HC Deb 24 January 1940 vol 356 cc693-717

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Buchan-Hepburn.]

8.24 p.m.

Mr. Rhys Davies

I listened with great interest to the very protracted proceedings which took place before the Motion for the Adjournmen[...] was moved. I will guarantee that there will not be as much heat engendered in the Debate which is now to take place. I want to come at once to matters that are of considerable importance to the 2,500,000 shop assistants of the country, and I make no apology for raising the important question of shop hours, for although the issue may not be of great consequence to some people, I assure hon. Members that it is of the utmost importance to the large number of young men and especially young women employed in the distributive trades.

When we are at war, one of the first industries to be upset is the distributive trade. It employs more people, and certainly more young people, than any other three industries in the land, and employing as it does more young men than any other industry, those young men are naturally conscripted for His Majesty's Forces. Napoleon was not very far wrong when he said that we were a nation of shopkeepers, and I think Hitler could say now that our Army is more or less made up of shop assistants. There is no reserved occupation for them; they have all to join up. If they were powerfully organised and made their presence felt through trade union organisations, the Government would take much more notice of them than is being done at present. In any case, we will attempt this evening to speak on their behalf. The majority of the young persons employed in the distributive trade are young women and girls, and they are naturally more easily exploited than in almost any other occupation. Anything that we may say to-night is intended, of course, to have a salutary effect, not only upon the Government and the Home Office in particular, but upon employers in the distributive trade throughout the country, if they care to read what we say.

When war is declared by our country, one of the first things that happens in shop life, when male assistants are called up for the Forces from behind the counter, is that women are put to fill the vacancies. This is one of the very few industries in the land where that can happen with impunity, and I want to inform the House of what actually happens. When a young assistant employed behind the counter for a wage of, say, £2 10s. a week is conscripted for the Army, a woman takes his place at a wage of 30s. a week. It is not uncommon for some unscrupulous shopkeepers actually to make a profit out of the fact that their male assistants are conscripted for His Majesty's Forces.

I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman the Home Secretary has come into the Chamber to hear what we have to say on this subject. We are pressing the point about the employment of women in shops where ordinarily men were employed. I am sure the right hon. Gentleman will remember one important fact: it is proved beyond doubt that the health of these young women is considerably affected by their having to stand for long hours behind the counter.

We raise this issue because last October the Home Secretary, in his wisdom, issued a circular to local authorities and asked them to bring it to the notice of shopkeepers in their localities proposing a limitation of the hours during which shops should be open. He said that the closing hour should, normally, be 6 o'clock on weekdays and 7.30 o'clock on the late night. That represented a great step forward in so far as the closing of the shop doors affects the hours of labour of the shop assistant. I wish at this stage to put this point—in brackets, as it were. There is a common error in the minds of the public, though I hope not in the minds of Members of Parliament, that merely because the shop door is closed, the hours of labour of the assistant are thereby regulated. That is not so. It is a growing practice to employ assistants before the shop opens and for some time after the shop doors are closed.

In the main, however, we have to admit that the mere closing of shop doors does favourably affect the shop assistants to some extent in relation to the hours during which they have to work. Therefore, in that connection we are glad that the right hon. Gentleman issued that circular. But when he sent out that circular asking shopkeepers to close at 6 because of the black-out, the possibility of air raids, the number of accidents in the streets, and the like, he did something else which we very much regret. In effect, he said to the local authorities, "I suggest that shops should close at 6 o'clock on each ordinary night, and at 7.30 on the late night, but I give you power to extend the hours beyond these limits." The result, as the right hon. Gentleman probably knows, has not been very favourable. I think he had in mind those districts where there are munition works and where workers are employed late and want to do their shopping after they finish work. That is understandable, but what the right hon. Gentleman has done has been to play into the hands of reactionary local authorities in districts where there are no munition works. They are taking the cue, and the shops are remaining open until 7 o'clock in their areas, whereas in other districts, perhaps close by, the shops are closed at 6 o'clock. This applies particularly in Lancashire. Lancashire, to all intents and purposes, is one great town, without any real line of demarcation between one area and another, and I imagine that if inquiries were made, you would find cases of shops in one district closing at 6 o'clock and those in an adjoining district closing at 7 o'clock. It would even he possible to find shops on one side of the street closed, while shops on the other side are open. I do not know whether such a case has occurred, but it is possible under the scheme propounded by the right hon. Gentleman.

Let me state the background of this problem. Before the last war there was hardly any regulation of shop hours. People could open shops during almost any hours they liked, day or night. Some hon. Members on this side have been shop assistants themselves and have worked as long as 65 or 70 hours a week in shops. I have been in jobs of all kinds, and I have had the doubtful privilege of working 65 hours a week in a shop. I hope I do not look any the worse for it, but some of my hon. Friends here who can speak with more experience than I have of shop life will be able to tell the House what this means. When the Great War started in 1914 the Defence of the Realm Act was passed, and we had, almost for the first time in this country, a general reduction in the hours of opening of shops and, I am pleased to say, a general reduction as a result in the number of hours worked by shop assistants. I may remark to those who believe in long hours for shopping that ever since the close of the Great War, throughout all the years, the reduced hours of opening have been maintained, and there has never been any clamour for an extension to the 1914 level. Indeed, I think shopkeepers in general have welcomed the reduction in the number of hours of opening and that is all to the good.

The problem of the closing of shops has been before the House from time to time. The present First Lord of the Admiralty, when he was Home Secretary, did a great deal to help in the improvement of the conditions of employment in shops, but there is a substantial difficulty which arises, even in connection with the present proposal of the right hon. Gentleman for 6 o'clock closing. It is astonishing in a democracy like ours how a small, reactionary, and selfish minority among shopkeepers can condemn the vast majority to remain open until late at night. This happens very often in connection with closing orders. The right hon. Gentleman possesses enormous powers. Incidentally, it may interest the House to know that he and I worked side by side for some time in the same shop—namely, the Home Office. Then he assumed the humble rôle of assistant, though I was very conscious all the time that he was my master. While, as I say, an improvement in regard to the closing of shops has been going on for some time, to the benefit of shopkeeper and shop assistant alike, I want to ask the right hon. Gentleman whether it is not possible for him, with the great power which he now possesses, to make the rule of closing at 6 o'clock on ordinary evenings and 7.3o on one night each week of compulsory and universal application, instead of allowing local authorities what is called elasticity in the law.

I know that the right hon. Gentleman is in a difficulty in meeting this point. We have raised this issue on several occasions in the House and in Committee when Bills have been under discussion. There is an anomaly in connection with hours and conditions of employment in shops in general. Take, for instance, the laws passed providing that no boy or girl under 16 should be employed for more than 44 hours a week and that for those between 16 and 18 there is, generally speaking, a 48-hour maximum. Those provisions relate to young persons. I wonder whether the right hon. Gentleman's Department could tell us—we should be very interested to know—whether those laws are really being implemented. I will tell the House why I ask that question. It is astonishing what a difference exists between shops inspection on the one hand and mines inspection, factory inspection, or schools inspection on the other. When a factory inspector is known to be visiting a village, all the employers feel that the authority of the State is behind him, but the shops inspector is employed by the local authority and probably holds two or three other jobs, such as sanitary inspector, house inspector, weights and measures inspector, and when he comes round, few people take the slightest notice of him. That is especially so if the majority of the local authorities are shopkeepers themselves. The right hon. Gentleman looked at me as if I was exaggerating, but he knows that I am not accustomed to that sort of thing.

Let me ask him, however, whether he can give us any information to-night that the law in respect of these young people has actually been enforced. It is no use asking to-night that the law should be changed, but I leave this point with the right hon. Gentleman. I have reason to tell him that shops inspection will not avail very much in enforcing the law in some localities. There are some districts where shops inspection is conducted efficiently and well—indeed, as efficiently as if it were done by the Home Office direct. But in some small local authority areas you will find that shop inspection is not unlike sanitary inspection where the chairman of the public health committee is the owner of the property which ought to be condemned.

The claim is made by some people that you should not close shops too early because customers cannot do their shopping if you close at 5 or 6 o'clock. An associa- tion has been conducting a little census for me, and these are the results. At a clothier's, employing 21 assistants, only one customer was served between 4.45 and 6 o'clock; a boot shop with seven assistants had one customer after 5.30; a tailor with six assistants had no customers at all between 6 and 7; a West London grocer took 7½d. between 6 and 7 o'clock; and another with eight assistants took only 2s. 4d. between 5 and 6 o'clock. A census taken by the Bristol Co-operative Society on a Saturday showed that there were between 2 and 3 o'clock 1,123 customers; between 3 and 4, 1,472; between 4 and 5, 1,358; between 5 and 6, 838; between 6 and 7, 454; and between 7 and 8, 220. That shows that the public of this country is, consciously or unconsciously, shopping earlier as the years go by. That, of course, is all to the good. When I speak of the regulation of hours of labour in shops in relation to young persons, I ought to make it abundantly clear that there is no regulation whatsoever of the hours of labour of an adult man or woman in shop life. Strangely, legislation in this country has always safeguarded women and young persons in factories, but has never safeguarded women employés in shops.

I want now to call the attention of the right hon. Gentleman to what is happening abroad. I felt once, although I am not quite so sure now, that this country was as far advanced in industrial and kindred legislation as any other country in the world. I now find, however, that in New South Wales, Tasmania, Victoria, Manitoba, British Columbia, Quebec, New Zealand and Finland. 6 o'clock is the general closing hour. I suppose that, if the Russians had their way, all shops in Finland would he closed at 6 o'clock in the morning.

Sir Robert Tasker

Closed altogether.

Mr. Davies

In Denmark and Sweden it is 7 o'clock in the summer and 6 o'clock in the winter, and in Oslo, Norway's capital, it is 5 o'clock closing in summer and 4 o'clock in the winter. They apparently get more winter than we do here. The Co-operative movement employing 250,000 assistants, always comes well inside the regulations relating to hours issued by the Government and the local authorities. Some co-operative societies are by far the largest retail establishments in some towns, and I have here details of the Newcastle Co-operative Society, a very large establishment, which closes nowadays at 5 o'clock. The argument which is often put forward in the House of Commons, and which we may hear to-night, although I hope not, is, "What will the poor working man do if shops are closed at 6 o'clock?" As a matter of fact, the Co-operative movement is made up in the main of working-class folk who do their shopping without grumbling when the shopping hours are made shorter.

In summing up, I would put these points to the right hon. Gentleman. Can he tell us, first of all, whether he has any idea of what are the results following the issue of his circular in October last as to closing at 6 o'clock, and how many authorities have extended the hour to 7 o'clock? Is he, and is his staff satisfied, that the Shops Acts, especially in relation to the 44 and 48-hour week for young persons, are being implemented, and can he say anything as to the operations of that very august body which was set up some time ago—the Joint Committee of Employers and Employed in the Distributive Trades? If he can say that the legislation in relation to shop hours is being properly implemented by his Department and the local authorities, this Debate will have been worth while.

Sir R. Tasker

Would the hon. Member make any exceptions in the case of hairdressers, since you cannot get a hair-cut by deputy?

Mr. Davies

I have never seen the hon. Gentleman requiring a hair-cut. I think it will be found that there is special legislation for hairdressers.

8.50 p.m.

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

The hon. Gentleman the Member for Westhoughton (Mr. Rhys Davies) has made a speech which I thought had two great merits. It was bright and brief. As he was speaking, I could not help thinking that he must have been keeping before him all the time the recollection of his association with the Home Office and a realisation of the high standard that must, therefore, be expected of him. Most of his speech was really concerned, although he travelled wide once or twice, with the Order that was made in October last under the Emergency Powers Act fixing earlier closing hours for shops in Great Britain. He recognised. I was glad to note, that that Order marked a tremendous advance on anything we had attained hitherto in this country in regard to the central regulation of shop hours. In the last war no action was taken until nearly the end of 1916. Then an Order was drafted fixing 7 o'clock on three nights a week, 8 on Friday, and 9 on Saturday. There were so many representations to the House of Commons that the Order was dropped and replaced by an Order which continued during the remainder of the war fixing 8 o'clock on five nights a week and 9 o'clock on Saturday.

When we came to consider at an early stage of the present war whether we could issue a similar Order, we took account of a great many considerations. We had regard to the development of public opinion since the end of the last war and to the report of the Select Committee of this House which reported in 1931. We thought that in all the circumstances we should be justified in setting ourselves a higher standard than it was possible to attain in other circumstances; and I say deliberately "a higher standard," because a reduction of hours where it is practical for any class of worker represents an improvement in standard. We considered carefully the question of 6 o'clock. As contrasted with the normal 8 o'clock, that would have represented a sharp and sudden reduction of hours—and every change of this kind, it must be remembered, affects the habits of the people, and although in the long run the change may be held to be justified, we have to take account of the disturbing effect of a sudden change. There are, after all, in this matter interests to be considered other than the interests—important though they are—of the shop assistants. We set a standard in the Order of 6 o'clock, but we thought it right to give the local authorities a discretion. The hon. Gentleman made certain criticisms about that. We thought it right that, having regard to the circumstances of their own localities, they should be able to vary the Order to not later than 7 o'clock on five days a week and not later than 8 o'clock on the late night.

In deciding to do this, we had in mind that, from the beginning, the regulation of shop hours has been recognised by the House of Commons and, I think, by the country as a matter appropriate for decision by local authorities. A long time ago the law gave local authorities power to issue what were called early closing orders, and in normal times they were given the right to appoint as a general hour of closing an hour not earlier than 7. It is a fact—perhaps an unfortunate fact and, it may be, a significant fact—that, broadly speaking, little use has been made of that power. The Select Committee which reported in 1931 was most sympathetic with the point of view of the shop assistants, but it did not on that point of general hours of closing feel able to go further than to say that it would be well if local authorities could he given discretion to fix an earlier hour. That was not a very strong or emphatic recommendation. We felt that we were going one better than the Select Committee, because, while we were giving a discretion in our Order to the local authorities to fix an hour which might be later than 6, we had set in the Order 6 as the standard for five days of the week and 7.30 for the late night.

Now the hon. Gentleman asks me what has been the result generally of the exercise of the discretion given to local authorities under that Order. I cannot give him precise statistics, but I can give him the broad position. It is that in populous areas in England—I am not sure about Wales—the local authorities have in general exercised their discretion to fix 7 in place of 6 and 8 in place of 7.30. A few authorities—not many—have fixed an intermediate hour of 6.30. In a number of rural areas and smaller urban areas the hours fixed by the Order have been maintained. In Scotland generally—it may be that Scotland is more enlightened in this matter—the hours of 6 and 7.30 fixed by the Order have been maintained. It is important to bear in mind the purpose of the Order, because, however worthy the object of revising the hours of shop assistants may be, it is not an object we can set out to attain directly by action under the Emergency Powers (Defence) Act. The object of action under that Act, as was made clear in the House at the time, was to save fuel and to enable shop assistants to get home earlier during the black-out.

The Order was subjected to a certain amount of criticism. The hon. Gentleman said we ought not to pay too much regard to what one hears about the difficulties of the small shopkeeper or of the man or woman who has to work during the day and needs time after work to do the shopping. I agree that we ought not to pay too much attention to these considerations, for it is a fact that, whenever there has been a lowering of the hours of closing of shops, there have been violent protests which have fairly quickly died down, and people have adjusted themselves to the change. We ought not, however, to ignore that consideration entirely, especially in war-time. Many of us may be tempted sometimes to find in the war an opportunity of furthering some good cause in which we are interested. That is a temptation which we really ought to resist, because many changes in our social and economic arrangements, although they may be good in themselves, may for the time being inflict inconvenience and even hardship on other people. I do not think we should ever get the fundamental unity that we want to maintain during the war if we gave ground for anyone to suppose that the war was being used as a pretext for doing something which had no relation whatever to the purposes of the Emergency Powers Act and the effective prosecution of the war.

Therefore, I say frankly that when representations were made to the Home Office to the effect that this Order was pressing hardly in certain directions; that in certain instances the small shopkeeper was suffering; that there were parts of the country in which war-time employment was good where men and women were working up to an hour which gave them no opportunity of doing their shopping before the hours of closing fixed by the Order or fixed by the local authority, when it exercised its discretion, I thought we ought to pay some regard to those representations. We had undertaken extensive consultations before the original Order was made. We had consulted with the local authorities and with a great number of associations and trade unions in an endeavour to ascertain what the probable effects of the Order would be. In regard to people whose opinion is not organised—the small shopkeepers, for example, are not well organised, and the shopper as such is not organised at all—we consulted various local authorities, factory inspectors, and probation officers to find out what the effect of the Order would be. None the less, when we got these criticisms we undertook further consultations, and the general result of them was to lead me to the conclusion that there might be a case for allowing a second late night.

When I came to consult the representatives of shop assistants and the trade unions concerned, I found that they were very strongly opposed to that quite modest concession, and I think I can understand perfectly well the grounds of their opposition. To them it represented the introduction of a new principle which might have repercussions and consequences after the war. I quite understand. But there it was. We had those complaints, which I could not dismiss as entirely groundless, because conditions do vary greatly from one part of the country to another, and I found it impossible to hit upon any solution which would command general acceptance. I came in the end to the conclusion that the Order, which I think represented a sensible step, had better stand, and I came to that conclusion the more readily because of something that I am about to say.

I have always had in the back of my mind the feeling that while the Order that we made in October could be justified as an Order under the Defence Act during the winter months, it would be very difficult, if not impossible, to justify it as a Defence Regulation during the summer months. I took opinions on the subject, and the opinions I obtained confirmed me in my original view; and, indeed, I have been advised that it would be ultra vires of the Defence Act to maintain this Order throughout the year. During the summer the considerations of saving light, saving fuel and enabling shop assistants to get home early in the black-out would be no considerations at all. Therefore, it is the intention of the Government that there should be a return to normal hours during the summer, and in all probability we shall fix the date of that return at about Easter time. I prefer not to give the exact date, but it will be about Easter, and by that time we shall have had summer time restored to us for a quite considerable period.

Mr. George Griffiths

What is the date?

Sir J. Anderson

I am not going to say to-night what the date will be, but I shall say to-morrow. That is the position in regard to the Early Closing Order which we made last October under the Defence Regulations. It was really because of the statement I have just made that I felt it was right that I should intervene so early in the Debate. I thought subsequent speakers ought to have in their minds what was the intention of the Government. I made up my mind when the hon. Member sat down that I would do my best, great though the difficulties under which I naturally labour are, to be brief, and I am going to adhere to that intention.

Towards the end of his speech the hon. Member asked me two questions. The first was, How is the Act of 1934 being enforced? That is the Act which limited for the first time the hours of work of young persons in shops to 48 hours a week. I take it that he also wants to know how the subsequent Acts of 1936 and 1938—one dealing with Sunday employment and the other dealing with the hours of young persons under 16, fixing the hours at 44 without any overtime—are being worked. I should like to say straight away that I recognise the force of much that the hon. Member said in regard to the method of the administration of those Acts. I am not going to claim that administration by the Home Office or any other Department is as perfect as he seems to think—he is influenced by his association with the Home Office—but there are advantages in administration by a central authority from the point of view of efficiency and uniformity. On the other hand, in a democracy there are also great advantages, which we must not ignore, in administration by a body of popularly-elected representatives of the people. Although I confess that the administration of the Shops Acts is open to criticism in certain areas—I support what the hon. Member said when he maintained that in other areas the administration is excellent—in my view, where administration by a local authority is not satisfactory, the remedy is not to take the power from that local authority, but to sec to it that the local authority mends its ways, and the power to do that rests with the electors.

The position of the Home Office is that it is the central Department responsible for the administration of these Acts, and in all the reports which have been made, and there have been many, on the subject of the Shops Acts in recent years, I think I am right in saying there has been no departure from the principle that primary administration of those Acts should rest with the local authorities, and that the general supervision should be vested in the Home Office or, in the case of Scotland, in the Scottish Office. The position is that we do watch the administration of those Acts very carefully, and where we get complaints we take special steps to find out how far they are justified and make suitably strong representations to the local authority.

Over and above all that, we do our best to see that local authorities are made aware of the provisions of the Acts which they have to administer, and their responsibilities, and I would take this opportunity to commend to the attention of hon. Members who are interested in this subject what I regard as a most admirable pamphlet, issued by the Home Office as recently as December last, on the Shops Act, 1934, as amended by the Young Persons (Employment) Act, 1938. That memorandum contains a very clear account of the provisions of those Acts, and much useful advice. That is how we are proceeding in this matter.

Finally, the hon. Gentleman asked me how we were getting on with the joint committee, which has been engaged, not with the question of the hours of closing of shops, but with the regulation and limitation of the hours of employment of shop assistants. I think the House knows that that is a matter with which my right hon. Friend the Minister of Labour is very closely concerned. I have been in consultation with him on the subject, and what I am going to say represents his view as well as my own. The position is that very good progress has been made in dealing with this matter by way of consultation between representatives of employers and representatives of workers. From the point of some hon. Members opposite the progress may have been disappointingly slow, but we should make a great mistake if we were to under-estimate the inherent difficulties of this problem. Conditions vary enormously from one part of the country to another and they vary enormously also between one trade and another. This is so even in the distributive trade, between the business which is concerned with perishable goods and that which is concerned with non-perishable goods, between what I may call the West End shop and the suburban shop and between the main-street shop and the back-street shop.

Then there is the question of the interaction of hours of employment and of wages. There is the very difficult question of what we call the spread-over. You may limit the hours of employment of shop assistants, but the hours during which they are employed may be so spaced in the day that an assistant really has not the hours of leisure which he ought to have. It is a matter which it is difficult to regulate by hard-and-fast rules. It is much more easy to do it by way of agreement. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Labour authorises me to say that in his opinion very real progress has been made with these agreements. He says it is a great step forward that for the first time organisations of employers and workers in this great service of retail distribution, which employs over 2,000,000 workers, should have come together and discussed frankly and freely and in a spirit of friendly co-operation the methods of regulating the conditions of employment in those trades. He suggests that it is perhaps not too much to claim that voluntary agreements which have recently been made in certain sections of the trade—the National Agreement between the Multiple Shop Federation and the National Amalgamated Union of Shop Assistants, Warehousemen and Clerks, in connection with the retail boot and shoe trade, is an outstanding example—owe something to the atmosphere created by the meetings of the joint committee. The friendly relations which have been established between the two sides augur well for the future and give rise to the hope that, with patience, the difficulties will be overcome and machinery acceptable to all parties ultimately will be established. It is through this channel of discussion between the two sides of the industry rather than through direct Government regulation that we believe the progress which we all desire to see must be looked for.

9.14 p.m.

Mr. Leslie

I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that shop assistants welcomed his action in regard to the order for the 6 o'clock closing. The only fault we had to find was that local authorities were too quick in deciding for a later hour. I have a list here, and I am glad to say that something like 60 authorities in England adhered to the 6 o'clock order and that in no case did they go beyond that. In other cases, authorities extended it by half an hour and in some cases extended it only one night.

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned what happened during the last war. We know that in the last war people had to stand in queues outside the doors of the provision shops. The result was that they had to be early on the scene. One effect of that was that they quickly accommodated themselves to the changed conditions and that, after the war, in scores of towns in this country, the principal traders continued to close their shops at 6 p.m. or 6.30 p.m. That was one reason why the traders and the shop assistants' union put forward their case before the Select Committee in 1931, urging that an amendment should be made to the existing Shops Act, in order to enable local authorities, on a plebiscite of the shopkeepers themselves, to make it possible for them to close an hour earlier than 7 o'clock. Now the right hon. Gentleman says that he has been subjected to a considerable amount of criticism. He need not worry about that criticism when he knows the quarter from which it comes. The criticism is largely stirred up by a certain newspaper. I have here a cutting from that newspaper, and it says: To-day's revolt meeting. It was to be at Islington. Sir John, the shops need an extra hour. Sir John Anderson, Home Secretary, is going to hear from traders in revolt to-day. They will ask him questions like these: 'Why are we denied the opportunity to do business at the time when there is the most demand for our services? Will you save us from unnecessary losses be at once approving of 8 p.m. closing, with an extension to 9 p.m. on Saturdays?' First shots in the traders' revolt will he fired to-day from Islington, N. It is early closing day in Islington. When the shops are closed the traders will go this afternoon to the Central Library, Holloway Road, Islington. You would imagine that the central library would be insufficient to hold the revolters. Not only the traders in revolt but customers were invited to attend, and to join in this revolt.

I am glad to be able to inform the House that that revolt was a fiasco. When the resolution was submitted to the meeting only 14 voted for it and most of the speeches at the meeting were against any extension of hours. All that they were concerned about was getting more light. One of the things they mentioned was about certain people working overtime so that they could not do their shopping. I cannot have very much sympathy for people who are working overtime when 1,300,000 workers are unemployed. This is not a time for overtime. I am very sorry that the right hon. Gentleman has told us that he cannot continue the Order throughout the year. If that is so, surely there is a case for limitation of the hours of the assistants. The other day this House expressed its sympathy, as does the whole country, for Finland in her fight to maintain her freedom and independence. It might interest the House to know that Finland set an example to this country by limiting the hours of shop assistants to 47 per week. In this country, even at the present time, assistants over 18 years of age are working 60, 70 and 80 hours a week, and there is no legal ogligation on the employers in the slightest degree. Last February, and that is a year ago next month, I introduced a Bill proposing that adult assistants should come under the 48-hour week. The Government opposed that—

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Colonel Clifton Brown)

I must remind the hon. Member that he is, I understand, dealing with proposals which involve legislation. That, of course, is out of order on the Adjournment. I wanted to give him that reminder before he proceeds too far.

Mr. Leslie

I wanted to refer to what was said on that occasion. The Government said that a joint committee had been set up, representing the employers on the one hand and the workers on the other, and that a report had been received from that committee two days before the Bill was introduced. The Government on that occasion promised sympathetic consideration. That was in February last year and so far the Government have not carried out that promise. The right hon. Gentleman said that he had been in consultation with the Minister of Labour and that the Minister of Labour believed that real progress had been made. It is four years since that committee started the job and a year ago the Government promised that something would be done. Nothing has been done yet, so I cannot agree that very substantial progress has been made in dealing with the findings of that Committee. In September and October traders' associations all over the country met to consider closing hours. An agreement was reached by the principal traders to close at 6 o'clock. It is inconceivable that traders would have reached an agreement of that kind if it meant losing custom. It indicated clearly that the public were not shopping after the suggested closing time.

Then in October the Secretary of State for the Home Department issued an Order fixing 6 o'clock and 7.30 on the late night, and power was given to the local authorities to extend it if they considered it necessary. Unfortunately, many of the local authorities extended the hour without consulting the traders and the workers' representatives. It is good to know that in most districts many of the traders have not taken advantage of the extension of the hours permitted by the local authority, but there is always the danger that some may keep open later when they see their competitors keeping open late. The Shop Assistants' Union collected evidence as to the trade done after 6 o'clock. The evidence showed trifling amounts, ranging from 4d. to 4s., and the result of that was that multiple firms in general decided that it was not a paying proposition to keep open that extra hour.

Who are these small traders who have been clamouring for the extra hours? Many of those small traders have little knowledge of shop life. They use it as a side line to augment their earnings from other occupations, and when one hears of these parlour shops it simply means that the wife keeps the shop during the day while the husband is engaged in some other occupation and he comes home at night, reads his paper, has a smoke and serves an occasional customer. Should these people be allowed to say that shops in general shall keep open later? The genuine small trader, the man who has really served his time to the trade, welcomes early closing so that he can enjoy much desired leisure, and I think the very fact that the traders did not attend that so-called protest at Islington is proof that they realise the advantage of their weekly half holiday which they can spend in more congenial surroundings. There is certainly no desire on the part of the shopping public to shop in the dark. We know perfectly well that people do not want to go in the dark because of the risk of casualties which are brought to our notice daily in the Press and almost nightly on the wireless.

We must also take into consideration the fact that delivery services have been reduced by vehicles being commandeered by the Government and by local authorities. Therefore, in a great many cases the customers have to carry their own purchases. Surely the welfare of the shop assistants ought to receive some consideration. Bear this in mind, that there are more shop assistants than small traders in this country and 1,500,000 should receive some consideration. There was a time when shop assistants in this country were Uitlanders, but all those over 21 years of age now have the franchise, and I hope that at the next election will know how to use it. As the war proceeds we know perfectly well that young men in the distributive trades will be called to join the Colours. What happened in the last war? The union which I represent probably suffered more than any union in this country. Young men were swept into the armed Forces of the Crown and we had to close over 100 of our branches. What did that mean? It meant that women had to be employed in larger numbers. Many of these women had to travel long distances after the shop had closed at night. There is also to be borne in mind that when the shops close the worker has not finished. There is tidying up to be done, weighing and packing goods and preparing orders for the next day. Therefore, I want to appeal to the Government to do two things. The first is to advise local authorities to consult the traders and the unions representing the workers before deciding on the hours of closing. The other point is that the Government should take steps to limit the working hours of the assistants.

9.27 p.m.

Mr. Doland

When the Member for Westhoughton (Mr. Rhys Davies) began his oration he told the House that he had practical knowledge of his subject because he himself had been an assistant in a shop, and he added, quite rightly, that he thought he looked none the worse for the job. Perhaps it would not be out of place if I said that I can say the same thing and I began my life as a shop assistant. I would add that I am none the worse for it. Perhaps I have had a little more experience than the hon. Member for Westhoughton, taking it on the whole. because I have not only worked for something like 14 and 15 hours a day as a shop assistant, but I have worked the same number of hours as a shopkeeper, and for the whole of my life I have either been a shop assistant or a shopkeeper.

This evening, even at this late hour, I felt it my duty to speak on behalf of the shopkeeper. Hon. Members on the other side, particularly the hon. Member for Westhoughton, quite rightly have the interests primarily of the shop assistants. He is undoubtedly a champion of the rights and privileges of the shop assistant. If I may say so without offence, he has made out, in my opinion, a very excellent case for those who serve and those who wait in the shops—because to-day they are waiting rather than serving. I can assure my hon. Friend, if such assurance is necessary, that if the proprietors of businesses were in a position to shorten the hours of the shop assistants and make a living at the same time, nothing would please them more than to do so. They are in a very parlous condition.

Since, and even months before, September, 1939, the retail traders—and I speak to-night particularly for this great Metropolis and Outer London—have been in a terrible position. Thousands, even in this area of Greater London, have not only lost every penny of their capital, but are hardly earning a living. Those traders who are still in business are hanging on, in many cases, by the skin of their teeth, hoping either that, by some relief for which they are asking their landlords in regard to rents and the municipalities in regard to rates, they will be able to carry on. The position of thousands of small traders to-day is so acute that they are actually earning less than what a first-class assistant would be able to earn in peace time.

When the Order-in-Council to which reference has been made was issued, on 3oth October last, the right hon. Member for South Hackney (Mr. H. Morrison), as leader of the London County Council, immediately saw the hardships of the smaller and medium-sized shop-owners, and the small consumer—and all credit to him for doing so. He had the broad vision to look at this problem from all angles, and not from the one angle of the shop assistants. He then, as the hon. Member for Westhoughton recalled, varied the Order, as he had a right to do. In doing so, he said, at a meeting of the London County Council, of which I have the honour to be a member: We have to consider and balance three factors:

  1. (1) the understandable desire of shop assistants and some traders for still earlier closing;
  2. (2) the livelihood of the small traders who are already experiencing a difficult time; and
  3. (3) the convenience of the shopping public. Large numbers of single girls live long distances from their places of employment, and we have had to consider husbands whose wives have had to be evacuated.
All these factors have been fully weighed and taken into account. We have come to the conclusion that in the general public interest the extended restricted hours should be permitted. He added that it was perhaps unfortunate that the law does not permit the hours of shop assistants to be limited as distinct from the shop hours. In my opinion, the right hon. Member for South Hackney, as the leader of the London County Council, looked at this matter from all angles and did the right thing. Since the Order-in-Council was made on 30th October many organisations affiliated to the National Chamber of Trade—a very influential body of traders—consider that the present arrangements are working very well indeed. There is, however, in my opinion and in theirs, a grievance, emanating more, I think, from the North of England than from the Metropolis, where undoubtedly local authorities have changed the late day of closing, as they have in London, from Saturday to Friday. This arrangement suits the convenience of the traders in the outer or the suburban areas of the large towns, but it has a very adverse effect on the centre of cities and all these central areas. This arrangement has caused—and perhaps the hen. Member for Westhoughton knows of this demand—a demand for two late nights up to 8 p.m. On the other hand, some local authorities, as he has already remarked, have declined to give a four days' extension to 7 p.m., and again this gives cause for complaint. It is true to say that very small traders continue to press for the pre-war hours, and in passing I should like to say how pleased I am to-night that the hon. Member for Westhoughton has introduced this Debate, because it has elicited from the Minister Very valuable information which will very likely save the lives of many shopkeepers during the coming spring and summer months. In view of the number of traders in the category I have mentioned who have exemption under the Act of 1928, I am of opinion that under the existing conditions no general demand is being made to revert to pre-war hours, but I am very glad to have heard that the Minister is to take that fact into consideration when this black-out ceases to a certain extent during the spring and summer months.

There is, however, one more point in the opinion of retailers generally throughout the country upon which information from the responsible Minister—and the Minister to whom I refer is the Home Secretary—is urgently needed to ascertain how long the Order made on 30th October is to operate. I listened very carefully to the Minister when he was speaking, but I did not hear him tell us how long that Order would operate. It is to be hoped that the Order shall not be regarded as permanently amending the Act of 1928, but that the hours of closing shall revert to the normal hours under the Act not later than he has already suggested might take place, namely, the reintroduction of Summer-time this year. I think I remember him saying that he was not quite sure as to the exact date, but I suggest that the appropriate date would be the date of the re-introduction of Summer-time this year. These normal hours should continue at least up to the same date as when the Order came into force, namely, 30th October.

I reiterate that I am very glad indeed that the hon. Member for Westhoughton has introduced this matter. I feel sure, knowing him as I do, that he likes to look on both sides of this question, but he must, under present conditions, during war-time and the black-out, remember that there are thousands of shopkeepers who are worse off than the very men that he wishes to help. Moreover, if the suggestions were carried out as he wishes, I think it would do more harm to his own people than it would to any of the shopkeepers. I hope the Minister will let us know as soon as possible the date on which he proposes to give us this relief and also how long the Order is to operate.

9.41 p.m.

Mr. Jagger

I am sorry that the right hon. Gentleman has left us, because I wanted to echo what has been said by previous speakers and to say that we were grateful when the Order for the 6 o'clock closing was made. It has been long over-due. But we were not so grateful when there was placed into the hands of local authorities the power to extend any hours of service. If there is one thing, however, on which I can congratulate the right hon. Gentleman, it is his complacency and especially the way in which he tells us that during the last war hours were not limited. This is forgetting entirely that there was no blackout during the last war. Then he tells us that the Select Committee which reported in 1931 did not make a very strong recommendation in favour of local authorities having power to limit hours beyond what the law itself limited them. But nine years have passed, and the British public, shopkeepers, and assistants have been educated far beyond the position in which they were in 1931. This step, with its possibility of a 7 o'clock closing, is a backward step, because we have established overwhelmingly throughout the country a general closing hour of 6 o'clock, with one late night per week, and here it is being put within the power of local authorities, whose members are mainly of the shopkeeping classes, to lay down that 7 o'clock is to be the hour.

The happiest feature about it is that, having educated the British public, shopkeepers, and assistants to the possibility and advantage of earlier closing, they are not going back because even the London County Council has extended the hour to 7. I must confess that any desire that I have had to feel grateful to the Home Secretary disappeared entirely when he informed us that even this Order is to come to an end at Easter or thereabouts. I never remember a Debate on an Adjournment, arranged with the idea of trying to persuade a Minister to improve a position, in which the position was definitely made worse than anybody anticipated it was going to be. The Minister is quite sure that though local inspection is not as good as Home Office inspection, it is fairly satisfactory. The hon. Member for Westhoughton (Mr. Rhys Davies) has said that he knows some towns and cities where inspection is fairly well carried out. He has knowledge that I have not, but I have experience that he has not, and I do not know a single place in the whole of Great Britain where any real attempt is made to carry out the provisions of the Shops Acts. There is not a single municipality which has a staff that could do the necessary inspection. It is high time that legislation was introduced which would remove from local authorities, dominated as they are by the shopkeeping class, the power of inspection under the various Shops Acts.

We come to the last Act—the 44-hours Act. The right hon. Gentleman very complacently says that he thinks it is going on all right. Let me put it straight to him: Has there been a single prosecution for an infringement since the Act was passed? If it needs the staff that it does to keep industrial employers observing Acts of Parliament, surely, if there was decent inspection under the Shops Acts, there would have been at least one solitary prosecution under the new Act before now. If there has been one, I have never heard of it, and the Press has been discreetly silent about it. Whenever new legislation can be entered upon I hope that what is, after all, the biggest blot on shops legislation, namely, that there is no enforcement, will be removed and that enforcement will be placed in the hands of the central authority. I am quite unable to see the logic of the argument that when an Act of Parliament is passed, or when an Order under an Act of Parliament is issued, the responsibility should be put on other bodies, as has been done in the case of this Order under the Defence of the Realm Act for the earlier closing during the black-out hours. It is an entirely unfair responsibility to put upon local authorities. They are given no instruction as to how they are to get the opinions of the people concerned, the shopkeepers, the shop assistants, or the consumers. They never do get the opinion of the consumers, in many cases they never get the opinion of the shopkeepers, and in even more cases they never get the opinion of the shop assistants. That Order should have been a universal Order applicable throughout the country.

If it is said that there are places where there is a necessity, I would cite Woolwich with its arsenal works as a likely place: yet the Woolwich Arsenal Co-operative Society finds no difficulty whatever in catering for the enormous working-class population there with the 6 o'clock. It has already been pointed out that there is no limitation of the hours which adult shop assistants may work. Shops in the provinces open generally at 8 o'clock, and a little later in London. Even with the 6 o'clock you have a 10-hour clay four days a week, including meal time, a five-hour day on the half-holiday and an 11-hour day on the sixth day. Add together these hours, and deduct from five of the days the hour and a half for meals, and you get some idea of what are the normal working hours of shop assistants. Add to that the enormous amount of unpaid overtime which, in the nature of the shop assistant's occupation, must be worked by him, and you get some, idea of why we are always insisting that there should be some limitation of the number of hours that shop assistants work.

We have had from the last speaker a very pitiful and, I think, exaggerated picture of the plight of the retail shopkeeper, but I wish somebody would give a little thought to the position in which the shop assistant is being placed during the time through which we are now passing. The whole scheme of rationing, the carrying-out of which is placed upon the shop assistants, has been carried through without the shop assistants being consulted. To the shop assistant it represents additional work. Rationing alone will add hours and hours to the unpaid overtime of practically every shop assistant in this country who is not powerfully enough organised in his trade union to be able to get payment for overtime.

There is also the difficulty to which the hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Leslie) referred of the speed at which the young men in the distributive trade are being called into the Army, and the way in which they are being replaced by females of exceedingly tender years. One gets from that some idea of the additional responsibility that is placed on the shoulders of the older shop assistants who remain. There is the further difficulty of these females of tender years having to go long distances when shops are closed during the black-out period. I do not agree with the interpretation which the right hon. Gentleman put upon his powers with regard to the continuing of this Act. I am not a lawyer, but I have seen nothing in the Defence of the Realm Act which empowers a Minister to do something for four months in the year and says that he cannot do it for the other eight months. I hope that before the right hon. Gentleman comes finally to the conclusion that he has no power to continue this Order, unsatisfactory as it is, throughout the whole year, he will at least take advantage of the legal advice of the Law Officers of the Crown.