HC Deb 22 February 1949 vol 461 cc1747-65

As amended (in the Standing Committee), considered.

6.2 p.m.

The Lord Advocate (Mr. John Wheatley)

Before moving the Third Reading of this Bill, I have to acquaint the House that I have it in command from His Majesty to signify to the House that His Majesty, having been informed of the purpose of the Bill, gives his consent, as far as His Majesty's interest is concerned, that the House may do therein as they shall think fit.

I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read the Third time."

6.3 p.m.

Commander Galbraith (Glasgow, Pollok)

We on this side of the House regret the circumstances which have made this Bill necessary, and I deplore the intervention of the State into new fields, unless the necessity for that intervention has been abundantly proved. Here, however, we have had the reports of two committees dealing with this subject, and the recommendations of these committees have been unanimous. In the circumstances we have accepted the Bill with the regret of which I have spoken, and we have devoted ourselves to an endeavour to improve it so far as that is possible. Indeed, I think hon. Members can claim that the Bill has been improved from the Measure originally before us.

It remedies what was an unsatisfactory position where, to get over the difficulties of the existing situation, the Secretary of State had to have recourse to his requisitioning powers. That, I am sure all hon. Members felt, placed him in a highly unenviable position. On this side of the House we all feel much happier that the matter has now been placed in the hands of the Sheriff, and we are happy to leave it in his hands because we are absolutely assured that, as far as is humanly possible, he will serve out equal justice to both landlord and tenant, and will not forget that hardships bear as heavily on the one as on the other.

I can only express the hope that this will be a temporary Measure and that the circumstances which make it necessary will soon disappear, so that free agreements may again be entered into between both parties concerned without the balance being unduly weighted against either of them. In these circumstances, I hope that the Bill will speedily find its way on to the Statute Book.

6.5 p.m.

Mr. Willis (Edinburgh, North)

It is only right that on the Third Reading of this Bill someone from this side of the House should express appreciation of the steps taken by the Secretary of State and the Lord Advocate in pushing this matter along in the way they have done. For the past two years in Scotland, quite a number of shopkeepers have suffered enormous hardships as a result of the neglect of the party opposite in not giving to the shopkeepers any protection in the past. That was exceedingly unfortunate, the more so that this neglect should have been on the part of a party which claims to be the champion of the small shopkeeper.

Commander Galbraith

Did not the hon. Gentleman himself say that in the past there had been hundreds of empty shops in his own city. How, then, does he make the charge that he is presently making?

Mr. Willis

The fact is that the shopkeepers when faced with this ramp, on the part of the private speculators in the main, and probably to a lesser extent the private landlords, found themselves without any protection at all. It is also a fact that a large number of them have lost their livelihood, and that ex-Service men who have put their gratuities into shops have also lost their livelihood because such protection did not exist.

Commander Galbraith

But might I ask the hon. Gentleman since when has this position arisen? I understood from the explanations given to us that it had arisen directly out of the war, that it is quite a new thing. Might I remind him that there has not been a Conservative Government in power during the last 10 years?

Mr. Willis

I am afraid I should be out of Order in going into the history of this matter, but I would remind the hon. and gallant Gentleman that this happened in the three or four years after the first World War, and it happened again in 1946, 1947 and 1948.

Commander Galbraith

Under a Socialist rule.

Mr. Willis

But in 1948 steps were taken to requisition properties and to prevent the effect of this neglect from being felt fully by shopkeepers in the case of those shops which were serving the national need.

I would like on behalf of many of my constituents to express their thanks for this Bill because it will afford protection to shopkeepers in Glasgow and Edinburgh, indeed all over Scotland. I hope it makes speedy progress and is placed on the Statute Book without delay.

6.8 p.m.

Mr. McGovern (Glasgow, Shettleston)

May I add my word of congratulation to the Secretary of State for Scotland and to the Lord Advocate for dealing with this question in the manner they have? There is no doubt that the sale of shops, the sustained eviction of tenants in Glasgow, was getting under way, and if it had not been that questions were raised in this House and that action was demanded from the Government the ramp would have increased tremendously in the city, and most small shopkeepers would have had the pistol put to their heads either to buy at exorbitant prices or to quit the premises. This is part of the general ramp which has been going on with property of all kinds. Many men have formed companies for the purpose of buying up shops and other property all over the country. Then they place the property on the market in an endeavour to extract from the public the highest possible figure.

Whilst we are dealing in this Measure with shops, there is still the very large issue regarding house property, factories and so on which have been dealt with in the same manner. Whilst however, as the hon. and gallant Member for Pollok (Commander Galbraith) has said, we have had three years of Socialist Government and all this has grown up during that period, I assure the hon. and gallant Member that on many occasions attempts have been made to get this action started in a very real form in Glasgow. The property owners of that city always thought that the Front Bench of the Conservative Party were their defenders who would prevent any exploitation of this kind from being stopped.

I welcome the fact that we have a Socialist Administration that is prepared to pay heed to the grievances of small shopkeepers. We do not need to worry about the large multiple traders, for they have the ability and funds to pay prices of a higher character. Large numbers of these small shopkeepers are being threatened. I know from my own constituency of injured men, who have received some form of compensation, going into the little shops and beginning to make a livelihood, together with the women of whom we used to hear from the Tory Party when we restricted rents and so forth—"What about the poor old widow woman who owns the property?" I remember that at one time the uncle of the late Lord Advocate was asked in Glasgow about the building of house property and what was to happen to the poor old widows who had money invested in property. He said, "Oh, I would invite a conference of all the widows who had been exploited and allow them to settle it amongst themselves."

I am glad that there is to be a genuine attempt to stop the exploitation which now exists. People have redress now in going to the sheriffs. On the whole, I have found the sheriffs in Glasgow very sympathetic in cases of this kind when dealing with injustices against any section of the community, and I think people who appeal to them will get a very fair crack of the sheriff's whip. The stopping of this ramp is important. Although the Secretary of State for Scotland and the Lord Advocate have dealt with it intelligently, I should like them to try to find ways and means of dealing with the much greater ramp in Glasgow of the sale of flats and the threatened eviction of tenants, and with the houses which are coming into the open market and being sold at a time when people are clamouring for houses. In Glasgow the ramp in house property is prevalent on a very large scale indeed. I do, however, welcome the action contemplated in the Bill and I compliment the Government, the Secretary of State and the Lord Advocate in their wisdom in driving through this Measure.

6.15 p.m.

Mr. McKie (Galloway)

Like my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Pollok (Commander Galbraith) I always resent the intervention of the State in any sphere where it is not absolutely necessary but, like him, I have come to the conclusion that the Bill is necessary and I welcome it on its Third Reading. I do not, however, give it the same kind of, if I may so express it, almost malicious welcome which the hon. Member for North Edinburgh (Mr. Willis) gave to it when he endeavoured in his remarks to stir up quite a lot of political prejudice.

Mr. Willis

Probably the hon. Gentleman has never been in the position, with which I was once confronted, of being faced with a buy or quit notice.

Mr. McKie

I am glad to admit that I have not been in that position and I very much sympathise with the hon. Gentleman on having been so placed.

The Bill seeks to achieve a justice between landlord and tenant. It is natural—and in this I shall have the agreement of the hon. Member for North Edinburgh—that when we set out to achieve such a balance of justice one interest or the other must be in the position of being more or less the attacked party. In this Measure it is the interest of the landlord which is in the position of being attacked. The hon. Member for North Edinburgh, however, must not seek to attribute any wrong motives to me, for I am not suggesting that everything was perfect in the tenancy of small shops in Scotland, otherwise this Measure would not have been introduced. Although this is a matter of concern more to the urban and industrial areas in Scotland than to the countryside, there are cases in all constituencies where a Measure of this nature is highly necessary. As a result of its passage through the Committee stage the Bill, as my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Pollok has said, is considerably improved and, so far as the landlord's interest is concerned, I congratulate the Lord Advocate on refusing to be beguiled by the somewhat rash pleas made to him from those hon. Gentlemen and Ladies on the back bench who are so-called supporters of the Government.

My one fear about the Bill is that Clause 1, its operative Clause, seeks to impose upon sheriffs substitute and sheriffs principal, increased responsibilities and increased burdens. In much of the legislation introduced by the present Socialist Government there have been complaints that the sheriffs were being loaded with increased responsibilities. This Bill is no exception. I can see no other way, however, if we are to achieve this justice between landlord and tenant. I hope very much that sheriffs will not be put to too much trouble in interpreting Clause 1 for, although it has been subjected during Committee stage to a very searching investigation, particularly by the Opposition, I fear there will still be some pitfalls. I consider that the Bill was inevitable and I give it a tepid welcome.

6.18 p.m.

Mr. William Ross (Kilmarnock)

Whilst I congratulate the Government on introducing the Bill following the representations that were made to the Secretary of State, I feel as a Scotsman that it is a matter of considerable regret that it should have been necessary. There is no doubt that certain people whom I do not consider to be bona fide landlords have been dealing speculatively with properties and have used the existing shortage for ends that, to my moral reasoning are by no means virtuous. Some people think that the Bill has been delayed too long, but I consider that the Government were right in setting up an inquiry to try to get all the evidence and then taking the interim step of requisitioning. The inevitable conclusion come to was that this evil is a continuing evil. Only today I received a letter from Ayr. That is not one of the cities which has been mentioned, but it is a provincial town of considerable importance. This is what is happening in that town of honest men and bonnie lasses. I am not concerned about the bonnie lasses tonight, but with one gentleman who considers himself an honest man. The landlord in this case is an Ayr man and a Scotsman. The tenant writes: The long overdue Bill to protect small shopkeepers before Parliament just now, may serve to forestall my landlord from putting me on the street. I have either to buy my shop, or to get out. Some two or three years ago he bought the property, comprising five dwellinghouses and three shops for £1,700. In the interval he has sold two of the houses, one a three apartment tenement for £750 and a kitchen for £300 making in all £1,050. He now wants £900 from the baker"— who has a shop next door to this man— the same from me and £1,200 from the hairdresser, in all £3,000 and, mark you, he still has three houses to play with. That is the kind of thing that this Bill is to deal with. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Galloway (Mr. McKie) has left the Chamber, but I am sure that the sheriffs of Scotland will gladly accept the responsibility of the increased work involved in getting rid of an injustice of this nature which, to my mind, is bringing a ray of light upon a section of Scottish landlords that does not reflect great credit on them.

Mr. Willis

Tory landlords.

Mr. Ross

I welcome the support of the Opposition for this Measure and I hope they will always support us when Measures of this sort are brought before the House.

6.22 p.m.

Mr. Niall Macpherson (Dumfries)

I am sure the House will agree that the main purpose of this Bill is to stop the "buy or quit" racket, and in so far as it achieves that objective it will certainly have the full support of the whole House. But there is one anxiety that I have about it. That is the possibility that sheriff courts may conceivably get overloaded in the course of carrying out the provisions of the Measure. In order that they shall not get overloaded, it seems to me that a certain amount of restraint will be required on the part of both landlord and tenant. If the tenants choose to regard this Bill as a means of preventing their having to pay even a reasonable increase in rent and interpret the words a renewal of his tenancy on terms that are satisfactory to him in the most narrow sense and are not satisfied with anything except existing terms, recourse to the sheriff courts by the tenants will be far more considerable than is intended. On the other hand, it may be that landlords would regard this as possibly the last opportunity of increasing rents, believing that as the Government have already clamped down on the increase of rents of residential premises, so that the Government intend to do the same in regard to shop premises, and that there is only a little time left for them to increase their rents.

The best service the Secretary of State could give the Measure to make certain that it works well and smoothly, would be to give an assurance that the Government have no intention of clamping down, whatever the circumstances, on all increases in rent of shops, and that if the Guthrie Committee, which has already made its interim recommendations, does not recommend in its final report a complete cessation of increases in rents, the Government will not impose that in the Bill which ultimately will come before the House to cover the whole question of shop property. In my view that is the best service the right hon. Gentleman could give to make certain that neither a tenant nor a landlord abuses the Measure and that it is used principally to achieve its main purpose of stopping the "buy or quit" racket. With that one qualification, I add my welcome to the Bill and congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on having introduced it and the Guthrie Committee on the good sense of their interim report.

6.26 p.m.

Mr. Gallacher (Fife, West)

The hon. and gallant Member for Pollok (Commander Galbraith) said he regretted the Bill—

Commander Galbraith

I regretted the circumstances which made it necessary, which is rather a different thing.

Mr. Gallacher

He regretted the circumstances which made it necessary. The circumstances were the attempt on the part of the landlords to impose heavy payments on people who in many cases were unable to afford them. The hon. and gallant Member did not mean those circumstances, but actually meant that he regretted that the Bill was introduced. In a certain measure I also regret the character of the Bill, not that it is introduced, but that it deals only with a small but, nevertheless, important section of the problem. It only deals with shopkeepers. The hon. Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. Ross) referred to a case where a landlord is selling off shop and house property. The Bill deals with the shop property, but not the house property. He can still sell the kitchen for £300.

Commander Galbraith

The hon. Member will, in fairness, remember that on the Committee stage we on this side of the House endeavoured to extend the protection given by this Measure to other than shops.

Mr. Gallacher

I know that the question of the attempt to soak the tenants is not something new, but is an old old problem, which we have had to fight in Glasgow and on the Clyde for many years. In no instance where there has been an attempt to protect the tenant against the rapacious landlord have the representatives on the other side of the House, including the hon. and gallant Member for Pollok, entered the campaign against the rapacious landlords. The hon. and gallant Member referred to the fact that we have advice on this matter from two Committees, the Taylor Committee and the Guthrie Committee the former of which strongly advised not only that shops, but business premises, should be brought into this—

The Lord Advocate

May I correct the hon. Member? The terms of reference of the Taylor Committee were confined to shops and the terms of reference of the first branch of the Guthrie Committee remit were confined to shops. No recommendation has been made by either Committee in relation to other premises.

Mr. Speaker

May I remind the House that this Bill deals with shops, and shops alone. Discussion of other tenancies is out of Order.

Mr. Gallacher

I was just going to make that remark. If the Lord Advocate had not interrupted, I was going to say that in the meantime other premises were outwith the terms of this Bill. I mentioned the fact of those two Committees which reported.

The point we have to consider concerns shops. I do not like the power which is given to the sheriff. Too much power is given to him and too little power is retained by the Secretary of State to make final decisions where they are necessary. One of the Opposition spokesmen said that one thing he regretted was that the Minister had used his power to requisition. I regret the fact that he has not used his powers of requisitioning sufficiently widely. Now he is letting the power go out of his hands altogether, with the result such a situation could arise as a sheriff in Glasgow accepting quite a different estimate from that accepted by the sheriff in Edinburgh, with no appeal of any kind to the Minister being possible against any such decision.

I know that this Bill was framed and is being hurried through Parliament be- cause of the necessity for speed in dealing with this question. The subsection dealing with the powers of a sheriff arises from the necessity for speed, or I am quite certain that some other method of dealing with this question would have been devised in order to ensure that where a decision was made which left room for questioning an appeal would still lie to the Secretary of State, perhaps direct through the complainant or through Members of Parliament. We have seen how important it is for Members to raise these questions with the Secretary of State. It is because of the fact that many Members of this House have continually put down questions to the Secretary of State that we have had this matter pushed forward.

It is undesirable that we should be passing a Bill which takes away the power from the Secretary of State in a matter of this kind, and leaves the decision to a sheriff in Ayrshire, Glasgow or Edinburgh. If the sheriff in Glasgow accepts an estimate and gives a decision quite out of proportion in either direction to one which has been given in Edinburgh, nothing can be done about it. There is no appeal against it. I suggest even at this late stage that as the Bill has to go elsewhere the Lord Advocate and the Secretary of State might yet consider whether a final appeal should not be reserved to the Secretary of State so that all the power does not go out of his hands.

6.33 p.m.

Mr. Carmichael (Glasgow, Bridgeton)

I wish to make one or two points because of the intervention of the hon. Member for Dumfries (Mr. N. Macpherson). He rather indicated that landlords will have the power to raise the rent and that there will be no appeal against a decision of that kind. The Bill makes it clear that not will only the tenant have the right to seek the protection of the sheriff in the event of a demand being made to him to purchase; he will equally have the right, if he regards the rent asked as rather high and exorbitant, to appeal to the sheriff against that increase. I hope it will be clearly noted that whether in the case of increased rent or a demand to purchase, he has the right of appeal.

Mr. N. Macpherson

The point I was making was that that right would have to be exercised with caution or the courts would be completely overloaded. Obviously an exorbitant demand should be withstood, but a reasonable demand—that is, one that would be acceptable to a reasonable tenant—need not necessarily lead to court action.

Mr. Carmichael

It is not for the hon. Member or myself to begin discussing what is a reasonable or exorbitant rent; it will depend on the circumstances. Both the landlord and tenant will require to make up their minds on the matter and then lodge an appeal if there is a feeling that an injustice is being done.

This is a temporary Measure, because the Committee's work is still incomplete. I hope that the Committee will appreciate the fact that if the property scarcity continues, especially in the centre of large cities, the need to give some protection to the tenant will continue. Let it be clearly understood that this Bill would have been unnecessary had the landlords been reasonable and tolerant in the beginning. They felt that they had a commodity with which they could play, and they demanded most exorbitant rents. Ultimately they demanded the right to call upon the tenant to purchase the property. One might even go further and say that there are now very few shops in the large cities of Scotland the tenants of which do not actually pay the owner's rates. The landlords have gone a considerable way in increasing the rent over that which was formerly paid.

I welcome the Measure. It is a means of protection. There is a feeling that a shop is a particular kind of place on a ground floor and that beyond that one is dealing with other premises. If the Lord Advocate will permit me, I would use, not knowledge which I specially possess, but information which he has already conveyed to the Scottish Grand Committee. He made it clear that A shop, under the terms of the 1912 Act, includes 'any premises where any retail trade or business is carried on.' He further told us that Retail trade or business 'includes the business of a barber or hairdresser, the sale of refreshments or intoxicating liquors and retail sales by auction, but does not include the sale of programmes and catalogues and other similar sales at theatres and places of amusement.' He further said: Under the terms of the Shops Act, 1934, a shop means' any shop as defined by the 1912 Act and any Wholesale shop, and includes any warehouse occupied for the purposes of his trade by any person carrying on any retail trade or business or by any wholesale dealer or merchant.'"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Scottish Standing Committee, 9th February, 1949; c. 25.] That is somewhat wider than the commonly accepted view of a shop. We are grateful for that information from the Lord Advocate because many of the people who are threatened are occupying premises of that kind. I hope that the speed with which this Measure is being passed will be a great aid to people of the kind mentioned. As one of the persons who was critical of the Government in the early stages of this matter, I welcome the Bill wholeheartedly, and hope that it will serve the purpose which we desire it to serve.

6.39 p.m.

Mrs. Jean Mann (Coatbridge)

I also desire to welcome this Bill. I am sure that it will be of great assistance to the shop people of Scotland. It is rather a curious commentary that such a Bill is necessary. When the Opposition were in power, the criticism of shop proprietors was about the heavy taxation which they had to pay on empty property. Such was the alleged prosperity of the masses that row upon row of shops were empty while the Opposition were in power. When Labour came to power almost every empty shop sprang to life, and there was a complete reversal of the situation. The property owner then began to find that there was a demand for the shops and he engaged in his little ramp. It says much for the much maligned Labour Government, who were constantly taunted in the Press that they were not the friends of the small shopkeeper—

Mr. Speaker

All this would be very appropriate on Second Reading but on Third Reading we ought to confine ourselves to the Bill, without any background.

Mrs. Mann

I am very sorry, Mr. Speaker. I am not quite clear on the distinction between Second and Third Reading. It says much for the Government that they introduced this very fine Measure so quickly.

As the hon. Member for West Fife (Mr. Gallacher) has said, to a certain extent it hands the small shopkeeper over to the sheriff, but only for one year. It is really a stop-gap Measure; it ends in 1950. We hope that the Guthrie Committee will have completely finished their report by that time and that we shall be able to introduce a more comprehensive Measure which will include offices and business premises. I am sure that the Bill will be of great assistance to the shopkeepers of Scotland.

6.41 p.m.

Mr. J. L. Williams (Glasgow, Kelvingrove)

So far as I can see the question is whether we shall accept the Bill as it stands. For my part I say, "Yes," without hesitation. A great many shopkeepers with whom I come in contact, many who are actually affected by the provisions of this Bill, also say without hesitation that they wish to see the Bill passed into law as quickly as possible. The experience of a year ago, as the last May term came along, and the prospect for the coming May term, form a background which creates in the minds of shopkeepers an acute demand for this piece of legislation.

It is quite true that the present machinery enabling the Secretary of State to requisition properties has gone a long way towards relieving quite a number of shopkeepers. Indeed, it will have relieved a much greater number than can be found in any record produced. At the same time, I consider that this Bill is a peat improvement, if only for the fact that under requisitioning not only essential services are recognised, but the personal hardship of the shopkeeper. There are some things left out of this Bill which we should have liked to see in it, such as the inclusion of offices and other business premises.

There is also the question of rent. I would repeat this, because I have had correspondence from quite a number of shopkeepers, including some in my own constituency, who are being asked to sign on the dotted line very quickly—apparently before this Bill comes into force—and to pay a rent that is more than 100 per cent. of the rent of 1939. I believe that this problem of rent will become very acute in the next few months, and perhaps more so within the next 12 or 15 months.

At the same time we realise that this Bill does provide things we have asked for very loudly. We recognise the readiness of the Secretary of State to meet our demands in this respect. The Bill does provide something for the small man. After all, the small man has been preached about so much and so little has been done for him that today the small man, in the form of many shopkeepers, cannot believe that anything is being done. So he writes to his M.P. and asks if it is true that any protection is being given to him for his tenancy under this new Bill. Well, there is something provided.

There were some Amendments which it was sought to put into this Bill which I am glad have been left out. I would mention the circumstances in which the sheriff can refuse the renewal of a tenancy. I am glad that those circumstances have not been extended. That would have tended to destroy the purpose of the Bill. I am glad also that the sheriff is to have the final say and that there is no question of appeal, because that again would have defeated the purpose of the Bill inasmuch as the shopkeeper would not be able to get his decision as quickly as he would wish to have it. There is something which we too can do in this connection. The shopkeeper wishes to have the decision from the court as soon as possible. He wants to get on with the job. We can enable the Secretary of State to get this Bill made law at the earliest possible date.

6.46 p.m.

Sir William Darling (Edinburgh, South)

I wish to support the Bill. It has this outstanding merit, that the House very rarely discusses this very important industry of shopkeeping. It will be remembered that one caustic critic of our country described us as a nation of shopkeepers, and it is gratifying to find the Government taking an interest in the shopkeeping industry.

There have been some hard things said, notably by the hon. Member for West Fife (Mr. Gallacher), who talked in typical strain about the rapacious landlord. The hon. Member may have met a good many of them; I have not met many. Those whom he described as rapacious landlords have often been compelled, owing to the exigencies of recent times, to sell their properties in order to live. If the hon. Member were similarly circumstanced, and as hard driven as they were, I do not know what he would have done other than sell his property. It is incorrect to say that the rapacity of landlords is widespread and universal.

I have a considerable admiration for what is called the "landlord class," although the term is not very accurately applied to this Bill. They are neither lords, nor do they own land. They are persons who, by thrift and economy, have saved some substance—while other people spent their's on riotous and other forms of living—and invested it in shop property. They are entitled to a reasonable reward for their investment. The hardness of the times and the increase in taxation have compelled them in many instances to sell their property for what prices they could get. That is what I would have done. I see no hardship in it and I do not recognise any great difference, in our attitude towards economic affairs, between myself and the hon. Member for West Fife.

This is an important Bill because it is a recognition by the Government that the distributive system of this country is very important. A number of hard things have been said about the distributive system of this country—that it is extravagant, that there are too many shops and too many people employed in shops. I am glad that the Government recognise not only the importance of the distributive industry, but the importance of its having a certain security of tenure. I do not agree with the hon. Member for West Fife that there should be an appeal to the Secretary of State. The Secretary of State has been wise to shed this responsibility. The sheriff is good enough for me, and when the hon. Member for West Fife comes before the sheriff, the sheriff will be good enough for him as well. I think that the Measure is well devised in seeing that the sheriff is the final arbitrator in this matter.

I wish to make an observation with regard to the "soaking" of the tenant. The so-called soaking of the tenant has been referred to. I am not aware—and I should think I speak for some 90 per cent. of tenants of shops in Scotland—that any of this soaking of the tenant has taken place to any extent.

Mr. Gallacher

Did the hon. Gentleman hear the case mentioned by the hon. Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. Ross)? Was that not a case of soaking the tenant? That type of story could be repeated from all over the country.

Sir W. Darling

The hon. Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. Ross), like me, can instance many single cases. I submit that by and large, this was not a general evil but a specific evil. I do not think that the number of cases submitted to the inquiry which the Secretary of State set up was large considering the number of shop premises now in occupation throughout Scotland. This is a Bill which deals with a temporary phase. It is apparent from Clause 3 (3) that the Government believe that this evil will have passed by 31st December, 1950. This is not a great or grievous evil. The Government have seen the matter in proper proportion. They have not been led away by the excitability of the hon. Member for West Fife and those who share his views. They have responded to a clamour but they have done so temporarily and they have not taken it too seriously.

This is a useful Measure which possibly will give some support to certain Members of Parliament who require the help of the small shopkeeper and who have never deserved it before. It may give them some support in that direction, and they are welcome to it if they can achieve it. Nothing has been said about who these rapacious landlords are. It is right to say that they are not necessarily individuals. They are often large corporations and they include—notably in the Highlands, I regret to say—the Scottish Co-operative Wholesale Society which has bought properties over the heads of tenants, not once or twice but many times. Let us be fair—

Mr. Scollan (Renfrew, Western)

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that there is not a single case in which the Scottish Co-operative Wholesale Society took over premises in the Highlands which was not a negotiated sale with the owners and that the people were glad and willing to sell in order to get out?

Sir W. Darling

Doubtless the hon. Member for Western Renfrew (Mr. Scollan) speaks with authority on this subject. I only know that large numbers of tenants of properties in the Highlands have had their property taken over by the Scottish Co-operative Wholesale Society, which I would not call a rapacious landlord. This is a small Measure; it is a paltry Measure; but if it succeeds in doing what possibly some of its supporters would like it to do—that is, to secure them much-needed support at the next Election—at least it has my blessing.

6.53 p.m.

The Lord Advocate (Mr. John Wheatley)

The measure of the minimum of praise showered upon this Bill by the hon. Member for South Edinburgh (Sir W. Darling) is perhaps in direct disproportion to the value of this Bill. It certainly gives me great pleasure to shepherd this small but important Bill through its final stages. It is not a paltry Bill. Hon. Members opposite recognise that it sets out to remedy an evil which unfortunately has crept into our social life. It will remove considerable hardship which from experience we know has existed in Scotland—hardship which has exercised the minds of hon. Members on both sides of the House. There is, however, something even more important than the general acceptance which this Bill has received. I refer to what I hope is a general acceptance of the underlying principle that when a situation develops in our communal life, whereby a certain section of the community is liable to be penalised by another section of the community, all parties in this House will be prepared to unite to remove that evil irrespective of where the blow may strike.

I wish to make the point that when questions were raised prior to this Bill being introduced they were confined to a demand to the Secretary of State for Scotland that he should implement the recommendations of certain committees. Those recommendations were confined to the narrow limit of shop premises in Scotland. Having regard to that fact, I must deprecate the attempts from various quarters either to level criticism or to get some support from other sections of the community. In this I am afraid that I must include the hon. and gallant Member for Pollok (Commander Galbraith)—

Commander Galbraith

I only said what was true.

The Lord Advocate

We were invited at a late stage to incorporate into the Bill a type of premises which had not been dealt with by the Committee. This a temporary Measure. What happens in the future will depend on circumstances and the final Guthrie Report. It is perhaps satisfactory to observe the approval which the more general application of this doctrine is receiving from hon. Gentlemen on both sides of the House. We shall certainly bear that in mind when the time comes.

Not only is this a temporary Measure but it is one designed to get quick and effective procedure. For that reason we invoke not only the assistance of the sheriff but the procedure of the small debt court. If there is any danger that the sheriff court may be inundated with applications—which I doubt except perhaps in the big cities—provision is made for a temporary extension of tenancy for a period up to three months to enable the sheriff finally to dispose of the application. To give any right of appeal from the sheriff would not only be contradictory of the small debt procedure but would affect the streamlined procedure which we have developed in this Bill.

The hon. Member for Dumfries (Mr. N. Macpherson) said that he hoped that my right hon. Friend and I would take steps to see that neither the landlord nor the tenant abused the Bill. That is not within our compass. The matter now lies with the court. It will be for the court to deal with these cases and with any suggestion of abuse. However, I should like to take the opportunity of thanking hon. Members in all parts of the House for their co-operation in enabling us to put this Measure through its various stages with expedition. We desire to get this Bill on the Statute Book as early as possible. The sooner we do that the sooner the umbrella will go up to protect the people whom this Bill is designed to protect. As the hon. and gallant Member for Pollok said, the Measure was improved during its passage. It is true that only two Amendments were added to the Bill, but still it was improved.

Mr. Frederic Harris (Croydon, North)

Since the Lord Advocate views this Bill as of such importance, and since the Home Secretary is in the House, may I ask why we have not got similar legislation in England?

Commander Galbraith

I am sure that the Lord Advocate did not wish to misrepresent me just now when he indicated that at a late stage of this Measure I had taken action to extend the scope of the Bill. On the Second Reading, I said: As at present advised, it is my intention in Committee to put down an Amendment to include premises other than shops."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Scottish Standing Committee, 9th February, 1949; c. 14.] In these circumstances I hope that the Lord Advocate will withdraw that reflection.

The Lord Advocate

I did not intend to infer that it was at a late stage of the Bill. What I meant was that it was at a late stage in the proceedings so far as this type of remedy was concerned. There is no doubt about that, because for months the request was that we should implement the Taylor Report.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.