HC Deb 02 August 1946 vol 426 cc1426-33

2.39 p.m.

Mr. Follick (Loughborough)

I should like to apologise at the outset for having missed the Adjournment on Tuesday of last week, and to express my gratitude to Mr. Speaker for having given me an opportunity to state my case today, the last day before the Parliamentary Recess. The Minister of Food recently informed us that he had made certain modifications with regard to supplementary charges in restaurants, and later on these supplementary charges were increased. In my submission, the war having ceased, we should revise the whole question of supplementary charges in restaurants.

At the outset of the war, we were assured by the then Prime Minister, Mr. Neville Chamberlain, that this was not to be a profit-making war. We were told that no one should enrich himself from this war. When the supplementary charges were introduced on 15th June, 1942, allowances were made to certain of the larger hotels and restaurants on the understanding that their overheads were so great that without these supplementary charges they would not be able to carry on. It was necessary for these hotels to carry on, on account of, among other reasons, the people coming from overseas to this country who would have to be suitably entertained. I have gone very carefully into the question of the profits made by the larger hotels, and I am limiting myself to the West End and South-West of London because, of the 31 hotels and restaurants named by the Minister recently, I think that all of them were either in the West End or South-West of London. I am going to take a few of the figures.

The Grosvenor House in 1940 made a loss. Their shares for the whole year fell on an average to 2s. 6d. a share. Their profit in the financial year of 1939, which would be a fair year to take, was £61,109 after deduction of tax. In 1945, the profit was £153,000, so in 1939, which was the last year before the war, to 1945 the profit had gone up from £61,000 to £153,000, and the shares, taken over the whole year, because they fluctuate, were 2s. 6d.; whereas today they are 20s. 10d. The Savoy Hotel in 1939 made a loss of £13,000. In 1945—the latest figures—the profit made was £395,672. The through-cut price of shares on the Stock Exchange in 1939 was 10s. 6d.; today they are 33s. 9d.; Quaglinos' profits increased from £21,000 to £57,000; the Carlton Hotel's from £7,000 to £47,000—the value of the shares on the Stock Exchange, for a whole year, rising from 4s. to 32s. 9d. With regard to Lyons, who control a great many hotels such as the Regent Palace, the Strand Palace, the Kensington Palace and a large number of tea rooms and restaurants, I get this report: "In the case of Lyons, the gross trading profits before tax are not available. I think that I am right in saying that Lyons do not disclose the actual amount of tax charged against any one year's profits." I think that these figures are a fair proof that, so far as the restaurants and hotels are concerned, this has been a profit-making war on a very large scale. Whether the supplementary charges are still justified on account of overheads is, I think, very much in doubt. Not one of these hotels or restaurants has made a profit less than double that of prewar, and it should be seriously considered now whether or not only the supplementary charges should be wiped out, and a different scale of rating should be introduced; whether we should not have first-class restaurant or hotels, second-class and third-class.

I know that that has been tried out in France and has proved a failure, but many things have proved a failure in France that have proved a success in this country. The danger of making a maximum charge of 5s. per meal is that the maximum charge becomes the minimum charge, and it will be found that throughout the West End, whatever restaurant one goes into, and whatever sort of food they provide, no matter how indifferent or how bad it may be, the minimum charge is 5s. This is aggravated by the fact that people, on account of rationing and for other reasons, now cram into the restaurants in the West End, who previously never went to those restaurants, and they are paying 5s. for a meal which formerly cost 1s. 3d., 1s. 6d. or 1s. 9d. If the prewar record of the restaurants can be taken as a criterion, and a maximum charge for a third-class restaurant, for a second-class restaurant and for a first-class restaurant be introduced, I think that the whole thing would be much fairer than at present. Some of the supplementary charges made are grossly unfair.

I have had one instance of this myself recently. When I went into a restaurant in the West End—it would not be fair to give the name of the restaurant here—I went in at six o'clock and came out at 6.25. There was a large notice outside, stating that from 6.30 there would be dancing and a dance band in attendance, and whoever went in would be charged 2s. 6d. for dancing, whether they danced or not. I was surprised to see on my bill a charge of 2s. 6d. for dancing, because it was not dancing time. I drew the attention of the waiter to this, and he called the manager, who said, "I am very sorry, but you will have to pay." I said, "I do not mind paying, but it is wrong." He suggested that I should write to the head office, which I did. I received a reply, but they would not return the 2s. 6d. I am not concerned about that, but I am concerned about the principle of the whole thing—that a person going into this restaurant should have to pay 2s. 6d. for something for which no provision was made. The band did not come in until 6.30 and I was going out at 6.25, so I was being charged 2s. 6d. for something which the restaurant did not provide. I wrote to the company pointing out that they were actually charging 2s. 6d. extra for a meal to which they were not entitled, and I said that I would bring this forward later.

When one travels on the railways one can get an excellent meal for 3s. 6d.—fish, a cut off the joint and vegetables—and I have often had this when travelling between London and my constituency. I suggest that, if the railway companies can give one a decent meal for 3s. 6d., the restaurants charging 5s. for something which is not nearly as good should have their prices reduced. I would also point out that the à la carte menu has totally disappeared from restaurants in the West End. Actually, we have an à la carte menu here in the House of Commons but if one goes into any West End restaurant one has to be content with a table d'hôte menu, and there are many people who do not want that. I never used to use the table d'hôte menu, but liked to choose what I wanted.

Further, the hotels and restaurants of the West End have made good use of the war in their charges for wine. Many of the wines that were formerly sold at 6s. or 7s. a bottle are being sold, or were being sold until quite recently, at £4, £5 and £6 a bottle. Cigars formerly sold at 1s. 3d. or 1s. 6d. have been sold at I guinea and 25s. This is an abuse outside the maximum charge and should be regulated. I know that the excuse will be that Restell's have the auctioneering of the wine and that the hotels have to buy them retail, but that is not true. The majority of the hotels had very large stocks and still they charged high prices for them, whereas we were told at the beginning of the war that the price of an article should not be more than its price before the war when it was bought new.

I should like now to refer a little to conditions in tea shops, because some of those conditions are not only objectionable but filthy. In one of these "serve yourself teashops" in the West End I saw on one occasion a young girl, quite a well dressed person, take a chocolate bun, put it on her plate and then lick her fingers. Then she had another look and took a second bun, put it on her plate, and again licked the chocolate from her fingers. She repeated this procedure yet a third time and then went to the cashier who said, "No, you're only allowed one chocolate bun." She, therefore, had to take two of them back and put them amongst the rest for sale. On other occasions in these "serve yourself teashops" I have seen a person take three pats of butter and when told he was allowed only one put the other back with a knife, dropping it on the counter in the process. Working-class people often feel three or four rolls to see which suits them best. I wrote to the firm concerned pointing out that this kind of thing, could quite easily be avoided by displaying a note telling customers that they were entitled to only one chocolate bun, pat of butter, roll or whatever it might be. They sent a representative to see me but up to now nothing has been done in the matter and that was two months ago.

I do suggest that now the war is over there should be more adequate inspection of the service in tea rooms and that people should be posted in them to correct these very bad and dirty habits. I also suggest that prices in restaurants should be graded so that customers are not exorbitantly overcharged either for amenities or food not provided. As a last point I would ask the Ministry of Food to see that more teaspoons are allowed in restaurants and tea rooms. I often notice a person stirring his tea with the handle of his knife and afterwards using the knife for cutting his food. If one notices the way in which knives are washed in these places one will see that the handles are not washed at all— only the blades are cleaned. These dirty handles are used time after time for stirring tea and may possibly spread infection. That concludes the few remarks I wished to make, and it is everybody's business to see that cleanliness reigns again now that the war is over; there is no excuse for allowing such unhealthy conditions to exist as they do, not only in London but in many parts of the country.

2.56 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Food (Dr. Edith Summerskill)

After listening to the hon. Gentleman I must admit that I have to plead guilty myself to licking my fingers after a chocolate bun, and I defy any hon. Member in this House to say that he or she does not do the same, particularly today when it is so difficult to get chocolate. I can only suggest, with regard to the lady who showed such disquieting behaviour as to take three chocolate buns and then lick her fingers three times, that it must have been a regression to her childhood combined with the acquisitive instinct. I think that in suggesting that I should undertake that my Department will control that kind of behaviour the hon. Gentleman is asking rather a lot, and I do feel that he should display a little more tolerance today.

The hon. Gentleman kindly informed me that he intended to raise the whole matter of what he described as "objectionable habits in tea rooms," so I took the trouble to look up Section 13 of the Food and Drugs Act, 1938, which is designed to prevent the contamination of food in shops, including restaurants and cafeterias. This Section of the Act covers all rooms in which food, other than milk, intended for human consumption is prepared for sale, is actually sold, or is displayed or put there for the purpose of being sold. People employed in these rooms are required to observe a certain standard of cleanliness and they are liable to prosecution if they do not take such steps as are reasonably necessary to prevent the risk of contamination. Local authorities, not the Ministry of Food, are, of course, responsible for enforcing this Section of the Food and Drugs Act. I think the House will agree that, as I have already said, it is a little difficult to prevent a customer handling food. Since the hon. Gentleman has raised this matter I have looked at the behaviour of the crowds of people who use the cafeteria in this House—and I think he will agree with me that in these days those people represent a cross section of the country—and on the whole I think their behaviour is perfect. I should say that what is needed is not another regulation or another Order but, perhaps, education of the public in the principles of hygiene. I would go further than that and would say that, when the time has come when people have better houses and lead more spacious lives, it will be easier to educate them in the etiquette of the table.

So far as concerns the profits made by hotels, I feel that the figures which the hon. Gentleman has given the House are hardly relevant to the control of the prices of meals because he has quoted places where accommodation is provided also. He must know that the price of accommodation is not controlled. Hon Members may say that it should be controlled, but it is very difficult to control accommodation in London because so many different amenities are offered, and, therefore, the profits in question may relate to the accommodation provided. I would remind the hon. Gentleman that during the war it was difficult to obtain accommodation in London or in fact in any part of the country.

Probably people who would have preferred to stay at more modest establishments were forced to go to the Savoy, the Grosvenor House, the Carlton and so on. So far as dancing is concerned, I must confess that it is very many years since I have had the opportunity of dillydallying and dancing—

Mr. Martin Lindsay (Solihull)


Dr. Summerskill

I want to say something to the hon. Gentleman and others who want more controls. The hon. Gentleman said that he was sitting in a dancing room and was charged for the dance as well as the tea. I am told that the success of a dance varies in direct ratio with the number of people per square yard of dance floor. In the hon. Gentleman's day—I dare not say in my day—probably people did polkas and had to have plenty of space, but to-day these small hotels and restaurants have a small room, put chairs round the dancing area and expect them to be occupied by people who are prepared to dance or at least are prepared to pay the extra half crown to look at beautiful women dancing. The hon. Gentleman goes to this special room and takes up space. I do not think he has any grievance because he has been charged half a crown. The music may not have started until immediately he left the room, but the point is that he was taking a seat which someone who was prepared to dance might have occupied—

Mr. Follick

But there were no facilities for dancing.

Dr. Summerskill

If the dancing was billed to start at half past six, probably the poor overworked band were not prepared to arrive until 29 minutes past six. The hon. Gentleman left the room at 25 minutes past six when the room was prepared for people to come and take their seats. I want to be fair to the hon. Gentleman, but if these are the facts, then the restaurant or the hotel that provided those facilities was in order to charge the half crown if it was made quite clear that that was a dancing room and that dancing was provided at a certain hour.

Now let me deal with vintage wines. We realise that high prices have been charged, but it has been difficult to control them. We have not aimed at controlling all luxuries. People can have a luxury or not. Vintage wine is a luxury, and if people want these luxuries they must be prepared to pay the high prices charged. We have already had a Debate about the numbers of forms. If my Ministry decided to control all luxuries, the number of forms would be increased, and we would also have to enforce our Orders and that division of the Ministry would have to be augmented. On the question of the price controls on food, the house charge was introduced in 1942 as an addition to the maximum price for a meal, I want the hon. Member to get this matter in its proper perspective. I do not like to worry this House with figures, but I should like to quote these.

The position at present is that out of a total number of 81,789 commercial establishments in the whole country catering for the public, of which 27,915 are hotels and restaurants of a similar character to those where house charges are permitted, only 259 ostablishments are authorised to make house charges—only 259 out of 27,915. Of these 259 establishments, 127 are in London, leaving 132 in the rest of the country, chiefly in the large provincial centres. They are less than one in 100 of the ordinary hotels and restaurants and only three in a 1,000 of catering establishments. So far as the amount is concerned, the house charge permitted varies from 6d to 3s. 6d. for lunch and from 6d. to 6s. for dinner. Of the no establishments allowed to make a house charge for lunch, more than half can charge only 6d. to 1s. Of the 254 establishments making a house charge for dinner, more than half can charge only 6d. to 1s. 6d.

Of course, we have said that this extra charge can be made for dancing. The hon. Member would probably be prepared to pay 5s. for a dinner and then go down the street to another establishment where a half-crown charge is made for dancing, which he would think more modest. If he gets this amenity on the premises, he should be prepared to pay for it. It has been brought to our notice that some establishments were charging what in effect would be an unrestricted price for a meal, because it was served in a private room. Accordingly, we have issued another Order which will limit the amount charged for a private room. We have to allow restaurant proprietors to charge the exta half-crown for dancing, and an extra half-crown per head for a private room. At the same time, we are allowing hotels which have large overhead expenses, to make further application to us to be allowed to make an extra charge, if they can prove their case. I want the House to realise that we are paying the closest attention to this question. It is very difficult to control these establishments as one would like to control them, because of the different amenities provided. As far as it is in our power, we are trying to control waste and exorbitant charges, which were made in the past.