HC Deb 03 February 1944 vol 396 cc1516-26

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

Mr. Sorensen (Leyton, West)

I desire to raise the question of Sunday entertainments. Though we have only half an hour at our disposal and therefore cannot possibly do justice in this matter, I am glad to have this short opportunity to draw the attention of the House to a matter which concerns not only Members of the House but the general public. At a meeting of a private character in this House a day or two ago a number of eminent religious people were speaking and one of them stated that not more than 20 per cent. of the people of this country were regular attenders at church. I am not saying that that is good. I, personally, would rather see a much larger proportion, but I mention this because I am certain every Member of this House would agree that any suggestion that 20 per cent. should have the power to impose upon the other 80 per cent. the necessity for attending church every Sunday would just be intolerable and out of keeping with our democratic professions.

The result is we now recognise that, while some may prefer to attend church every Sunday for divine worship, others are equally free to choose otherwise in spending their Sunday. Some, in the course of the Sabbath day, spend their time reading, or gardening, or walking, or engaging in Home Guard duties and sometimes indeed, in making munitions of war. Later in the day, perhaps, they may go to a cinema, as is possible in many parts of the country, or if they do not do that, they may go to a public-house, if that is their choice, and finally, if they do not care for either of those, they may sit by the fireside and turn a knob and, by turning a knob, can listen either to a religious broadcast or an entertainment. But if, on the other hand, they care to go outside and go to a concert, they can do that as long as the performers, I understand, use no theatrical equipment in the nature of scenery or costumes. This in itself is not only anomalous, but grotesque, and it seems absurd that an actor can recite Shakespeare but if, when he is trying to recite Hamlet, he looks like the Prince of Denmark, a policeman can pop round the corner and tell him that he is committing a crime.

The position is worse in those many towns where thousands of our serving men are wandering the streets with nothing to do. It may be said that, if they please, they could go to church, but the whole point is that they do not prefer to go to church, and in this freedom-loving land, they have as much right not to go to church as they have to go to church. It seems to me, from the religious standpoint, monstrous that any religious people should try to act as dog-in-the-manger towards those who will not come to their church. It will render no service to religion whatever—in fact, quite the reverse—indirectly to try to pursue the path of coercion. I have, as some hon. Members know, a very strong Christian faith myself but I am certain that Christian faith, or any other variation of it held sincerely in this House, will not be commended by trying to prevent those who do not prefer to go to divine worship from choosing to spend Sunday in the way that they think best.

Therefore, I am going to urge the Home Secretary to reconsider this as a war-time matter, and one that concerns millions of our fellow human beings in this country. I hope he will not let the unfortunate experience he had some time ago rankle in his soul. I am sure, as he is a charitable person himself, that it does not do so. I hope he will give an opportunity to the House, once more, to express its view. Of this I am certain, that in the countryside a great majority of people, including those who are earnest Christian people, desire to see this absurd anomaly swept away. I am fully aware of the many difficulties, and I want to make it clear that, personally, I am now merely concerned with securing justifiable facilities for charitable and amateur purposes. I know this may be bound up with much else but that is what concerns me. I want to see this anomaly destroyed, I want to see men and women able to go to a theatre if they wish to do so, in the same way as, if they please, they can turn on a knob in their drawing or dining-room and listen to a theatrical performance broadcast over the B.B.C.

I would also urge the Home Secretary to give the House an opportunity at an early date to reconsider this matter without any of the prejudices that were assembled on the last occasion. I am persuaded that the majority of the House then were in favour of a reasonable extension of these facilities, but many, at the last minute, became foolishly intimidated by a number of postcards written to them, often filled with copious but quite irrelevant texts from Exodus and Leviticus, and went into the wrong Lobby. I believe the Home Secretary was rather disconsolate on that occasion because of expectations unfulfilled. Do not let this House be tied by past folly. Let us have a chance to reconsider this matter. I do not cast any reflection whatever on those very earnest and sincere people who feel it would be utterly wrong to go to a theatre or listen to a Sunday entertainment. No one suggests they should do so. I respect their point of view though I do not always appreciate their arguments, which in some cases I think are woefully antediluvian. No one suggests that they should be compelled to do what they feel is wrong; what we are suggesting is that those who do not feel it is wrong should have equal freedom to pursue what they think is right.

If I may add a postscript I would say that I understand that, on occasions, some of these entertainments have been given without interruption. It seems to me to be a reflection on us and our sanity that we have to rely upon that rather distasteful person the common informer to turn the attention of the police or the licensing authorities to a particular kind of entertainment. If the common informer had not acted, many of these shows would have taken place. I do not know whether that can be dealt with. The common informer is, apparently, an old institution, but for all that, I think that he does not fit in with our modern sense of social and political decency. If anything can be done to suggest how that curious and unpleasant person can be taken out of this arena, I am sure that would be one step in the right direction. Without any ulterior motive, without any desire to see what is called a Continental Sunday in this country, without any wish to cast any reflection on those who earnestly believe they must keep Sunday in a particular Sabbatarian way, nevertheless, in the interests of millions of our men and women and in the interests indeed of true religion, I would urge that this House be given an opportunity at an early date to reconsider this matter so that the more absurd anomalies may be swept away.

Lieut.-Colonel Sir Thomas Moore (Ayr Burghs)

I am not a teacher of religion like the hon. Member for West Leyton (Mr. Sorensen) who introduced this subject; I am merely a humble follower. I, no doubt like him, have been brought up in a very strict Christian home where, so far as I remember, I participated in five religious services every Sunday. Properly, those Sundays have gone because I think they did tend to give young people a "scanner," as we say in Scotland, against religion. Although we may not go to church as much as we did 30 or 40 years ago, I do believe that our people are, at heart, as truly religious as ever. You cannot make people religious by compulsion; you can do it only by making religion a satisfying and attractive theory of life and a satisfying method of conduct- ing one's life. Therefore, I am definitely up against the Lord's Day Observance Society for seeking to compel people to go to church by denying them any alternative. Anyone who goes to our industrial towns in the black-out on a Sunday evening can see young people who have been torn away from their homes, their associations with their localities and have been forced to live under difficult conditions and, possibly, in unfriendly places. One can see them wandering down drab and dreary streets, prevented by the laws we have made from getting clean, wholesome entertainment in warm, bright and dry halls. That is a law which we in this generation cannot substantially support.

I admit that until two or three years ago, the present arrangements were agreed to, but two or three years means a long time in war. Conditions have greatly altered in war. We have now vast numbers of Allies in this country whose outlook on life has altered to some extent our conception towards these matters. For the sake of our young people in the Forces, for the sake of their moral future and for the sake of the parents they have left behind, who are wondering what is happening to them on the strange paths they are now treading, I ask the Home Secretary to pay great attention to the request which has been made and to give us an opportunity of reversing the decision we stupidly came to some time ago.

Sir Patrick Hannon (Birmingham, Moseley)

I will not detain the House for more than a few moments. Nobody will, I think, suggest that anybody has a warmer attachment to the keeping of the Lord's Day than I have. On the last occasion when we debated this matter in the House I voted against what I called the commercialisation of Sunday, but, as the Member for one of the Divisions of a great city, I am faced every Sunday with a very difficult and embarrassing problem. We have, as has been said to-day, masses of troops walking about the streets of our towns in a helpless and hopeless situation and, I am sorry to say, very often in surroundings not compatible with the decency and self-respect of the Fighting Services. While I recognise the difficulties with which the Home Secretary is confronted in dealing with this appalling question, I am bound to say that, in the interests of our troops, I would like to see our healthy Sunday afternoons restored in some way so that these men and women could get a little enjoyment and recreation during the afternoon. My difficulty, which is probably the difficulty of most Members, is that I do not want Sunday afternoon recreation for the troops to be a profit-making business for certain proprietors. It will have to be done with such restrictions as will prevent the profit-making motive. I agree with my hon. and gallant Friend that there is a deep-rooted feeling of reverence for religion, even on the part of people who do not go to church, but we are face to face with the very clear moral obligation of how we are to deal with these men, particularly American troops, masses of whom walk the streets of Birmingham every Sunday. I am profoundly concerned with their welfare and with the moral character of our young girls. I hope the Home Secretary in his wisdom may be able to find a way out of the difficulty without creating a precedent which will violate the way in which Sunday has always been regarded.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Herbert Morrison)

I am much obliged to my hon. Friends for the moderate and friendly way in which they have put their case and for not leaving me too tight as regards time in which to reply. Perhaps it will be convenient if I first deal with the point whether we can eliminate the profit-making motive. With regard to cinemas, an arrangement has to be made as regards the application of profits to charity, and substantial sums do go to charity from the Sunday opening of cinemas. I had a lot to do with administering the Act in London. There was a lump sum or percentage arrangement and on the whole it worked, though there was a great scramble by charities to get on the list, and there were arguments whether we were getting the profits which were due or not. But as a moral proposition I thought this was a very English device, and I always thought there was a considerable element of humbug about it. If it is wrong that there should be Sunday entertainments I really cannot see that from a moral or Christian point of view it is right to permit them because the profits go to charity. But it is the way the English get out of awkward situations, though I should not like to have to defend it on its merits. Still, it works.

There are also practical difficulties about imposing the condition that theatre profits should go to charity, and we at the Home Office have not yet been able to find a real workable scheme whereby to enforce it. It is doubtful whether a compromise would be acceptable to the theatrical profession. It was a condition of the Defence Regulation that there should be a six-day week but if people perform for charity voluntarily and without pay, I do not see how that condition can obtain. It might be hard on some of them—and they are very good about charitable performances, so good that I do not like liberties to be taken with them. Then we should have to have a legal provision defining charitable performances that were to be admitted and other performances that were to be prohibited. We should, as I have said, have to decide whether, if a performance was to be a genuinely charitable effort on the part of the theatrical people, it should be a condition that they were not to be paid, particularly the humbler people such as stage hands and chorus girls. I should feel hesitant about making it a condition that they should not be paid at all for their services. Nevertheless directly the element of reward comes in the purely charitable basis becomes rather shaky.

We would also be faced with the problem of ensuring that nobody made a profit. With cinemas, where the attendance is known pretty well, you can almost calculate it in advance, but with theatrical performances, musical shows or vaudeville performances, there might have to be an accountancy examination for each performance. That would involve a lot of work for the theatrical people at a time when it is difficult to get labour for the purpose, and there might be very little for charity at the end of the day. I think that the idea for limiting Sunday entertainments and performances for charity does not stand up, and it avoids the main issue. It is a concession to the critics and I understand the motive of my hon. Friend, which is legitimate, but I do not think it stands up. The other idea is that Sunday entertainments should be confined to the troops. I do not think this would work, because the troops would want to take other people, and once they were allowed to do so abuses would arise. I share the general feeling of the House that the common informer is an antiquated and undesirable device.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Major Milner)

I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will not discuss the question of the common informer as it would involve legislation. I ought to have pulled up the hon. Member for West Leyton (Mr. Sorensen) when he referred to it.

Mr. Barr (Coatbridge)

I would like to point out that the Society for Sabbath Observance which has been mentioned, assures me that no use has been made of the common informer for a very long time.

Mr. H. Morrison

I just want to make it clear that there are one or two cases, where undoubtedly the private enterprise of individuals—I am not talking about the capitalist system at the moment—in exploiting this Act has got very near to blackmail. I have had no evidence that the Lord's Day Observance Society is in the least involved in that kind of activity. I appreciate that this question might involve legislation, and directly you try to deal with it you are bound to go into the general issue. First, you would have to redefine the offence, and, second, you would have to have a public authority, which would probably have to be a local authority, to conduct the prosecutions. I do not think I could go into this question without raising the major issue. You, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, have been kind to me, and I will leave the question of the common informer. Otherwise, somebody may raise a point of Order, which would be a kind of common informer action against me.

I turn to the main issue, namely, that the House came to a decision, and the question is whether the Government ought to give facilities to the House for considering it again. The House is master of the situation. If the House really wants facilities, the Government would obviously acquiesce. My problem is whether there is a substantial indication—and this must be guess work—that the House has altered its mind. We can all have opinions about it and none of us can be sure we are right. I thought on the day before the previous Debate and, indeed, up to the time I got on to my feet, that I had something like a majority of about 100 for the Defence Regulation. There were quite a number of hon. Members who intended, and, indeed, had signed documents in that sense, to give their votes one way, and who decided at the last minute to vote against the Regulation. Members must take notice of their constituents sometimes, and I do not complain about that. But it was a funny experience. I came to the House feeling that I would get about 100 majority with the Whips off. I advised the Government to take the Whips off, for this was eminently a matter in which the Whips should not coerce the consciences of Members.

Mr. A. Bevan (Ebbw Vale)

As the Government command a majority of almost one-third of the House, they could make sure of carrying this, if they put on the Whips.

Mr. Morrison

I quite agree. I think that if we had put the Whips on there would have been revolts against the Whips on a considerable scale. That happens sometimes on matters where it is less legitimate than in this case. With the Whips on, we might have carried it by a two-to-one majority. If it had been absolutely vital for the prosecution of the war, it would have been our duty to put the Whips on. I cannot believe that it is vital to such an extent. In these matters of religious conscience I never like the Whips on if I can do without it. When I was halfway through my speech I said to myself: "My lad, you are on an awkward wicket," and the House rejected the Regulation by a majority of eight. I have no feeling of soreness about that. There was no personal humiliation about it, because if you take the Whips off you must put up with it if the thing goes wrong as a consequence. I have not any soreness now. It was a Parliamentary decision and, the decision having been made, I, in common with other Ministers, am the servant of this House. If the House of Commons comes to a decision, I must accept it or take the obvious course. In this matter I accepted it, and unless it is urgently necessary to do so in the national interest, I think I have no right to go seeking to upset a decision of the House freely arrived at.

If it were shown to me, or if I could be persuaded to believe, that there was a change of Parliamentary opinion, and that the House really wanted to reach another decision, certainly I would advise the Government to give facilities for the discussion. What evidence is there that there is a substantial shift of Parliamentary opinion? The only case of change I know of is that of my hon. Friend the Member for the Moseley Division of Birmingham (Sir P. Hannon), and even he is subject to doubts and qualifications on the point. I do not know of any substantial shift of Parliamentary opinion, but we who come from London must be very careful about our judgments of public opinion nationally on this point. London has a very tolerant view about this sort of thing. I understand that, and that is all right; but I am certain that it would be a grave mistake to assume that opinion in London is representative of opinion in the country as a whole. I do not believe that there is a substantial change of Parliamentary opinion, and I think, that at this stage of the war, having had a good Debate about it and a decision, there would be no point in raising the matter again, unless I were sure that there was a shift of Parliamentary opinion, and that it was urgently necessary in the national interest to do so. I am not so convinced. It might well be that some hon. Members would say "You have had a go at that, and we resent having to use up Parliamentary time that ought to be devoted to reconstruction Measures in this House."

Mr. Sorensen

May I ask the right hon. Gentleman one question? I quite appreciate that some parts of the country adopt different views from those of London. Would it not be possible, in the circumstances, to adopt the principle of local option, and, as London represents only about one-fifth of the country, to give powers to the Metropolitan area?

Mr. Morrison

That was in the Defence Regulation, but there was no proposal that everybody had to do it. The local authority was to be supreme at the end of it, Notwithstanding that, hon. Members who opposed the Regulation said: "We don't want them to be permitted to give a favourable opinion in this matter."

Sir T. Moore

How can the evidence be judged, to decide whether a change of opinion has or has not taken place in the House?

Mr. Morrison

I do not know. There is no science of judging Parliamentary opinion. I have a hunch at the moment that, subject to such inquiries as can be made, there is not a firm and substantial majority that would stand at the end of the day. I honestly do not see it. In all the circumstances, although I appreciate the sincerity of hon. Members on both sides of the controversy, I do not think it would be right or Parliamentarily sound. It might lead to a quarrelsome Debate, more so than the last—which was not very quarrelsome, although there was some hard hitting in it. People in the House and in the country would feel that we were trying to revise something which had been settled, at a stage of the war that was not appropriate. The Government, therefore, with regret, do not see their way to give facilities.

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