HC Deb 25 March 1937 vol 321 cc3181-6

4.43 p.m.

Brigadier-General Spears

In the short time left to me I should like to draw the attention of the House to the question of the Carlisle State management scheme. Certain aspects of the scheme have been brought to the attention of the House recently by the Estimates Committee, and the Estimates Committee was extremely critical. It stated that it thought the time had come when the whole organisation should be reconsidered, and that the arrangement had been most unbusinesslike. In Carlisle in 1915 special conditions were introduced owing to the enormous influx of Irish navvies and munition workers. Conditions were so abnormal that they justified abnormal steps being taken, and the Government bought up all the public houses with the exception—

Mr. Macquisten

They did not buy them up. They took possession of them and did not pay an honest price to a single publican in the place.

Brigadier-General Spears

In any case they acquired the public houses, with the exception of one or two hotels, and ever since the manufacture and sale of liquor has been to all intents and purposes a Government monopoly. On a question of principle I object to the city which I represent being an object of curiosity to mankind because it is subject to special conditions, and to the implication that coercion is necessary to enforce sobriety. Carlisle is the only city of its size subject to a special regime of this kind, and it has always been a very sober city indeed. There is one aspect of the position in Carlisle which is not generally appreciated. The management of the scheme entirely escapes the jurisdiction of the licensing justices. Everywhere else in England, if you desire to make an alteration, even of a door in a public house, you have to make application to the licensing justices, and anybody who desires to do so can appeal in open court. It is not so in Carlisle. They can pull down houses and build new ones, and no one has the least say in the matter. The public is only informed when it sees the work actually being carried out. There is a so-called Advisory Committee, but it meets in private and the public knows nothing of its proceedings. No doubt we shall be told that it acts for the best in the interests of the public. That is exactly what the Ogpu and the Fascist Council do; they no doubt act in the best interests of their respective publics, but the public is not consulted.

That is not the way we do things, and I object to things being done in that way in Carlisle. I object to the city I represent being the victim of a Socialist experiment. The majority of my constituents are not Socialists—that is why I am here. We have to live under a regime where the State makes its own beer and sells it in its own public houses; pays no Income Tax and escapes all scrutiny. The State is represented locally by commissars who are absolutely omnipotent, and my contention is that the whole scheme escapes Parliamentary control. Although the Secretary of State is ultimately responsible for the scheme we can get no satisfaction on this subject. I object to the Government I support fighting Socialism in this House and yet tolerating it in practice. I have often wondered why the Socialists opposite do not make more capital out of it and point out to the Government that they are actually carrying out a Socialist scheme. I suspect, however, that the Socialists do not do that because, being better informed than the Government, they know it is a rotten scheme and that the less said about it the better.

It is a monopoly. We are told that the Carlisle scheme makes money. Of course it does. Any fool could make money if he had the monopoly of a commodity which was in demand. The Estimates Committee has described this scheme as being badly and extravagantly run. There is a London office costing £5,000 plus a salaried official who has i,000. The administration in Carlisle costs some £3,500, and there is an office in Glasgow which costs some 3,100, making a total of £12,600 to run this petty scheme. No business in the world could be run under such conditions. The Estimates Committee think the time has come when the whole scheme should be reconsidered, and I hope that it will be. My last word is this: If it is a good scheme extend it; if it is a bad scheme, there is no justification for keeping it on in Carlisle. If it is a good scheme my right hon. Friend ought not to deprive his own constituents of the benefits of it. If it is a bad scheme I beg of him to abolish it.

4.51 p.m.

Mr. Macquisten

I agree with everything which the hon. and gallant Member for Carlisle (Brigadier-General Spears) has said. I remember the start of this scheme. It was a shabby business. There was one ex-soldier of the Boer War whose officers thought so much of him—he had lost a leg—that they subscribed enough money to start him in the business. Then this soviet came along, mainly composed of conscientious objectors, and took this business over, and they gave the man only the wet stock valuation, with nothing whatever for goodwill, which is the most important part of such a business. They turned this poor fellow out and offered him and his wife 30s. a week to act as managers of one of the places. The whole thing was a most shabby business. They have carried on that monopoly for years. Friends have told me that the Government beer there is very poor, that one cannot get any really satisfactory refreshments in Carlisle. Those people have the monopoly and they are entirely without restraint; there are no means of getting at them. The figures as to overhead charges are astonishing, but the whole scheme was the work of some bureaucratic officials who came down and got their teeth into it—some of the bureaucrats, that sacred priesthood of the untouchables who can never be "sacked" and live upon the rest of the community. They got hold of it and we cannot get them abolished, and that is where the 12,000 is being scattered.

An end ought to be put to this experiment. It was purely a war measure and when the War was over why was it not closed down? It is being continuously used for propaganda purposes, like the marketing boards. There is a great body of officials and they send out propaganda of all kinds, with pictures of the beautiful rooms and the rest, although the whole thing is what the Americans call, I am told, "bunk." I agree entirely with my hon. and gallant Friend that it is impossible that this system should be continued in one of the most sober and best behaved towns in Great Britain, and the sooner it is put an end to the better.

4.54 p.m.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Sir John Simon)

I am glad to know at any rate that the area in which this method is in operation is, as I am sure it is, one of the most sober and best behaved areas in the Kingdom.

Mr. Macquisten

It was so before this experiment was started.

Sir J. Simon

And apparently it has not lost its reputation; at least I did not understand the hon. and gallant Member for Carlisle (Brigadier-General Spears) to say so. I am afraid that I cannot give him much satisfaction, but in the few minutes which remain I will point out one or two considerations which ought also to be put into the scale. It is hardly the case that this scheme is simply a product of the War which nobody has seen fit to justify since. On the contrary the Royal Commission on Licensing in England and Wales, in its Majority Report, issued in 1932, included a recommendation in favour of the Carlisle undertaking, and that is plainly a post-war judgment. It is contained in paragraph 417. They discussed whether the experiment should be extended, and took the view that public ownership should be submitted to a further test, both from the social and financial point of view, before there was any question of its extension. I am not wishing to express any view as to whether there should be an extension, but I am bound to point out that the Royal Commission in 1932 took the view that this particular enterprise should go on. I must point out also that it could not be either extended or abolished without legislation. I have already said in answer to questions put by my hon. and gallant Friend that the Government cannot undertake to introduce legislation on this subject at the present time.

I have just time to deal with some of the forcible criticisms which were made by the Select Committee on Estimates last year, and which my hon. and gallant Friend very naturally quoted in his remarks to-day. It is true that the Select Committee on Estimates did animadvert last year upon the present arrangements. They thought it was better to concentrate the management of the two districts in Scotland, as well as the one in Carlisle, under one general manager stationed at Carlisle, and that it would be better if the general office in London were abolished. They made criticisms, which were quite fairly introduced by my two hon. Friends, that the present scheme was unnecessarily wasteful. That matter has been very carefully considered by the Departments concerned. It was considered by the Home Office, the Scottish Office and the Treasury. The Treasury would no doubt exercise the duty of being very shrewd and careful where waste of money was concerned. The view that was taken was that the existence of the Central Office in London could not be found to be an extravagant arrangement. The view which the Treasury takes on the matter is that by abolishing the Glasgow office and placing the three districts under the control of one general manager, when it is considered that a second assistant manager would be required at Carlisle in order to free the general manager and the proposed new arrangement is compared with that which is actually working, the net reduction of expenditure would be small.

The Statutory Advisory Committees in Scotland—there are two of them—have protested strongly. Some weight must be given to the views of a body which is constituted for the purpose of expressing their views of the matter. They are strongly opposed to the alteration. They think that it might result in some loss of —if you like—public good will, which would have an adverse effect upon the financial results. That is the view taken in the Home Office by those who advise me, and, as I have just informed the House, by the Treasury. My hon. and gallant Friend was well within his rights in raising the matter as forcibly as he has done, but I cannot give him much comfort. I am not _myself so wedded to an idea that I should not like to see an experiment occasionally made. I hope my hon. and gallant Friend will not feel too aggrieved that this scheme is being carried on inside his constituency.

Question, "That this House do now adjourn," put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at One Minute before Five o' Clock, until Tuesday, 6th April, pursuant to the Resolution of the House this day.