HL Deb 26 March 1896 vol 39 cc145-56

, in Moving the Second Reading of this Bill, said, the Measure was so clear in its object, and so simple in its provisions, that it was unnecessary for him to detain their Lordships long in explaining it. The desire of the promoters of the Bill was to regulate and restrict the hours of sale in public houses on Sundays. He was glad to think that this was not a Party question. He was quite sure that on both sides of the House there were many who understood and deeply deplored the evils of intemperance. He was not aware that any Measure quite similar in its purpose to this had ever been brought before their Lordships. There had been more than one Bill introduced proposing to entirely close public houses on the Lord's day. He had never felt that he could, with a quiet conscience, support such a Measure as that so long as he was able to provide what he wanted for himself and his family in the way of stimulants on the Sunday. But what was proposed by this Bill was simply to limit the hours of sale to one hour in the middle of the day on Sundays. It was originally proposed to allow another hour for opening in the evening, and he should be quite prepared to assent to such condition being inserted in the Bill if in Committee it should be thought desirable. He did not wish that the working man should be deprived of the opportunity of obtaining his glass of beer on the Sunday, the only day of the week on which he was able to dine with his wife and family, a privilege which would be denied to him if the public houses were closed altogether. The present law was, generally speaking, that after being opened a certain time in the afternoon, the public houses were again opened from six o'clock to 10 or 11 o'clock, according to the district. The houses being kept open so late presented a terrible temptation to the class of persons referred to, for he believed they were tempted to spend their evenings in the public house on Sundays more than on any other day. On other days they were tired with their work, or there were other places of amusement open to them. From his 22 years of experience in London as a parish clergyman, he had come to the conclusion that there was really more drunkenness on the evening of the Sunday than on any other day of the week, and that the evils of intemperance were greater then than at other times, for this reason among others, that in consequence of drinking, a large number of men were unable to resume work on the Monday, and thus inconvenienced their employers as well as brought loss, and perhaps distress, to their families. ["Hear, hear!"] It might be said that the public house was the only place to which many working men could go, because their homes were miserable and uncomfortable, but on this point he thought there was reason for congratulation in the fact that a steady improvement was going on throughout the country, slowly but surely, in relation to the dwellings of the poor, and it was not too much to hope that even further legislation might be undertaken in this direction. But even admitting the statement about the misery and uncomfortable character of the home, was it not a shame that any English workman should therefore refuse to share the discomfort with his wife, who was compelled almost to endure it? He said nothing about the extent to which the present state of things encouraged neglect of attendance at any place of worship, but when this and other facts were taken into consideration, they were surely sufficient to make one feel that some little sacrifice should be made — that some little restriction might wisely be imposed to facilitate a happier state of things, and to remove temptations and dangers which now existed. He was glad to see that the legislation of two years ago establishing County and Parish Councils had created a tendency—he saw signs of it already in many country districts — to provide public halls of one kind or another where a working man might meet his friends, or to which he might go with his wife and children, on the Sunday afternoon and evening — ["hear, hear!"] — and for his own part he thought such places would fail in one of their highest purposes if they were not opened on the Sunday as well as on other days. It was sometimes urged that in this matter they were legislating for those who felt no grievance—for those who were content with things as they were. But that was far from being the fact. Among the humbler classes there was a wide-spread desire for some legislation of the kind, and large numbers of the working men eagerly desired some such restriction as this Bill imposed. Such a Bill would be a great encouragement to those of the humbler classes who wished to promote temperance among their own rank of life. They knew only too well the evils that resulted from intemperance, and were ready to make almost any sacrifice to combat them. It may be further urged that they ought not to place restrictions on one particular industry, but it must be remembered that this was the only privileged trade in the country as regarded the Lord's day. This, however, was no comprehensive or far-reaching Measure. Many of the Measures bearing on this subject which had been brought before Parliament had, he believed, been wrecked entirely through attempting to do too much; but this was a Bill very simple and restricted in character, and was not at all to be confounded with the more ambitious Measures that had been submitted to the House from time to time. He had heard that a Commission was likely to be appointed to inquire into the whole subject of licensing; but the question raised in this Bill was utterly apart from the proposals contained in the Measures to which he had alluded. He earnestly hoped their Lordships would assent to the Second Reading of the Bill. It was with the view of enabling them in some measure to discharge this responsibility, and still more to increase the comfort and the happiness of the humbler classes, that he asked their Lordships to give this Measure a favourable consideration. He moved that the Bill be now read a Second time.


said, there were numbers of weak-minded persons who needed protection, but there were tens of thousands of respectable working men who demanded that they should have the right to purchase for themselves that beverage to which they were accustomed on the Lord's day. That was a beverage which, if it be not drunk fresh, was scarcely drinkable. If, therefore, persons had to purchase at noon all they desired to consume on Sunday it was certain that at supper time they could not have a fresh glass of beer. He thought, therefore, that they had a right to say that they should be allowed to purchase beer at a later hour on Sunday than noon; that there should be two hours during which the purchase would be possible—at noon and later. If that condition be conceded, he could conceive nothing that could be said against the Bill, and he personally would have great pleasure in voting for the Second Reading.


did not know how far their Lordships might feel disposed to enter upon a discussion of the very interesting subject which was raised by the Bill; but he did not propose, on the part of the Government, to follow the most rev. Prelate into that discussion, because he thought that under the present circumstances it would be undesirable that the House should be asked to express a definite judgment either for or against this Measure. The most rev. Prelate referred to a rumour as to the appointment of a Royal Commission to inquire into the licensing laws. There was something more than rumour, because he believed that in another place the intimation had been made by the Government of an intention to recommend the appointment of such a Commission. Although the names of the gentlemen who were to be asked to serve upon the Commission had not yet been published, considerable progress had been made in framing the list of members, who would represent almost all shades of opinion upon the subject. He could not agree with the most rev. Prelate that an Inquiry such as was contemplated was one altogether apart from the limited question raised by the Bill. No such Inquiry as was proposed to be held could avoid going into the question of the total or partial closing of public houses on Sundays; and it seemed to him that when, as he understood, with very general assent from all shades of opinion on the subject, the whole question was about to be inquired into, it would not tend to assist the deliberations of the Commission, it would not advance a solution of any of the questions at issue, if their Lordships' House, as one branch of the Legislature which might have at some future time to pronounce an opinion upon the whole of the recommendations of the Commission, were to commit itself at this moment to the principle contained in this Measure. On the part of the Government, he suggested that the most fitting course which could be pursued now was that the most rev. Prelate should consent to the adjournment of the Debate.


protested against the action which was proposed to be pursued by the Government. He understood, from what had fallen from the noble Duke, it was the intention of the Government to refer all these questions to a Royal Commission, to be appointed, and from what had been published in the newspapers they might imagine that all sections of opinion upon these thorny questions were to form parts of the Commission. They had had Committees and Commissions without end dealing with these questions, and he did not believe that after the Royal Commission had practically wasted two or three years more, they would be in possession of any more information, or in any better position to legislate. If the Commission were composed of absolutely independent men, supposing that could be achieved, he might not have so much to say against it, but when it was to be formed of all the different sections of opinion upon licensing matters, the result of the Inquiry would, he was satisfied, only prove to be reports and counter reports which would leave them in exactly the same position in which they were now. Under these circumstances, he, as an old partaker in legislation on this particular subject, felt bound to protest against the appointment of this Commission, which practically meant delay and nothing else. He believed that if legislation on the subject was necessary, they were all in possession of information enough at the present time to enable them to undertake it. In his opinion, that legislation would practically be far more serviceable if it took the shape of a codification and consolidation of the law as it at present existed, rather than went into the numerous Amendments which seemed to be proposed from every part of the country. He felt that public opinion, which had done so much to do away with what was complained of in the shape of drunkenness in one class of the community, was gradually effecting its purpose with respect to all other classes. Artisans, as a body, were becoming aware of the advantage it was to them, in seeking employment, if they could produce certificates of sobriety, and he was satisfied that as education proceeded —and it was proceeding rapidly amongst that class—and as the comforts of the working classes were more studied—and they were being more studied from day to day—the same public opinion would effect the change in those classes which had been effected in other classes. But what he rose to say was that he protested against the appointment of a Commission, because he believed it to be an absolute waste of time.


confessed he very much sympathised with what the noble Lord had just said. He did not believe much would be gained by inquiring generally into the question of licensing. Strangely enough, the only question which would seem a fitting one for inquiry had not found any representative, so far as the names had been published, upon the Commission which it was proposed to appoint. The Gothenburg system was, no doubt, one of very great interest, and it was a subject upon which there was not so much known as was known on the licensing question generally. He had not seen suggested as a member of the Commission any gentleman who had specially studied the Gothenburg question, and who would be specially competent to illustrate the facts in regard to it. That seemed to him the only subject of practical novelty on which some light could be obtained. As to the Bill now before the House, it was of course, impossible not to sympathise with its object. Personally, he would be by no means indisposed to see the restrictions upon the opening of public houses on Sundays increased, but he could not help feeling that any Measure relating to Sunday Closing was eminently one to be dealt with in the other House. They were not the representatives of those most closely concerned in this question, nor did they represent those to whom it mattered whether the public-houses were open a few hours on Sundays. To large classes in this country it was a matter of great importance, on which they felt deeply. If the Bill came with the sanction of the representatives of the people he would vote for it with the utmost satisfaction, but he doubted the wisdom of the initiation in that House of a Measure concerning matters of which they could not be specially cognisant, particularly as to the feelings of the people. He doubted if they would ever find it possible to pass a Measure which should apply by the direct action of Parliament to all portions of the community alike. There were some parts of the country quite ripe for a change; on the other hand, if they took London, he was not at all satisfied that it would be possible—that it would be safe—to pass such a Measure as this at the present time. ["Hear, hear!"] If they tried to go in advance of public opinion they would defeat their own object. It would be much safer to give to representative local authorities the power to deal with this matter, so that it need not be dealt with alike all over the country. They might have such an agitation from one part as would render it impossible to legislate at all. If they frankly recognised this, more progress would be made than if they attempted to deal with the whole country at once. He made those observations in no unfriendly spirit to the Bill, but from the conviction that they should not deal with a matter so intimately affecting the wishes and feelings of the masses in that House, where they were not represented. ["Hear, hear!"]


said, that the Bishops and clergy of the Church of England had more than ordinary knowledge of the general feeling among the working classes. He understood the Lord President of the Council to object to the passing of any such Bill when a Royal Commission was about to be appointed to inquire into this question, and he could well understand that those who had not studied the subject carefully should desire more information before deciding on one side or the other. He felt confident, however, that they did know what was the wish of a very large proportion of the working classes, and if they looked into the matter they would find victims of intemperance who would welcome such a Measure as that. When the Durham Bill was before the House, it was shown that in certain towns, where drunkenness most prevailed, there was found the largest number of householders who were in favour of strict restrictions, and the more strict the better. He did not share the view that it was necessary to wait for the Report of the Commission before action could be taken, but he agreed with the noble and learned Lord who had just spoken that it would be more suitable that such Measures as this should come from the other House, not because he thought they were better able to deal with it than their Lordships were, but because he thought the House of Commons were more certain to gauge the amount of support the country would give to such a Measure. ["Hear, hear!"] He thought that it was the duty of that House to find out what was the general opinion of the classes most affected by that Measure, and he was sure it would be well for the country if they did. That House was in a position to be more impartial than people generally, and could act as moderators in dealing with the question. If the Bill went to a Division he should vote for it, but he should prefer to accept the alternative suggested by the Lord President of the Council.


explained that he should be inclined to support the Bill, because, with some Amendments, he believed it would be an improvement on the existing law. His speech was directed against delay in dealing with the subject which he believed would be the result of appointing a Royal Commission.


said, he was surprised at the speech of the noble Lord behind him (Rookwood) in his extreme condemnation of a Commission of Inquiry. Nor did he agree with the noble Lord that they knew all about the subject. He was certain that those who were most confident that they did know all about it were the extreme partisans on both sides. He would not enter into the question, which the noble and learned Lord opposite said was a thorny one [laughter], but he thought the discussion proved the necessity of further inquiry and further information. Time might be profitably spent in endeavouring to come to some agreement as to the step which the Legislature might take. Such an agreement did not exist at present, and the Inquiry might at least indicate such an agreement. Reference had been made to some names which had been published, but perhaps it would not be wise to negative them. It might be found difficult to appoint a purely judicial body. It would be better to take the representatives of extreme views on both sides, and add others who were uncommitted, and who, therefore, would be impartial on the question. The list was not complete, and they should not be able to make it up for a day or two. He hoped that there would be no long delay before a complete list of names was announced.


said, the subject which would be referred to this Commission, so far as they knew, would be that of licensing, but this Bill had nothing whatever to do with licensing, but dealt really with the use of public-houses, after they were licensed, which was a very different question. The noble Lord told them that this Commission would be a collection of strong partisans of the various conflicting views which were held on this question; what chance then would such a happy family have of throwing light on the subject? It was too much the habit of Parliament now to shelve difficult questions by means of a Commission. This Commission would still further confuse the question. He maintained that it would not be better to discuss such a Bill first in the lower House, inasmuch as the prospects of coming elections embarrassed Members of that House in discussing questions of this kind there. Their Lordships' House was really as representative of the interests of the country, and they had the advantage moreover of not having the hustings always before their eyes.


said, it was perfectly true that if this Commission was one simply to inquire into licensing, the questions raised by the most rev. Prelate's Bill would scarcely come under its cognisance. He did not agree with the view of his noble Friend as to the position of the two Houses in regard to this matter; that House could hardly be considered as a representative body, and the Members of the lower House, inasmuch as it was their duty to ascertain the drift of opinion in the country, and as they had much better opportunities for doing so, were likely to be better judges of that opinion. There had been very great difficulties in dealing with this question, and the object of this Commission was, as a matter of fact, to shelve the matter for a considerable time. If the Commissioners were to inquire into the whole question of the consumption of intoxicating liquors, no doubt some Blue-books of portentous size would be produced, but the only result of these roving Commissions, which were composed of so many Members that they were almost little Parliaments, was to get a number of Reports expressing a variety of opinions, of the existence of which everyone was previously aware. ["Hear, hear!"] He was willing to suspend his judgment, but thought a roving Commission of the nature proposed would not contribute to the solution of the Question.


said, he should like to know whether it was really true that all the facts were ascertained, and whether, if some broad proposition of fact would not be accepted on both sides of the House. The late Government had not settled the matter themselves—


Certainly not. [Laughter.]


thought it would be a desirable thing to have the extreme partisans brought together on such a Commission, where the scales might be held between them by those of more moderate views. The question of licensing was necessarily involved in the Bill. He regarded the Bill with a benevolent aspect, but did not think that legislation should be forced through without an Inquiry.


pointed out that the Commission would have the benefit of the evidence of the exhaustive Inquiry held in America into the Gothenburg system, and that of the Canadian Inquiry into the whole subject of intoxicating liquors. In Sweden and Norway, also, the change which had been made in the legislation on this subject would provide valuable information. He thought the Commission would be a most desirable one. It would enable them to consider the information which had been alluded to by the noble Lord as being sufficient, and also this additional mass of information which he had cited.


said, he had no reason to be dissatisfied with the result of the discussion, so far as it went, but he heartily wished that it had gone further. He must confess that it was with feelings somewhat approaching to dismay that he had heard what appeared to be the settled decision of the Government with regard to this subject, which was to refer it to a new Commission for further inquiry. When he looked at the voluminous reports which former Commissions had presented in reference to this matter, which had been fruitless, he could not help feeling that the result of referring the subject to a new Commission would involve indefinite delay in legislating with regard to it. The noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack had said that further information was required with regard to certain alleged facts connected with the question, but he maintained that there was hardly any subject which had come before their Lordships upon which they had obtained more voluminous and complete information than they had with regard to that now under consideration. In speaking of the delay in temperance legislation, he did not desire to overvalue that legislation as a means of making people more sober, because that object could be best attained by moral means, but he thought that there were certain directions in relation to temperance in which legislation was not only expedient but was absolutely necessary. It was upon that ground that he had asked their Lordships to read this Bill a second time. That House had all the information with regard to this subject that the House of Commons possessed, and had access to the Reports that had been presented to the other House. In these circumstances he could not conceive what further information they could desire on the question. On the other hand, he thought that there was a great deal of force in the suggestion of the noble Lord that some discretion should be left to the local authorities, and he would take care to move a clause dealing with the point when the Bill again came before the House. As there was no other course open to him, he now begged most reluctantly and sorrowfully to move the Adjournment of the Debate.

Further Debate adjourned sine die.