have given written notice gives the grounds of exemption under three heads. First, that he is the sole head or sole remaining head, the other partners having joined the Naval or Military Forces of the Crown, of the business which he personally manages; second, that there is no other person available who could carry on the business with reasonable efficiency; third, that he has no person or persons dependent on them. It is contended, I believe, that this power is already in the possession of the tribunals in virtue of the words in Section 2 on the ground that serious hardship would ensue owing to his exceptional financial or business obligations. It is true the tribunals have power if they see fit to exercise it, and they have exercised it, but the words in the original Act are very vague and general. There is nothing definite about them. It is almost as if a man were asked what his political principles were and he were to say his political principles were faith, hope and charity. We might all give a most generous interpretation of what the political principles were which might be deduced from that general definition. In the same way, the words of the original Act are capable of the most diverse interpretation. Some tribunals may believe that they have power to grant exemption in the case stated in the Amendment of my hon. Friend, but many others have not done so in the past, and the result has been there is the greatest difference in different localities. Men are exempted on the grounds stated in my hon. Friend's Amendment in one locality, but they are not exempted on these grounds in another locality. The result is inequality and injustice. I gather that the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Local Government Board does not object much to this ground of exemption in itself. I gather that he probably thinks it is covered already by the words in the original Act and that by these words the tribunals have already got this power. If that is the line which he does take, and if he is not willing to accept this Amendment—I hope he will accept it—but if he is not willing to accept it, can he not give some lead to the tribunals with regard to the interpretation of the words of the original Act—can he give them some friendly lead or indication that the exemption of such a case is within their power if they see fit to exempt it? He has the means of giving them that lead. He has it in his power to circularise them as to the interpretation of the original Act. I do hope that he will see the reasonableness of this ground of exemption, and that he will be willing to do something to relieve the anxiety of these people, who have a great stake in the country, and who, by their business and by the taxes they pay, are helping the country at the present time.


I beg to support the new Clause which has been proposed by my hon. Friend, and I would ask the right hon. Gentleman (the President of the Local Government Board) not to turn down this Clause with just a few words explaining that possibly what we desire in the new Clause is already in the main Act of Parliament. If it is in the original Act I would suggest that no harm can be done by making it more clear by putting these words in the Bill which we are now passing through Parliament. The proposition contained in this Clause affects a large and important section of the community, and I want particularly to say that so far as the whole of the correspondence I have had is concerned—and it has been a very large one—they are not men who desire to shirk responsibility in connection with military duty. They are not asking you to leave them out entirely from all responsibility of military duty. I hold in my hand a petition from a number of small traders which has come up from my Constituency, and they say, "If you like, liberate us to the extent that we can prevent our businesses, where they depend entirely upon ourselves, and where our assistants have already been taken, from being lost. Allow us to keep our businesses going, but you can put us in garrison reserve or in any other corps that you think necessary that will not take us away entirely from our occupation.

I particularly wish to emphasise that point, because it is so different from that upon which the Debate has been going for so many hours this evening. We are not pleading for men who desire to shirk their citizen responsibility, but only for the men who feel themselves in an extraordinarily peculiar position, because their little capital, and sometimes a life's savings, are in their business, which depends on their own administration. They have their wives and children dependent upon them, and they plead therefore—not that they should be absolutely exempted, they are not asking, as the other men we have been pleading for to-night are, for absolute exemption—but that you should clearly put into the new Bill a statement that will guide the tribunals and will tell them that their case is one which should be dealt with by them, and that, if a tribunal is convinced that a good case has been made out, they should have the power to grant exemption. I do not think it is necessary to labour this point any further; we could go on with examples through the whole night; but I earnestly ask the right hon. Gentleman to give it his serious consideration. If the words of my hon. Friend do not exactly fit into the Act, and I am told that perhaps they do not, there is no difficulty whatever, if the principle is accepted, in having that amended on the Report stage.


I cannot be satisfied with the proposition that these words should go into the Act for reasons which I have given on many occasions. The reasons are these, that if in the Act you define, as you do in this Clause, a particular class of individual as being entitled to exemption, it amounts to an indication to the tribunals that those who do not correspond to this description are not entitled, even though it may be an actual fact that they may suffer quite as much as an individual described here, to exemption. I have nothing to quarrel with in this definition. It is admirably and most fairly composed. There are four conditions here which have to be fulfilled, and certainly I should say that anybody who answers to this description ought not to be called upon to go to fight.

There is this need for some further action There can, I think, be no doubt that as you get further and further down in the supply of married men, you find a larger and increasing proportion of these men who have difficulties of this or other similar kinds, which make their service a much greater sacrifice than has been the case with the majority—I do not say all—of those who have gone before. I have said before, in previous Debates, that I believe that there are reasons which account, in 95 per cent. of the cases, for the non-attestation of a great many of these men. I think this is answered, as my hon. Friends know, in the instructions which we have issued—I have a copy of them here. I will not trouble the Committee with them now. We have done our best in these instructions to make it clear what are the duties of the tribunals under the Act. But I think it is desirable that some further steps should be taken, and if my hon. Friends will be content with the issue by the Department of a circular calling attention to this class of case, and to the desirability of giving careful consideration to them, I shall be quite prepared to take that step.


I am delighted to hear what the right hon. Gentleman has said. I only want to ask him if he can do this. This Bill will become law in the course of a very few days—at least, I hope so. Unless something quite definite is stated in Regulations which are published at once, a great deal of uneasiness and difficulty will be caused, because these men will primâ facie be liable to service within a month of the passing of the Act. And if, as I understand, the right hon. Gentleman is going to do—I am not quite sure whether he means to insert it in the Regulations—


No, not Regulations; in a circular.


What I am very much concerned about is this. The wide phrase which was put into the principal Act, on the right hon. Gentleman's suggestion, was meant to cover a number of cases which have been dealt with in this House. The words are, "owing to exceptional, financial or business obligations." I quite agree that in the case of a single man, in all probability the kind of case with which we are now dealing would be exceptional, but in the case of married men, in no sense will it be regarded as exceptional, financial or business obligations. Therefore, I do hope that the right hon. Gentleman will see, immediately the Act is passed and before the tribunals deal with any case, that all these married men shall understand what their position is, so as not to give them a month's anxiety, and that he will make it quite clear that he is going to give these instructions to the tribunals.


Yes, I will do that.


I should like to press on the President of the Local Government Board that he should get these instructions out at once.


He has just said so.


I have said so.


I know of two men who are going up to-morrow. Will the tribunal to whom they go have these particular Regulations?


At once.


Then that is all right.

Captain AMERY

I am sure the Committee will be grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for the consideration he has given to the hon. Member's Clause, because certainly this is the class in which the hardship is very often the greatest of all, namely, the case in which a man sees the whole of a life's work sacrificed. On the other hand, it is also true, from the point of view of national industry, that these are the men who can very largely be spared. They are very largely shopkeepers, whose work, from the point of view of carrying on the War, is not so essential. It is very difficult to make Regulations to meet these cases. I would suggest that, as grading is already going to be done from the financial point of view to met the hardship of the married men, whether it would not be possible to do something in the cases of men whose business is going to be closed, and where every effort is made to assist them. I would suggest that it might be possible to give them some financial assistance, which would, of course, be strictly limited, to help them to start again after the War. Perhaps, say, assistance up to a maximum of £100 could be given them after the War for the goodwill they have lost, when, after every effort has been made by the man or his wife to keep the business together, they have failed to do so.


I will not detain the Committee, but I wish to put my own point of view. It is important that this matter should be dealt with in the Regulations. I raised this matter on the previous Bill. The right hon. Gentleman then gave me a sympathetic reply. He then assured me that the case was covered by the Statute, and that he would circularise the tribunals. As a matter of fact, he has dealt with this matter in his circular to the tribunals, and the undertaking which we have had to-night—it is a very sympathetic one—is simply an undertaking that another circular is to be sent out. I should like to be assured as to the way in which that circular is to differ from that already issued. If it is to be on the same lines, then it will be a circular which the tribunals may disregard, as they have the previous one. In my view this matter is so important that it ought to be a matter of Regulation. I hope my hon. Friend will insist that this should go into the Act, but if he withdraws, and if it is not to be raised again on Report, we ought to have an undertaking that the matter should be dealt with by Regulation.

1.0 A.M.

May I specially point out that some extremely hard cases are happening. Men are told that they must dispose of their business within a month, or two or three months. They do that, at a tremendous sacrifice; they sacrifice the whole of their life's work in some cases only to find when they are called up that they are rejected as medically unfit. Then they go back and are not in a position to render any monetary service to the country. That is something which ought not to happen, and clearly some provision ought to be made to prevent it. It should also be made clear that such men should not be taken up under any consideration unless they are really fit for military service. To take men from businesses which are of great importance to them and to send them to do small clerical work is not right. Such work as is sometimes being done is a pure travesty, and the economic value of most of these men is very high, while their fighting value is comparatively very small, and I suggest that while we are all very grateful for the assurance that has been given, it ought to go farther, and we ought to be informed that the direction which shall be given is one which the tribunals will respect, and can be called upon to respect, and if it is put in the Regulations that can be done, but if it is a mere circular they may disregard it as they have disregarded the previous one.


This matter cannot be dealt with by Regulations, which only deal with procedure. They cannot deal with matters of substance, such as who shall come within the Act or a Section of the Act. In my view, this case is covered already by the Act, namely, in the provision of the Act which the hon. Member who moved the Amendment quoted. A circular was issued some time ago calling the attention of the tribunals to that particular class of exemption. It is held that full effect may not have been given to the circular, but my right hon. Friend intends to issue a further circular calling particular attention to cases of this kind and indicating to the tribunals that they may properly deal with them under that particular ground of exemption which is in the Act already. I do not think anything more than that can be done.


There are a great number of us who think this ought to go into the Act. You have got in this Amendment four distinct Clauses, each of which must be complied with before the man can get off. He must be the sole head of the business; there must be no other person available to carry it on; in the event of his being called to the Colours there must be a reasonable likelihood of the business having to be closed down; and the man must have wife and children dependent on him. I think there is a very strong case for the small trader, who has been having a very bad time of it during the last two years and has had to meet the organised competition of many large people, who have been doing their best to root the small trader out of existence. I happen to know that in a good many cases the tribunals have invariably let these men off if they have got these four qualifications, but there are others who have not done so, and that has created a position of inequality and, in my judgment, of gross hardship and injustice. The President of the Local Government Board just now said he had the utmost sympathy with that class of man and that he thought he was about the last that ought to be taken for the Army, and if those words could be embodied in the Act I think that would meet the case. After all, I do not think the small trader, with all these difficulties, wants to shirk. I believe he would like to go and do his duty if in the very last resort it is necessary, but at the same time I agree with the President of the Local Government Board that this is about the last man who ought to go. If we had it put in some of the Regulations—not in a circular, which some of these very self-sufficient gentlemen on these tribunals might disregard—but in the Act or in some Regulations, which would make it be attended to in every part of the country alike, some of us would be better satisfied. I do not wish to stretch the proceedings out, but this was the one case in the whole of these new Clauses which I confess personally I sympathised with most heartily.


I rise to support the view that something of this nature should go into the Act itself. We are not satisfied with the last circular. It went out, but no notice was taken of it in many tribunals, and if another goes out again it will have the same effect. There is at the present time amongst the small traders rankling in their breasts the view that the large stores are better looked after than the small stores. I have dozens of letters from the small traders, in London especially, in which they say that they are poor men with small businesses, but those businesses are of the utmost importance to them and to their families, and these men can bring instance after instance where a large number of men from large stores have been excused by tribunals, whilst they themselves are told to sell their business and go and fight for their country. I do not want to delay the proceedings, but I think there is a case here to be put in the Act itself, because the tribunals are so unequal in their treatment. What you get in one part of London is quite different from what you get in another part of London. I hope something will be done to put some words or other to cover this point in the Act itself, and not depend upon any more circulars, which I am sure will not have the least effect.


I should like to appeal to my right hon. Friend as to whether some action more effective than that of the issue of a circular could not be made use of in this case. I think every one of us in this house has had representations made to him in regard to this particular class of person, and I should like to point out that it is not merely the small tradesmen, but there are a great number of professional men who fall into the same category exactly, and I think we ought to bear in mind this consideration in dealing with this class of case. The Government during the last year or so has been advising employers to resort to the substitution of women in a thousand and one occupations, and that process has been going on to a very large degree, but we are now dealing with a class of occupation where, generally speaking, substitution of that kind is wholly imprac- ticable I think that consideration should be borne very carefully in mind. It has been put to me, as I suppose it has to other Members of this House, that there are numbers of small tradesmen who cannot, in point of fact, find anybody to do their work for them if they are taken to join the Colours, so I should like to see, if it were possible, that the Government would be able to take stronger action, even if they went to the extent of issuing definite directions and instructions to the tribunals to meet such cases as this, and I think, short of that, the Government ought favourably to consider the insertion of words in the Bill, either now or on the Report stage.


Might I endorse the appeal which has been made. I quite appreciate what the President of the Local Government Board said about putting definite words in the Bill, as making it perhaps difficult and dangerous, because it might exclude others, but at the same time I hope the Solicitor-General can find some words beween now and the Report stage which will strengthen this very universal appeal for some more definite language than is contained in the original Act.

The Act, of course, says, as we all know, "exceptional, financial or business obligations." I happen to have here a letter which is, I have no doubt, only one of many thousands of other similar communications which hon. Members have received. It says: I am in business here as a baker and confectioner. I do not employ anyone. I bake every day, at the present time, practically all bread, and my wife assists me in the shop. All I bake is sold in the shop, and my business depends on it. All my customers seem to be working on munitions— so that he is engaged on good work— Except for £20, all I have is invested in the business, which I have carried on for the last six years, and I have the house and shop on a lease. I have not attested, and, considering my position and the statements of Mr. Asquith and Lord Kitchener at the passing of the first Military Service Act, I do not see why I should. I shall be forty next week, and have one child just under three years. That is one of hundreds of similar cases, and I have no doubt that the Solicitor-General, between now and the Report stage, will be able to draw up words which will give us some assurance of meeting these cases.


I should like to support the insertion of something which would satisfy the people who complain of this particular phase of the Bill. The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the case of professional men. Anyone who knows the City of London is aware that there are hundreds of cases of men in charge of businesses, like agents for all kinds of businesses, which will be closed down unless you have some kind of Regulations put in the Bill, as is proposed by the hon. Member for Poplar (Mr. Yeo). I may say I represent a constituency where we have an enormous shopkeeping element, and I have received thousands of letters complaining of how these people will be affected. There are in London numerous small industries where you have perhaps one man and a number of women in charge of that one man. If you take the man away from a business of that kind it will mean the closing of the business, which the man may have worked up for a number of years, while you also get rid of the women employed in the business. I hope, therefore, that the President of the Local Government Board will see his way to put something in the Bill in preference to issuing a circular, because I suggest that the number of circulars which have been issued to the tribunals have got very confusing, and I am afraid that if others are issued the local tribunals will take very little notice of them.


The Government are very fully alive, as the speech of the President of the Local Government Board has shown, to the gravity of the nature of this case. There is no question of that, and I am sure that is entirely clear to the hon. Gentleman. The President of the Local Government Board has expressed his willingness to inform the tribunals, in perhaps a more definite manner, of the desirability of paying strict attention to the financial conditions in such cases, in the circular he has promised to issue. He has also informed the House of the difficulties that may arise from putting words into an Act of Parliament, and I should like the House to be seized of these difficulties, because they are very real. You may create hardships by the very rigidity of your definition, and, therefore, I do not wish to be taken as being inclined to believe that it is possible to arrive at a definition which will exclude all possibility of such hardship. But I will engage on behalf of the Government to have the matter considered by the Department, with a view to seeing whether such words could be found. I am not really very hopeful. However, if the House will agree that that is as fair an offer as can be made, I will make that offer, and I will consider between now and the Report stage whether any words are possible which would exclude the possibility of hardship, and at the same time do justice to these cases.


I do not desire to keep the House, but I feel, personally, very strongly that this thing ought to go into the Bill, and I am rather inclined even to divide the House against the Government. I have supported them most loyally through all these Bills, but they are certainly getting the backs of some of us up. We are trying to be loyal, but if some consideration more than an ordinary circular is not shown to those who are the actual backbone of this country, we shall have to take some means to raise a storm of them. I have no desire to make any threat. I thank the right hon. Gentleman for the generous way in which he has considered the matter, but if the position is not satisfactory on the Report stage, we shall have to raise this question again. I assure him that I personally, and my Friends, have no desire in any way to hamper or prevent the Government getting on with the business, but to us it is a very serious matter, and I ask that if anything is done the draftsman will have the wisdom to incorporate something like this in order to give the tribunals a good lead.

Motion and Clause, by leave, withdrawn.