HC Deb 24 May 1957 vol 570 cc1602-8

Order read for resuming adjourned debate on Question [29th March], That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Question again proposed.

12.48 p.m.

Mr. Bernard Braine (Essex, South-East)

It was, perhaps, a little unfortunate that I began to speak on this subject at just two minutes before four o'clock on 10th May, when the Bill was last before the House. On that occasion the House had listened to an impassioned speech by the hon. Member for Deptford (Sir L. Plummer), who had argued that opposition to the Bill meant, in effect, that one was in favour of racial discrimination.

The time was too short fully to express the resentment that some of us felt at that charge and, in particular, at the attacks made upon my hon. Friend the Member for Buckinghamshire, South (Mr. Ronald Bell), who had opposed the Bill. All of us in the House, certainly my hon. Friends, are bitterly opposed to any form of racial discrimination on grounds of colour, race or creed. Such discrimination is contrary not merely to the spirit of our people but to the Christian religion. The British Commonwealth, which comprises many races, which throws so many bridges of understanding across the gulfs which divide the races, could have no reason to exist if ideas of racial discrimination were allowed to take hold of British Members of Parliament.

I must confess that I have often been filled with anger on hearing stories of discrimination against distinguished people of a different skin and colour. In the end, men may differ in their capacities, in their talents, but all men are worth while. I oppose the Bill, therefore, not because I am in favour of any form of racial discrimination, but because the Bill is the wrong way to set about tackling the problem. The Bill is badly drafted and ill-conceived and could easily excite the kind of racial antagonism which it seeks to combat.

In some respects too the Bill is unnecessary. After all, discrimination by hotel keepers, lodging house keepers, restaurant owners, by people in the ordinary course of daily life on grounds of colour, is only one form of discrimination. I often have constituents who come to my Saturday morning "surgery" and complain that they have suffered unfair discrimination in some respects.

I remember that some weeks ago a young couple came to me. They had had great difficulty in finding accommodation, and they said that it was very difficult indeed for young people with small children to find rented accommodation. They had been turned away because they had small children. That is a terrible kind of discrimination. Sometimes people will not be separated from their dogs and they have been turned away from accommodation which they might otherwise have secured. That is discrimination too.

I have heard of cases of people who were prepared to walk the streets with their pet animals rather than be separated from them, but to pass legislation to make it an offence to discriminate against a spinster on the ground that she will not be separated from her pet is asking the House to make itself ridiculous. Yet all those forms of discrimination are as bad as those with which the Bill seeks to deal.

This is a matter which goes to the very root of human relationships. Try as hard as we can, we cannot compel people to love one another, we cannot compel people to ignore differences to which they attach importance, any more than we can ignore the fact that some people talk more loudly, take fewer baths, wear dirtier clothes, or have more unpleasant habits, than others. This is something which is absolutely fundamental. Where racial prejudice does exist—and unhappily it does exist in our midst—it calls for education, sympathy and knowledge, but it certainly does not call for legislation.

I turn to the provisions of the Bill. At least one provision is unnecessary for in the case of hotels and inns existing legislation deals with the problem. I am advised that premises which are inns by common law—that is, those which hold themselves out to receive travellers—are under a common law obligation to provide accommodation and refreshment for travellers, unless there are reasonable grounds in any instance for their not doing so. The law already makes provi- sion for that, and I cannot understand why those who drafted the Bill should have inserted that provision. Perhaps at a later stage we may hear a good reason, which has so far been lacking, why such a provision is sought to be made.

It is perfectly true that there is no legal obligation upon the keeper of a lodging house to provide accommodation. It may be that such keepers of lodging houses have an occupier's ordinary common law right of arbitrarily refusing admission to any person, or of requesting any person to leave their premises, or of ejecting them if they refuse to leave voluntarily.

However, I should have thought that it would be extraordinarily difficult to prove that in such circumstances a person had been turned away merely on grounds of colour. I can imagine a coloured man going to a lodging house, being turned away and feeling resentful because of believing that that was due to his colour. I can imagine him complaining to the hon. Member for Eton and Slough (Mr. Brockway) and the hon. Member, whose heart is big—some of us sometimes think that his heart takes charge of his head—saying, "This is dreadful, this is shocking but, of course, if the Bill sees the light of day, you will have a redress."

Would he have a redress? It may well be that the lodging house keeper's defence would be, "No. I did not turn away this man on grounds of his colour. I turned him away because I do not want any male lodgers. I have had many of them in the past and I prefer to have lady lodgers ". It would be the most difficult thing in the world to prove—I think impossible to prove—except in certain circumstances where the lodging house keeper was foolish enough to say that he did not want any coloured people in his house, that the action was one of racial discrimination.

In the absence of anything of that kind, it would be almost impossible to prove that a person had been turned away on the grounds of colour and on the grounds of colour alone. The illustration that I have just given shows, however, that the lodging house keeper was exercising a discrimination. She objected to male lodgers. That is a dreadful form of discrimination, but I am not at all sure that it would be a suitable subject for legislation. Only a short time ago I read in the newspapers of a Manchester barber who charged the exorbitant sum of 7s. 6d. for cutting a coloured man's hair. The coloured man compared the prices and objected very strongly on the grounds that it was some form of racial discrimination. "Oh, no" said the barber, "Cutting your hair was infinitely a more difficult task than cutting the next man's hair, and so I charged accordingly ". I repeat that it would be extremely difficult to prove that discrimination had been exercised by a lodging house keeper against coloured people merely on grounds of colour.

While it is wrong to take away the right to choose in matters of this kind, it is obviously morally wrong to discriminate on grounds of colour. It may be that the hon. Member for Eton and Slough has done a great service in focussing attention upon the cancer in our midst. Many people have found how delightful are the West Indians who come to work in this country. I have been struck by their good manners, their impeccable behaviour, their good humour, and their gaiety, and I have heard it said that people prefer many West Indians to many of our own countrymen, precisely because they possess these infectious qualities.

Mr. A. Fenner Brockway (Eton and Slough)

And their cricket.

Mr. Braine

Anyone who can secure a West Indian for the local cricket club usually acquires a great asset.

I believe that in recent years there has been a considerable change of heart. After all, these prejudices spring largely from fear and from lack of knowledge and understanding. In the last few years, a large number of coloured people have come into the country, have not experienced any form of discrimination, but have, on the contrary, found many friends among our people. Discrimination, therefore, is something which ought not to be tackled by legislation but should be tackled gradually, by education and by focussing attention upon the problem.

Clause 3 provides that Any covenant or provision in any lease or agreement for or in consideration of or collateral to a lease (whether made before or after the passing of this Act) forbidding or tending to forbid the use or occupation of any premises on any such ground as aforesaid shall be void. I am not a lawyer, but I am not aware of any decision of the courts that covenants and provisions in leases or agreements concerning the use of premises which discriminate between different classes of persons are void. It is a common form of covenant in leases that the lessee will not assign, underlet, charge or part with the possession of the premises or any part of them except with the written consent of the landlord. I am advised that by Section 19 (1) of the Landlord and Tenant Act, 1927, such covenants—apart, I think, from agricultural and mining leases —take effect subject to a proviso that the consent is not to be unreasonably withheld.

As I understand, that means that it would be open to any person whose sub-tenancy was refused by the landlord to go to the court for a declaration that the landlord's consent had been unreasonably withheld. I have searched to see whether I could find any precedent, but the only relevant case I can find is that of Mills v the Cannon Brewery Company, in 1920, in which it was held that a refusal of consent to an assignment on the grounds that the proposed assignee had a German name and was of German origin was unreasonable. I have no reason at all to believe that the courts would not hold that discrimination against a man in this respect purely on grounds of race or colour was void. At least, I suggest that the matter should be tested in the courts before we add to the weight of legislation.

One could riddle the whole of the Bill. Clause 4, for example, is something which I simply do not understand. This is the provision that No person who employs fifty or more persons in any industry, trade or business shall be entitled on any such ground as aforesaid to refuse to employ or to promote or to terminate the employment or promotion of any person, and no persons shall be entitled on any such ground to act in consort "— whatever that may mean— to refuse to consent to such employment or promotion or to terminate the same. Here is discrimination if ever there was any. Why limit the Clause to people who employ fifty or more persons? In fact, the likelihood of an organisation which employs fifty or more persons discriminating against people on grounds of colour is less than in the case of people employing fewer than fifty persons. It is when people have a small number of workers that it might well be a matter for consideration whether they should import somebody of colour. Why has this provision been put into the Bill? It does not make rhyme or reason. Before I would go much further, I would want to know whether the Trades Union Congress had been consulted about this provision.

Indeed, why go further? The Bill is so inconsistent and so ill-conceived that it is almost an insult to the House to consider it further. The mere fact that only one sponsor of the Bill is present here this morning to discuss it and that we have this sparse attendance shows what little enthusiasm there is for this unhappy Measure. Although I could go on for hours arguing the case against this Measure, in view of the lack of enthusiasm which has been shown by the sponsors of the Bill, and, indeed, by the House itself, I have no option, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, but to draw your attention to the fact that fewer than 40 Members are present.

Notice taken that 40 Members were not present;

House counted, and, 40 Members not being present, adjourned at nine minutes past One o'clock till Monday next.