HC Deb 08 May 1958 vol 587 cc1547-58

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the Order made by the Secretary of State for the Home Department, extending Section 1 of the Sunday Entertainments Act, 1932, to the Borough of Port Talbot, a copy of which was laid before this House on 30th April, be approved.—[Mr. Renton.]

10.10 p.m.

Mr. Denis Howell (Birmingham, All Saints)

I desire to ask some questions about the opening of cinemas on Sundays in Port Talbot, and in Holsworthy, Newquay and Sheringham, to which the other Orders on the Order Paper relate. It seems to me that it is time the House debated them instead of allowing them to go through formally. We are all concerned about the obsolescent state of the Sunday observance laws, as was illustrated today at Question Time by the Prime Minister. We know that in various parts of the country there are different views about cinematograph shows on Sundays.

I wish to ask the Under-Secretary, who was good enough to reply to a debate on this matter a short time ago, whether the Government have any policy in respect of the opening of cinemas on Sundays. There is a degree of local option and this is being carried to the point of absurdity. Some magistrates allow the opening of cinemas with hardly any conditions and others lay down the most absurd conditions. What are the conditions in respect of each of the four places mentioned in the Orders being brought before us tonight? I have in mind a ridiculous position which obtains in the Midlands, where a local authority has laid down that there must be a sermon in the middle of the exhibition. It seems to me that for a local authority to use this legislation in that way is to bring the law into a state of ridicule.

I wish to know from the Under-Secretary what restrictions have been imposed here, and whether we may have an assurance that in these four places the absurdity of placing the restriction on exhibitors that films cannot be exhibited on a Sunday unless there is a sermon half-way through the performance will not be continued. If it is, some of as think that the time has come when this sort of thing ought to be stopped.

I should also like to ask what restrictions or regulations local authorities have made about the apportionment of part of the box office takings for charity. We know that in some areas local authorities or the licensing justices have laid down that there must be a flat rate levy of so much per seat. I know of one case where ¾d. or Id. per seat is charged, irrespective of whether anyone buys the seat or not. In other cases the local authority has laid down that a proportion of the gross takings must be paid to charity.

Furthermore, the practice is beginning at which I am protesting very strongly, that the charitable levies under these Acts are distributed by local authorities, unanswerably to anyone. They do not issue a balance sheet and do not say who is to get the money and how it is to be distributed. We are entitled to know not only the percentage and the basis, but the formula on which the money is being distributed. We want to know whether the local authorities or the magistrates intend to publish reports from time to time to the public at large, and to this House, which is granting these facilities, so that we may all know about the distribution of the levies.

It is time that the House debated each of these Orders upon its merits. The present law is chaotic. The Government find themselves unable to deal with the law, or to institute an inquiry into these matters, and rest their case solely upon presenting each of these Orders and hoping that it will go through on the nod. Members of Parliament cannot tolerate this system, which allows such a wide variation in practice from place to place, to operate by order of this House.

In making these protests about the state of the law and the farce of the House having to approve these Orders without having any information about them, I hope that I will have some small effect on the Government and will help towards the day, which is coming, when, in view of the tremendous change in public opinion, the Home Secretary, whom I am delighted to see with us, will have to re-enact the law on this subject. or at least to set up an inquiry to find out what sort of change in the law would be acceptable to public opinion in this day and age.

In pursuit of this general campaign, I am entitled to ask the Under-Secretary of State to tell us something about each of these authorities so that we may judge how the law is being carried out, and whether there are any ridiculous distinctions such as the one which I have mentioned, in which a parson should preach a sermon half-way through a cinema performance each Sunday evening. Having made this protest, I hope that the hon. and learned Gentleman will now give us the details for which I have asked.

10.19 p.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. David Renton)

The hon. Member for Birmingham, All Saints (Mr. D. Howell) has asked for various details which, if I understand the position, concern matters which have been delegated by Parliament to local authorities and to the decision of local people, and when those local authorities are exercising their discretion. It might help if I outlined the procedure which arises on these Orders. Perhaps it would be convenient, since we are discussing the first of these Orders, if I were to confine my remarks in the first place to the first Order, which relates to Port Talbot.

Mr. D. Howell

In the remarks I made I was rather general in the hope that that would save my having to speak four times, once on each of these Orders. I hope that the hon. and learned Gentleman will be as general, to save my having to inflict myself four times upon the House.

Mr. Renton

I hope that I am not being too optimistic, but it may be that, if I explain the position which has arisen about Port Talbot, and say that except for some details about voting, and so on, the position is the same in respect of the other places, the hon. Member may be satisfied with my explanation. I must warn him in advance that it is not within my power to give him all the details for which he has asked, because those are matters within the purview of the local authority.

The purpose of the first Order, which has been submitted by the Port Talbot Borough Council under the procedure laid down in the Sunday Entertainments Act, 1932, is to extend Section 1 of the Act to the borough and, in that way, to confer on the council, which is by delegation the licensing authority under the Cinematograph Act, 1909, the power to allow cinematograph exhibitions to be given in the borough on Sundays. Until Section 1 of the 1932 Act is extended in that way, the borough council would have power to allow Sunday cinematograph performances to be given on only two Sundays in a year. This procedure is, therefore, necessary to enable more regular Sunday performances to take place.

It rests wholly within the discretion of the borough council to decide whether steps should be taken with a view to the submission of a draft order for the extension of Section 1 of the Act to its area, in this case the borough. If it passes a resolution submitting a draft order, the council has to publish it by means of placards and notices in the local Press, and it has to publish the terms of the draft order and the fact that it proposes to submit the draft order to the Home Secretary. In the case of a borough or an urban district, the notice must also announce the holding of a public meeting of local government electors to consider the proposals.

The decision of that meeting is final, unless one or other of two things happen: first, a poll is demanded by no fewer than 100 electors, or one-twentieth of the whole number of electors of the borough, whichever is the smaller number; or, secondly, a poll is demanded by the council, if the decision of the meeting is against the proposal.

In Port Talbot the decision of the meeting held on 14th January of this year was against the proposal. A poll was demanded, however, by more than 100 electors. It was taken on 6th February and it resulted in favour of the proposal. The council thereupon submitted to my right hon. Friend the draft Order, which was in terms which had been decided upon in its discretion.

After that, all that my right hon. Friend has to do and, with respect, all that I should have thought the House is concerned with under the statutory procedure, is to lay a separate Order extending Section I of the Act to the borough. That Order has been laid before Parliament. It is in very short and simple terms, simply asking that Section 1 of the 1932 Act in relation to Sunday cinematograph entertainments be extended to the Borough of Port Talbot in pursuance of a poll taken in the borough. It is that Order, and not the original Order, which the House is now being asked to approve.

In deciding whether or not it is right to approve that Order, which has been laid by my right hon. Friend, what I suggest the House has to consider is whether the people of Port Talbot, by means of the poll that was taken, have clearly expressed themselves in favour of the Order. I am able to give the House, in this as in the other cases, the figures of the electorate and of those who polled and the result.

The total number of local government electors in Port Talbot on 10th October last, which was the last effective date for that particular register, was 34,844. Of those, 11,932—that is, rather more than a third of the electorate—voted at the poll. Of those who voted at the poll, 8,639 were in favour of Sunday opening and 3,293 were against it—a fairly large majority. Not only that, but I think that it is material to point out that this meant, in effect, that 24.8 per cent. of the total electorate, of those eligible to poll, expressed themselves in favour of Sunday opening, and only 9.4 per cent. of the total electorate expressed themselves against it.

It is also material to point out that the conditions by which Sunday opening would be accompanied were, if I understand the position rightly, laid before the electors at the time the poll was taken. If we believe in local government, and I know that we do, on both sides of the House, we must trust the local electors to exercise their judgment properly as to a matter of this kind and as to the details and conditions of Sunday opening. What we have to satisfy ourselves about and. I suggest, the only thing about which we have to satisfy ourselves is whether the local opinion was properly tested in accordance with statute. For the reasons I have given, I am able to assure the House that it was so tested.

That is my explanation, and in the case of Port Talbot I really do not think that I can go any further. Moreover, in relation to each of the other three Orders, my duty would be to explain circumstances somewhat similar to those which have arisen in regard to Port Talbot.

10.28 p.m.

Dr. J. Dickson Mabon (Greenock)

With all respect, the Under-Secretary has confined himself, in his interpretation of this House's function tonight, simply to the matter of whether or not the franchise exercised by the electors of Port Talbot was sufficiently clear to demonstrate that they approved the proposal that this draft Order should come before us, but surely that is not the case. Surely we are entitled to satisfy ourselves not only that they exercised the franchise correctly, but that they understood the precise nature of what the Order implied.

That is the point that I want to put to the hon. and learned Gentleman. He has not quite addressed himself to one of the very important parts of Section 1 of the Act, which concerns itself with this point. With permission, I should like to quote from that Section. Subsection (1) says: The authority having power, in any area to which this section extends, to grant licences under the Cinematograph Act, 1909, may, notwithstanding anything in any enactment relating to Sunday observance, allow places in that area licensed under the said Act to be opened and used on Sundays for the purpose of cinematograph entertainments, subject to such conditions as the authority think fit to impose: That is, in itself, worthy of some information from the hon. and learned Gentleman, because in paragraph (b) there is prescribed a rather complex formula by which certain percentages are donated, I think, to the old Cinematograph Fund. I cannot recall, because this matter has only recently been called to my attention, whether the Cinematograph Fund sustained by the Privy Council is in operation, or has been replaced by another, or whether it is the case that it all now goes to charity.

The Act says later, in Section 1 (1, b): … and as to the remainder thereof to such persons as may be specified by the authority for the purpose of being applied to charitable objects. It does not seem to me that it is reasonable that the House should agree to this if we do not know whether the people in the poll in Port Talbot or any of these other three places have had this matter explained to them. Was it a direct poll, a "yes or no" poll, or a poll in which these things were not explained adequately? Reference is made in the Schedule to the manner in which the poll should be conducted. I am wondering whether the Under-Secretary can tell us in what manner these points were made clear.

While I associate myself with the intention expressed by my hon. Friend, not only in relation specifically to these Orders but to the underlying Parliamentary concern about them, I have no objection to the acceptance of the Orders. All I want to know is what encumbrances are being placed on local authorities who have to carry out the Orders in respect of the Sunday Observance Acts, 1675, 1677 and 1780, and, in particular, what actual procedures are being adopted by borough councils to make clear the precise nature of the percentage contributions—that is, if they are so employed—and to what kind of charities are the moneys being given.

These, I suggest, are reasonable questions, and I am sure that the Under-Secretary is sufficiently well briefed to give us the answer quickly and save the time of the House.

10.32 p.m.

Mr. Michael Stewart (Fulham)

I would agree thus far with the Joint Under-Secretary, that Parliament did grant discretion to local authorities as to the conditions which they should lay down. But surely it is not unreasonable, when this House has granted a discretion to local authorities, for it at least from time to time to interest itself in the question of how that discretion is used. I do not think that anyone would wish that every time we have one of these Orders all the facts about it should be debated in the House.

What my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, All Saints (Mr. D. Howell) has done—and it is a useful service—is to remind us that the House is not, even in a matter where it is given discretion, a complete rubber stamp; and it is not unreasonable, if we want to form an opinion about the desirability of giving discretion to local authorities in this, that, or the other matter, to inform ourselves from time to time what use is made of this discretion.

For that reason I was sorry that the Under-Secretary could not give my hon. Friend the information for which he asked. To be frank, I never expected that the Under-Secretary would be able to do so. I do not recollect information of this kind having been asked for on one of these Orders before. Nor would one normally expect it. But, on the whole, my hon. Friend has performed a useful service in reminding the House and, through the House, the country, of the growing interest that there is on the whole subject of Sunday to which my hon. Friend has particularly drawn attention.

It was my hon. Friend's great misfortune that certain recent events in Coventry occurred after, and not before, the occasion on which he endeavoured to raise the question of Sunday observance in general in the House. I hope that he will not be discouraged by that and that he will continue to take suitable occasions——

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Sir Charles MacAndrew)

Yes, that is the point—suitable occasions.

Mr. Stewart

Yes, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, I was earnestly hoping that this was a suitable occasion. My hon. Friend was more successful than I and he managed to get it all through strictly within the framework of order. Perhaps I may, without transgressing the rules of order, say that I hope that the Under-Secretary will take note of what has been said in this debate and that he will bear in mind that there is a growing desire that an inquiry into the whole matter of Sunday legislation ought to be undertaken.

Mr. David Llewellyn (Cardiff, North)

I believe that this is the first time for many years that an Order of this kind has been debated in this way. I want guidance only on one small point, arising out of my hon. and learned Friend's remarks. He referred to the discretion that he enjoys in placing an Order before the House, and its relation with the actual size of the poll. I should like to know whether, in the event of a town deciding by a very small majority that it was in favour of Sunday cinemas, he would be bound to lay the Order before the House.

10.35 p.m.

Mr. Renton

I certainly join with the hon. Member for Fulham (Mr. M. Stewart) in saying that this is not a matter which should be taken for granted, and that the House has every right to satisfy itself that this Order ought to be made before approving it. All I was seeking to do was to point out that we delegate certain matters to local authorities and that, especially in particular cases, we ought not to go behind their decision, certainly if there has been an overwhelming majority in a local poll, properly taken. I quite agree that from time to time it is right that we should consider in a general way how local authorities exercise their discretion, and, indeed, if I may be permitted to refer to it by way of example, the Local Government Bill is, in a sense, a survey of that kind.

An hon. Member opposite asked me about the Cinematograph Fund and its effect upon these Orders. I have here Section 2 of the Sunday Entertainments Act, 1932, and so far as I am able to tell there is nothing in the Section which would indicate that the validity of an Order laid by the Home Secretary was in any way dependent upon the way in which the Cinematograph Fund was disposed of, and I say, therefore, that not only am I not in a position to answer the question but, even if I were, it would appear to be doubtful whether I should be in order to do so. Incidentally, Section 2 of the 1932 Act, which establishes the Cinematograph Fund, says that it should be administered in the way prescribed by the Privy Council.

Dr. Dickson Mabon

If we do not really have to inquire into the administration of the Cinematograph Fund, how can that square with the proviso to Section 1 (1) which says: Provided that no place shall be allowed to be so opened". and goes on to give conditions which are extremely complex, in regard to the method by which it is calculated that prescribed percentage sums are given to the Fund? Why cannot we be given the figures for each of these areas, to demonstrate whether, in fact, this provision is being observed?

Mr. Renton

I am sorry. Either the hon. Member has misunderstood me or I did not make myself clear. I am simply saying that the way in which the Fund is administered is governed by rules made by the Privy Council under Section 2 of the Act, and the way in which that has been prescribed by the Privy Council is not a matter which arises when the House is asked to confirm or refuse a particular Order laid by the Home Secretary under Section 1. That is my interpretation for what it is worth.

As was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North (Mr. Llewellyn), and in my experience during the thirteen years that I have been in this House, this is the first occasion on which one of these Orders has ever been debated. Naturally, I was prepared to deal with the more obvious matters which might arise, which are the reasons why one might invite the House to confirm an Order laid by my right hon. Friend for the abundantly clear purpose laid down in the Act. But I should have welcomed notice, bearing in mind the history of these matters, if we were to go beyond that abundantly clear purpose. At the same time, it is not——

Mr. Speaker

Order. It seems to me that this discussion has arisen not on the Order before us, but on the Act itself, and the Act is not in question in this Order.

Mr. D. Howell

With respect, Mr. Speaker, I have been looking at the Act carefully, and it lays down that certain conditions must obtain in respect of the payment of part of the proceeds. The Act says how these charitable moneys shall be distributed. We are arguing that if these moneys are to be distributed under the Order so as to make it valid, the House should be given details.

Mr. Speaker

I am familiar with this Act. I remember it going through the House and I took part in some of the discussions upon it. This Order applies the provision of the Act automatically and the provision is laid down in rules which arrange for the distribution of the charity. That is not in the Order. It is for the House to say whether or not this procedure shall be applied to Port Talbot. The House is entitled to ask whether the statutory requirements have been fulfilled within the question of the local poll, and so on, but only that. That has nothing to do with matters otherwise arranged.

Dr. Dickson Mabon

If that be true. Mr. Speaker, is it your opinion that the prescribed percentage is universal throughout England and Wales and not confined to variations within different places?

Mr. Speaker

The prescribed fraction is not prescribed in this Order but somewhere else, and that is not before us.

Mr. D. Howell

There is a local authority in the Midlands exercising this Act under one of these Orders which has laid it down that a parson must preach a sermon in the middle of the film show. I consider that is illegal; it is not allowed for in the Act. Would it be in order to ask the Under-Secretary whether similar conditions have been laid down by the magistrates or the local authority at Port Talbot?

Mr. Speaker

Not on this Order. It might be permissible to ask that at another appropriate time, but this Order merely applies the Act. If the hon. Member is alleging that the requirement to preach a sermon is outside the terms of the Act, that has nothing to do with this Order. He must raise that matter on another occasion.

Dr. Dickson Mabon

On the point of order, Mr. Speaker. Surely what you have said implies that there is a uniform prescription, as I suggested earlier. We cannot review the conditions of the charity and we have not been told about the conditions imposed by the polls. We have not been told whether the polls are a direct affirmative or a direct negative. We have asked for information, not for the purpose of delaying the proceedings, but to find out what are the circumstances. May I ask this question? When is the opportunity for us to challenge the operation of these particular Orders in regard to the conditions which local authorities can adopt? If we cannot do it before we grant the Order,—there is no reason to think there is anything wrong with Port Talbot or any of them—when can we do it?

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Gentleman should proceed in the ordinary way by putting down a Motion seeking to amend the original Act. We are bound, in discussing the Order before us, by the Act. We have to accept that, whether we agree with it or not. If this Order is made under the Act, we can only discuss the Order, as to whether it should apply to Port Talbot or not, or whether it properly can be applied to Port Talbot, but we cannot discuss these provisions which are enshrined in the Act. I am afraid that this discussion is really out of order on this occasion.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Order made by the Secretary of State for the Home Department, extending Section 1 of the Sunday Entertainments Act, 1932, to the Borough of Port Talbot, a copy of which was laid before this House on 30th April, be approved.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the Order made by the Secretary of State for the Home Department, extending Section 1 of the Sunday Entertainments Act, 1932, to the. Urban District of Holsworthy, a copy of which was laid before this House on 30th April, be approved.—[Mr. Renton.]

Mr. D. Howell

On this Order, Mr. Speaker, I was going to say that I think you are probably right and that the little exercise this evening has been completely out of order. I think it served a purpose in drawing attention to the absurdity of these proceedings, and we can accept the remainder without protest.

Mr. Speaker

I am greatly obliged for the hon. Gentleman's commendation.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Order made by the Secretary of State for the Home Department, extending Section 1 of the Sunday Entertainments Act, 1932, to the Urban District of Holsworthy, a copy of which was laid before this House on 30th April, be approved.

Order made by the Secretary of State for the Home Department, extending Section 1 of the Sunday Entertainments Act, 1932, to the Urban District of Newquay [copy laid before the House, 30th April], approved.—[Mr. Renton.]

Order made by the Secretary of State for the Home Department, extending Section 1 of the Sunday Entertainments Act, 1932, to the Urban District of Sheringham [copy laid before the House, 30th April], approved.—[Mr. Renton.]