HC Deb 08 May 1922 vol 153 cc1966-72

I beg to move, That an humble Address be presented to His Majesty praying that the Order made by the county borough of Southend-on-Sea, and laid before Parliament on the 8th day of March, fixing the closing hours on the several days of the week for certain classes of shops within the borough be cancelled. This Motion needs a little explanation, because the Postmaster's revenue has been considerably increased by the letters that have been sent to Members of this House on this subject. I make no complaint about that, only I want to say that if any hon. Member has any idea that I am moving this with the object of defeating the powers of the Act of 1912, he is mistaken, and if any hon. Member for political reasons says likewise, then I would be inclined to say that he is a deep, double-dyed, unmitigated prevaricator. I can claim without egotism that I had as much to do with placing the Act of 1912 on the Statute Book as any hon. Member of this House. Therefore, in moving this, I do it with one object, and that is that if the Act of 1912 overrides the Act of last year, then it would be just as well for many thousands of people to know it rather than be subject to prosecution which might follow under these circumstances. I think, as a matter of fact, the appearing of this address arises out of a misinterpretation of the two Acts in question. Last year, as all hon. Members will know, a Bill was introduced—I admit it was near the end of the Session—to remove what was considered a great anomaly that led to much irritation. It was discovered that under the operation of the 1912 Act and the Orders in Council during the War it became a penal offence for any person to sell mineral waters, or chocolates, or sweetmeats after 8 o'clock in the evening, and it was felt that this was not only an irritation, but a considerable hardship. In licensed places of entertainment, where excisable liquors could be sold, a man could take his wife, or a young man his sweetheart, or a father his children, but he could not possibly secure for them a glass of lemonade. He could get them a glass of beer, or a glass of whiskey, or a glass of wine, but he was unable to get for them any temperance beverage, and it was felt that that was an irritation and that it would be in the interests of those who attended these places for recreation and amusement to have that irritation removed, and a Bill was introduced to this House.

That Bill was subject to all the running fire of criticism that private Members' Bills have in this Chamber. I was not responsible for that Bill; I only gave it my support, arising out of a little personal experience, with which I need not detain the House now. There was no opposition to it, for the people who might have opposed it gave the Bill an uninterrupted passage through the House. It was claimed that this irksome irritation was bringing the law into ridicule, and there was a great deal of evasion and law-breaking in this direction, leaving thousands of people subject to the penalties of the law, because they felt that in its operation it was so ludicrous that they would risk, rather than disappoint their patrons, giving them a glass of lemonade instead of a glass of beer or wine if they so desired. The Bill was unanimously agreed to. In the early part of this year the Southend-on-Sea municipality sought an Order under the Act of 1912. Here is where the crux of my plea comes in. It is a question of interpretation. Those who are responsible for the correspondence that has come to every Member of the House say quite definitely that I am wrong in my interpretation. If I am, then I will have done a service, if it be only to clear the air? because the circular which I and every Member has received reads as follows: The Southend Order does not interfere in any way with the sale of refreshment in places of amusement as stated by Mr. Seddon. If that were correct, then I would have withdrawn the Prayer, and not taken up the time of the House, but I have another intimation in my hand that has come from the Town Clerk of the Southend-on-Sea municipality. He called upon one of these places of entertainment, where they have a full licence for excisable liquors, and had been selling these mineral waters and chocolates under the provisions of the Act of last year. The inspector of police said to the proprietor, "Unless you stop selling these minerals and chocolates, you will be prosecuted." The Town Clerk is under the impression that the Act of 1921 is null and void, and governed by the Act of 1912. If I understand from the Home Secretary that the Act of 1912 overrides the Act of last year, well and good; I shall proceed no further with this Address. But I do think, for the sake of thousands of people who have begun to sell these commodities, under, as they think, the protection of an Act of Parliament, it is for this House to say that the Act of last year is non-effective, because the 1912 Act can destroy the facilities granted, and, in the interest of protecting innocent, ignorant people who may unconsciously be breakers of the law, thinking that the Act of 1921 gives them that protection, I say we ought to have the Order elucidated, and if the Home Secretary, or the Under-Secretary, tells me that the Act of 1921 overrides this Bill, then I withdraw this Address. If he tells me the Act of 1921 is not infringed by the operation of the Act of 1912, I shall be I satisfied, thinking I shall have cleared away some possibility of people being led into prosecutions they do not deserve.


I beg to second the Motion.

As the Member who introduced the 1921 Bill, which received the assent of this House, and also as a Member who wishes to clear this matter up, I have the greatest pleasure in seconding the Motion. Unless we get some clear definition to-night from the Home Secretary, we shall have absolute confusion and prosecutions all over the country.


I trust I shall be able to satisfy my hon. Friend on the point—the very narrow point—that he has submitted to the House. I think—in fact, I am sure—that my hon. Friend is in error in thinking that the Act of 1921 overrides the Act of 1920.


Or vice versa.


Perhaps my hon. Friend will let me proceed. It is a legal point, and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will, if need be, come to my assistance, but I am a layman. The Act of 1920 says definitely: This Order shall not affect any obligation to comply with the provision of the Shops Acts, 1912 and 1913, or any Order made thereunder, or any Act, Order, or Regulation restricting hours of sale or the hours of transaction of business. That applies to the Acts of 1920 and 1921 or to extending the powers possessed by the 1920 Act. My hon. Friend the Seconder of the Motion (Sir W. de Frece) introduced the Act of 1921. That Act says: Section (1), Part I and Part II, of the Schedule to the Shops (Early Closing) Act, 1920, shall have effect as though at the end of Article 2 thereof the following words were inserted:— or— (4) The sale of fruit, table waters, sweets, chocolates, or other sugar confectionery, or ice-cream until 9.30 p.m. on weekdays other than Saturdays, and 10 p.m. on Saturdays. This was included in the category of things permitted to be done in the sale of those articles, but the powers of the local authorities were in no way affected. If particular authorities, acting under the powers conferred upon them by the Act of 1913, came to the conclusion that in a particular locality there was an expressed desire, the thing was promulgated and then submitted for confirmation to the Home Secretary.

The intention is advertised in the local Press, not once but twice, at the separate periods, and after all that has been gone through the Order is confirmed. That in precisely what has taken place. The Act of 1913 undoubtedly confers upon local authorities power to take the action they have done. The fact that the local authorities were fully alive to the peculiar circumstances of Southend and—if I may say so—of their own responsibility for improving the amenities of this particular place is shown by the fact that the Order does not restrict the sale of the articles specified during the busy months of the year. It is quite obvious in the Order that the local authorities responsible are fully conversant with the requirements of the place. The Order does not apply to the busy months of the year, nor Christmas, nor Easter; in fact, the restrictions are only enforced in certain parts of the year. I do submit, however, that it would be very unusual action on the part of this House to go behind the backs of the local authorities, who, in the exercise of the powers which this House has conferred upon them, have come to a conclusion which they believe to be in the interest of those whom they represent. After all the formalities have been complied with, this decision has been come to by the people elected by the inhabitants of Southend, and I am sure the Mover and Seconder of this Prayer would be the last people to do anything behind their backs. I hope I have satisfied my hon. Friends in regard to this matter, and I trust they will not now press their proposal any further.

Viscount ELVEDEN

I wish to point out to the House that this Order is safeguarded as far as the public are concerned, and applies only in the quiet part of the year. It has been asked for by at least 75 per cent, of all those who will be affected by it. Under these circumstances I think it would be unreasonable if the House did not grant the request of the locality. I understand that my hon. Friend (Mr. Seddon) is satisfied with the reply, which clears up a point which was not clearly understood before.


There is a good deal of confusion with regard to the working of this Act. Under the Act of 1912 it was within the power of any district to make special regulations with regard to the opening and closing of shops, especially for special occasions, and now this power has been reduced so much that it is not possible for any local authorities to permit shops to remain open on Bank Holiday or on a great fête day because that power has been removed except by permission of the Home Secretary. Appeals have been made to the Home Office on special occasions to permit local authorities to exercise their powers under the 1912 Act, but the Home Secretary has always replied that he is not able to make special exceptions. I would like to ask whether it would be possible to deal with the 1912, 1920 and 1921 Acts so that the powers can be consolidated in order to prevent confusion?


In view of what has been said, I have the greatest pleasure in withdrawing my Motion. My only reason for moving it was to guard against having a number of unnecessary prosecutions. The explanation has cleared the air, and I ask leave to withdraw my Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

The remaining Orders were read, and postponed.

It being after half-past Eleven of the Clock, Mr. Speaker adjourned the House, without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Eleven minutes before Twelve o'clock.