HC Deb 07 July 1953 vol 517 cc1187-207

Subsection (6) of section one hundred and forty-nine of the Customs and Excise Act, 1952, shall be amended by the deletion of paragraph (d) and the proviso thereto.—[Mr. Mitchison.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. G. R. Mitchison (Kettering)

I beg to move, "That the Clause be read a Second time."

This Clause is designed to remove a provision in the Customs and Excise Act which restricts the quantity of spirits that may be sold at what is commonly called an off-licence. At present the law is that, in general, at an off-licence, at least a quart bottle must be sold, with a proviso that, where there is a justices' licence, the quantity may be at least a pint. The history of this rather curious piece of legislation is that the original provision was for a quart bottle, and no less than a quart bottle; and in 1933 the rather limited concession of a pint bottle in certain circumstances was inserted.

This matter was considered by the House not so very long ago. We are now in 1953, and it was only a couple of years ago that a similar provision was sought to be introduced into the Finance Bill of that time. The course of the discussion then is interesting, and the arguments put forward for what we seek to do tonight, namely, to remove altogether the minimum quantity provision, were cogent and almost unanimous.

I propose to begin by referring to the very clear and excellent speech made on that occasion by the hon. Member for Wolverhampton South - West (Mr. Powell). He pointed out, and I should like to adopt his arguments, that this was a somewhat absurd matter because in the first place the holder of an on-licence could sell retail even the smallest quantity of spirits; and second that not only was that the case but that there was no means for the ordinary person, unless he happened to know the position, to distinguish clearly what happened. He could, for instance, go into a place where there was a restaurant—the hon. Gentleman instanced a Lyons Corner House as one—and buy a perfectly small quantity retail. To all appearances the place was the same, but at what really was an off-licence he was still bound to buy the larger quantity of a pint or a quart. In addition to that there is the further absurdity in the matter that, provided a large bottle is sold, then a very small bottle may be sold with it.

One pauses to consider for a moment the social effects of this curious piece of legislation. It seems to me that the present position is that if a person, for good or for ill—and I see my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. J. Hudson) very close to me, watching attentively—wishes to buy a small quantity of spirits he is unable to do so at an off-licence, and he is, therefore, obliged to do one of two things. He must either buy a larger quantity than he needs, and proceed, in the terms of my hon. Friend, to destruction more rapidly than he otherwise would, or, in the terms of those of us who are not quite so strenuously minded in these matters, be forced to buy, at what nowadays is a very high price, a great deal more spirits than he actually needs.

I do not believe it can be a very good result, whether looked at from the point of view of those who believe in moderation, or to those who believe in total abstention and regard even the smallest bottle as a lapse of some sort; and I should have thought, from the latter point of view, that the larger the bottle the larger the lapse, and I see no particular reason to suppose that the Gadarene swine would have gone to destruction any more rapidly if the slope had been a great deal less steep than I believe it actually was.

The other alternative is that in order to get the small bottle, if he is a person of determination, perhaps with an eye on economy, he will be obliged to go to a pub to get it—to an on-licence, as the phrase goes, and having got there he will then, with the absurdity peculiar to this legislation, be able to buy that which he was unable to buy at the other place. I cannot really see the point of that.

When this matter was canvassed before, the absurdity of this was, of course, pointed out, and it is exceedingly interesting to notice the very cogent support that was produced from both sides of the House on that occasion. The matter was raised by the hon. Member for Croydon, East (Sir H. Williams), whom I see sitting here today, and he, in rather timid language, referred to the time when he was a boy and three-star brandy cost 5s. 6d. a bottle. He had already assured the House that he had no connection with the industry except as a moderate consumer, and in that capacity he said—and I on this occasion, at least, agree with him—that the whole business was rather childish. He went on to say that it was the legislation of a lunatic asylum. That is going rather far, but there sometimes does occur, even in the licensing laws, a certain absurdity which is none the less absurd because it is founded in the history of that industry and the attempts of Parliament from time to time to deal with it.

He was followed by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Brixton (Lieut.-Colonel Lipton), who said that it was one of the rare occasions on which a point had been put by the hon. Member for Croydon, East which deserved consideration. I wish to disassociate myself with any criticism of the hon. Member for Croydon, East on this occasion, because I am looking for his support both in debate and, of course, since he is a man of courage and principle, in the Lobby afterwards.

I feel certain that the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West, if he were here, would find it impossible today to say the opposite, however ingeniously, of that which he said on that occasion. We also had the valuable support of two Members of the Government. First, the present Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport gave us a little vivid reminiscence about the discussion he had had with a Somerset publican about three of his customers. He described those three customers and went on to an even more family reminiscence with which I need not trouble the House on this occasion. He then ended, in characteristic style, by saying that he did not think that the argument used by the Financial Secretary, to which I will refer in a minute, held water. He corrected himself hastily by saying, "It does not hold alcohol." I am not at all sure on mature consideration that either phrase was logical, but one sees exactly what he meant.

Then there was support from the hon. and gallant Member for Ayr (Sir T. Moore), and again one notices how widespread over the country this feeling was because we had a word or two from the former hon. Member for Bolton, West and a word from an hon. Member representing one of the Midland constituencies, and finally we had what I would really call the plum of the piece—one of those strong vigorous speeches which the present Leader of the House used to deliver when in opposition. He really put it in a way which will commend itself, I feel certain, to the Chancellor and the Economic Secretary or the Financial Secretary, whichever of them replies to the debate. He said: The case for this new Clause is overwhelming, and the Government will have seen that there is support from all sides of the Committee for the proposition that in these days, whatever may be the history of the business, it is perfectly ridiculous that a certain number of people cannot sell smaller bottles whereas other people can sell smaller bottles. 10.30 p.m.

That is a very simple proposition, and I have no doubt that it will commend itself now as it commended itself then to those who felt that there was some absurdity in the matter.

The right hon. Gentleman went on to clinch the matter: If nobody could sell any small bottles, there might be something to be said for the other argument. One could argue that it was dangerous to allow people to buy spirits in these minute quantities and all the rest of it. But whereas one class of licence holders can sell the smaller bottles, another class of licence holders cannot because of an accident of the law."—[OFFICIAL REPORT. 18th June. 1951; Vol. 489, c. 75.] He went on to develop the case he had so clearly made, and that was the conclusion of the discussion.

Perhaps the most interesting part of it was the argument put up by my right hon Friend the Member for Battersea. North (Mr. Jay). He was most sympathetic. Clearly he had his heart in the small bottle. But he could not go quite so far. Reading through the speeches—there were two or three of them—it is clear that he was merely deferring the matter. This was 1951, and my right hon. Friend felt that … on the whole the case had not been made out in present circumstances … but that was before further pressure had been put upon him, and his last words were: In the course of the next year I see no reason why we should not hold similar consultations … In a minute or two I will say what those consultations were to be. … and if there were to be any sort of agreement whereby the conflict would be diminished, then, of course, a different situation would certainly arise."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 18th June, 1951; Vol. 489, c. 68, 75.] I hope I am not doing him any injustice if I say that his sole objection, so far as I can see, to what was proposed then was that it would damage the on-licence holders and that they might ask for a reduction in their licence fees.

I realise that times have changed. We have been told by right hon. Gentlemen and hon. Gentlemen opposite that they have pulled all the skeletons out of Government offices, that they have saved the country from bankruptcy and that we are now getting along in a most prosperous way. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] They do not expect me to accede to those rather remarkable arguments, but if they are so convinced—I thought I heard some applause—surely they must support us in something which they supported then and which was only refused then on the ground that in those circumstances it was hardly time yet.

I hope that in a matter of this sort the conflict and discussions which I have just mentioned—and their nature is very obvious—will not weigh too heavily with hon. Members opposite. The conflict was that between the on-licence and the off-licence holders and the discussions were with those two sides. We know quite well that the Tory Party is completely independent of any undue tenderness towards the holders of on-licences. I am waiting for loud applause from the benches opposite. I feel certain that they would not let any feelings which they have in that direction weigh too heavily in this matter. For, let us not try to deny that the on-licence holders and the brewers have already been paid very largely in good measure for the help given by the Tory Party. Have they not had a special piece of legislation introduced in this House concerning licensed premises in the new towns, and have they not had unqualified support from the Tory Party in return for the support which the Tory Party expects to get at other times?

Cannot we, therefore, remove this perfectly absurd position in which the off-licence holders find themselves? Or do the soft hearts of hon. Members opposite now harden towards these small men? Let us remember that the off-licence holder is, by and large, a small man; and let us remember that, roughly speaking, there are only about a third of them compared with the number of on-licence holders. Furthermore, they find it a little difficult to make both ends meet. These spirits are so expensive nowadays that if a person wants to buy a small quantity at an off-licence, then, because of this absurd position, the licence holder naturally enough suffers and complains.

I ask hon. Gentlemen opposite now to show that independence of spirit in dealing with the brewing industry to which I have referred. I ask them to show their feeling for the small man and, thirdly, I ask them not to forget their own past. It is not so long since this overwhelming argument—this massive argument—was adduced by hon. Members, who now sit opposite, in favour of this very thing. Surely they will not throw overboard with a resounding splash the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport and the Leader of the House. Where should we go without the guidance of the right hon. Gentleman; and what of his moral reputation? In this spirit, I ask the House to accept this Clause about spirits.

Mr. I. Mikardo (Reading, South)

I beg to second the Motion.

After what has been said by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Mitchison), it is necessary for me to add very little in order to commend our proposal to the House and also to those hon. Members opposite who supported it so warmly on a previous occasion.

It is not unknown for parties, when they change sides in this House, also to change roles as well, and for each to quote in support of an argument what the other side said only a year or two previously. The only snag about this is that the procedure cuts both ways, and one quotation naturally invites a counter-quotation. But while this is normally the case, we are tonight concerned with a special instance in which hon. Gentlemen opposite will be hard put to use the technique of tu quoque, because here is an instance in which the party opposite has committed itself to a particular attitude and a particular line of policy, because their agreed plan is to remove all restrictions wherever possible. Their creed is to set the people free. We are asking them this evening to set the people free to buy a quarter bottle of spirits at any place where it is on sale. That does not seem to be a great deal to us. All we are asking is that hon. Gentlemen opposite who make it their prime creed to set the people free should give just this tiny practical example of removing a silly, irritating and quite meaningless restriction.

Spirits are sold commonly either in public houses or in off licences. Milk is sold commonly either in dairies or grocery shops. Suppose the law were that one could buy any size bottle of milk in a dairy but that anyone who went to a grocery shop would be compelled to buy a quart bottle and would not be allowed to buy a pint bottle or a half-pint bottle of milk. Such a situation would be so obviously and manifestly ridiculous in the eyes of the whole country that any Government that sought to maintain or retain it would be laughed out of existence.

But the law with regard to the sale of bottles of spirits is no less ridiculous than that. We have to bear in mind that a certain part of the consumption of spirits—true, only a very small part, but a certain part nevertheless—is not for the purposes of entertainment or self-entertainment, but for medicinal purposes. I sometimes doubt whether all that is purported to be sold for medicinal purposes is actually sold for those purposes, but there is some that is. Some of this is bought by people who do not look upon drinking as a normal recreation or as an act of conviviality, and, indeed, possibly by people who disapprove of drinking for drinking's sake.

It is all wrong that such persons—it matters not for the purposes of my argument or the purposes of the responsibility of this House that the number of them be small—should be impaled on the horns of the dilemma described by my hon. and learned Friend that if they want to go out to buy a small quantity of spirits for medicinal purposes, they have either got to buy a much larger quantity than they want, or they must go to a public house in order to buy it. Some of those people—I respect the feelings of folk even when I happen not to share them—do not like public houses and do not like to go into public houses. It is quite wrong—I repeat, no matter how few they may be and how small the number of occasions on which this occurs—that this House should compel people to go into public houses to get what they want in the quantities in which they want to buy it.

There is one point which indicates how in the last few years this problem has intensified and become more serious. As the House knows, we have during the years since the war, and, indeed, for a period before the war, increased the practice of building large housing estates. In very many of these large housing estates there are few, if any, public houses. I have a large housing estate in my constituency which has no public house at all. Indeed, from parts of this estate to the nearest public house is a substantial distance. In cases like that, what right have we to say that we are setting the people free when we say to them, "Here is a shop round the corner where you can go and buy what you want, but you are not free to do so unless you buy a larger quantity than you want"? And especially with the increasing tendency to build houses in large blocks with no public house for long distances—it may be for good reasons which I will not go into.

10.45 p.m.

There is no more reason to compel people to go long distances for one commodity than to compel them to go long distances for bottles of milk because only the dairy can sell small bottles and the grocery shop cannot. I do not see how on any basis, short of making oneself ridiculous, it is possible to maintain this totally anomalous position. Here is an opportunity for the Government, who have not been very forthcoming in offering concessions to the feelings of the House today, to make a concession at little or no cost to the Revenue. It is clearly a concession which would be welcomed by hon. Members on both sides of the House, and by many people outside, and which can do no real harm to anyone.

One hesitates to impute motives, but one has to ask oneself why it is we have this discrimination about spirits and not milk? In trying to answer that question one reaches the conclusion reached by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kettering, that there is some connection between the unfair advantage in competition given to the holders of on-licences and the continual favouritism shown by this and other Governments to the brewers and their subsidiary organisations. I am sorry to have to say it, but it seems to me that as a fact that is inescapable.

We have the party opposite saying, "Let us have free competition. Do not let us try to control things, or direct things. Let us have a display of initiative. Let us have a fair, open and free field. Let everyone come into the market on the same terms and compete one with another. Let the best man win, with no fears and no favours, no unfair advantage and no undue restrictions." But here we have two traders in the same commodity with one being hampered by being able to sell only one quantity of that commodity.

What should we say if there was no free trading in gents' underwear: if one establishment was allowed to sell any amount of mens' shirts and another could not sell more than three at a time? We should say that potential customers were being directed from one establishment to the other. That is what is being done in the case of spirits. There is unfair discrimination between competing establishments.

I appeal to hon. Members opposite to support this proposal, now that their Government is in power, in the same way as they supported it when they were in opposition.

Mr. James Hudson (Ealing, North)

My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Mitchison) based most of his arguments on the case made for him by hon. Members opposite, like the hon. Member for Croydon, East (Sir H. Williams) and other hon. Members to whom he referred. He also referred to me, and I suggest that if he had used my arguments instead of those of hon. Gentlemen opposite he would not have been led into inconsistencies in the proposals he put before the House. I thought the hon. Member for Reading (Mr. Mikardo), by his own statement of the case, supplied the answer to the proposal which he makes. He wants to know why there should be a difference between milk and spirits. When one examines the matter in the light of the consequences of the free drinking of spirits and the free drinking of milk, I would say that the difference is so obvious that even my hon. Friend could answer the question.

Mr. Mikardo

I hope the hon. Member will permit me to say that I am a moderate drinker of spirits and a very large drinker of milk.

Sir Herbert Williams

Perhaps the hon. Member does not know that all cases of surgical tuberculosis are due to drinking milk.

Mr. Hudson

I am still prepared to say, as I tried to prove the other night, that few would complain if there were to be an increase in the milk consumption of this country; but if there were to be a large increase of spirit drinking, there would be a general deploring of that fact, particularly by those who remember the consequence of the larger amount of spirit drinking in the past. It is because of that difference that I cannot support the contention my hon. Friends have advanced. The Excise licence shop—the bottle shop, as some people call it—is an institution added to the many which all parties in the past have said are too numerous for the general health and welfare of the community.

In the days before the bottle shop, when the main drinking institutions were the public house and the off-licence shop, the Tory Party and the Labour Party were of the opinion that there ought to be a great reduction in these places. The Excise licence shop has come as an anachronism when all parties believed that there ought to be a reduction rather than an increase in the number of places where drink could be obtained.

If people can buy spirits in smaller bottles than is now laid down by law, there will be more people drinking spirits. This will mean that later in life these people will be drinking much larger quantities of spirits. I should like to see some proposal for limiting the drinking of spirits in public houses and in off-licence shops. Such drinking has been limited in other countries.

I do not think my party ought to be putting forward a proposal to popularise the drinking of spirits. I speak very earnestly. I can hardly enter into the joking side of it, although I see the joke. I know that my hon. and learned Friend when he referred to me was trailing his coat that I might tread on it. I tread on it very respectfully, but at the same time very firmly. I put it to the House that whoever was responsible for this proposal, from whichever party, we might well be content with the little flutter of argument we have had on it and not push it further to a Division.

Sir H. Williams

If I wanted to make a rather frivolous speech in answer to that of the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. J. Hudson), I would point out that all the cases of surgical tuberculosis in this country are the result of drinking milk, which causes three or four thousand deaths per annum. That does not alter the fact that when I get home tonight I shall drink some milk. I am going to take the risk. The consumption of milk has increased by about 80 per cent while the consumption of spirits has decreased since 1939, yet there are more cases of violence now than we have known for a long time.

I am delighted that the hon. and learned Member for Kettering (Mr. Mitchison) and the hon. Member for Reading, South (Mr. Mikardo) were enabled to make such good speeches after reading the speech I made on this subject in 1951. What is behind all this? A silly quarrel is going on inside what is called "The Trade." Off-licence holders are prohibited from selling less than half a bottle of sprits, and the on-licence holders can sell any quantity and think they would lose some of the trade if the proposed new Clause was carried. I think that is a complete illusion. The hon. Member for Reading, South pointed out that the people who want these quarter bottles in the off-licences are those who, for a variety of reasons, do not like going into a public house. In the old days we could get a whole bottle of Martell's Three Star brandy for 5s. 6d. A bottle now costs over 40s. and the quarter bottle would cost over 10s. I do not buy quarter bottles. I tabled an Amendment in 1951 with the same purpose in 1951, but it was differently drafted.

In view of this conflict within the licensed industry, I have put down a new Clause on the next page of the Paper to give some concession to on-licence holders. It would cost the Treasury some money. They always object to any proposal that costs money, but they cannot object to the present proposal on that ground. It would actually give the Chancellor more money and not less, and he cannot use the customary argument, "I can't afford it." I have been challenged about speaking in favour of this proposed new Clause and not voting for it. I do not think I would sacrifice this very admirable Government for the sake of a quarter bottle of brandy; not even for a full bottle. We have done very well in the Lobby tonight, I am glad to say, and on nearly every other occasion.

I think this nonsense should be stopped. It really is a lot of nonsense. I happen to know the two protagonists on both sides. They are both personal friends of mine. One speaks for the off-licence holders and the other speaks for the on-licence holders. I have known both for many years. [An HON. MEMBER: "Who are they?"] No names, no pack-drill.

11.0 p.m.

Seriously, here are people whom I know as two personal friends, and on this issue they are both pushed by those whom they represent. I appeal to the Chancellor to have the courage on this occasion to cosh them both. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"] I have been provoked into using that word by the hon. Member for Ealing, North whose guidance in this matter is not much use because, whether the Clause is accepted or not, he will not have even a quarter bottle. He is completely disinterested.

This silly discrimination ought to come to an end, and although the Chancellor, for some extraordinary, half-hearted, obstreperous and difficult reason, may not agree and says "Vote with me," I shall vote with him, but it will be with reluctance that I shall go into the Lobby. The time has come to stop what has become a bit of unadulterated nonsense.

Mr. Geoffrey Bing (Hornchurch)

I hope that those who I know hold very sincere temperance views on this side of the House will not necessarily suppose that by compelling someone to buy a larger bottle of whisky than he intended is the way to true temperance. There are people who, when they have got a larger bottle of whisky than they can afford, feel that they ought not to waste it. In those circumstances, I hope that those who are in favour of temperance will at least consider that aspect of the matter and consider that if perhaps smaller bottles of whisky were sold it might, at any rate, be an approach to a more temperate outlook. I appreciate that it is only a point of view, and that the opposite point of view can equally well be held.

I also hope that those of my hon. Friends on this side of the House who take a temperance point of view will remember that the principal opponents of this proposal are the brewers. We know that from time to time the brewers have made considerable contributions to temperance. Indeed, in order to have a temperance movement that was not contemplated by such persons as my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. J. Hudson), they founded their own which put forward a number of principles in the interests of what they consider to be true temperance.

Therefore, I do hope that the temperance movement here will be a little careful in dealing with an attitude which is strongly influenced by the brewers because this is a conflict between the tied house and the free house. The off-licensees are, on the whole, free and indeed passed a resolution opposing the tie, while the unfortunate tied licensees all got together to pass a resolution which was sent round, I think, to a few Members of Parliament, saying that they were all grateful to their brewers for having tied them so thoroughly.

Perhaps I may call the Chancellor's attention to the Clause. If I may say so, I am grateful that the House has an opportunity of considering the Customs and Excise Act, 1952. I myself put down an Amendment to deal with another aspect of it, which unfortunately was not selected, and I thought for a moment that it might be because it was felt that this Act as a whole was outside the scope of the Finance Bill. I am glad to think that it is not so, and on another occasion perhaps we can deal with other difficulties which seem to me to occur in the Customs and Excise Act.

Perhaps I may address this question to the Chancellor. Does he know what is a "reputed quart" or a "reputed pint"? If he does, he is a wiser man than the brewers, and that would be a most unusual thing for anyone sitting on the opposite side of the House. Perhaps I may refer him to the way in which this matter is delicately dealt with in the "Brewers' Almanac." After dealing with what are proper weights and measures, that great work then comes to a kind of miserable footnote which refers to beer casks and "to a capacity in excess of their nominal capacity," whatever that means. It also says: The reputed pint and the reputed quart bottle are nominally one-twelfth and one-sixth of a gallon respectively, but there is some variation in practice. How, under such circumstances, can one prosecute a man for selling a reputed quart or a reputed pint if there is no definition of what a reputed pint or a reputed quart is? But the matter is even worse than that, because to sell anything either by the reputed quart or the reputed pint is illegal.

This was a matter which was dealt with rather more in sorrow than in anger by the Committee appointed by the Chancellor of the Exchequer on Weights and Measures Legislation. If the Chancellor will turn to paragraph 355 of their Report, he will see the following: Reference has already been made to the fact that, although the terms 'reputed quart' and 'reputed pint' are illegal for use in trade, they are used in certain statutes. We consider that all reference to these terms should be removed from the Statute Book at the earliest possible. Here is an opportunity for the Chancellor to carry out that valuable recommendation. There is no point in having these terms on the Statute Book, because they do not mean anything. Nobody could be prosecuted for selling what was less than a reputed pint because what is a reputed pint is what he says it is.

Sir H. Williams

If the hon. and learned Gentleman will read Section 149 of the Customs and Excise Consolidation Act of last year, he will find this reference to the reputed pint as late as last Session.

Mr. Bing

It is deplorable, and we should all get together to put the matter right. These are forms of weights and measures which, in fact, are illegal. Why should we continue to punish people because they refuse to sell things by a measure declared by Parliament to be illegal? That seems an illogical attitude.

I do not want to delay the Chancellor, but I want to ask him why he should not remove the blemish in this particular regard. I have one further word to make on the general issue. There are about five-and-a-half off-licences for every 10,000 of the population. So they are, as compared with public houses, only about one-third or one-fourth the fraction, but they are increasing in numbers more rapidly than public houses. This is because public houses do not provide those services the public require. They do not provide, for instance, cups of tea.

One reason people buy from an off-licence is because there is one member of a family who wants a small drink while the other three members want a cup of tea. If one wants to bring home a bottle of drink, however guided or misguided it may be, according to one's feelings, it enables people to drink as their fancy suits them. It does not compel them only to drink spirits, as is the case if they go into a public house. We should not stand in the way of people who are opposing the domination of the brewers, as the off-licensees are.

It is interesting to note that so long as hon. Gentlemen opposite could merely strike, but not wound, they were only too willing to make a feint against the brewers. But, when they felt their votes would achieve what they were always promising their supporters to do, they would not cast them in this way. If this matter goes to a Division I hope that all my hon. Friends will support a vote which is in essence an anti-brewers vote and will support what is a provision to enable people to buy smaller bottles of whisky if they do not wish to buy larger ones. I am glad that my hon. Friends have raised the matter, and I hope that at the next Budget we shall have the opportunity to discuss a number of other matters in the Customs and Excise Act which, like the problem of the gravity of beer, require to be discussed in this House.

Mr. Maudling

It was quite clear that this debate would be an amusing and vigorous one, partly because it would give the hon. and learned Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Bing) a chance to renew his wider-ranging onslaught on the brewers in general and the drafting of the Customs and Excise Act in particular, and hon. Members opposite a chance to quote from speeches made on 18th June. 1951. The hon. and learned Member for Kettering (Mr. Mitchison) has made considerable use of arguments put forward on that occasion by those who are now on this side of the House. I can say two things in reply. The first is that whatever was said in the debate the hon. and learned Member's Government did nothing. The second is that the hon. and learned Member, his hon. Friend the Member for Reading, South (Mr. Mikardo) and the hon. and learned Member for Hornchurch did not add their voices in support of this urgent matter at a time when those voices carried such great influence with the then Government.

Mr. Anthony Crosland (Gloucestershire, South)

Three Labour Members did.

Mr. Maudling

But none of the three was prepared to support it in the Lobby.

As the right hon. Member for Battersea, North (Mr. Jay) said, there is here a real conflict of interest, indeed a historical controversy with a longstanding background. There are considerable arguments for saying that the present law is a restriction on the public's power to spend money which should be swept away. There is, of course, a good deal of confusion as to what can and cannot be sold. I have found that in my own experience—considerably to my annoyance at times when I have been told that an off-licensee was not in a position to sell something which I have found later he could have sold.

The position is slightly anomalous and confusing. For example, I am told that an assortment of four quarter-bottles of French liqueurs can be sold, and so can an assortment of British liqueurs, whatever those are, and of British gin, but not a Scotch whisky and a foreign brandy, and not an assortment of British gin and foreign liqueurs. There is also the difficulty that a member of the public who does not wish to go to a public house but wishes to buy brandy has to go to a public house because the small brandy that he requires cannot legally be sold at an off-licence.

Those are the sort of arguments put forward over a period in support of this proposed amendment of the law. On the other hand, there are arguments sincerely put forward by the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. J. Hudson) and others who think that the proposed new Clause is a bad thing in principle, because it would extend the temptation to people to drink more spirits. I do not know whether, on balance, it would lead to drinking more or drinking less. People might be inclined to drink more at home and less in the public house—I do not know. But there is clearly a considerable measure of public opinion opposing this proposal.

There is also the feeling of the on-licence holders that it would be quite unfair to sweep away this restriction on the sale of small bottles by the off-licence holders. It is not the Brewers' Society, as the hon. and learned Member for Hornchurch would have us suppose, who are active in opposing this proposal, but the on-licence holders. I understand that the Brewers' Society were officially consulted some two years ago and they did not wish to make representations on the subject.

Mr. Bing

Would the hon. Gentleman give the House the figures of the number of licensees who are tied and those who are free, respectively, who have made this protest?

11.15 p.m.

Mr. Maudling

I have not the figures available, but what I have given are the facts.

The position in 1951 when this subject was last debated was that there was this unresolved conflict between the two sides of the trade, and there was also this considerable difference in genuine public opinion. In those circumstances the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Batter-sea, North (Mr. Jay) said that the Government were not prepared to take any action on these lines. In 1952 the Chancellor of the Exchequer, in answer to a Question, said that he would be quite willing to review this question in the light of agreed proposals not involving a loss to the Revenue. It might be fairly easy to obtain agreement with substantial loss of revenue, but in present circumstances my right hon. Friend cannot contemplate that.

But my right hon. Friend's offer still stands, and he is still willing to review this question if proposals can be put forward introducing an agreement not involving loss of revenue. But, in the absence of such agreement, or evidence that there is widespread public agitation and strong enough feeling to counterbalance the feeling on the other side, my right hon. Friend feels he must maintain the position, and he cannot in those circumstances accept the new Clause.

Mr. Mitchison

For two reasons—first of all because this matter appears to be going to be decided by the brewers, and secondly because I have the highest possible regard for my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Hudson), whose opinions I do not always share—I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion and Clause, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Gaitskell

I beg to move, "That further consideration of the Bill, as amended, be adjourned."

It will not have escaped notice that during the last debate no member of the Opposition Front Bench rose to speak. This was not because of any pusillanimity, fear, or anxiety in our minds about a difficult and delicate situation between the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. J. Hudson), and the hon. Members for Kettering (Mr. Mitchison), Hornchurch (Mr. Bing), and Reading, South (Mr. Mikardo), but because I felt that the arguments had been so thoroughly canvassed that, for once, there was nothing to be said. It was also in my mind that it was getting rather late and that we might adjourn further consideration of the Bill until to-morrow. The next new Clause is an important one, and I feel sure the Chancellor will agree it is much better that we should discuss it in the afternoon rather than at a late hour this evening. I hope therefore he will be able to accept the Motion.

Mr. R. A. Butler

Under certain conditions I would be ready to accept this Motion. We have almost finished the new Clauses. We have next a subject which we debated in Committee, and each year previously, so at least we know the arguments, and may feel quite satisfied, despite the extension which has been drafted into it, that it will not take a great deal of time. I mention this because we might have some difficulty in finishing the Bill round about the time we had hoped. If we do not take too long over the new Clauses, then we should finish the Bill at a reasonable hour. In view of the need to press forward with public business, we had better take the risk in the circumstances and let the right hon. Gentleman deploy his case on a rather more massive front on the next Clause in the proper light of day. In the circumstances, and on the understanding we do finish the Bill at a reasonable hour, I would be ready to accept the Motion.

Bill, as amended (in Committee and on recommittal), to be further considered Tomorrow.