HC Deb 10 March 1926 vol 192 cc2309-12

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Shops Acts, 1912 and 1913. I feel quite sure that, having heard the circumstances, the House will be willing to give this matter its careful and sympathetic consideration. The Bill which I introduce is a short one of four Clauses, and I trust it may be said that, so far as the principle of the Bill is concerned, it is non-controversial, although I have no doubt that improvements will suggest themselves to hon. Members if the Bill be allowed to go forward. The House will desire that some justification shall be given in support of a plea for special legislation to deal with shop assistants. My justification in asking for that special legislation is based upon two main grounds. First of all, there is no occupation in the country which employs so large a number of young persons and women as the retail distributive trades do, and it is well known from medical statistics that their long hours, and particularly their standing, causes a great deal of bad health among them. Secondly, the workers in the distributive trades, unfortunately, are not covered by the Washington Convention, and therefore it may be that they would be likely to be outside of any general legislation.

It may surprise some Members of the House to know that at the present time there is, with two exceptions, no legal limitation of the hours of labour so far as the mass of shop assistants are concerned, in spite of the existing legislation on the subject. The first of these exceptions is that young persons under the age of 18 are not permitted to be employed for more than 74 hours per week inclusive of meal times, and the second exception is that persons in the refreshment trades are not permitted to be employed for more than 65 hours per week exclusive of meal times Apart from those two exceptions, there is at the present time no legal limitation of the hours of shop assistants. The first Clause of the Bill provides for a legal 48-hour week and also for the repeal of Section 2 of the Shops Act of 1912, under which the legal limitation for young persons is still 74 hours per week, and for the repeal of Sub-section (1) of Section 1 of the Shops Act of 1913, under which the 65 hours limitation for those employed in the refreshment trades obtains. I think the House will agree that in these enlightened days hours of that length, 74 and 65 exclusive of meals, are somewhat antediluvian and ought to be swept away. Clause 2 makes provision for necessary overtime owing to the difficulties of seasonal trades and so on, and the remainder of the Bill—the last Clause—is simply confined to definitions and details.

Another point which I would like to urge upon the House as a further reason in support of this Bill is the fact that it will remove one of the obstacles to the setting up of trade boards in the retail distributive trades. When the grocery and provision trade board was first set up a proposal was made from the employers' side that a 48-hour week should be made applicable to that trade under the existing trade board's legislation Subsequently, the employers' side of the grocery and provision trade board desired to amend that proposal with regard to a 48-hour working week on the ground that it would be much better to have a general 48-hour week by legislation applicable not merely to the grocery trade but to all the retail distributive trades. It would be much better to have a general 48-hour week on the Statute Book than to have it merely in the case of one trade through the machinery of the trade boards. In view of that, and in view of the fact that there is a large measure of agreement among the most enlightened employers in the trade as well as amongst the workers, I urge upon the House the necessity of giving favourable consideration to this Bill.

It cannot be argued that this is a case where a legal 48-hours week is likely to have an adverse effect upon industry, because this concerns a purely domestic operation in which we have no foreign competition to fear. I suggest to the House that those employers in the distributive trades, and the co-operative societies, who have already by agreement put into operation a 48-hours working week, and in some cases a 44-hours working week, are entitled to some protection against the unscrupulous competition of firms who at the present time can work their assistants any length of time. It is common knowledge to people who know anything of the retail distributive trades that shop assistants are kept working when the shop has been closed against the entry of customers. The fact that the shop is closed does not necessarily mean that the shop assistant's hours of labour are ended. Some of the more unscrupulous firms break down every attempt at general agreement to secure earlier closing. They try to get an undue advantage over their competitors. The result is that the existing early closing machinery breaks down, and hundreds of people in the town may be compelled to work longer hours, because there happens to be one greedy individual who seeks a selfish advantage over his competitors.

We hope to remove that by this Bill, and we trust that in view of the general agreement as to the position in regard to the existing Shop Acts legislation, the House will allow this Bill to go forward, will amend its weak spots later and give the shop workers of this country the consideration to which they are entitled.




Does the hon. Member rise to oppose the Motion?


Yes; I oppose this Bill because it begins at the wrong end. Some time ago, I brought a Bill into this House to restrict the hours of shops, and I suggested that while giving absolute liberty to the shop-owner whilst he was working behind his own counter, the hours of labour of the shop assistant should be limited. I am pleased to hear the proposal that is made in this Bill, but it does not carry the necessary corollary that the man who is working on his own account by himself, or with members of his own family, should be as free as air, and should have no restrictions placed upon him. So long as the man employs himself he cannot exploit himself. He may exploit other labour. That has always been admitted, and that is why regulations have been made. Unless the Shops Acts are amended so that the individual shopkeeper shall have absolute freedom to keep open to what hours he likes, they are wrong and unfair.

If the hon. Member's Bill were carried and my proposal were carried at the same time, providing that the individual shopkeeper would be perfectly free to keep open, there would be tens of thousands of small shop-keepers instead of the big combines, and the cost of living would be reduced enormously. The small shopkeeper is content with a humble living, and he will take that small and humble living in exchange for the unspeakable benefit of being a free man and knowing no master. If my hon. Friend will agree to bring into his Bill a Clause such as I suggest, that the individual shop-keeper should have absolute freedom and should be free from the trammels and restrictions of the Shop Hours Acts so long as he does not exploit his assistants by making them work longer than 44 hours or 48 hours, I will give the Bill every possible assistance, but I shall oppose it if it is merely going to limit the working hours of shop assistants to 44 or 48 hours, and to increase the cost of living and the inconvenience to the public.

When the working man goes home in the evening, he does not like to have the shop door shut in his face. He likes to go out with his wife and to make bargains with her at the shops, or to stay at home to mind the family while she goes out to shop. It is not right that the shop should be shut in her face, just as though the shops were not for the public, but were simply for the benefit of the shop-keeper. That is the fault of this sort of legislation. It would seem that people live merely for the purpose of making money instead of serving their fellows. I want to give freedom to individuals, so that they shall be free from restrictions and free from legislation, provided they are not unjustly exploiting their 6hop assistants. If the hon. Member will undertake to put my Clause into his Bill, I will withdraw my opposition.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Taylor, Mr. Rhys Davies, Mr. Riley, Mr. Thomas Williams, Mr. David Grenfell, Mr. Wilfrid Paling, Mr. Thurtle, Mr. Shepherd, Mr. Spencer, and Mr. Mackinder.