HC Deb 24 January 1940 vol 356 cc722-7

10.10 p.m.

Mr. A. V. Alexander

I have no desire to prevent the hon. Member for Wallsend (Miss Ward) from showing that she does not belong to the majority who can be described as "Yes-men" supporters of the Government, but I must say that I hope she will take, perhaps, a better opportunity, when next week the Opposition raises a general Debate on the proper co-ordination of war effort, of showing that her constituency is adequately represented. What I am anxious about is that a Debate which has been raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Westhoughton (Mr. Rhys Davies) should not be allowed to "peter out" without an adequate answer to the powerful case which has been submitted by my hon. Friends the Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Leslie) and the Member for the Clayton Division of Manchester (Mr. Jagger). They represent two quite distinct trade unions for distributive workers, covering between them the great majority of the organised retail distributive workers, and in that capacity have to speak also for the still larger number of distributive workers who, in a trade which is comparatively badly organised, in the mass need a good deal to be said and done for them if they are to get justice in regard to their working conditions and proper opportunities for social enjoyment.

There is an important issue to be faced to-night by reason of the statement made by the Home Secretary. An Order which was made last October limited the hours during which shops can remain open, especially during war-time. I want to know what is the answer of the Home Office to the pertinent cases which have been put to my hon. Friends as to the effective working of that Order by very large and important bodies of workers in those organisations which already give trade-union conditions. It is useless to put forward the kind of scattered arguments that we have heard to-night about the position of retail traders when we find that organisations employing tens of thousands of distributive workers, and catering for all domestic needs have yet been able, without hardship, to provide supplies for their members and customers while not merely observing what is the Order of the Home Secretary but giving what ought to be the general decent conditions in the trade. In all the great industrial centres where there is strong working-class opinion we have found over and over again that people are always willing to adjust their lives, as far as they can, to the introduction of social reforms which benefit other classes of workers. Such reforms have been very long delayed. They have called for 50 years of agitation on the part of shop assistants.

According to the reports that I have about the announcement made to-night by the Home Secretary, I feel strongly that a retrograde step is being taken. I cordially agree with the hon. Member for the Clayton Division that what is needed is not a reactionary step such as the Home Secretary has announced but an actual improvement in the machinery directly controlled by the Home Office for seeing that the effective hours are observed under the Statute, as regards both the general conditions of shop assistants and the hours for juveniles and young persons. I am appalled that, in the present circumstances, we should have had such an announcement. I may say to my hon. Friends who have spoken for the distributive trade unions that we could hardly have expected very much better, having regard to the position in which the Government have allowed the so-called negotiations on the general conditions of the shop assistants to fall, after three and a half years of conferences. We cannot hold the present Home Secretary responsible for that, because he has not been connected with them for so long.

Hundreds of thousands of shop assistants will, to-morrow morning, learn with concern that even the very small improvements in their conditions which have accrued as a result of these Orders are to be taken arbitrarily away in the course of the next few weeks, in a statement in which, as reported to me, the Home Secretary said that he had no power to intervene. That is the most amazing statement of all. Last September we sat here, in order to assist in whatever was proper measures to secure the prosecution of the war to a successful issue. Day after day we passed, not one or two Acts, but tens of Acts, in order to secure the objective of the Government. Here we are now, with an actual Order operating under the emergency powers then taken. There is not the slightest reason why the Home Secretary should not continue this Order. He should, in my view, limit the leniency of operation of the present powers of local authorities which impinge on the proper conditions which ought to be maintained, not only for shop assistants generally, but especially for the army of women assistants who have now to be trained to take the place of men during the war. I should very much regret it if this section of the Debate on the Adjournment should close without some reply from the Government Front Bench on the facts which have been submitted by my hon. Friends.

10.18 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Peake)

I hope the House will acquit me of any discourtesy in not having risen at an earlier stage to reply on the Debate, but it would have been very unusual to have two speeches from the Government Front Bench on a Motion for the Adjournment within the space of the short time of two hours. The right hon. Gentleman who has just spoken would not, I am sure, charge me with any discourtesy, seeing that he himself was not in the House when the Home Secretary made his very full statement earlier on. Hon. Gentle- men opposite were well satisfied with that statement; the hon. Member for Westhoughton (Mr. Rhys Davies), who initiated the Debate, has, in fact, gone home. [HON. MEMBERS: No."] It is clear that the hon. Gentleman who initiated the Debate is evidently well satisfied with the very ample statement made by my right hon. Friend.

Mr. Alexander

I hope the Under-Secretary of State is not going to set up aunt sallies in order to knock them down again. We have not charged him with discourtesy, and my hon. Friends the Members for Sedgefield (Mr. Leslie) and Clayton (Mr. Jagger) are still here to listen to the Under-Secretary's answer.

Mr. Peake

In that case it is not reasonable for the right hon. Gentleman to expect me to repeat for his benefit the whole statement—the very ample statement—made earlier by the Home Secretary from this Box. I will, however, deal with the new points which have been made. The hon. Gentleman the Member for Clayton (Mr. Jagger) specifically asked whether any prosecutions had taken place under the Employment of Young Persons Act, 1938, in regard to the 44-hour week for young persons under 16. My information on that point is that we have not as yet been informed of any prosecution under that Act.

Mr. Jagger

It shows you what the inspector is like.

Mr. Peake

The hon. Gentleman will, however, be aware that under Sub-section (1) of Section 11 of that Act the 44-hour week came into operation only on 1st January, 1940, and therefore only three weeks have elapsed since that part of the enactment has been in force.

Mr. Jagger

My question was general.

Mr. Peake

The question was, in fact, specific, and my answer is that as the 44 hour week has been in operation only three weeks it is as yet too early, I think, for any prosecutions to have taken place.

Mr. Jagger

Can you enlighten me as to whether you prosecuted under the 1938 Act?

Mr. Peake

I will certainly obtain whatever information is available on that point. As regards the main point which has been repeated by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Hillsborough (Mr. Alexander), his principal complaint was that the Home Secretary had announced that at some date before Easter he was going to revoke the Defence of the Realm Regulation No. 60A which came into operation on the 30th October, and the closing hours for shops would revert to those in operation before the Defence Regulation was made. The reason given for that by my right hon. Friend was that the Defence Regulation was made under the Emergency Powers Act which was passed on the outbreak of war and every Regulation and Order made under that Act had to be made with the more effective prosecution of the war as its object. My right hon. Friend told the House that he had been advised —and for the information of the hon. Member for Clayton, I may say that he has been advised by the Law Officers of the Crown on this point—that if he were to continue the operation of this early closing Order for shops after the time when it is made necessary by the blackout, then that Defence Regulation might well be open to challenge in the Courts.

I think it is perfectly clear that the whole reason for this early closing Order, Defence Regulation No. 60A was the introduction of the black-out on the outbreak of war. In fact, the original demand for this Regulation came from the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Hillsborough himself, for it was he who on the 7th September last year put a Question to the Home Secretary in these terms: He asked the Minister for Home Security whether he will take into immediate consideration the issue of an order with regard to the hours of shop closing, so as to ensure unanimity of practice in relation to blackout precautions and to provide the maximum of safety for employés and customers?"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 7th September, 1939; col. 577, Vol. 351] It was quite clear that it was in the right hon. Gentleman's mind, as it has been in the minds of other hon. Members who have spoken this evening, that the black-out was the origin of the early closing Order for shops which is in operation at present. My right hon. Friend is perfectly certain that it would be open to challenge in the courts if he were to continue the operation of this Order. Therefore, on that and other grounds, he has come to the conclusion that the right course to take is to revoke the Order when the hours of daylight permit shop assistants to get to their homes during daylight.

The other principal point raised was as to the regulation of the hours of shop assistants. I think it is clear that that is a subject which is near to the hearts of a great many hon. Members, but it is not a subject which can be properly discussed on the Adjournment, for it would necessitate new legislation. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Hillsborough spoke of the necessity of providing decent conditions for trade union workers. The Government are ready at all times to assist in that object, but they cannot make use of a Regulation passed in connection with the more effective prosecution of the war for bringing about new social reforms.