HC Deb 30 November 1943 vol 395 cc323-32

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

Mr. Daggar (Abertillery)

The matter I desire to raise is as insignificant and is also as important as the Board of Trade has made it. I consider that the need for discussing this question ought never to have arisen. It is simply the result of refusing to allow workers to purchase cigarettes and tobacco at the two pithead baths of collieries in my division. In addition the refusal has also been made for similar facilities at other pits in other parts of the country. The two pits affected in my area are the Llanhilleth Colliery and the Navigation and Aberbeeg South Colliery. We complain that while men in other parts of the country have these facilities, for some reason or other they have been refused for the men on whose behalf I speak to-day. It also affects workers employed in factories not-withstanding the fact that these facilities are granted to factory workers in certain parts of the country. What is more strange in the refusal, for which the Board of Trade is responsible, is that the geographical position of these collieries is unknown to the Board of Trade and to the officials who are responsible for the refusal.

The President of the Board of Trade (Mr. Dalton)

I know where they all are.

Mr. Daggar

I submit that the people responsible for refusing are not as familiar with these particular areas as I am myself and the men employed at the two collieries. These decisions were reached after the submission of three questions to the people who applied for the licence and some very brief consideration by the Board of Trade. The people on making the application are asked the precise hours worked by the miners at the collieries and also whether there are local shops open when the miners come home from their shifts of work. Those questions have been answered, and with regard to these two collieries the information supplied to the Board of Trade is that the morning shift is from 6 a.m. to 1.45 p.m., the afternoon shift, 2 p.m. to 9.45 p.m., and the night shift, 10 p.m. until 5.45 the next morning. It must be obvious to anyone who knows the conditions that for the two shifts during which our people are employed no shops are open and that the purchase of tobacco and cigarettes is not possible in the case of those men who are engaged on two shifts out of three. From all quarters of the House and in all parts of the country mine-workers are being pressed to produce more coal. Yet they are being denied the opportunity of procuring tobacco and cigarettes at pithead baths and canteens. In addition, they are conscripted, coerced, imprisoned and are subjected to very heavy fines. Now by the refusal of the Board of Trade to grant licences they are compelled to purchase cigarettes and tobacco at shops prescribed by the President of the Board of Trade which, in my submission, is another example of unnecessary interference with the liberty of the subject. Such childish and irritable methods are not worthy of a Government which has been appointed to prosecute a total war.

The Minister has informed these people, and he was kind enough to inform me, that he could not grant the necessary licences promiscuously all over the country, or he would find himself in difficulty. I would like to ask what difference there is between buying these articles at one shop and at another or between buying them at a pithead canteen and at a shop? There is no difference at all, unless it is thought that it would improve the war effort. Mention has been made about allowing tobacco to be bought all over the country. That is a statement that is not worthy of consideration because pits are not all over the country. Nor has every pit a bath—which is a discredit to the country—nor has every pit a canteen. These facts are known to most members of the Government, if not to the President of the Board of Trade. It is easy for those of us who can, at any time, slip into a shop or into the refreshment room of this House and buy these articles, to make a pastime of such unnecessary restrictions. I find it difficult, if not dishonourable, to assist in the maintenance of a Government, some of whose members have become specialists in the creation of unnecessary inconveniences and whose motto appears to be, "Do something helpful and useful if you can, but do something. If we cannot have progress, let us have movement." The Minister told us, in reply to a Question I put to him, that he had had considerable conversation and correspondence on this matter with me. I appreciate the use of the qualifying adjective, "considerable." It may mean anything or nothing, but in this case it means one letter and one talk in the course of a walk in the corridor.

Mr. Dalton

I have two letters in my hand now.

Mr. Daggar

The Minister said in a letter: If we multiplied retail outlets considerably we should reduce retailers' stocks below the safety level and reach again the scarcity conditions which existed in 1941. There is not one Member of this House who would be impressed by such a state- ment. Is there a Member of the House who believes that buying these articles at pit-head baths instead of at a shop would deplete the stocks of tobacco at a quicker rate? Sales would not be increased, owing to excessive taxation. There is no encouragement to consume a larger quantity when cigarettes are 2s. 4d. for 20 and tobacco varies from 2s. to 3s. an ounce. To argue that purchasing tobacco at pit-head baths would increase consumption is very stupid. The right hon. Gentleman said he would grant the necessary licences if there were no facilities for storing tobacco in lockers at the colliery. No considerable conversation will convince him that there are hundreds of occasions when, because of the varied working hours, miners cannot buy cigarettes and tobacco from the shops. He is still convinced that the men can buy them at any hour on their way to work and store them in their lockers until they return. If additional men were required to sell tobacco at the pithead baths one could appreciate his attitude, but that would not be the case if licences were granted. After raising this matter in the House I received this letter from a managing director, not in Wales but in England. I am glad to see that you are taking the matter up re cigarettes. We have put down a fine canteen for our men and have turned it over to the works committee. The profits go to the men and to the Welfare Fund. The snag, however, is the fact that the men are not allowed to sell cigarettes in the canteen. The Board of Trade say our own men cannot sell cigarettes, because there are shops in the village. What a damned tale I The shops near the works are not open when our men come to work and they are closed after many of our men finish work on Sunday and Thursday. The shops are not open. We were refused last year because we did not sell them before the war. I append below the signature of the Union Secretary, who confirms my statement. Our men are told they are doing their stuff and playing a big part in the war, but the Board of Trade will not value them at the price of a cigarette. I hope the matter is now clear, not only about facilities but about stocks of tobacco and storage. Finally, I contend that the right hon. Gentleman's attitude is most unreasonable. It constitues an unnecessary interference with the rights of mineworkers to purchase cigarettes and tobacco where they like. It can only be explained by a lack of common sense and understanding, and it causes much annoyance and irritation among people who deserve considerate treatment. The Board of Trade case is based upon the fallacy that greater facilities to consume tobacco increase consumption. No additional labour is required, and I ask the right hon. Gentleman to reconsider his decision and grant the licences for which he is asked.

Mr. Tom Brown (Ince)

I want to support the plea put forward by the hon. Member for Abertillery (Mr. Daggar). I have had complaints from various parts of Lancashire, and I speak with particular knowledge of the colleries in that county. I want to remind the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade that since the war began canteens have arisen and a large number of new shifts have come into being because of the mechanisation introduced into the mines. At the Ashton Moss colliery they have seven different shifts starting at different times during the 24 hours, and the only shift that can purchase tobacco and cigarettes is the shift that goes on at 10.30 in the morning. All the other people are cut out. They have shifts going on at 6, 7, 8, 11, 1 and 3 o'clock, and then there is the night shift. It is put forward by the right hon. Gentleman that there are over 400,000 selling points in this country for tobacco and cigarettes and that it would increase the demand if he were to grant licences to these canteens. If he were to examine the situation he would find that there is no truth in that statement. Another point put forward by the right hon. Gentleman is that if he conceded these licences they would require increased manpower. That is not the case, because attendants are at the canteens all the 24 hours and they would be in a position to meet the requirements of the men when they come out of the pit.

It has been suggested, and I am sorry the suggestion has come from the Department, that the men ought to procure their tobacco and cigarettes before descending the shaft and store them in their lockers. It is obvious to us as practical men that if they stored their tobacco and cigarettes in a heat contained locker they would not be worth smoking. The President of the Board of Trade ought to have regard to the practical mind which has been applied to this problem. The Chisnall Hall Colliery is situated a tremendous distance in the roadway. When the men come out of the pit they cannot get tobacco at the canteen and they cannot get it at the bus station. They have to go either into Standish or Wigan and have to leave the bus in order to do so. In these days we ought not to expect men who have been underground seven, eight, nine or ten hours to submit themselves to such inconveniences. Let us compare the position at the pit with that of munition workers. The latter can get tobacco and cigarettes at any time of the day, but men who work in the pit are compelled by the very nature of their vocation to abstain from cigarette smoking. Men who are working in deep hot mines chew tobacco and it is a godsend to them. I make no bones about saying that some of our men would sooner go without their food in the pit than go without their tobacco. That may appear strange to some people, but it is true and I speak from practical experience. May I add my plea to the President of the Board of Trade, having regard to the changed conditions now prevailing in the minefields and the changed conditions in relation to the shifts at so many different hours of the day, to relax the penalty that he has put and to concede the application for retail licences to these men who so badly need tobacco and cigarettes?

The President of the Board of Trade (Mr. Dalton)

My hon. Friend the Member for Ince (Mr. T. Brown) has made a much better case than my hon. Friend who opened the Debate, and if I were merely subject to persuasion on the basis of a polite presentation of a case, I should be much more inclined to make a concession to my hon. Friend the Member for Ince. So far as the main merits of the subject are concerned, I should like to remind the House that the control which my hon. Friend the Member for Abertillery (Mr. Daggar) finds so stupid and spiteful and silly is based upon a recommendation unanimously made by the Retail Trade Committee with regard to the licensing of retail businesses of all kinds, including tobacconists. That Committee included representatives of all sections, including three trade unionists and one co-operative representative, and I have accepted their recommendation and am carrying it out with every endeavour to make things apply fairly to all sections.

The number of retail outlets for tobacco is now over 400,000, and I warn the House that, although we have got along very well with tobacco supplies, we have not a great surplus at the present time. There is very little criticism of the Tobacco Control, one of the Controls operating under the Board of Trade. We have succeeded so far, through the great skill of the Controller and those with him, in keeping a sufficient supply of cigarettes to meet the essential requirements of all sections of the population, but the supplies are only just equal to the demand and the level of stocks has fallen very low—I watch this carefully—in relation to what is normal and what is necessary. I must watch very carefully in the interests of the mineworkers equally with all other sections to see that we do not create a situation in which the difficult position of 1941–42 will repeat itself, when, in fact, there were long queues of both men and women lining up for cigarettes all over the country. It is part of my duty to prevent that happening again, and if we multiply the retail outlets for cigarettes, whether at canteens or elsewhere, very much over the present number, you will get such a wide distribution of the relatively small supplies that you will find that all retailers will run short. If I were to grant licences right, left and centre we should soon find that the supplies were running short in the canteens and the men would find they had been hoaxed, that a licence had been granted but the supplies were not forthcoming, neither there nor elsewhere.

Mr. Daggar

They are prepared to run that risk.

Mr. Dalton

I am responsible, and I am not prepared to run the risk of mineworkers being hoaxed. I prefer to speak frankly and bluntly, having mineworkers in my own division. [Interruption.] If the hon. Member for Abertillery interrupts, he will get less of an answer than if he keeps quiet. I have granted 31 per cent. of the applications made for licences for colliery canteens and am glad to have been able to do it. I have granted only 15 per cent. of the applications made from other classes of workers' canteens, where the need is admittedly less great and where other shopping facilities are more available than in the case of the miners. I will always grant, whenever I can find a good ground to do so, any application for a licence for a canteen, but I repeat, and I say this absolutely flat, that I am not going to grant these licences without proper consideration, because to do so would be to humbug the miners, who would very soon find that, although licences had been granted to canteens, there were no cigarettes. I cannot discriminate between one application and another. I have been glad to look at the two cases which my hon. Friend the Member for Abertillery has put up, but in both those cases there are pithead baths—there are lockers also—and, therefore, I do not think there is so good a case as there might be in circumstances where those facilities did not exist. I say quite frankly I will grant all the licences when I can find a specially good local reason for granting them, provided that the total number granted is not so great as to endanger the proper distribution of the total supply, which my hon. Friend must take it from me, is very small and very sparse.

The present position is that the troops are smoking more tobacco than they did when they were in civilian life. A great number of other sections of the community are smoking more cigarettes. A number of women are smoking a great deal more than they did before they entered upon work in the munition factories. The people in the Civil Defence forces are smoking a great deal more than they did before, and we have to face the fact that the total consumption of tobacco has increased, as compared with before the war, by something of the order of 20 to 25 per cent. On the other hand, the shipping difficulties with which we are faced are well known, and in the total allocation of supplies, we can take credit for the fact that we have done pretty well with tobacco up to now; but it the position is to be maintained, common sense must be applied in not multiplying to excess the number of retail outlets. Let it be quite clear. I think my hon. Friend the Member for Abertillery has not quite understood the argument. It is not that people would smoke more if the retail outlets multiplied. The argument is that, if the retail outlets were multiplied, even if people smoked only the same as they do now, you would run down the stocks to such a low point and make so difficult the problem of distribution that a number of retailers would find their shelves were bare and men or women coming there would not be able to obtain their smokes.

I repeat that in the two particular cases which my hon. Friend has brought up, I have looked into the matter very carefully, and I have explained the position to him in two letters. He said that he had received only one letter. He received a letter from me on 23rd July in regard to Llanhilleth and another on 5th November in regard to the second colliery. I have as I say gone into the matter very carefully with every desire to please, but in neither case can I find ground for altering the decisions. If the hon. Member for Ince has any cases he would like to submit to me, I will be most glad to look into them. In any case, where any hon. Member can put up special reasons, or where, owing to the inconvenience that would otherwise be caused to the workers concerned, a licence should be granted, I will be glad to go into the matter, subject to the over-riding consideration that we must not, in the interests of the community, including the mine workers, so multiply those retail outlets in time of war to such an extent that they will he so scattered that the public will be denuded of tobacco, rather than supplied with it.

Mr. Daggar

I have no desire to support the hoaxing of mine workers but I still contend that you do not deplete stocks by affording a man an opportunity of buying tobacco at pit-head baths instead of a shop. If he buys at one place he does not buy at the other unless greater facilities mean an increased consumption of tobacco, which I contend they do not.

Mr. Tom Brown

I want to thank the right hon. Gentleman for his help it enabling us to discuss this matter.

It being the hour appointed for the Adjournment of the House, Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER adjourned the House, without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.