HC Deb 06 July 1926 vol 197 cc1963-8

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.—[Sir Philip.Dawson.]

Brought up, and read the First time.


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

I will only detain the House a few minutes because the subject matter is well known to Members of the House and to the Treasury. I trust my right hon. Friend may see his way to grant the request. The Clause is intended to enable poor people who wish to get a half bottle of wine for medicinal purposes to do so. At present, if they require brandy, they have to buy a full bottle. I cannot see that the Exchequer will lose anything by this, and I trust the Chancellor of the Exchequer will be able to see his way to agree that this Clause be accepted.


I beg to second the Motion.


My hon. Friend was commendably brief in putting this Clause before the House, and I hope he will not mind if I am equally brief in telling him that it is impossible to accept it. The reason I cannot accept it is one that has been very often explained to the House. It is this. To make the change would be to interfere with the whole balance of the licensing laws in this country. Anyone who has given even the smallest study to our licensing laws knows what a hornet's nest he might raise if he began interfering with one particular branch of that law. My hon. Friend, I notice, in putting forward his proposal, spoke of it as being merely intended to enable poor people who wanted a little brandy, for the sake of their health, to procure it in small quantities. That is not his proposal. It is not by any means confined to brandy required for health or under doctor's orders. It goes very much wider and includes all spirits. When I had a deputation to see me on this subject some weeks ago, they made a good deal of the point of the desirability of enabling people in had health, especially under doctors' orders, to get a little brandy, in smaller quantities than the quart bottle, from the grocers. I made the suggestion—I did not pledge myself—that that point might be made by making a special provision for brandy in such cases. I found that proposal did not give any satisfaction whatever. I was immediately told there were other spirits of medicinal value.

Therefore it really comes down to a proposal to alter the balance of the licensing law. A differentiation which has lasted now for a great number of years, and which is reflected in the relative licence duties imposed on different classes, would be a most dangerous thing to interfere with. It would require a great deal more consideration of the whole subject than it is possible to give when raised by this Amendment. Moreover, I am very sceptical indeed as to there being any real public demand for this change. I know there is a very respectable class of person who is the holder of an off-licence who would like to have extended privileges, if he could get them, without having to pay any additional licence duty for them. I should be very glad if it were possible without doing any harm in any other direction to meet those wishes. I do not think there is really any widespread grievance to be met, or that there is any widespread case to be made by the public at large. In those circumstances, and having regard to the disturbance that would be created, I hope my hon. Friend will be satisfied, and will not insist on dividing the House.


The right hon. Gentleman has said that this would disturb the balance as between the on- and the off-licence. It would, for example, in a district where there was no on-licence. It would lead to defeating very much in some cases the purposes of the magistrates in refusing such a licence. In the second place we know that the grocers' licences are often used by those who are not so straightforward as to go to an on-licence, and who use many subterfuges to obtain liquor in that way. We have a strong suspicion often of the purposes to which the on-licence may be put and the means that may be used to secure liquor under some other name altogether. Thirdly, I wish to call attention to the ground on which this was put forward that it was for medicinal uses. I am not here to argue nor do I suppose we would be free to launch out into any argument as to the medicinal value of alcohol in various forms. Personally, although I am an extremist in the temperance cause, I have never taken up the position that you might not take alcohol when it is really prescribed by a physician. The point I find is, that many people wish to be their own physicians, and make their own prescriptions in this particular matter.

I have never taken up an extreme position in regard to the medical use of alcohol. I have often said, you may as well take alcohol as any other poison the doctor may prescribe. But I will tell you what has shaken my faith in the value of alcohol as a medicine to a considerable extent. The great value of any medicine is that it does its work so thoroughly that you are done with the cure as well as with the disease. I once had occasion in examining candidates for a vacancy in connection with a Church appointment, to put before them the question I was instructed to put, whether they were strictly temperate. Two of them gave me exactly the same answer, that once some years before they had an illness, the doctor prescribed a little spirits, and they had gone on taking a little ever since. Can you conceive a greater condemnation of any medicine than that it makes you an invalid for life? Everyone knows that there has been a tremendous change in medical opinion in regard to the medicinal value of all those alcoholic liquors. Without wearying the House, I may mention that the Wandsworth Union in 1875 were spending on alcohol as a medicine £275. In 1914 they spent 8s., and the milk bill in that hospital rose in he same period from £407 to £1,330. If you take the seven leading hospitals in London you will find that in the year 1862 they were spending on alcohol as medicine £7,712, and exactly 50 years thereafter with a much larger population they were down to £1,238, and the milk bill rose in the same period from £3,026 to £,11,874. The party opposite pose as the great friends of agriculture, and I suggest that instead of trying to get new ways and means for the distribution of liquor they would serve the interests of agriculture much better if they brought in new methods of securing and distributing milk, which is really a food.


I think we should consider the real position with which this House is confronted whenever such a proposal as this is presented to it. If this production is a legitimate commodity why should not people be able to obtain it in any kind of shop and without any restrictions or licensing anomalies to which exception is taken to-day. The Financial Secretary has said that if this Amendment was adopted it would upset the balance of a licensing law. It is the licensing law which is really responsible for upsetting the balance of many people in this country. And you have to face another proposition. What objection can be taken by those who believe in having the contents of the bottle whether it is a pint bottle or a quart bottle. When that arrangement was made all that happened was that people who found any difficulty in getting a larger supply were able to make arrangements by which one person bought and then shared the contents of the bottle with others. If hon. Members who are concerned about the removal of these anomalies would go to the full extent of their claim—the liberty of the subject—they would fight the Government in order to secure the repeal of all our licensing liquor laws and let everybody supply drink as they thought fit, get as much drink as they could get so long as they could pay for it. They fear to face that practical and logical proposition in a desire to sustain a monopoly in their own financial interests. It is a monopoly which is a serious menace to the nation at large, and the only question is the removal of the whole thing altogether.

Lieut.-Colonel JAMES

I only intervene in the Debate in order to reply to the hon. Member who has just spoken and to mention my own attitude on this matter. Last year I had the honour of moving this Amendment and I quite understand that there may be financial reasons which make it impossible for the Government to accept it. It is probable that the acceptance of this Amendment would upset what one may describe as the financial balance of the Budget. Interested parties have spoken about grocers' licences and the public house licences, but I do not think it is possible to defend the refusal of the half-pint measure to the off-licence people. The hon. Member for Dundee (Mr. Scrymgeour) said that if we upheld the liberty of the subject all these restrictions on liberty would be at once removed. I do not think that would alter the situation in the least. He is perfectly sincere but almost a monomaniac in his view of the situation. If you remove the restrictions and allow liquor to be sold without excise licence duties the revenue would have to be raised from other sources, and we are discussing how the revenue of the country is to be raised.


The easiest thing in the world.

Lieut.-Colonel JAMES

Many other hon. Members have had the same thing, but it is not easy when you wish to distribute the burden of taxation equally over each section of the community, which I suggest is the, motive that has actuated Chancellors of the Exchequer of all parties for a great many centuries. Whether they have been successful or not is another question. In some cases you may find Chancellors of the Exchequer who have been inclined to be vindictive. I hope, when the finances of the country are on a more equitable basis, when we are not faced with the circumstances which are present at the moment, when the taxpayer is being called upon to pay vast sums of money without any rhyme or reason because sectional interests in the community will not agree, when the right of the subject to exist is being denied because certain people claim the right to strike—


I do not see any connection between the right to strike and pints and quarts.

Lieut.-Colonel JAMES

I agree, but the burden of taxation on the country due to the strike is so heavy that any mitigation is not possible.


In view of what has been said by the Financial Secretary to the Treasury I beg leave to withdraw the Clause.

Motion and Clause, by leave, withdrawn.