HC Deb 08 July 1924 vol 175 cc2032-41

Notwithstanding anything contained in this or any other Act to the contrary, the Finance (1909–10) Act, 1910, Schedule I (c) (Provisions applicable to retailers' off-licences, Spirits (2) Minimum quantity of spirits to be sold) shall be deemed to have effect, as if, in lieu of the words "one reputed quart bottle," there were inserted the words "one reputed pint bottle," and accordingly the minimum quantity which may be sold by a person holding an off-licence to be held by a retailer of spirits shall be, in England, one reputed pint bottle.—[Mr. Hannon.]

Brought up, and read the First time.


I beg to move, "That the Clause be read a Second time."

This new Clause asks the Chancellor of the Exchequer to take into consideration the case of the off-licence holder who has permission under the existing law only to sell a quart of brandy or whisky. I am not asking for any concession which will at all affect the revenue, but that the Government shall allow this concession for public convenience, and for the benefit of a very large and important section of the business community of the country. As the Chancellor has just said, and quite rightly, that he has in view certain revisions affecting the revenue, may I add that my new Clause will not in the least affect his revenue for the year. I understand that a section of the on-licence holders are in favour of this concession being made to the off-licence holders. From the point of view of the temperance reformer and the teetotaller, this new Clause may be objected to on the ground that it would facilitate the sale of drink. In point of fact, it simply enables the poor person who may want half a bottle for medicinal purposes to be able to get it, and get it at the grocer's shop, instead of having to go to the ordinary public-house where he can buy the same quantity of spirits without any Amendment of the law at all. A great many persons in this country, however, object to going into a public-house, and in the daily family life a, small quantity of spirits is frequently necessary. Doctors order spirits occasionally for their patients. That spirits are necessary for medicinal purposes, I may quote the testimony of Lord Dawson one of the most distinguished medical authorities in the country. Therefore, I think that on that ground there is no real and substantial reason to be urged against the acceptance of this proposed new Clause. The Chancellor of the Exchequer may be willing next year to consider rearrangements of Budget revenue; so may I add that there may be a very substantial Budget surplus, because I think the right hon. Gentleman has taken great care in arranging his Estimates this year to look forward to a very substantial surplus next year. If the fortunes of war place him where he is 12 months hence he would be in a position to make these reforms without any very material loss to the revenue. On these grounds I ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer to accept this very humble and small modification of his financial arrangements for the year. I am aware that the teetotaller says that this facility, if given to the off-licence holder, will increase the sale of drink. I think it may be argued that if anyone wants to drink he will buy the reputed quart, but at the present moment you can buy a half bottle, if in addition you nay a whole bottle. I hope the Chancellor of the Exchequer will regard this proposal from this point of view and not as in any way affecting the revenue, or of making any inroad upon the principles of teetotallers. It will not hurt the licensed trade, and it will confer a benefit on those who need small quantities of spirits from time to time in their houses. For these reasons I ask that this small concession should be granted.


The hon. Member correctly said that there is not directly much revenue involved in this proposal, but indirectly there is a great deal of revenue at stake. The hon. Member just now stood at this Table as a teller on an Amendment which proposed to reduce the licence duty on on-licences by nearly one-half.


That was under the stress of political circumstances.


Now he is supporting an Amendment in the interests of the off-licence trade. The purpose which the hon. Member has in view is this: Spirits cannot be bought in places which have off-licences in smaller quantities than the reputed quart, and the hon. Member's Amendment proposes to reduce that quantity by one-half. What have we against this proposal? In the first place, there is the opposition of the on-licence holder. The hon. Member appeared to think that no opposition comes from this quarter, but my information as to the attitude of the licensed trade does not agree in the least with the view which has been stated by the hon. Member who moved this new Clause. I know that many efforts have been made to reconcile the divergent interests of these two branches of the licensed trade, and I believe, if I am correctly informed, that they are still as far away from any agreement. If this Amendment be carried, the on-licence holder, who has to pay a heavier duty than the off-licence holder, will feel that he has a grievance.

Now let me turn to the temperance side. In all the Debates I have heard in the House of Commons from a purely temperance point of view, there has always been a pretty unanimous agreement that the sale and consumption of spirits was a greater evil than the sale and consumption of beer. Many people who are not teetotallers agree that the consumption of spirits is a much greater danger to the community than the drinking of beer. At any rate, this proposal would undoubtedly have the effect of increasing the temptation to drink spirits, and on that ground I do not think the Amendment ought to be accepted. I do not know what the view of the House may be on this point, but I really do not think it is desirable that this Amendment should be accepted.


This Amendment only applies to England. How can the Chancellor of the Exchequer refuse it, seeing that it is in force in Scotland?


There are a great many laws operating in Scotland that do not apply to this country. It has been pointed out that Sunday closing is possible in Scotland, whereas it is not possible here. I know the Scottish people have a reputation for many things. They have a reputation for strong temperance views and an enormous consumption of whisky. If the hon. Member looks into this matter, I think be will find that the origin of this distinction between England and Scotland in this matter is due to the popularity of beer and spirits in the respective countries. I think those are the two main points, namely, the effect from a temperance point of view, the fact that revenue might be sacrificed, that it would be an injustice to the on-licence holder, and that there would be a certain depreciation of their property.


I should like to say a word to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, with regard to the rebuke which he thought fit to utter towards me just now, that when I left this Chamber it was not out of any discourtesy to him, or any fear of his argument, but because I had been called out to see a constituent in the Lobby. I want to ask the Committee to consider this Amendment from the point of view of common sense, and I will give one instance which will show any reasonable person that this Amendment is necessary. Two friends were coming to my house, and I wanted to offer them the alternative of two liqueurs. I went to a large wine merchant and asked for a small bottle of two different liqueurs, and he said I could not have them, but I could have two small bottles of the same liqueur. I could have had two small bottles of Benedictine, but I wanted one small bottle of Benedictine and one small bottle of Curacao.

This seems to me to be quite ridiculous and against all our ideals of liberty. Why cannot we buy what we want, where we want, and when we want it. The argument of the Chancellor of the Exchequer with regard to temperance seems to me can be countered by another argument. If a person who desires to be intemperate buys a half-bottle and takes it home he will be exposed to less temptation than if he took a whole bottle. I do not think there is any case against this proposal on the temperance side at all. With regard to the revenue, does the Chancellor of the Exchequer seriously suggest that this opportunity given to off-licence holders and grocers to sell these half-bottles would have any serious effect upon the sale in licensed houses? Is not the sale of drink in licensed houses almost entirely an on-consumption trade? Therefore I think the revenue argument is a very weak one, and the temperance argument may be balanced on either side, while the common-sense argument in favour of individual liberty is conclusively in favour of this Amendment.


I regret that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has not seen his way to accept this Amendment, but I welcome his sympathy for the on-licence trade. I would like to say a word or two in support of an Amendment which has, I think, a very great deal in its favour from the point of view of the ordinary subject who is not a teetotaller, and who has no interest whatever in the on or the off-licence trade. Personally, as far as the temperance view is concerned, I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford (Mr. S. Roberts). I do not believe that this proposal affects the temperance question in the slightest degree one way or the other. It has been argued from the temperance point of view that it is better that people should be able to buy small quantities, because by this concession the man or woman who wishes to drink is not prevented from getting it, but will not have to go on buying a whole bottle instead of a half-bottle. I do not think there is anything in that argument any more than in the argument in the other direction, that this change would make people less temperate.

6.0 P.M.

I have no authority to speak for the on-licence trade, and I do not know their view on this question. I have been informed that the on-licence trade are not really opposing this Amendment, and I think that is a very likely attitude for them to take up, because it cannot have very much effect upon them. I have met a number of licensed victuallers from time to time who have said that, although this Amendment seems to be against them, they do not regard it as a matter of any importance, and they consider that it would be a very great convenience to the off-licence holder and the general public, and they do not want to oppose it in any way. I do want to ask the Committee to consider this from the purely common-sense point of view, from the point of view of the interest of the ordinary subject. If I thought there was any question of temperance, I would not shirk that for a moment, but, as I have said, I do not believe the temperance question is affected in the very slightest degree one way or the other. I do not think that this Amendment would have any very great effect on either the on-licence trade or the off-licence trade, but I am certain that it would be of immense benefit to a large number of people who are not teetotallers, but who are quite moderate drinkers, and who, from time to time, do want to buy a small quantity. The case, of course, is perfectly well known of the many householders in the country who, whatever may be thought of their views, rightly or wrongly, think it well to keep in their house a small quantity of brandy as a medicine in case of emergency and it really does seem rather ridiculous that a person with Et small household who wants to do that has either to buy a whole bottle or to go to a public-house and take a medicine bottle or something of that kind in which to put it.

It is not right or fair that people who want these small quantities should be driven to go to an on-licensed. public-house, into which they very often object—quite wrongly, as I think—to be seen going, and into which, sometimes, it is not very convenient that the people who want to buy these things should have to go. The woman who manages the household and does the household shopping may want to do this kind of shopping, and it does seem rather ridiculous that she should not be able to buy these small quantities when they are wanted. Let the Committee remember that this is one of those war-time restrictions for which there may have been some excuse in the abnormal circumstances of that time, but for which, I respectfully submit, there is no excuse at the present time; and, even if there were not going to be a change which would meet with general approval, I suggest that, in the absence of some much stronger arguments against it than there are, it would be a good thing on general principles to get rid of little irritating restrictions and interferences with the ordinary liberty of the subject, which are not required for any particular reason, and which are a mere survival of times which we do not want to gothrough again.

Lieut.-Colonel JAMES

I desire to support the remarks of the two previous speakers. I am not, either directly or indirectly, connected with the trade, but I do think that the present situation is perfectly absurd and entirely anomalous. I very often travel long distances by train, and I usually go third class; and, in the course of my democratic travels, I meet many a man who will produce a small container from his pocket—it may be what is called a "nip," or it may be a rather larger measure—which he has purchased from an on-licence holder, and at intervals during the journey he seeks liquid refreshment. Surely, it is rather anomalous that he should be able to purchase these supplies of alcohol from an on-licence holder and not from an off-licence holder. I admit that what the Chancellor of the Exchequer has said as to the possibility of hardship to those who pay a larger sum for their licences, as against those who pay a smaller sum, would be the case if this purchase of small quantities of alcohol from grocers or off licence holders became a general practice, but I do not think that it is liable to become so, and, from what previous speakers have said, the whole thing appears to be so anomalous, so contrary to common sense, and so absurd, That I hope the right hon. Gentleman will see his way to do something to remove this ridiculous and vexatious anomaly. There is an old story of the man who, meeting a friend, said to him, "Well, bow's Jarge?"—and his friend said, "Jarge is nicely, thank you. He eats what ho likes and he drinks what he likes, and he don't give a clang for anybody." I do not think that such legislation as we are now discussing enables people to eat what they like, drink what they like, and think as they like, and I do ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer whether he cannot remove these vexatious restrictions.

Question put, "That the Clause be read a Second time"

The Committee divided: Ayes, 157; Noes, 222