HC Deb 20 February 1924 vol 169 cc1755-60

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to extend the hours during which tobacco may be sold, and to regulate shop assistants' hours of work. I take this opportunity of submitting this Motion, so that I may explain away some of the misrepresentations which were made with regard to this Bill last year, and which are still being made. One of the two principal Clauses of the Bill reads as follows: Notwithstanding any enactment to the contrary it shall be lawful for any person licensed to sell tobacco to sell the same at any time on all days of the week provided that no tobacco selling assistant is employed in or about the shop or premises for a longer period than nine and a half hours per day, excluding meal times in any one day. The object of the Bill is to allow tobacco to be sold 24 hours and not 20 hours per day, as now. At present tobacco can be bought at one minute past midnight until 8 p.m., but it may not be sold, except under certain conditions, between 8 p.m. and midnight. There are certain ways in which tobacco may be bought. You can buy a cooked meal on licensed premises and thus get tobacco. These Regulations were made under the Defence of the Realm Act, and the object of that Act was to limit the hours of selling so as to keep the streets in darkness during the air raids, to keep the people off the streets, and to release as many men as possible for the Army and Navy. It has, however, been carried on, year after year, under the Expiring Laws Continuance Bill. Tobacconists and confectioners sell 50 per cent. of all the tobacco sold retail in the United Kingdom. They are mostly small traders, and they want to be able to sell tobacco during the same hours that they can sell chocolates, sweets, and mineral waters. They can sell those until 9.30, but they cannot sell tobacco after eight o'clock. A man with his own shop stands at one end of his counter selling chocolates up till 9.30, but he must not sell tobacco at the other end of his counter. He has to put automatic machines on his counter and supply his customers with sixpences, so that after eight o'clock they may put them in the slot and get packets of cigarettes. This is extraordinarily unfair to the young man. A man can go into the confectionery and tobacco business with a small amount of capital, and can work what hours he likes. In a large number of cases he is a young man, and this Bill, no doubt, would be an enormous advantage to the young man, who to-day is not getting a very great chance.

The second part of the first Clause restricts the working hours of shop assistants to nine and a half. Shop assistants are the most sweated type of worker in the country. There is no law which regulates their hours except a law to give them one half day's holiday per week, and certain times for meals. They can be worked from eight till eight, and some girls and men do work 12 hours a day. If I can get this Bill through, it will enable their hours of work to be regulated, though I am not wedded to nine and a half hours, if that be considered too long. I appeal to the House to give this Bill a little notice. It is a young man's Bill in that it has the support of young shop assistants who wish to try to set up in business on their own. To-day the young man is not getting a fair chance. This kind of Regulation under which tobacco may be sold to-day is designed to protect the established man in business, and to stop another man getting a little advantage over him by working a little longer time. Young men are being unfairly 'treated by the competition of women and this sort of Regulation which gives the established man such an advantage. Even in this House of Commons you can see how the women are competing with the men. They are taking the seats which I consider rightly belong to tho young men of the nation.

There is an Association called the Early Closing Association, of which a gentleman called Captain Larkin is the secretary. He opposes this Bill, because he says that he represents the tobacco trade and the trade is against the Bill. Last year he sent to the Home Secretary figures showing that something like 3,000 members of the tobacco trade are against the Bill and 300 in favour of it. He brought forward those figures as showing the opinion of the trade. Is the House aware that every year there are over 460,000 licences issued for the sale of tobacco? Three thousand is a small number of the total number of licences issued. We, representing the small traders, have not the funds to send round counter propaganda to show that there are a vast number of small traders who wish this Bill to be passed into law. The big man says that he cannot afford to put on two shifts of assistants, because the tobacco combine only allows him 15 per cent. profit on some lines and 20 per cent. on other lines. That is not a thing which concerns us. Surely, they can arrange it among themselves. It is no reason, because a man cannot afford to keep two sets of shop assistants, that he should be able to sweat them any hours he wishes. The tobacco combine makes sufficient money to give enough to the retailers so that they can pay their assistants decent wages and give them a certain time to enjoy the pleasures which other sections of the community enjoy.

I do ask the House with all the little power that I have to let this Bill have its First Reading, and, if possible, its Second Reading. The law at present is, undoubtedly, very unfair, and if the Bill could be got into Committee, it could be thrashed out there, and I am sure that all sides could be brought to agree. The little man has to stop selling tobacco at eight, but a licensed house or a restaurant can sell tobacco till closing time, 10 o'clock, and then the night people, the cafes, the railway buffets, and the little coffee stalls are allowed to sell at one minute past midnight. This is the land of the free, but it is going to be a very hard thing if, in the future, legislation of this kind is going to be passed whereby Orders-in-Council can be incorporated year after year in the Expiring Laws Continuance Bill. It is an absolute restriction on the liberty, not so much of the people who buy, but of the young and small men who are trying to build up businesses, and I do ask the House to pass the Bill at this stage and also to give it a Second Reading.


I crave the indulgence which this House is always so kind as to extend to those who address it for the first time. I am sorry that the very first occasion of my rising to speak is to ask the House to reject a Motion which a young Member has brought to its notice I do so because, for nearly 50 years, the tendency of legislation has been towards the curtailment of the number of hours during which shops should be kept open for business. The late Sir Charles Nike and the late Lord Avebury introduced Measures into this House for that purpose, Committee after Committee of this House has sat, Royal Commissions have sat, and all have agreed both in regard to the restriction of the number of hours during which shops should be open and in regard,to the curtailment of the number of hours during which shop assistants should be employed. I have no doubt that the hon. Member's intentions are very good in this respect. A friend of mine stated the other day that no one got into this House on good intentions, or, at least, that only one person had ever got into this House with good intentions, and that was Guy Fawkes. He did not succeed, and I sincerely hope that, however good-intentioned the hon. Member is in his Measure, this House will not agree to it. In the last Parliament this House did—again with good intentions, no doubt—introduce legislation to keep confectioners' shops open until half-past nine o'clock at night. I am sure the House did not want to be unkind, but they were not only unkind but cruel in agreeing to that piece of. legislation, for they increased the hours of the young people who work in those shops by something like nine or ten hours a week. Lt is perfectly true that in this Measure the hon. Member suggests that shop assistants shall be called upon to work in these shops not more than nine and a half hours per day. That means for seven days a week, excepting the day when by Statute they must receive a, half-holiday after half-past one. That means that this House is called upon to agree to a working week for shop assistants of 71i hours, inclusive of meal times. Why should shop assistants be selected for treatment of that sort?


I am sorry to interrupt, but, in regard to the 9.½ hours, I am quite prepared to make it eight.


The 9½ hours is for six days a week, and for one day in the week the assistants work up to half-past one. That works out at 71 hours a week inclusive of meal times. We have just heard from the Minister of Labour that it is proposed by the Government to ratify the Washington Convention. The Washington Convention will fix a 48-hour week for all employed persons. The Industrial Conference which was held in 1919 afterwards drew up proposals which would fix a 48-hour week for all employed persons. Even in 1912, when Mr. Winston Churchill introduced the Shops Bill of that year, the proposal in regard to restrictions of hours of work for assistants was 60 hours per week. I suggest to this House that we ought not to support a Measure which is going to mean, for those who work behind the counter, 71 hours a week. Nor should the House be misled with the idea that even the shopkeepers are asking to be allowed to keep their shops open until this hour. I am in touch with a very large number of organised tobacconists in this country, and they are all anxious that they shall have their evenings free, and regard the 8 o'clock compulsory closing with satisfaction. I hope sincerely that the House will reject this Measure.

Question, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to extend the hours during which tobacco may be sold and to regulate shop assistants' hours of work,

put, and negatived.