HC Deb 05 November 1945 vol 415 cc1018-32

8.51 p.m.

Mr. Henderson Stewart (Fife, East)

Whale undoubtedly these tragic problems must weigh most heavily on the minds of men at this time, nevertheless, at home each of us has a personal question to answer: the question of how he is to make his living. In the short time left, I would like to draw attention to the problem, in particular, of the soldier, sailor or airman, who, returning from the Services, desires to set up in business on his own account, and finds himself faced with almost unsurmountable obstacles. This is a very serious problem. May I say a word about release under Scheme C? I want to congratulate the Government upon having introduced a method by which men with one-man businesses may now be released from the Services. But I would like the Government to show more sympathy for such men, and provide still quicker release, because I assure the Government that the strain upon the wives and mothers left at home all these years is now almost unbearable. I wish that the Government would be still more generous in the attitude they have adopted.

I am concerned with the problem of licences issued by the Board of Trade to men who wish to set up in business on their own account. There are men in the Forces preparing for the day when they return home. There are men who have been released from the Forces who have no work to do, and want employment, and they are also very much concerned. It is highly commendable that men in the early release groups are now making plans for employment of their abilities, and the maintenance of their families, when their period of service ends. I have no doubt that a great majority of men in the Forces are wage earners and would be willing and happy to return to that status when released; but there are large numbers of men with ambitions to carve their own careers, out of their own independent endeavours, and it is for that kind of man that I am speaking. These men are the pioneers, the bright spirits of British life. These are the men of high courage and purpose and resource, who are prepared to sink everything they have, money, muscle, and brain, in an unaided effort to make their own fortunes.

I know that the Government do not like private enterprise. They have an insensate prejudice against anything, and anybody, who challenges mass production and State-controlled enterprise. This prejudice has become obvious in the legislation already introduced: in aviation, banks, housing—no private enterprise. But whether the Government like it or not, it remains a fact, and I think it is a most important and a most encouraging fact in the rather bleak situation in which this Socialist-ridden country now finds itself, that without the expression of the fullest enterprise, and the brightest endeavour on the part of individual men and women, there is no hope for the survival of Great Britain as a first class Power, with all that means for a higher standard of living for our own people and the people of other countries. The ex-Servicemen, for whom I am speaking tonight, are in that category of bright spirits; and I claim that they deserve the warmest support of this House in their gallant efforts to assist themselves.

I hope no one will suppose that just a few men are concerned. The last President of the Board of Trade intimated in June that on the Board of Trade list of what is called the Register of Withdrawing Retail Traders, that is to say those whose businesses stopped during the war, the number was 17,427. If I add to that the number of men now in the Forces who want to establish new businesses, the number may very well reach a hundred thousand or more. What happens to such a man when he comes out of the Army and wants to set up his own independent business? First of all he has to meet with all sorts of restrictions, regulations and orders that flow from the local authorities. To these are added further restrictions from the Ministry of Supply, recently the Ministry of Production, the Ministry of Agriculture, the Ministry of Food and others; and when, and if, these problems are surmounted, a somewhat disillusioned, but still eager applicant comes across the principle barrier to his enterprise. That is the Board of Trade with its licensing regulations. I brought to the notice of the President of the Board of Trade this afternoon a difficult case. I put it in the form of this question from one of my constituents: …if he has considered the case brought to his notice of the ex-Serviceman discharged through being medically unfit, whose application to open a small business on his own account in Cupar, Fife, has been disallowed by the local price regulation committee, though an Italian, interned during the war, has recently been allowed to do so; and what action he is taking. The right hon. Gentleman undertook to investigate the case; but it has been before his notice for a long time. I have brought several similar cases to the notice of the Board of Trade, and in no single instance has the application of the man been granted. In every case the application has been turned down, and these gallant ex-Servicemen are denied this opportunity, in this free country, to start a business of their own. This is a shocking situation. The regulations on which the right hon. Gentleman and his friends rely are, of course, based on the statement of the former President of the Board of Trade last June. But that was made only a few weeks after the defeat of Germany, and it is now six months since Germany was defeated. It was made before the Japanese war was over, and that is now finished. We are now in comparative peace; we find ourselves with Lend-Lease stopped; and with this great country on the ebb, not the flow. In such a situation, unless the most drastic, ener- getic steps are taken, we cannot regain our old position. It is a case now of "Do"—vigorously, manfully and with every form of enterprise—"or die"; and I am seeking that we should "Do." That is what the President of the Board of Trade is telling us day after day about exports. Surely it is common sense as well as justice that the ex-Serviceman, who has fought so well throughout this war, should be granted the liberty he wants

I would like the House to realise what is the problem. I take the case of a man whose circumstances I have brought to the notice of the Department. If a man applies for permission to open a business he is told to apply to the local Price Regulation Committee. In every case of which I know this is the answer he receives from the Committee: I have to refer to your application for a licence in respect of the business mentioned below. This has now been carefully considered, but I have to inform you that the Committee is unable to grant a licence. The Committee is not obliged to assign reasons for the granting or refusal of Licences"— a strange and somewhat disturbing phrase in a British document— the Committee, is not obliged to assign reasons for its actions. That, I believe, is just what the Gestapo used to say— but I have to draw your notice to the statement on shop licensing policy made by the President of the Board of Trade"— to which I have already referred. In view of this statement I have to inform you that in order to provide preferential treatment in commencing business for (a) persons disabled during the recent war, and (b) ex-traders who closed down on account of the war, the Committee is precluded, save in the most exceptional circumstances, from granting a licence except to a person who fails within one of the four classes…mentioned…overleaf. No licences can be granted on the grounds of meeting the essential needs of consumers. As your application does not fall within any of these four classes and as the Committee is unable to regard the circumstances of your application as exceptional, the Committee is accordingly unable to grant the licence. Here are the four conditions, at least one of which must be satisfied by the returning soldier, if he is to be allowed to start his own business. He must be a person disabled during the present war. That evidently means that he must have had a leg or arm off: apparently, it does not include men discharged because they are medically unfit. The President of the Board of Trade promised me he would look into that matter, but that is the situation at this moment. He must be a person recommencing a retail business which was closed down during, and on account of the circumstances of, the war. He must be a person who has acquired the good will of an existing business; or be a person who is removing an existing business to premises strictly comparable as to rent, size, and character, and in the near vicinity of the existing business. Why cannot a man who wishes to start a new business, a man with an idea and enthusiasm and faith in himself to make a contribution, make that contribution? Has not the moment arrived when these Regulations, which were no doubt proper in June, with the Japanese war still raging, are no longer applicable to the situation? I am appealing to the Board of Trade on behalf of ex-Servicemen for reconsideration of the whole matter. It is madness to shackle enterprise now in the way we are doing. These are men of all classes and all political creeds. They are not necessarily my supporters; they include men who voted against me at the Election, but who are determined to get a chance to display their own initiative in order that the greatness of this country may be recovered.

Dr. Morgan (Rochdale)

Do I understand that the hon. Member's case is not that a disabled ex-Serviceman is refused permission to start a productive business, but that men are not allowed, under the present rules, to start a distributive business for the distribution of goods which may be in short supply?

Mr. Henderson Stewart

If the hon. Member will do me the honour to read Hansard tomorrow, he will see that was not the case I made.

9.5 p.m.

Mr. Renton (Huntingdon)

I rise to support the plea which has been made by my hon. Friend the Member for East Fife (Mr. Henderson Stewart), and in doing so I would attempt to give the House a very broad analysis of the types of restrictions with which ex-Servicemen are now faced. We may divide them, broadly into those restrictions which in any event existed before hostilities began, and the enormous number of restrictions which have been invented and imposed since the war started and which are still in existence. So far as those which were in existence before the war are concerned, they were mainly of two kinds and existed for two reasons. They were, first of all, those restrictions which ensured that people did not try to earn a living, unless they possessed a form of skill which in the public interest it was considered necessary they should have. The most obvious case is that of the doctor, and most professional men came under that heading. In the retail trades also, certain restrictions of that kind prevailed, as for instance, chemists.

The other kind of restriction which existed before the war arose from the need to protect the people engaging in a particular occupation from bankruptcy, or the need to prevent the public from having an inefficient service through too many people competing in that occupation. I need hardly remind hon. Members opposite, at any rate—because I think probably in those days they welcomed it more perhaps than we on this side of the House, and they are more likely to think it valuable than we do—that the Road and Rail Traffic Act, 1933, provides an example of that type of restriction.

People put up with some of these things even before the war. There was generally some justification for them. Parliament had considered the matter very carefully indeed, and they were working not too badly. The men then went away to the war, having left behind them a free society, with those limitations, and a society for which they were prepared to fight and lay down their lives. To what have they come back? They have come back to a form of society in which it is virtually impossible for a man to be his own master without the permission of the rubber stamp. That is the state of affairs which we have reached; and it occurs to me, from the experience which I have had, like that of my hon. Friend, that in order to engage in any form of wholesale or retail business, the permission of a local price regulation committee or some such body is necessary. It may well be that during the war this second category—the category of restrictions imposed by the war—was necessary to ensure that the fighting services and the munition factories had sufficient man power, to preserve transport, to ensure fair distribution and to save petrol. But surely, with things gradually returning to normal, the public have a right to expect that a review of those restrictions will take place, so that as things gradually return to normal the restrictions may be removed.

I would like to give an instance of the sort of thing I mean. I mentioned that we have now reached the stage when all forms of retail business have to be sanctioned by a local price regulation committee, and it surprises one to learn that that is extended beyond strictly retail business to the business of a hairdresser. There is a town in my constituency with approximately 6,000 inhabitants. Incidentally, it is a great shopping centre for a large rural population. It has one ladies' hairdresser's shop. There is an officer in the R.A.F. who is shortly to be demobilised and wishes with his wife, to start up as a hairdresser in that town. He has appealed, and I have also appealed for him, to the Price Regulation Committee, in order that the necessary licence may be obtained because it appears to be necessary. This is the reply that I have received: It is correct that there is only one ladies' hairdresser in Ramsey"— that is the town— but, in refusing a licence, the Committee have taken into account the fact that two other establishments have been closed down on account of the war. In one case the pro-prietress is serving in His Majesty's Forces and it is understood that she is paying rent on the premises and there is every likelihood that she will come back and the business will be reopened. The other shop is also likely to be opened."— No reasons are given— In those circumstances"— and those were the only circumstances justifying refusal ''the Committee consider that the interests of the former traders should not be prejudiced by the granting of a licence to Mr. Hyslop. The price regulation committee is proceeding on the assumption that this fair-sized town with its large rural area is going to exist on three hairdressing shops only. I would like to add, to the argument which has been put forward this afternoon, the general contention that, not only are these Regulations in themselves now unnecessary, out-of-date and oppressive, but also that they are being applied in an unpractical and oppressive manner.

Many cases can be put forward to justify a review of these restrictions and I am asking that the Minister shall undertake to review all of them carefully. They are very numerous indeed. If he will make such a review I would very greatly appreciate it, and so, I am sure, would very many other hon. Members, if he would consider at the same time the effect upon the ex-Serviceman of the old Regulations which existed before the war. I can give an example. A great many men were in the road haulage business before the war, and had one vehicle at any rate and possibly two, when they were called up. They surrendered their licences, and many of them surrendered their vehicles, sold them or had them requisitioned. If these men ever want to set up in the road haulage business again, they will be very severely handicapped when they come before the Traffic Commissioners for purely technical reasons which, if nothing is done, will prevent them from ever being in the road haulage business again. The law prevents any man from having a licence, unless he can prove the public need for it. In order to prove public need, it is necessary in 99 cases out of 100 for him to show that he had been continuously operating vehicles over the previous 12 months. I am talking of the practice in 1937–39. The Serviceman coming back to civil life will never be able to prove that. This therefore is an instance where the previous restrictions also will have to be considered very carefully when endeavouring to arrive at a solution which the ex-Serviceman will find just. It is surely to the advantage of the Government to consider this point of view: Ex-Servicemen will be seriously disillusioned about all their efforts of the last six years, if they find that they are up against the sort of brick-wall which this mass of restrictions creates.

It being a Quarter-past Nine o'clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

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

9.16 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade (Mr. Ellis Smith)

Let me assure the hon. and gallant Gentleman that if the Government remain in power, the returning ex-Servicemen will not be disillusioned in the same way as many of us were after the last war. The hon. Gentleman who opened the Debate was good enough to congratulate the Government on their policy with regard to the administration of Scheme C. We are pleased to have that placed on record. Then he said that the men in the Forces are now looking forward to coming home and starting in business. Those of us who served in the last war can realise that thousands of our men who have served this country so well in this war will be looking forward to coming home. The hon. Gentleman went on to say that we did not like private enterprise. I do not know why he should have introduced that this evening, but let me assure him and all those who are inclined to support him, that this Government and the people who are supporting it will prove to be the best friends of the small business men, whom they will defend against the monopolists and big business men.

Mr. Renton

And of the Cooperative movement?

Mr. Smith

If there were time, I would accept the challenge about the Co-operative movement. If hon. Gentlemen understood the growth of that movement, they would understand that there is no comparison between an organisation that was built up by the struggles and sacrifices of the sort of people who have really made this country great, and the monopolists and big business people. Those who served in the last war cannot forget the great contribution made by the engineers, and cannot forget that within two years of that war they suffered a reduction in wages of 25s. a week. Who were then undermining the home market? Who were then taking out of the pockets of the ordinary people the purchasing power which these small business men were dependent on for their livelihood? I do not mind criticism, because when we are sure of our case, and when we have been brought up in such a school as that in which many of us have been brought up in, we know that our case is so strong and unanswerable that we have no doubt on which side the judgment of our people will come on issues of this kind.

The hon. Gentleman said that the ex-Servicemen were looking forward to com- ing back. I agree with him, but let me place on record that the Government, and the men and women who support them, will take second place to no one in their defence of the rights of the Armed Forces. He went on to say that the Board of Trade was the principal barrier to enterprise, especially from the point of view of the returned men. I hope the hon. Gentleman does not really mean that, because the present occupants of the office do not plead guilty to that accusation. Even if he were making it against the present occupants of the office, surely he would not make it against the Coalition Government. If he did, he would make it against the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Lyttelton). The Coalition Government were responsible for drawing up these terms of reference and for determining this policy. As I shall show later by producing evidence, it was they who decided this policy and who said that during the transitional period this policy would have to continue.

Mr. Henderson Stewart

I said all that, but I went on to say that the statement made by the President of the Board of Trade in June was made at a very different stage of our history from today.

Mr. Ellis Smith

We are still in a difficult situation, and until we are out of that situation we are going to defend the men and women who have served us so well. The hon. Member made a number of other references and I want to draw the attention of the House to this. Hon. Members have rightly spoken about men returning from the Armed Forces, but they have failed to mention that thousands of them have not yet returned. [An Hon. Member: "Millions."] Yes, millions; I do not know in what sense the word is used, but if it is used in one sense in which it could be interpreted I think we had better not be drawn into it. The war has not been over very long, and there are still millions who have not returned. We have a duty to those millions, because the Coalition Government made promises to them and, as far as we are concerned, we are going to keep those promises for a change. The hon. Gentleman referred to decisions which have been made in individual cases. I have had no notice of those individual cases and cannot, therefore, be expected to deal with them, but I will say in defence of those who have made the decisions that they are not the decisions of a "rubber stamp, "but of local democratic machinery run by local personnel, men and women who have the confidence of their fellows because of their character and their record in their locality. Those are the men and women who are administering the Regulations laid down by the Coalition Government

The hon. Gentleman will agree that we have had short notice of the raising of this question; I am not complaining of that, I am only explaining it because of what I want to say. It will be most important that from now on I should weigh very carefully every word I use, because in all probability this Debate will be read by thousands of men and women still serving in all parts of the world and I must not mislead them. We have to think of the men and women who have served us so well and are still serving. There is no bureaucracy about this; speaking for myself, as an individual, I would be glad to co-operate in rooting out bureaucracy wherever it may be found. Those of us who have suffered from the bureaucrats in the past will be glad to receive co-operation in that direction. We have to rely on local democratic machinery to administer this business; the personnel of the local committees is known in the areas and consists, in the main, of public-spirited men and women who, in order to secure uniformity of administration throughout the country, act upon a basis of principle, which the hon. Gentleman correctly outlined. The main principles upon which persons can qualify for a licence are these: Persons disabled during the recent war—and if anyone wants an interpretation of that, I have here a reply made by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Oliver Lyttelton) in reply to a question: second, persons recommencing a retail business which was closed during and on account of circumstances arising out of the recent war; third, persons who have acquired the goodwill of an existing business and, fourth, persons removing an existing business to premises strictly comparable as to rent, size, and character in the near vicinity of the existing business.

It is very important that we should get this on record. The Location of Retail Businesses Order was first made in November, 1941, and it had two main objects: first, to safeguard the position of those who, through being called up or directed to other work, or for lack of supplies, had to close their businesses during the war; and second, to prevent the waste and interruption of distribution resulting from increasing the number of shops when supplies were so scarce. I am sure every hon. and right hon. Member will agree with me when I say it is most important that we should carry out those two promises that were made to the people who have suffered as a result of the war. The Order prevents the establishment of new retail businesses, or the transfer of shops from one area to another, without a licence from the Board of Trade. In January, 1943, a Register of Withdrawn Traders was established on which those who were obliged, owing to the war, to close their shops, could set down their names in order that their interests could be considered and watched in the administration of the Order.

The policy has been administered by the local Price Regulation Committees, except in London, where there is a special Committee to deal with the large number of cases under this Order; and I want to emphasise that we are indebted to the public-spirited men and women who have served us so well on these committees in very difficult circumstances. They have been most careful in their administration of the principle of the licensing; they have been most careful in interpreting the main principles laid down for their guidance, and the least I can do this evening is to place on record the tribute I have just paid them.

In June of this year the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Aldershot, who was then President of the Board of Trade, announced that from that time all ex-traders who were eligible for inclusion on the Register of Withdrawn Traders, whether they had inscribed their names on it or not, would be granted licences if they applied for them to resume their businesses. In addition, licences to open new businesses were only to be granted to disabled ex-Servicemen, or for special cases of hardship. The House will remember that in December, 1943, the right hon. Gentleman who is now Chancellor of the Exchequer and who was then President of the Board of Trade, announced that, while it was not the in- tention of His Majesty's Government that the arrangements should be permanent, the Location of Retail Businesses Order would not be brought to an end with the cessation of hostilities in Europe, but would continue for some time during the transitional period, and further that, as long as it continued, the Order would be operated so as to facilitate the return to their former businesses of persons on the Board of Trade Register of Withdrawn Retail Traders. The Government are now examining this Order. We are in that transitional period, and although I cannot give a definite promise tonight, I will give a promise to this extent, that we are examining the Order with a view to considering whether any changes, either in the policy or in its administration, can be made in the light of our experience. We are considering whether it is desirable, and if so at what time, that any changes should be made. I will give an undertaking that what has been said in this Debate will be considered at the same time; and I conclude by repeating that, above all, we must remember the promises that were made to our fellow countrymen who have served us so well during the war. We are determined to maintain those promises.

Lieutenant William Shepherd (Bucklow)

I have recently had several cases where men have applied for licences on the strongest possible grounds, and those licences have been subsequently granted, but these individuals have been called upon to wait for over six months before the Committee decided what to do. That imposes a great strain on the individual, and especially upon the disabled ex-Serviceman who cannot decide what his trade is to be. I ask the hon. Gentleman to use his influence to see that those requests are dealt with promptly as delay causes a great strain on men unable to bear it. In many cases reasons are not stated for refusal, and anxiety, often quite unwarranted, arises because of the refusal on the part of officials to say the reason why this or that should not be granted. I believe that hon. Members on all sides of the House receive needless correspondence because of official refusals to be frank. I suggest that the Government Department pay attention to this request and get their servants to give frank answers wherever possible.

Mr. Ellis Smith

I will give an undertaking that the latter point which was made by the hon. and gallant Gentleman shall be considered when reconsideration is being given to the whole policy, and in regard to the individual cases he has mentioned, if he will be good enough to let me have those cases, I will have investigation made to see whether there was any justification for the six months' delay.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-eight Minutes to Ten o'Clock.