HC Deb 18 February 1944 vol 397 cc612-22

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Major Sir James Edmondson.]

Mr. Butcher (Holland with Boston)

I am quite sure that the Attorney-General will spend a very much happier week-end for having put himself right on the records of the House. The Debate I desire to raise concerns the question of the small shopkeeper at the present time and I am grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, for giving me the opportunity of bringing this matter again before the House. This is not the first time I have raised this subject; indeed, I raised it so long ago as April, 1941, at the time when the Minister of Production was President of the Board of Trade. The occasion upon which it now arises is out of a Question I addressed to the Minister of Labour on 27th January last. I asked the right hon. Gentleman: Why the owners of small businesses are called for National Service and compelled to cease to trade, although firms like Woolworth's and Marks and Spencer have several thousand full-time employees?"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 27th January, 1944; col. 830, Vol. 396.] I did not expect to get the fan mail I did, following that Question. I can assure the House that the present position with regard to the call-up of individual traders is giving most serious concern to those of us who are in touch with the problems of the small shopkeeper to-day. We knew when this war started—and the Government told us, and we recognised the truth of it—that as it went on there would be casualties among the small shop-keeping community. You cannot fight a war on a world-wide scale without many people getting hurt. But now we have had 4½ years of war and the people who have stuck it out so long ought to be helped by the Government to see it through to the bitter end. But what is the position? Largely, I am sorry to say, as a result of the action of the Ministry of Labour small shopkeepers are going down at the present time, not because they have no customers or goods but because they are being taken away from their shops for some form of national service. That might be necessary if their big competitors were being treated in the same way but the big competitors are now making plans for post-war development. I would like to refer to the recent speech made by the chairman of Woolworth's, as reported in "The Times" on 11th February. He said: There will be jobs for all of us, our men and women when they are released from the Services. We shall need desperately the energy and ambitions of the young trained Woolworth people. There is a great future for them and we shall welcome them. Certainly, it is right for these people to look ahead as it is for others, but I hope the future for the Woolworth employees will be better than the past. I remember that well before the war, when they were making millions, they were employing girls for three days a week in their shops and then letting them go to the employment exchange for the other three days. At the time when we were trying to reduce the hours of labour girls who were employed in factories for five days a week were being employed by Woolworths on the Saturday. When these people talk about their plans we are entitled, I think, to say, "Let us have a look at your plans."

But all that is by the way. Here we have the great stores planning for the future, buying up small competitors, who are locking up their doors and going into the Services. The Government say that their policy of release is, "First in, first out." But, putting it the other way, it is, "Last in, last out." What real chance have these people to re-establish themselves in business on these terms? The Minister of Labour says no preferential treatment is given to the large firms, and I am sure he is sincere. Certainly the Regulations of his Department are impartial. They are, like justice and the Ritz Hotel, open to the rich and poor; and, just as we have two Parliamentary Secretaries to the Ministry of Labour, so we have the big man and the small man in the retail trade.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour (Mr. McCorquodale)

I hope my hon. Friend is not comparing me with Woolworth's.

Mr. Butcher

No, I am comparing my hon. Friend with his colleague. It two people come under the same Regulation it does not prove that you are going to suit them both, any more than if you attire two men such as my hon. Friend and the other Parliamentary Secretary in the same coat. Neither would perhaps look awfully well in it. In these Regulations the big man has the skill of the lawyer, the barrister, the accountant and the trained business executive to prepare his returns and his forms and present his case to the tribunals, the hardship committees and the Man Power Board. The little man has to do this, that and the other, order his goods, take them in, see his travellers and then deal with all these things. We know that there are difficulties but can the right hon. Gentleman bring some measure of hope and give some opportunity to these people in the knowledge that they will have assistance in making sure that their case is properly presented? Let us get clearly in our minds what kind of retail distribution we want. Do we want it done in terms of big business, doing business with big unions and walking over everyone else with their big feet, or do we want to preserve a place for individuality, for the personal touch and friendly relations between employer and employee?

I hope my hon. Friend will again examine the position of the Ministry and say, "We are not holding the balance fairly between these people." May I quote from a letter I received recently You have equality between these people. The labour exchange took away my last remaining employee in 1942 in spite of every appeal. They do not take away Messrs. Woolworth's last remaining employee. It is not so much, as in the case of the Chancellor dealing with Sur-tax, what you pay. It is a question of what you have left. Here are these big stores, with branches under the same name or different names. You transfer some of the labour from some of these people. Let us see some of the multiple shops shut and the smaller people kept going until this thing is through.

Captain Gammans (Hornsey)

I should like to reinforce what my hon. Friend has said. It seems to me that it is time the country and the House realised what is happening to the retail trade. As far as I can gather, nearly 100,000 small retail traders have been forced to close down as the result of the war. Go to any suburb or provincial town and you will see shop after shop which has been forced to close down. They are all individual shops. I have yet to see a combine or a multiple firm shut down a branch in any part of the country. Let us have equality in these things. All these little businesses which have been closed down represent somebody's life's work. They have been set up as a result of thrift, hard work and initiative, and many of them will never open again. That is bad enough, but when we find these businesses being bought up, either openly or, what is far worse, secretly, by the big combines, and very often the same name being kept over a shop, it is something which the country should understand, and which, if the country fully realises it, it will not be prepared to tolerate.

We ought to realise the effect of the closing of small businesses on the civic life of the country. The individual shopkeeper is the man who has always been the basis of our local democratic life. He has been the man who has gone on the local town councils, who has sat on the local hospital committees, and the man who is always approached if unpaid voluntary service is wanted. This man is going to-day. If you go down the main street of the small country town you can count closed shops one after the other. Where have the burgesses of these towns, the men who used to be the backbone of their civic life, gone to? They have been ironed out, eliminated as a result of the consolidation policy of the Ministries in this war, and they will not come back.

If we lose that type of man in our civic life we shall lose the most valuable type of citizen. I can realise the difficulties which the Government face in their mobilisation policy, but I suggest that the time has now come when we ought to see if we cannot call a halt to the calling up of these little men. Above all, we can claim from this House that if there is to be a call-up of the shopkeepers, there should be justice in that call-up. Let the small man have as square a deal as his large competitor.

Mr. Granville (Eye)

I would like to endorse the eloquent appeal of the two hon. Gentlemen who have spoken on behalf of the little man. The hon. and gallant Member for Hornsey (Captain Gammans) said that there were something like 100,000 of these small shopkeepers who have now had to close as a result of the call-up. We ought to be told by the Parliamentary Secretary whether that is an accurate figure. I must say that it is an extraordinary figure to give to the House. I would like to add my appeal on behalf of the shopkeeper in the small rural town. If you go to some of these small towns with populations from 2,000 to 4,000 you will find the saddler probably closed up altogether, and other shops, such as the butcher, the grocer and the corn stores and others, closed down. Their only resource is to appeal to the hardship committees. Many of us have raised this point by Question and answer over and over again and it has been dealt with on the Adjournment before. What we would like to know is: Who deals with this matter; who takes the decisions on the hardship committees, and on what basis are the appeal decisions come to? We may get a situation such as we had after the last war. One man was called up and was in the Army for two or three years, and on his return he found that his business, which he had to leave to a manager or his wife, had been lost. Very often he had to apply to his competitor who had been left behind by the tribunal for a job. How much worse will the position be after this war if we are to have the state of affairs referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Holland with Boston (Mr. Butcher), in which 100,000 of these small men have had their businesses closed? Many of them will have to make application to reopen their businesses and try to get their trade back or, as the general trend of events seems to show, they may be left to apply to the big stores for jobs.

The Parliamentary Secretary said that he hoped he would not be accused of representing Woolworth's Stores. He is a big man. I hope that he is going to represent the little man to-day and that we are not going to hear, in this important Debate, one of these tabloid Debates at the end of the week—which are very important—any kind of argument of the sort which is now going on in the Press between the "Daily Herald" and the "Daily Express."

It is a much bigger thing than that. It involves the future existence of our own small shopkeepers and the small farmer as well. I believe this is the kind of thing for which we are fighting the war. We have put cases to the Minister over and over again, such as that in which four or five sons have volunteered for service, the father has died as a result of overwork and the little business has closed down and there may be no possibility of it opening up again because a competitor, or a branch of a big stores, has taken over the business. There is another aspect, concerning the trader who has a small shop in the small country town. We know, as we heard during the Debates on the Education Bill, that there is now a tendency to create a county town bureaucracy. Everybody goes into the county town on market days, and the small shopkeeper in the small town is neglected. I hope that the Minister will not give us a departmental answer. These people are looking to the Minister of Labour. I hope he will not give us a stereotyped answer but will tell us that these hardships will be taken into consideration by the hardship tribunals. I hope that he will reverse the trend and give an opportunity to some of these men to be referred to the Military Tribunal where their appeals not to be called up will be allowed, and those who are in may have an opportunity to get out of the Services.

Mr. Linstead (Putney)

I want to reinforce what has been said by the three previous speakers. The hon. Gentleman has told us that the big business is given no preferential treatment. I think that he would equally say that the little business does not receive preferential treatment, and he would regard that state of affairs as being his duty. In other words, he is offering these people justice; but what the little man wants is not only justice but mercy. If the big business has to close one or two shops, it still retains its goodwill, but if the little man has to close his one shop, his business disappears. If the little man loses his staff his business probably closes, but if the big business loses staff it closes one or two floors and carries on. In the case of quota goods, its quota is transferred and used in one or two businesses instead of in three or four. The only point I feel justified in making, after what has been said, is on the simple question of whether or not the small trader is to have preferential treatment. In fact, it is unnecessary to say: "We don't give preferential treatment to the big man"; you must give preferential treatment to the small man if you want to keep him alive.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour (Mr. McCorquodale)

I should be the last to complain of, indeed I think that the whole House appreciates, the action of the hon. Member for Holland with Boston (Mr. Butcher) in raising this matter in Debate at the end of a busy week. The small shopkeeper, the small businessman and the small farmer, indeed, the small man in general, have a very special place in the hearts of all of us here. One thing on which I heartily agree with Members on all sides is that we do not want to get into the position of drifting into nothing but big combines, big firms, and the like. We do want to preserve the life of the small individual man in this country. The retail distributive trade, which is the one we are specially considering, has of necessity been drawn upon more hardly than any other trade to provide personnel for the war effort. It has responded magnificently.

I would like to pick up one point made by the hon. Member, which was, could we not now say "Quits," after four and a half years of war, and let those who are in, stick to their shops till the end of the war. I am afraid the demands for national service have never been more severe and never been more important than they are at this moment and must be met if we are to carry through the struggle to speedy victory. There can be no slackening whatever in the tempo of calling up under the National Service Acts for service in the factory or in military service if we are to come successfully and quickly through this struggle. I was informed by the hon. Member for Putney (Mr. Linstead) that I would say that we endeavour to give equality between large and small shopkeepers. We do not endeavour to do that. What I will say is that we endeavour to temper the wind to the shorn lamb of the small shopkeeper. That is our policy at the present time. If we gave equality Heaven knows what would happen to the small shopkeeper.

We have created a machine, which the large shopkeeper cannot use, allowing appeal on the grounds of personal hardship or exceptional business hardship, where the business is likely to be closed down if the person concerned is withdrawn and a substitute cannot be found. In the general arrangements for calling up we take into consideration the national importance of the particular trade and therefore in food shops and food distribution the call-up is not so severe as it is in what we call non-food stores. As regards deferment there is no difference between a large and small shopkeeper but the small shopkeeper, either the employer or employee can and does obtain postponement on the grounds of exceptional business hardship if it appears that if he or she is called up or directed to another form of national service the shop is likely to be closed down.

If I may in the few minutes that remain to me give a rather detailed exposition of what we do I think it might be of value because it is quite possible that even now some small shopkeepers do not know what their rights are or what they are entitled to do. As regards calling up for military service any person called up under the National Service Acts has the right to apply for postponement on the grounds of exceptional business hardship. The Regulations lay down that a person whose responsibilities and interests may come into consideration, is, if I may read the exact words: The application based on business responsibilities and interests should be granted only if the circumstances are such that the business in respect of which the responsibilities and interest arise, cannot be carried on in the applicant's absence unless and until alternative arrangements have been made in respect to the carrying on of the business in his absence, and the necessary arrangements either for carrying on the business or its disposal cannot be made. It falls, I say, to the person to be called up to make the application, whether employee or equally the employer. They can and do obtain postponement on these grounds. So far as the National Service Act and the independent hardship committees are concerned, this is the regulation under which they work in regard to business hardship.

But where persons have been transferred to industry under the procedure of the Ministry of Labour both men and women are given, before they are transferred, the opportunity of representing first to the National Service Officer that their withdrawal would involve exceptional business hardship. Any such representations are dealt with on similar lines to those laid down in the National Service Act, and we specifically instruct our National Service Officers to pay attention to those principles when considering the transfer of workers whose withdrawal would give rise to the closing down of the small business, whatever the nature of the business in which they are employed. Special consideration is given to cases where the men and women whose withdrawal is contemplated are carrying on business as substitutes for people who have joined the Armed Forces, or gone into work of national importance, or become incapacitated, through age or for other reasons. After the national service officers' decision on this matter, an appeal may be made to the local appeal board, on the ground that exceptional hardship would ensue if the withdrawal were made. This is additional to another opportunity of appeal which the person has, because if he or she loses the appeal and is directed elsewhere, an appeal can be made against the direction. The general effect of this arrangement is to safeguard, as far as we can, the position where the withdrawal of the owner or manager of a small business, who is a substitute for someone serving in the Forces, would result in the closing down of that business because alternative arrangements cannot be made.

Mr. Granville

How are these local hardship committees constituted?

Mr. McCorquodale

They have an independent chairman, and one member representing the employers in general and one representing the employees in general, these two drawn from panels. The local appeal boards are similarly constituted. I thought I might refer to an instruction to our national service officers which provides that in such cases of a substitute where the owner has gone into the Forces or into work of national importance—when the substitute pleads that the withdrawal will involve the closing of the business, and when satisfactory alternative arrangements cannot be made—the N.S.O. should inform the substitute that it is not proposed, for the time being, to transfer him or her, and no further action should at the moment be taken. We have thus endeavoured to meet this point in our instructions. I should be only too pleased if hon. Members would send me particulars of cases where they think that is not being carried out, because the great bulk of the shops which are being dosed down at present—and nobody deplores it more than I do—are not closed down because of action taken by the Ministry of Labour, but because of other circumstances arising out of the war, such as absence of stocks, advantageous offers by other persons and big stores, who want to buy up their shops and offer them such prices that they cannot refuse. I am not going to pretend that the action of the Ministry of Labour has not caused some shops to be closed down—that is inevitable over the whole field of the war—but I have endeavoured to show that we do not regard the big shop and the small shop as being on an equality. We recognise that withdrawing one, two, or three assistants from a big shop may not make them do more than reorganise their arrangements, while a similar withdrawal from a small shop may make it close down altogether. Our arrangements are designed, so far as possible, in the national interest, to meet the special difficulties of small shops where we can.

Mr. Woodburn (Stirling and Clack-mannan, Eastern)

Are we to take it that the decisions of the hardship committees are not necessarily final, and that the national service officer has the discretion to make the final decision?

Mr. McCorquodale

The national service officer first considers the case. If he wishes to withdraw the person, that person may appeal to the Local Appeal Board and in normal circumstances the advice of the Board is accepted by the national service officer.

Mr. Magnay (Gateshead)

Is it a statutory Committee, so that the rules must be obeyed?

Mr. McCorquodale

The National Service Hardship Committees are statutory and their rulings must be obeyed, but I thought the hon. Member was referring to our Local Appeal Boards. The national service officer does, as a normal rule, follow the recommendations of the Appeal Board.

Major Procter (Accrington)

Will the Minister, in calling up the employees of large shops, take into consideration that Woolworths and many other firms have opened new departments—

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