HC Deb 10 February 1959 vol 599 cc1143-52

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Brooman-White.]

10.37 p.m.

Miss Joan Vickers (Plymouth, Devon-port)

I am particularly pleased to see my hon. Friend the Parliamentary and Financial Secretary to the Admiralty here tonight to answer me, because when I last spoke on the Adjournment he answered on behalf of the Minister of Defence and I know that he is very sympathetic and understanding in these matters.

I am glad to be able now to raise this subject, because it is one of great importance to a number of people in the Services, and also to my constituents. The change in the ownership of the Swiss bookstall not only affects the livelihood of several people but changes a tradition of over half a century.

The history of the case is as follows. A Mr. Swiss, a Devonport man, was asked by Commodore Fisher in 1904 to establish a bookstall in the Royal Naval Barracks, Devonport, and, since that date, this stall has been run by the same family. The founder, Mr. Swiss, had two sons, Mr. W. W. R. Swiss and Mr. H. H. Swiss. The former worked for 40 years, and the latter died in March, 1958, at the age of 85 years, having worked there since he was a boy. The present owner, Mr. A. W. Swiss, has been employed since 1939. He served during the war in the Royal Army Service Corps, and on being demobilised took over control from his uncle.

On the death of the later Mr. Swiss, the present Commodore wrote as follows: It is difficult to think of the Bookstall in the Royal Naval Barracks without him and I feel sure there are many members of the Devonport Port Division, in all parts of the world, who would wish to be associated with me in this message of condolence. At this time, the Admiralty had given no notice to the executors. The will had divided the property between Mr. Swiss and a Mr. Mounford, who had been employed by the family for 24 years, and, as Mr. Swiss was a relative, being a nephew of the deceased man, the execu- tors—one of them, a Mr. L. M. Baxter, being also the chartered accountant of the firm—asked him to carry on. They had the right to do this, in view of the will.

All this happened in March. On 10th September, it was decided to advertise for tenders. This was advertised on twelve occasions, six times in the evening newspapers and six times in the morning newspapers. According to the advertisement, there was no obligation on the Admiralty to accept the highest or any other tender resulting from the advertisement. It was not until 20th December—rather a long gap from 10th September—that Mr. Swiss received a letter from the Commodore stating that his tender, which had been dated 29th September, 1958, had not been accepted and that the N.A.A.F.I. would be taking over the bookstall. No mention was made of any compensation for the goodwill which had been created for over a half a century. It was not even stated that the tender offered by the N.A.A.F.I. was more advantageous. Furthermore, it was stated that the arrangements might not be completed in time to allow the N.A.A.F.I. to operate by 31st January, 1959, and the letter added. If you apply to continue to run the bookstall until the date of transfer, which is to be no later than 28th February, 1959, there would be no objection. A cheque had already been paid for the rent up to June, 1959, and four months' rent was then returned to Mr. Swiss.

I suggest to my hon. Friend that he should sympathetically reconsider this decision, for the following reasons. I understand that the tender placed by Mr. Swiss was £200 a year, £100 of which goes to the cashier in the Dockyard, which helps the taxpayers, and the other £100 of which goes direct to welfare funds. He also offered 5 per cent. of all turnover over £5,000 a year, which he estimates to be about £500 a year, to welfare. I understand that the N.A.A.F.I. offered 6 per cent. on all turnover to welfare, including 1½ per cent. to the Royal Naval Benevolent Trust and one-fifteenth of 1 per cent. to the Fleet Club. There does not therefore appear to be much difference in the overall offer, except that the taxpayer would gain a little from Mr. Swiss' offer because £100 would go direct to the cashier in the Dockyard.

I think it is fair to say that the service given by the N.A.A.F.I. in this respect cannot quite compare with that of the Swiss bookstall, although it has a very good club in my constituency and does an excellent job there. Mr. Swiss is able to have a far larger range of goods, in addition to periodicals and newspapers. He has a car and a telephone and he can go out and buy various goods which are needed by Her Majesty's Services. He buys goods for the wives and children of the men. Indeed, he does a trade in a number of toys, for which he finds support and which I understand the N.A.A.F.I. does not wish to take over. He also obtains presents for the sailors' sweethearts. Apart from the periodicals and newspapers, he handles, in all, twenty different kinds of goods.

Furthermore, he is able to cash cheques. He can accept the pools winnings, which I gather are often offered to him, and he can take naval pay allowances. He has means of cashing various tax rebates and naval allowances which are handed to him, and I understand that no one else at the Royal Naval Barracks offers this service. The Swiss bookstall is open on seven days a week and he delivers newspapers. Mr. Swiss employs a man at 25s. a week to deliver to the other Royal Naval Messes.

I do not know the service offered by the N.A.A.F.I. in this respect, but if it is to be judged by the other organisations which the N.A.A.F.I. runs, then these are closed from noon on each Saturday until 7.30 a.m. on the Monday. Mr. Swiss is open for the sale of papers on a Sunday, and I think it is true to say that the N.A.A.F.I. does not have a Sunday service.

I have two letters here from the National Federation of Retail Newsagents, Booksellers and Stationers. The Federation fully supports Mr. Swiss, and the letter says: This National Federation, representing 30,000 retail newsagents throughout the British Isles, is fully behind Mr. Swiss. It goes on to say: In the normal way, when a man establishes a retail business in leasehold premises and the lease expires, the business remains his property and he can transfer same to neighbouring premises, but in this instance, of course, there is no question of him being able to do this and the N.A.A.F.I. would, in effect, be handed a ready-made business 'on a plate'—a business which, in ordinary circumstances, they would have to a pay a considerable sum of money to obtain. No wonder they can be over-generous with their tender. It is not for me to say whether the N.A.A.F.I. has been over-generous with its tender, but that is a point which should be borne in mind.

Devonport is an area with much unemployment where it is difficult for old people to find jobs. The loss of the business would mean that Mr. A. W. Swiss, at the age of 50, who has worked there for many years, Mr. Mumford, who is about the same age and has worked in the firm for 24 years, and the widow of Mr. H. H. Swiss, will be without livelihood. The widow receives some benefit from the stall, and her income would be reduced.

I hope that I have, by putting the plain facts before him, given my hon. Friend an opportunity to consider this matter, as I am sure he will, in a sympathetic way. I know his great interest in these matters, and I am very grateful to him for going down to Devonport personally—I appreciate that he did not go just for this purpose—to see the Admiralty dockyard and the work of the Service there after so recently taking up his new office.

10.48 p.m.

Sir Henry Studholme (Tavistock)

I intervene briefly in this debate because I live in and represent the neighbouring constituency of Tavistock, and I know something about this matter. It is really a case of hardship. My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Miss Vickers) has put the facts so well that I need say no more about them. I wish merely to put two questions.

First, have there been complaints during the last 55 years about the way that this bookstall has been run? From the inquiries I have made, I understand that there have been none. Secondly, do the sailors like this bookstall, and does it provide a service which they appreciate? My information is that it is immensely appreciated by the sailors. If the answers to those two questions are as I have given them, why have these poor people been treated in this very arbitrary way? It does not make sense to me. As far as I can understand, no one on the spot wants them to lose their business. If the Swiss family lose their bookstall, as my hon. Friend said, three people will lose their livelihood and the business which they have built up over many years by hard work and enterprise. It is the sort of enterprise of which I thoroughly approve, and I hope that my hon. Friend will treat this case with the common sense and humanity which I know he possesses.

10.49 p.m.

The Parliamentary and Financial Secretary to the Admiralty (Mr. C. Ian Orr-Ewing)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Miss Vickers) and to my hon. Friend the Member for Tavistock (Sir H. Studholme) for raising this matter, and I do not in any way dissociate myself from the broad history which my hon. Friend the Member for Devonport has sketched. It is a curious coincidence that I seem to move around the Ministries in order to be just in time to catch her Adjournment debates. The only such debate I ever had when I was at the Air Ministry came just before Christmas, and she originated that, and the only Adjournment debate that I have so far had in my new capacity is again hers.

I will say straight away that, had the N.A.A.F.I. decided to take over this stall it would certainly provide the same service, the seven-day service and Sunday paper service which was provided previously. This matter has attracted a certain amount of publicity. I have had many Press cuttings from national and local papers about it. I think that this interest comes from a certain emotionalism about the theme of the big, tough Goliath trying to smash the small David. But this is a travesty of the true facts.

It is true that the N.A.A.F.I. is large, but I hope to show that it is neither tough nor soulless. It is an immense organisation, employing about 25,000 people and having 1,700 trading establishments. It has a tremendous turnover. I was truly amazed to learn that the N.A.A.F.I. has a turnover of over £56 million each year. From this sum, however, the Services benefit from the rebate on the portion derived from trading with individual members of the Forces, and this rebate provides an annual sum for the services of £1.1 million, which also is substantial.

I should like to outline the job of the N.A.A.F.I. This organization was created and is controlled by and for the Services. Its job is to provide service in any part of the world where British men are serving. Many of these places are, one must face it, totally uneconomic. Only a few months ago I was in Christmas Island where I saw the admirable arrangements which the N.A.A.F.I. had made there. I spent a whole evening in the N.A.A.F.I. Club. It was in every way admirable and it seemed to meet with a great deal of support.

The N.A.A.F.I. has to open its doors in some unpleasant and very difficult places—in the Persian Gulf and Bahrein, for instance, where it is doing a first-rate job. It is to finance these difficult and uneconomic places that it becomes essential that the N.A.A.F.I. should have an opening in the more remunerative and more pleasant places. Therefore, it can be said broadly, that it must have the smooth in order to finance the rough.

The Services derive substantial subsidiary advantages from the main job of the N.A.A.F.I. Because the N.A.A.F.I. was created for them, Service men and women derive considerable benefit. In the case of the Navy, we get from the rebate no less than £235,000 every year. All of this sum goes to the benefit of the sailors. One-fifth of this rebate goes to the Royal Naval Benevolent Trust, a charitable institution which does a variety of welfare work, largely amongst the dependants of past and present members of the lower deck. The remaining four-fifths of the rebate goes to ships' and establishments' welfare funds.

One might well ask where all this vast sum goes and how it is controlled. Its allocation is broadly in the hands of an elected welfare committee on every ship and at every establishment. Each committee chooses on which of a large number of amenities it should spend the money. Some is spent on entertainment for ships' companies and dances and some on entertainment by providing television and radio sets and dart boards and the like. For outdoor recreation, a certain amount goes on gear for a wide variety of sports.

We have had, both in this House and in another place, debates touching on the N.A.A.F.I. by virtue of the matter of the Malcolm Clubs. No one would suppose that any big or small organisation is perfect, but there is a proper way of remedying dissatisfaction, if there is any, with the N.A.A.F.I. In the first instance, action should be taken by the individual sailor registering a complaint or suggestion with the local N.A.A.F.I. manager. Secondly, there is an elected welfare committee with each ship and establishment of every command. In addition, each command has its own welfare committee drawn from the people in the lower stage welfare committees. Finally, a man from each command serves in direct liaison with N.A.A.F.I. headquarters, so that he can bring right to the centre complaints coming from the circumference. That is the sort of democratic control which should exist in an organisation created for the men.

I was rather amused to find a most apt quotation which came from the lower deck from a C.P.O. at Plymouth elected by his colleagues to represent their interests at N.A.A.F.I. headquarters. He said: I have looked for a thought to leave with the lower deck in the light of my 18 months' experience, and I should like to say this: A regular stone thrown at N.A.A.F.I. is that it is a monopoly. In this there is some truth, but even economists state a monopoly need not be a bad thing (and come to think of it, if N.A.A.F.I. belongs to us, then we are the monopolists). The significant thing is, of course, that it belongs to them, and that should always be recognised.

As to the future, with the run-down and reshaping of our smaller all-Regular Armed Forces, N.A.A.F.I. has an immense task. Its first job is to match for the Service man the ever-rising standards which he would get in civilian life. The second job is to replace the old type of N.A.A.F.I, institutes with more modern social clubs and replace with self-service shops, with a very wide variety of goods, the old, much simpler N.A.A.F.I. counter.

During my two years at the Air Ministry I visited more than 100 R.A.F. units and, in most instances, saw the N.A.A.F.I. for myself. Invariably, I asked questions about it, and I think that hon. Members would agree that there are not a great many complaints. There are some, of course, but there is a certain broad satisfaction. I found that it is in every way matching up to the challenge of new requirements. In the three weeks in which I have been in my present job I have not had all that much time, but I have visited a certain number in the Plymouth and Portsmouth area and again I have been impressed by what I have seen.

Last Saturday I went to a new type of N.A.A.F.I. at the Royal Naval Air Station at Yeovilton. I thought it first-class, and it is widely supported. If the hon. Lady has visited the N.A.A.F.I. Club in Plymouth she will have found it well-patronised not only by Service men hut by their families and girl friends. That is the way it should be. Despite its size, this large organisation of the N.A.A.F.I. is neither tough nor soulless.

Tonight I received a copy of a letter from N.A.A.F.I., Plymouth, to the C.-in-C., Plymouth, part of which reads as follows: N.A.A.F.I. is very conscious, however, of the strong emotions which are being aroused about this matter, through articles in the local and national press and otherwise, and it is concerned with the effect which this may have on public opinion, both towards the Royal Navy and N.A.A.F.I. N.A.A.F.I. in fact, is subject to two diametrically opposed considerations. On the one hand, it has to provide this sort of facility for the Royal Navy and to expand its trade with the Services; and on the other, it appreciates the embarrassment which may be caused by the impression—however ill-founded—that in so doing, it is in the nature of a juggernaut pushing out a small trader and depriving him of his livelihood. After careful consideration, therefore, and hearing in mind particularly the importance of preserving the best possible public relations, the Corporation has decided that it would prefer, with your agreement, to withdraw in favour of Mr. Swiss. The Corporation would hope that if this offer to withdraw is accepted, the new tenant should be held to a strict observance of the terms of the contract in relation to the range of goods in which he will be permitted to deal. The Corporation understands that this means newspapers, periodicals, books, stationery, ships' mementoes and a schedule of gift lines. Perhaps you would he good enough to let met know if, having regard to the circumstances, you wish to accept this offer of withdrawal.' The Commander-in-Chief tells me he has accepted this offer, and since Mr. Swiss's tender was the best the bookstall will, subject to contract, return to him.

10.58 p.m.

Mr. Dudley Williams (Exeter)

It had been my intention to intervene in the debate on behalf of the plea made by my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Miss Vickers) for Mr. Swiss and his bookstall. I think that on this occasion, as on most occasions on which I have been brought into touch with N.A.A.F.I., it has behaved in the most magnanimous manner.

It is greatly to N.A.A.F.I.'s credit that it has decided not to proceed in the way originally indicated, and that it is to withdraw its offer so that Mr. Swiss can continue his business. The greatest credit is due to my hon. Friend the Member for Devonport for raising this subject. It is just another indication of the way in which she always fights in the interests of her constituents.

11.0 p.m.

Mr. I. J. Pitman (Bath)

My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary has very happy Swiss associations, and we all congratulate him on being the first man in our team against the Swiss M.P.s. Here again he has some very happy Swiss associations. As a publisher who is interested not in magazines or newspapers but in books, I know how wise and proper as well as generous is this decision.

Newsagents selling periodicals have a very small margin on which to operate and any newsagent of this kind, serving a unit, is very dependent on the integrity of that unit to make the business worth while. It is admitted that this is a loss of profit to N.A.A.F.I., but it is in the interests not only of N.A.A.F.I. but of the community which, in a roundabout way, is able to be served by a good newsagent in the way in which it should be served. I thank the Minister and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Devonport (Miss Vickers).

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at one minute past Eleven o'clock.