§ 4.38 p.m.
§ Mr. Rhys Davies
I was about to say that this Motion of mine does not ask for any new legislation. That, of course, will please the representatives of the Government on the Front Bench. But we are going to press on the Home Office that they demand a copy of the annual report from each local authority to find out what they are doing in enforcing the provisions of shops legislation. By that means, we might have some uniformity of administration. Some local authorities appoint persons to be shop inspectors and nothing else. Others appoint persons who are weights and measures inspectors, sanitary inspectors, policemen, almost anybody, with the result that the job is not done properly in some districts. Then, we would like to know how many shops inspectors are employed by local authorities. Some local authorities regard this legislation as of no consequence at all, and some magistrates are even worse. When cases of violation of this law are brought before them they treat them with the utmost frivolity. In one case in London the fine was just one halfpenny. The time will arrive when this legislation will have to be enforced, just like the law relating to the inspection of coal mines, factories and trade boards. It does not do for some magistrates to be severe when the law is being broken in other spheres of life, and to treat with so much leniency those who violate this class of legislation.
2018 I do not intend to weary the House by touching on the conditions of those people employed in the catering and allied trades. If anything, they are worse there than in shops. Hotel employés, waiters, waitresses, ushers, indeed all manner and types of employés, are, in some cases, dressed up like dolls, expected to behave like marionettes, to kowtow to their betters and to live on a meagre pittance by way of tips given to them on the sly. It would be interesting if the Minister in charge of the Debate today would tell us what became of the proposition to lay down a trade board for the catering trade. That seems to have been left in mid-air.
Shop assistants themselves are to blame for some of the bad conditions. If they organise themselves in trade unions, they will, in my view, be the most powerful of all the organisations of that kind in this country. They must understand that it is little use Parliament passing legislation to protect and defend them, unless there is an inspector or a strong trade union, or preferably both, to see that the law is implemented. Otherwise, it is a dead letter, and of no avail to them.
This Motion has not been conceived in any spirit of hostility, either to the Government or to local authorities in general. It is moved so that this vast business of distribution might come under public review, that the grievances of shop assistants might be ventilated, and, above all, that the Government might be induced to take a still more active interest in this problem and that local authorities and magistrates might not regard our shops legislation as mere scraps of ordinary paper.
§ 4.43 p.m.
§ Mr. Mabane
I think the House ought to be grateful to the hon. Gentleman the Member for Westhoughton (Mr. Rhys Davies) for introducing this topic to-day. I hope that this Debate will lead to some very practical results. From certain points of view, it might seem an inappropriate moment to discuss wages and conditions in the distributive trades, when the Minister of Labour is engaged in negotiating with the employers and employés in the distributive trades. I do not think that is the case. I think, on the other hand, that this Debate may give some indication to the Minister of the unanimity of feeling in the distributive trades on the matters under discussion 2019 with the Ministry itself. The hon. Gentleman who has just spoken has, perhaps, been a little general in some of the things he has said. He has been somewhat stern to employers in the distributive trades, and anyone who did not pay very close attention to his provisos might imagine that he was condemning employers in the trade generally. I am sure that that was not his intention. He has also been rather stern to the shop assistants themselves. I think that if he were to endeavour to recruit shop assistants for his own trade union by making speeches to them containing some of the phrases he has used this afternoon about shop assistants, he would not receive much support. I do not think that shop assistants in this country consider that their status is about the lowest in the world, as he said it was. On the other hand, the shop assistants in this country are a very dignified and self-respecting body of people, and, on the whole, their conditions of employment are not anything like as bad as one would imagine from listening to the speech of the hon. Gentleman.
But he certainly was interesting, and, I am sure, correct in the brief historical survey of the distributive trades with which he started. The distributive trades have grown remarkably during the last 14 years. The employés in the distributive trades have increased from about 1,000,000 to something over 2,000,000 between 1923 and 1937. The turnover now is prodigious. I calculate—and it is only a calculation—that the turnover in the distributive trades is now something over £2,000,000,000 a year. Notwithstanding this great growth of the distributive trade it has remained an unorganised trade on both sides—on the side of the employers and on the side of the employés. There are many reasons for this. Entrance into the business of retail distribution is easy. It always has been so from the point of view of the employer, and, consequently, you get a large number of people becoming employers, capitalists in a small way, for a short time, and then going out.
Hon. Members who had some knowledge of the distributive trades before the War will know that the conditions were almost universally deplorable, and that conditions have certainly improved since then. It is only with the post-war development 2020 on a large scale in the business of distribution that there has been any move towards the regularisation of wages and of hours. I think that it is true to say—I do not think that any employer in the distributive trades will question it—that certainly until recently the hours worked in the distributive trades were roughly the hours that the employés could be persuaded to work, and the wages paid were the lowest for which they could be obtained. Those who have knowledge of the distributive trades must agree that, since the War, and particularly during the last decade, there has been a great change both in the conditions of employment and in the wages paid, and that the two comments which I have just made with regard to earlier conditions certainly do not apply to-day over a very large part of the distributive field. It is true to say, too, that in what you may term the down-town store, the efficiently organised store, whether it be in the hands of an individual proprietor, a multiple shop proprietor or a departmental store proprietor, the hours worked are not excessive. It does not give a complete picture merely to say that in Co-operative Societies' stores the hours are 48 hours or less. In most of the kind of stores to which I refer the hours of work during the week are 48 or less. I shall have something further to say about wages a little later, but, on the whole, the wages paid in that kind of store, too, compare very favourably with wages in any industry, and certainly are on a par with, and in many cases much better than, the wages paid by co-operative societies.
§ Mr. Mabane
I shall produce them a little later. One thing to remember in connection with the distributive trades when talking about conditions is that it is one of the few trades in this country in which it is a fairly universal practice to give the employés holidays with pay, and in most cases a fortnight's holiday with pay throughout the year.
Nevertheless, the distributive trade is a different trade in certain characteristics from most other trades in the country. In the first place, it is new. It is the newest industry to be developed on a large scale and it has not evidenced in its development any of the characteristics parallel with the characteristics of 2021 developing industry in the nineteenth century. As the hon. Gentleman who opened the Debate no doubt complains, the employés in the distributive trades are not organised in trade unions. At the end of his speech he condemned the shop-assistants themselves, because they have not taken measures to organise themselves, but I would equally condemn him for his inefficiency in failing to organise them. He knows perfectly well that his union, the National Union of Distributive and Allied Workers, has a very small membership in the distributive trade, and he ought to take some blame upon himself for being so ineffective in organising his own trade union in the distributive trade. But it would be unfair to carry that condemnation too far, for he knows as well as I do, that the distributive trade is not one easily susceptible of organisation. It is made up of a large number of small units, of businesses employing one or two employés, and so it presents a particular difficulty to the hon. Gentleman.
There is another very important characteristic which makes organisation very difficult, and that is the high mortality of the staff from the industrial point of view. The hon. Gentleman said that a very large proportion of the people employed in the distributive trades are women. They come in fairly young and they go out fairly young, because, quite contrary to what the hon. Gentleman has said, far from their being regarded as the lowest form of life, these young women prove themselves so attractive to the men of this country, that they marry with extreme rapidity and at an early age, and thus you get a high industrial mortality among women workers in the distributive trades. There is one other further difficulty in the way of organisation, and that is that there is no other industry in this country where there is such an easy progression from the lowest positions to executive positions at high remuneration. You may take the whole range of industry, and in no other industry to-day is it possible for people to begin at the bottom and so easily, on merit, to rise to the very highest positions.
It is particularly interesting to have this Debate to-day because I believe—not too early—the distributive trade is beginning to command a much wider attention, both in this House and in the country than it has ever done in the past. Until recently 2022 the business of shopkeeping was the despised and rejected of occupations. I remember well, even when I first came to this House, that I had a difficulty in finding a fellow shopkeeper, but I now find among my fellow shopkeepers the noble Lord the Member for Aldershot (Viscount Wolmer), the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Sparkbrook (Mr. Amery) and the Noble Lord the Member for Peterborough (Lord Burleigh) to say nothing of my old fishmonger friend—if I may so describe him without offence—the hon. and learned Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. C. Davies). The distributive trade is indeed acquiring a new dignity and a new importance even in this House.
This Debate may well mark the beginning of a new era in the distributive industry. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman, in framing his Motion, has done badly. He has framed a Motion which, I hope, the Government will accept and which, perhaps, after certain verbal qualifications, we can all freely support. The Motion divides into three parts. With two of these parts I do not particularly intend to concern myself a great deal and I will refer to them briefly. The first part refers tothe long hours of labour, low wages, and bad conditions of employment prevalent in the distributive trades.I am not so happy about the word "prevalent." I think that a distinction should be made. The distinction made, from certain points of view, is unfortunate. It is true to say that long hours, low wages and bad conditions obtain, on the whole, in the smaller and least efficient shops, and that good conditions, good wages and shorter hours obtain in the larger shops and in those shops, which, though not large, are either efficient or are part of a large organisation. With that qualification, I would agree with the first part of the Motion of the hon. Member.
I will say a few words about the second part of the Motion—the administration of the Acts already on the Statute Book. As he said, there are not many Acts dealing with the distributive trades, and I agree with almost all that he said about the administration of these Acts. The Acts are not at all uniformly administered. He said, and quite rightly, that in many of the larger towns the administration is good. There are inspectors 2023 who endeavour to secure that most of the shops carry out the provisions of the Acts, but, as he also said, in the smaller places, in small county and market towns, and so on, there is virtually no inspection. I would add one other word of criticism to what he said about the administration of these Acts. It is really paradoxical that it is the biggest and the best shops which are inspected most. They are the most convenient for inspection. They are in the centre of the town. They have been there for some time. If such a report were prepared for the Home Office as that for which he asks, it would be found that the inspectors go primarily to those shops which could be well left alone, and do not go to those which ought to be inspected.
When considering this matter of inspection we ought to bear in mind one important thing—the size of the problem facing the inspectors. The hon. Gentleman said that there were 1,000,000 shops. That is a guess. He does not know, I do not know and the Board of Trade does not know, but to accept, for the sake of argument, the figure of a million, it really needs an army of inspectors to carry out effective inspection of these shops throughout the country. They have a lot to inspect. They have to see that chairs are there to sit upon and, if the hon. Member knows the last Act, that the assistants know that they are entitled to sit upon them. They have to inspect the rooms provided for meals, and to secure that the provisions relating to early closing, half-holidays and hours of juveniles are properly carried out, and so on. They have a very large task to perform, even if the legislation is not very extensive. The hon. Gentleman was not making an unreasonable request in asking the Home Office to call for some sort of report on the administration of these Acts.
I now turn to the other part of the Motion of the hon. Gentleman, and particularly deal with the matter of wages. It is the matter of wages that is the immediately urgent problem, because, as the Under-Secretary of State knows, the Ministry of Labour is at present engaged in negotiations of a most important character with employers and employés. Before I embark upon that matter, I would say a word to the hon. Member for Westhoughton. In so far as he talked about low wages in the distributive industry, 2024 he left untouched one necessary consideration, and that was, Whose fault is it that the wages are low? I was glad to hear that he did not blame the employers, and, as I shall go on to show, in so far as wages are low in the distributive trades, it is not the fault of the organised employers. What is the present position with regard to wages in the distribute trades? It was in the spring of 1936 that the Ministry of Labour began to interest itself in the problem of wages and conditions in the distributive trades. A meeting was called of representatives of the distributive trade organisations and was addressed by the Minister of Labour, the right hon. Gentleman who now occupies the post, and after further meetings, there was a historic meeting on 14th April this year. On 14th April, for the first time in the history of the distributive trades of this country, representatives of all the distributive trade organisations on the employers' side, and of the distributive trade unions met together in the Ministry of Labour. Never before has there been such a meeting.
The result of that meeting was that a committee was set up composed of seven representatives from the employers and seven representatives from the employés to consider whether together, employers and employés, they could devise a scheme to be applied to the distributive trades, to secure the improvement of wages and conditions to a standard satisfactory to the general opinion of the country. For the initiation of these meetings the Minister of Labour deserves the highest credit. In those early days there were many suggestions going about. There were rumours that the trade board machinery might be applied. In a statement by the Minister of Labour the suggestion of the possibility of a trade board was made. I can see no really good reason why a trade board should not be applied to the distributive trades, on general grounds, but I can see particular reasons why it should not be applied. In the first place, a certain stigma attaches to a trade board, even to-day. In the second place, trade board machinery was never intended to be applied to an industry of this size, employing 2,000,000 people, and employing so much capital.
We have recently heard no more rumours about a trade board. Instead, the Ministry of Labour suggested that the 2025 employers' and the employés' organisations should get together and make voluntary agreements, relating to wages. The employers' organisations, although not averse to doing their best to work with the trade unions in making voluntary agreements, indicated from the outset that they would not regard voluntary agreements between employers' associations and employés' trade unions as a final solution of this problem, in the first place, because the trade unions are not fully representative, but are only representative of small sections of the employés engaged in the distributive trades. On the other side, it is only fair to say that the employers' organisations in the distributive trades are by no means fully representative of all the trades concerned. Therefore, if an agreement were made, there would be no guarantee that it would be effective over the whole trade.
In the second place, there is the point made by the hon. Member, that if particular bodies of employers were prepared to enter into voluntary agreements, binding them to pay certain wages and to observe certain conditions, then all the employers in the same sort of trade who were outside that voluntary agreement would be at an advantage. In that connection there is, as the Parliamentary Secretary knows, an agreement which has been made with the multiple grocers. I think I am correct in saying that the Minister has rebuked the Grocers' Federation for not taking part in that agreement. The Grocers' Federation is a Federation which represents the small individual grocers, whereas the agreement as to wages is with the multiple grocers. I do not think it is altogether just to blame the Grocers' Federation for standing out, because if that Federation had entered into the agreement there could be no sort of guarantee either that their Members would have observed it—they could easily withdraw from the Federation—and certainly there would have been no obligation on all the small grocers outside the Federation to observe the agreement.
§ Mr. Mabane
If the right hon. Gentleman will let me proceed I will show that it does not do so. The employers' organisations, 2026 as I have said, were never prepared to regard voluntary agreements as a final solution of the problem, and to-day it is almost paradoxical, certainly it is a situation unique in the annals of industry in this country, that the largest and most important organisations of employers in the distributive trades, including the co-operative societies, are asking the Ministry to introduce legislation to enforce by statutory enactment wages and conditions on a national basis. I think that fact ought to make it quite clear that it is not the fault of the employers if wages and conditions in the distributive trades are less good than we would wish them to be. Meanwhile, voluntary agreements are being entered into; but those agreements are regarded by the employers as only stepping stones to ultimate statutory enactment. I have here copies of various voluntary agreements, and I will read the preamble of two of them because they are very illuminating. Here is the preamble to the famous Lewis's Agreement:In entering into this agreement, the parties thereto "—that is, the employers and the employed—are actuated by a desire to conform with public policy in the matter of the regulation of labour conditions in the distributive trades, and to promote the proper and effective regulation of such conditions by agreement.That is a remarkable declaration from employers and employed, working together. Then there is the multiple grocery agreement, the preamble of which reads:The parties hereto have entered into this agreement as a step towards the ultimate objective of establishing that a national standard of wages and working conditions in the distributive trades shall be statutorily enforceable.Those preambles represent a very remarkable attitude of mind on the part of both employers and employed. So far the Ministry of Labour has been reluctant to respond to these requests for the statutory enforcement of wages and conditions upon the industry, notwithstanding their almost complete unanimity, certainly on the employers side, and I think one can almost equally say on the employés side, in so far as the employés side is organised.
I can understand the reluctance of the Ministry of Labour, because the Ministry has very difficult problems to face before it can present to this House a Bill which would achieve the objects set out in these agreements. It is necessary to tell the 2027 truth about this matter. A dilemma presents itself to the Ministry of Labour. If wages and conditions acceptable to this House and the country were proposed, then I fear that large numbers of small shopkeepers would be forced out of business. On the other hand, if the position of the small shopkeeper is to be protected, it can only be done by presenting to this House wages and conditions which I do not think would secure public consent. That is the dilemma with which I think the Ministry of Labour is confronted. I think the Minister of Labour looks forward to the day when there will be a universal standard throughout the distributive trades, and I am hoping that this Debate, if we are reinforced sufficiently from the other side, will do something to persuade the Ministry of Labour to move a little further towards the realisation of what I can properly call the ideal.
The Ministry, clearly, must walk warily, but the Minister must have been surprised to discover so far the degree of unanimity existing in the trade, certainly among the best and most efficient employers. The Ministry is naturally rather nervous at touching what must be a tricky piece of legislation. It is entitled to know that there is real agreement in the industry on this particular issue before legislation can be proposed to this House. My view is that the Ministry wants to be persuaded, and certainly my desire in intervening in the Debate was the hope that I might do something, as one who can claim the closest association with most of the organisations in the distributive trades, to persuade the Ministry of Labour, as powerfully as I can, to move towards the statutory enforcement of wages and conditions.
Perhaps the House will allow me to say a few words about what we who are closely concerned with this problem of distribution regard as desirable features of any statutory enactment. The first thing that we want is statutory enforcement of universal conditions. Side by side with that statutory enforcement we want the maximum possible flexibility in the arrangements as between trades and districts, and as much self-government as possible for particular divisions of the industry which, as the right hon. Member for Hillsborough (Mr. Alexander) knows, 2028 are so difficult to define. For example, the rate of wages which would be a fair rate in London, a provincial town and a small market town would be substantially different. Again, wages in a business where the skill needed is small, such as a fixed price store, would be different from the wages in a business where high skill is required, such as a fitting department. Therefore, flexibility is needed. What is necessary also is one set of machinery covering the whole of the distributive trades in a co-ordinated way. These are the conditions that I think are desirable if wages and conditions in the distributive trades are to be what the House would regard as proper and satisfactory.
I am satisfied that if the Minister will bring to the House legislation including proposals of the character I have outlined—I have many assurances of support from important organisations in the distributive trades—he can be assured that it will receive nearly if not completely unanimous support from the distributive trades. I would urge upon the Parliamentary Secretary this consideration, that unless action is taken to give statutory power to these wage agreements, the voluntary agreements already entered into will be put in jeopardy. As he knows, certain voluntary agreements have been made in particular firms, as in the case of Lewis's and Owen Owens, in particular industries, such as the grocery trade, and proposals have been made in other industries, such as the tailoring and catering trades. If there is not general statutory enforcement of these wages and conditions I fear that the voluntary agreements may well be put in jeopardy, and I am sure that everyone would deplore that. If the Debate does anything to move us nearer to the regularisation of wages and conditions in the distributive trades I am sure the hon. Member for Westhoughton will feel himself well rewarded.
I should like to mention one thing which I think, is cognate and important. We are interesting ourselves in the problem of distribution. We want to secure better conditions for those employed in the distributive trades, but we can never effectively do that until we know more about the industry itself. The hon. Member for Westhoughton gave certain facts about the distributive trade. They were not really facts; they were guesses. The facts 2029 are not known, and it is becoming urgent that a census of distribution should be taken. We must have knowledge of the industry. The most simple facts are not known. We do not know how many shops there are. We do not know how many employés there are in the retail trades. We do not know the wage rates or the hours. The hon. Member for Westhoughton is a keen supporter of the taking of a census of distribution, but the right hon. Member for Hillsborough is one of its most bitter opponents.
§ Mr. Mabane
I think the adjective is appropriate. He is one of the most informed opponents. The right hon. Gentleman knows too much about the Cooperative Society to desire that the facts should be more widely known.
§ Mr. Alexander
That is a very unjust statement, because the hon. Member must know that a complete census of co-operative production is available and published. It is a most unfair remark to make.
§ Mr. Mabane
The right hon. Gentleman knows that only recently his organisation appointed an economist, who at a meeting of the British Association suggested very forcibly that a census of distribution should be taken, and I believe that his speech was not regarded with favour by the Co-operative Society. It is remarkable that the right hon. Gentleman, whom we look upon as one of the leaders of progressive thought, should be opposed to the taking of a census of distribution when every reputable economist and statistician in the country would welcome it very much indeed. I feel that if the Ministry could persuade the Board of Trade to look favourably on the project of a census of distribution, it would do very much to assist itself in its own task.
The problem of distribution is, I am sure, of increasing importance. The cost of distribution in this country is very high; I am certain that it is higher than it need be. Therefore, the more attention that can be concentrated on the problem in this House and in the country the more 2030 likelihood is there that the costs of distribution will be reduced without doing any harm to those engaged in the business of distribution either on the employing or employed side. Indeed, hon. Members have only to think of this problem to realise that nothing can so effectively assist in a reduction of the cost of living as a reduction in the costs of distribution. I hope the public will pay some attention to this Debate and that henceforth they will give the closest possible attention to the whole business of distribution. At the present time the public does not know the ways in which very often it increases costs to itself. The public is inclined to make rather absurd demands in the way of service, rather absurd demands for shopping convenience both in the hours shops shall be open and the hours shop assistants shall be worked. If we can direct the fierce light of exact knowledge on the business of distribution we shall not only achieve the object set out in the Motion, which I, for one, shall be glad to support, but we shall also be able to secure that the people of this country can buy the things it is necessary for them to buy at a great deal less cost than they have been able to do in the past.
§ 5.20 p.m.
§ Mr. Jagger
I wish to support the Motion. I am acutely conscious that the Mover of the Motion, the hon. Member for Westhoughton (Mr. R. Davies) and myself do not present that starved, overdriven and underfed kind of individual referred to in the Motion. If the portly and well-groomed Member for Westhoughton is to be exhibit "A," and the still more portly but less well-groomed Member for Clayton (Mr. Jagger) is exhibit "B," I do not think we should get an unbiased jury to give a verdict of anything but "not proven." Still it must be remembered that the hon. Member for Westhoughton and myself were the first generation in our families to go behind the shop counter. Many generations of our people worked on the land, and we were fortunate enough to get out of the industry before that great scourge, phthisis, which is fatal to a higher percentage of people in the distributive trades than anywhere else, laid hold of us. Our present appearance has been acquired during the more profitable years since we left the distributive trade.
2031 For over a 100 years the question of the condition of shop assistants has been attracting attention. I was looking the other day at Mr. and Mrs. Sydney Webb's "History of Trade Unionism," and I saw it was mentioned there that the shop assistants of Sheffield in September, 1825, petitioned for early closing, and that in August of that year the "London Observer" tells us that the shop men to the linen drapers, silk mercers and hosiers and lace men had petitioned their employers praying that fixed and rational hours should be appointed for attending to their business, as under the present system of labour they were debarred from all intellectual improvement or amusement. The "London Observer" of that day, I am glad to see, in a leader commented on the modesty and reasonableness of the shop assistants' demands. I should like to quote something which appeared about 15 years later, in 1839. It was a manifesto issued by a gentleman who called himself "Philanthropos," and it is headed" The Linen Drapers' Magna Charta, or, An Easy and Pleasant Mode of Diminishing Shopkeepers' Confinement."Only can assistants brave the gusts of ill-fortune by demanding that mental superiority which will provide a livelihood anywhere or everywhere. Let not employers be enraged if assistants think and speak for themselves. Who shall say that 16 or 18 hours of toil is not an infringement of the laws of nature? We assistant drapers think not to form a system which shall dissipate sin and create universal virtue, but we will try how, by banding together, we can rescue ourselves from debility of body, the iron bondage of the animal propensities, and the cruel exactions of society. From a practical point of view the 200,000 assistants whose expenses amount to twelve million pounds, and who thus support largely the revenues of the State, have a reason to seek protection and representation from the Government. All the interference we seek from the Government is a law making it compulsory to close drapers' shops at seven. But though circumstances prevent our rulers providing for our welfare, will not the diseased lungs, which have their origin in confinement in a shop from eight in the morning till eleven at night, cause the subjects of our severity to unite and form a moral force which shall extinguish such cruelty?During the 100 years since then we have been trying two methods, one an appeal to the Government, and the other, an appeal to the people to organise themselves so that they might compel what the Government did not legislate to give. It 2032 was somewhat unkind of the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Mabane) to taunt the hon. Member for Westhoughton with his lack of success in organising the distributive workers into a trade union. After all, he and those associated with him have been trying to do this for 40 years, but I have never noticed that we have had any help from the hon. Member for Huddersfield. We started with a handful, and we are 200,000 to-day. When the hon. Member for Huddersfield has done as much to organise the distributive trades he can begin to criticise the hon. Member for Westhoughton for his comparative failure. There is a good deal of which I could speak which has happened during the last 100 years, but if I did so I should detain the House as long as the hon. Member for Huddersfield.
Let me come to the years 1930–31 when we had the report of the Select Committee. There is in that report sufficient evidence of everything that has been said by the Mover of the Motion about the bad conditions, low wages and long hours which exist in big shops as well as in small shops. These conditions are such that within the last month a big firm in the city of London has had to close down because it would not recognise the trade union and was paying 38s. per week for a 52-hour week. I contend that it is quite a superficial view of this question which suggests that the employés in all big shops get shorter hours and good conditions of labour and that in all the little shops they get long hours and bad conditions of labour. No such general rule can be applied. It is true that the larger shops do tend to be better on the whole, but that is because it has been possible to organise employés in the larger shops into effective units while it is not possible to organise the one, two or three men who work in a small shop. You have therefore bad employers who are reasonably decent employers, and who might be much better, but who are prevented from doing better because there is a large body of employers whose only limit of exploitation is the fear of the punishment which can be administered if they carry their exploitations beyond certain limits. The decent employer in the face of this naturally says that there are limits beyond which he cannot go.
I regret that the Mover of the Motion did not say something about legislation 2033 because I consider that this question wants tackling in two ways, first, by some additional legislation, and secondly, by overhauling the machinery which exists to implement existing legislation. It is fairly well accepted to-day that the great multiple shops, the stores, the Cooperative Society and the chain stores, together do something less than 40 per cent. of the total distributive trade of the country, and that 60 per cent. at least is still done by the one-man shop.
§ Mr. Jagger
My authority is my own calculations. I agree broadly with the hon. Member about the total amount of the distributive trade. I was able to get the turnover of the company shops and the co-operative stores, and by a subtraction, I arrived at the conclusion that about 12½ per cent. is done by the cooperative movement, about 27 per cent. by the companies, and the remainder by the one-man shops. I do not claim that that is a mathematically exact statement, but broadly it gives the position. Neither the hon. Member for West-houghton, myself nor the Archangel Gabriel could ever hope to carry trade union organisation into a large proportion of those small shops.
If the majority of the employés were in the large stores, I should be very much inclined to agree with the argument that we ought to overcome the difficulty by negotiating agreements between the trade unions and employers' organisation. But the overwhelming majority of those one-man shops, in spite of what the hon. Member for Huddersfield said, are outside any kind of organisation, and the hon. Member himself admitted that probably they soon would be if being in an organisation meant giving decent conditions of labour and decent wages to their employés. I have been very much interested in the attempts which the Minister of Labour has been making, and I have admired the optimism of the Minister as to the success that is likely to attend his efforts. I should hate to disturb his self-complacency, but frankly I say to him and to the hon. Member for Huddersfield that we shall have to wait a long time before any satisfactory solution of this question is arrived at on the lines followed by the Minister of Labour.
2034 Let me now pursue the point I was making about the necessity for fresh legislation and the implementation of existing legislation. If there were introduced a standard of inspection and enforcement comparable to that of the factories inspection, a tremendous revolution would be brought about; but in the case of shops, the inspection is sporadic, and is never carried out except upon complaints. I think I am justified in saying that there is no routine inspection. I am sure that there is not a single shops inspector in the country who could to-day say which of the employés in certain establishments come under the Shops Acts. As a matter of fact, £2,000 or £3,000 had to be spent in getting a decision in the House of Lords before anybody could say, with regard to refreshment houses, who did and who did not come within the scope of Shops Acts.
The position as regards inspection is deplorable. I do not think there are more than half-a-dozen authorities under the Shops Act who have appointed as shops inspectors people with special knowledge, and I do not think there are half-a-dozen who have made the job of shops inspector a full-time one. The weights and measures inspectors are given the additional duty, the sanitary inspectors are given the additional duty, but more often still, it is a police sergeant's job, which has to be done in his spare time. We cannot be satisfied as long as the administration of the law continues in that way. There is no central direction and no co-ordination. Some of the Orders under the Shops Acts have to be confirmed by the Home Office, and some of them do not. All of them ought to be so confirmed, and then at least the Home Office would know what it does not know now, what Orders are being made by Shops Acts authorities throughout the country. For instance, there is the question of shops at seaside resorts. The assistants are deprived of their half-holiday for one-third of the year by the issuing of an Order, which is very often issued by the shopkeepers themselves in their capacity as councillors. The compensation for that is the fortnight's holiday which the hon. Member for Huddersfield has already told us the shop assistants get in any circumstances and almost without exception.
§ Mr. Mabane
I did not wish to interrupt the hon. Member, but he has been 2035 persistently misrepresenting me. I think he is going too far when he suggests that I ever said that a fortnight's holiday with pay was universal for all shop assistants throughout the country. I did not say anything of the sort.
§ Mr. Jagger
I regret it very much if I have misrepresented the hon. Member, but when he reads the OFFICIAL REPORT, I think he will see that he implied that a fortnight's holiday with pay was general. If he did not do so, I am glad that we have had the correction.
§ Mr. Jagger
If the difference is only between "general" and "universal," the hon. Member has a very tender skin if he objects to my interpretation. There is, then, the question of the half-holiday beginning at 1.30. Surely the time has come when there ought to be for shop assistants a half-holiday commensurate at least with the manual workers' half-holiday, beginning not later than 12 o'clock. Failing legislation, I think that probably the best thing the Home Office could do would be to require that every year every authority under the Shops Act should prepare and present to the Home Office a complete report, giving the number of its inspectors, the number of shops they have to inspect, the number of shops inspected, the number of infractions of the law that have been discovered, the number of warnings given and the number of penalties imposed. I submit that if that were done, the Home Office would find it a simple matter to issue to the House an annual report, the mere issue of which would have a tremendous effect on the more backward authorities under the Shops Acts.
With regard to penalties, a great deal could be done if, instead of the present maximum penalties, minimum penalties were introduced. I have no objection to both maximum and minimum penalties, but anybody who has read of cases of prosecutions for infractions of the Shops Acts must realise that in nine cases out of ten, the penalties are contemptuous. The only remedy for that is to have, along with the maximum penalty a minimum penalty which must be imposed upon the offender upon conviction. Some municipalities do issue, through their councils, the sort of reports of which I have spoken. 2036 For instance, I have in my possession the annual report of the shops inspectors department of the Gateshead Corporation. If reports of that nature were sent to the Home Office, the Home Office could prepare for the House an annual report which would serve as an example to the Shops Acts authorities throughout the country. I hope that the Debate this afternoon will lead to very much greater attention being given to the question of the legal protection of shop assistants in their relations with their employers. If the only effect of the Debate is to lead to the issuing of the annual report which I have mentioned, I shall consider that it has been well worth while.
§ 5.41 p.m.
§ Mr. Markham
If the hon. Member for Westhoughton (Mr. Rhys Davies) had been in his place, I should have taken the opportunity of congratulating him upon raising a matter involving such wide issues; but as he is not present, I can but deplore the fact that he has consistently been absent from the House from the moment he finished his speech. It really is a signal discourtesy to the House for a Motion of this magnitude to be moved and then to be neglected. I have heard of various mothers deserting their children, but never have I seen such a blatant example of desertion with so many would-be mothers looking on.
The speech to which we have just listened brought out very clearly the necessity for much more information on this subject. I was very interested in the estimate which the hon. Member for Clayton (Mr. Jagger) gave of the proportion of what one might call the large shops and the small shops. I confess that I was unable to follow his reasoning. I understood him to claim that chain stores, multiple shops, down-town shops and cooperative stores constitute only 40 per cent. of the total distributive trade of this country. Obviously, the first thing to do is to ask the hon. Member how he defines distributive trade. The definition of the distributive trade must cover all those trades which are engaged in distribution.
§ Mr. Markham
That may be so, but the turnover of a great part of the trade is not known, and the hon. Member's figure for one of the most important sections must be a pure guess.
§ Mr. Markham
Yes, but they are not representative, nor do they give the information which the hon. Member implies they do give. I repeat my statement that the hon. Member's figures must be a pure guess, and cannot be substantiated.
Let us then turn to the question of a census of distribution, a matter which was raised in the House as recently as January last. The present Minister of Transport who was then at the Board of Trade turned down the suggestion on the ground that it would cost £500,000. It appears that he based that estimate upon the cost of a similar investigation in the United States, but everybody knows that when they get a statistical idea in the United States they go mad on it and apply enormous sums to the most fantastic investigations. This particular investigation in the United States is a case in point. There is, I contend, no reason to suppose that a census of distribution in this country would cost more than £50,000 to £60,000. To give an example of how effectively information of this kind can be procured, I would mention the recent publication by the Food Council of the costs and profits of retail milk distribution in Great Britain. That publication includes elaborate sections dealing with profits, personnel, costs, and so forth, compiled from information provided by United Dairies, Limited, the London Co-operative Society and various proprietary concerns, and it cost under £500 I fail to see why a census of industry could not be secured in this country for the comparatively reasonable sum of £50,000 to £60,000.
If we had such a census we should be able to speak in this House with more knowledge of the subject which we are discussing to-day. Almost every hon. Member who has spoken has emphasised the ignorance which we and the country are in with regard to the great problem of the distributive trades. Where I quarrel with the Mover of this Motion is in regard to the singularly ungenerous and unjust terms in which the Motion is drawn. There is no hint in it that the Government have done a single thing to improve conditions in retail trade during the past five or six years. But I think it can be said without fear of contradiction that such improvements as there 2038 have been are due mainly, if not entirely, to the initiative and patience of the industrial diplomats of the Ministry of Labour. Naturally the bouquets go to the Ministers concerned, but the brunt of the work has been borne by the officials. If we take the record of the Government in this respect over the last few years we have no reason to be ashamed of it. The Shops Act, 1934, which has been so scornfully referred to, has definitely improved conditions for every shopworker under the age of 18. The only instances given in this House of violations of the terms of that Act, are exceptions which have been followed by prosecutions. I think there have not been more than 2,300 prosecutions per year under all the Shops Acts for the last three or four years, and considering that there are over 1,000,000 shops, that is an extraordinarily small proportion.
§ Mr. Markham
Then the Government assisted in passing the Sunday Trading Restriction Act, and I think hon. Members will agree that it is a thoroughly good Act, and has contributed to a considerable improvement in conditions. What is the main obstacle to the extension of this system to the whole of the trades? I quote an authority in the subject, the hon. Member for Westhoughton, and these were his words on the Sunday Trading Restriction Act, 1936:You cannot effectively regulate hours of employment in shops without trade union organisation. No law is of any avail unless there is an organisation to implement it and at the present time there is no trade unionism in shop life, apart from … the Shop Assistants Union … and the union to which I belong."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 21st February, 1936; cols. 2194–95, Vol. 308.]If hon. Members opposite say that it is impossible to regulate hours of employment effectively until there is effective trade unionism in the industry, then all I can say is that they are putting off the chances of improvement in the retail distributive trades until the Greek Kalends, because trade unionism in that industry is advancing more slowly than the industry itself. The industry has advanced by 100 per cent. in the last 20 years, but trade unionism in the industry has not advanced by 100 per cent. If hon. Members opposite go to the Ministry of Labour and say that nothing can be done until 2039 trade unionism is omnipotent in the retail distributive trades, then, indeed, a Vote of Censure on them might be moved with some justification. But the Government do not take that line. They see that the great difficulty in the industry is that there are no unions competent to speak for the workers. I say that with great respect. There are unions in the industry but, admittedly, they do not cover one in 10 of the workers.
The question, therefore, is, what can be done by joint negotiation? I regret that the Mover of the Motion in the one tribute which he paid to the Government for what they have done should have added a warning that he was only holding his fire, presumably until the Christmas holidays are over. That, surely, is the limit of un-generousness. I think that the hon. Gentleman might have been at least a little generous. He might have admitted that the Government have done more in this last year in respect of general agreements than any previous Government. Those are facts which can be checked by reference to the Ministry of Labour Gazette, but I do not wish to go over ground already covered by my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Mabane). The plain truth of the matter is that there has been a great improvement in the retail distributive trades since 1934, and credit for it should be given generously to the Government. I agree that some credit is due to the employers, but the initiation of these joint councils was primarily due to the Government and any amount of hard work was put in by those whom I have described as the industrial diplomats of the Ministry of Labour before the employers and employés could be brought together on a negotiating basis.
I do not think it fair in reference to a great industry like this to say, as the Motion says, that the conditions have deteriorated without making some reference to the improvements which have taken place in the situation. This industry has doubled the number of its employés in 20 years, and has seen the number of its unemployed halved in the last four years. That is a striking indication of the way in which the Government's general policy has benefited industry. In February, 1933, the percentage of unemployed in the industry was 14, and it has consistently declined since then, and the latest 2040 figure available, that for November, 1937, is a percentage of 7.7. In any Motion of this kind those figures ought to be taken into account in relation to other things, and I say again that tremendous credit is due to the Government for the vast improvement in general conditions in the distributive trades.
§ Mr. Markham
Perhaps my next sentence will ease the hon. Gentleman's mind. I realise, like him, that there are scandalous cases of long hours and bad conditions, and we are anxious, and I am sure the Government are anxious, to see those conditions improved. The question is, how can it be done? As far as my experience goes, local authorities are not to be trusted with the carrying out of Acts of Parliament of this importance. That is my profound conviction. I do not see any reason why the Factories Acts, for example, are handed over to a special body of inspectors, while the Shops Acts which cover, as far as we know at present, a greater number of people, are handed over to unenthusiastic amateurs, appointed by unenthusiastic local authorities. We ought to have a system of inspection based upon the system under the Factories Acts. I join with my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield in appealing to the Government to see whether statutory powers cannot be taken to cover the whole of these trades, so that throughout the length and breadth of the land we shall have decent hours and good wages, and conditions which will ensure quick promotion from the lower ranks to the higher.
§ 5.56 p.m.
§ The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour (Mr. Butler)
I think it will be convenient for me at this stage to state the view of the Government. I shall endeavour, following my usual practice on these occasions, to retain the record of making the shortest speech in the Debate, but this is rather a larger subject than those which I have had to tackle on some previous occasions, and I must ask the indulgence of the House, if I take a little longer than usual to deal with it. The hon. Member for West-houghton (Mr. Rhys Davies) is well known for his interest in this subject. We would expect him to raise this question, 2041 not only because of his own honourable association with it, but also because of his experience at the Home Office. He must not think, however, that the Government regard his Motion solely as a spur to themselves. We prefer to regard it as a pat on the back for what we have done, and we are confirmed in that impression by the series of remarkable tributes which have been paid to the work performed by the industrial relations department of the Government in framing agreements. If, then, we take this Motion as a form of encouragement to the Government, I can say at the outset that we would not wish to advise hon. Members on this side to oppose it. We should prefer to regard it as being passed and as the view of the House. I think I can best prove that the tributes that have been paid by the hon. Member for South Nottingham (Mr. Markham) to the work done in this sphere are correct, by quoting some observations made by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Labour in the Debate on the Estimates of his Department. He referred to the introduction, to a greater extent, of the atmosphere and the machinery of collective bargaining in what he described as the greatest of all series of trades in employment value—the distributive trades of the country—and he went on to say:We have had long discussions and during those discussions facts have been brought to the notice of the employers and several new agreements have been reached."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 6th July, 1937; cols. 198–99, Vol. 326.]The discussions which are now taking place in relation to the distributive trade have in view a more comprehensive treatment of the conditions of shop assistants than has hitherto been attempted. It may help hon. Members to remind them of the division of functions in this matter between the Home Office and the Ministry of Labour. Apart from answering certain questions which have been put to me, I shall refer chiefly to what I have described as the more comprehensive treatment of the conditions of shop workers. The Home Office, as hon. Members will realise, administers the Shops Acts, which deal with hours, sanitation, seats, mealtimes, holidays, and so on. What we have in mind in these discussions are these broad questions which fall for our consideration—wages, conditions of employment, and so forth, many 2042 of the vital questions that were referred to by the hon. Member opposite.
The hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Mabane), who, with the hon. Member for South Nottingham, made such excellent contributions to this Debate, referred in some detail to conferences which have taken place. Among the many conferences which have taken place to stimulate the consideration of unemployment and working conditions was one of all the organisations concerned with shop employment. This was followed by a further discussion between employers and trade union representatives, who responded to the Minister's request to frame proposals for the effective regulation of conditions by the forming of two committees, one for England and Wales and one for Scotland. The object of the formation of these committees was to work out a scheme to be laid before the organisations with a view to an ultimate agreed scheme being laid before the Minister, and the present position is that many meetings have been held, that general conferences will be held in the New Year of the trade organisations, and that meanwhile each organisation is considering the proposals.
That is the present position. Some hon. Members may feel a sense of impatience that, for instance to-night, I am unable to say that a complete plan has been evolved, but when we examine the complexity of the distributive trades, we ought to express gratification that for the first time in our history the two sides have been brought together to tackle this colossal task, to use the adjective of the hon. Member who moved the Motion. I have tried to outline for the benefit of the House the difference in functions between the two Departments particularly involved. It might be well to give them some idea of what the term "distributive trades" means. At this time, when we are all buying, or ought to be buying, our Christmas presents for our friends and relations, we walk along the streets of our great cities and towns, and as we do so we can gain some idea of the many different shops, trades, and organisations which form the distributive trades.
Let me give some idea of what they contain. There are booksellers, furniture trades, drapers, ironmongers, bakers, credit traders, fish fryers, fishmongers, grocery and provision dealers, meat 2043 traders, retail newsagents, confectioners, tobacconists, co-operative organisations—so ably represented on the benches opposite—photographic equipment, retail fruit traders, stationers, and wireless retailers. Those are some of the organisations, not to talk of the many unions which represent those who work in these particular trades. Hon. Members will see that to achieve an immediate result with this vast and complex agglomeration of industries must be very difficult indeed.
§ Mr. Butler
There has been agreement to negotiate, to get together and to discuss the question, but there has not yet been a final plan produced by all the distributive trades to settle the whole of the conditions. I will refer later to some of the agreements that have been made. Meanwhile, I am just referring to the getting together, to which the hon. Member for Huddersfield signified his assent.
I should like to deal now with one or two points that have been raised. One was a statement made by the hon. Member opposite on the subject of shop assistants. He said, "Do not let us exaggerate the position," and I want to correct one or two impressions that he may have made. He said that the hours of work in shops were very bad indeed, and I am not going to claim that they are completely satisfactory, but I would like to put in conditions safeguarding the phrase and to say that, while no doubt a considerable number of assistants may be kept on after closing hours, the closing hours do in fact have a tremendous influence in limiting the hours of work. In the second place, the hon. Member suggested that there was over-working of young girls of 14 and over, but following the committee's recommendations, to which he made reference, and since the passing of the Shops Act of 1934, the hours of work of persons under 18 have been limited to 48 per week, and this has altered the whole situation so far as young workers are concerned. I am not attempting to deny that there are bad conditions, but I would limit some of the statements that have been made.
The hon. Member for Huddersfield also put a question, as did the hon. Member 2044 for South Nottingham, on the subject of a census of distribution, alluding to the trades as a whole. I understand that my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade has been in communication with the hon. Member for Huddersfield, and that he, the hon. Member, is endeavouring to obtain the views of representative commercial and industrial associations on this subject, with a view to bringing a deputation perhaps to the President, and my right hon. Friend will be interested to hear what progress has been achieved by the hon. Member.
§ Mr. Markham
Can the hon. Member give us any further information as to the possible cost of a census of distribution?
§ Mr. Butler
I am afraid I cannot at this stage. Large figures have been quoted, particularly from other countries, and I would rather not tie myself down to a figure at this stage, particularly as my right hon. Friend wishes to hear what my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield has to say on the subject.
I wish here to pay a tribute to the spirit in which those parties to whom the Minister has appealed have given their co-operation. I have referred to the discussions taking place, and it is fitting to reflect that this co-operation which is being offered by both sides is being given according to the best traditions of cooperation in industry. I should like to express the satisfaction of the Minister at the spirit which prevails. The hon. Member opposite made reference to the report of the Select Committee on Shop Assistants. I was interested, in reading the report of that committee, to notice what it said about the absence of organisation among the workers in the distributive trades. It referred to the consequent inability of the workers to speak with a collective voice in matters affecting conditions, and it went on to say:Your Committee would like very much to see some machinery set up which would bring employers and employed into closer touch with each other and promote joint discussion in the settlement of questions affecting their mutual interests.We feel that the steps that we have taken show for the first time that community of interest has been established, and that this is a definite step towards a determination to achieve some results. Moreover, the mere fact of getting these parties together has provided a very welcome and important education in what is 2045 wanted and an awakening of interest in the improvement of conditions. So far, one can say, so good.
Hon. Members have raised various points about the possibility of statutory action, and I would acknowledge here that it is the considered view of all the organisations taking part in these discussions that the circumstances of the trade are such as to make it impossible to have effective regulation of conditions without statutory action, and that without statutory protection those who wish to improve their own conditions cannot be safeguarded against unfair competition. That, I think, is a fair statement of the attitude of the parties concerned. This cannot be denied, but when the vast field to be covered is visualised, it is obvious that even statutory action, to be effective, requires the active co-operation of the greatest possible number of employers and workpeople, and it is that co-operation which we are out to achieve. There have been complaints about State interference, but those who complain forget that bad conditions cannot be tolerated and that the only way to avoid such interference is to show willlingness themselves to join with others to eradicate these bad conditions. This applies both to employers and workpeople, and it is unfortunate that some efforts which have been made by organisations to improve conditions in the trade by voluntary action should be frustrated by those who will not join and play their part.
In the face of these conditions, and in spite of the fear of unfettered competition which was referred to by the hon. Member, yet some agreements have been made already, of which I should like here to show our appreciation. One has been in operation for 14 years, between the London Employers' Association and the Shop Assistants Union; there are agreements with the Co-operative movement, well-known to hon. Members opposite; and there is a recent agreement, covering multiple grocery shops, which affects nearly 100,000 workpeople in the distributive trades. We should like to welcome all these agreements. We recognise that those who have made them feel that the agreements should be fortified by statutory action, and there seems to be on this subject agreement generally among the organisations. We realise that there is a reluctance among them to combine themselves together in advance 2046 of statutory action, but we hope for a sufficient amount of voluntary cooperation to make the area in which compulsion must be considered as narrow as possible. I hope that when the time comes for the Minister to receive the considered views as the result of these discussions which are now taking place, the House will support him if he brings forward Measures which will attempt to deal with the conditions in the trades to which I have been referring. I feel sure the House will realise that they can rely upon the Minister to take all steps open to him in this connection.
Now I want to say a word about the administration of the Shops Act, which has been referred to also in this Debate. I have noticed that there have been criticisms of the administration of the Shops Act. I would remind the House that the Home Office has recently issued circulars to local authorities, drawing their attention to the necessity for good administration, and I think these circulars will have effect. I would also remind the House that the Home Office has been, and will be, ready to take up individual complaints from local authorities. One could spend a lot of time describing such efforts as have been made by them.
I have been asked whether the Government would call for an annual report of the administration of these Acts by local authorities. I can say that, in the light of this Debate, the Home Secretary will consider whether he can take any action in consultation with local authorities to improve the enforcement of the present law. I trust that will show that we are as desirous as hon. Members to see these Acts properly administered. At the same time, we naturally cannot accept all the strictures which have been put forward in this Debate, since we think that they tend to exaggerate the position. I hope that, while maintaining my reputation for brevity, I have covered many of the many points that have been put forward. This Motion is one which the House might well approve, because it approves action that is being taken to assist traders in the better regulation of their conditions.
§ 6.17 p.m.
§ Mrs. Tate
I think that all of us will have welcomed the Minister's promise that steps will be taken immediately to see that those laws which are already in force are carried out. I would like to draw the 2047 Minister's attention to two points in that regard. One is with respect to seats for shop assistants. It was recognised by this House as long ago as 1899 that it was desirable that female assistants should have seats provided, upon which they could sit when they were not serving. I would ask hon. Members whether, when they have done any shopping in the West End of London, they have ever taken any trouble to see whether those seats are provided. I have taken a great deal of trouble over the matter. I have visited every large store in the West End and have often asked the shop assistants whether they have seats upon which they can sit. I first ask a girl when she is alone and then in the presence of the buyer in charge of the department. It is an interesting thing, and one which one cannot ignore, that in a large number of cases, if you get the assistant by herself where she cannot be overheard and where she believes she is in no danger of your repeating what she says, she will tell you that not only are seats not provided, but that, if they were, her life would not be tolerable if she sat down. If you get the shop assistant with the buyer of the department present, she will always tell you with a bright smile on her face that she is very comfortable indeed, that there are plenty of seats if she wants to sit on them, and that, after all, there is not very much time in which to sit down.
As I have carried this experiment out in a wide area in London I can no longer consider that as pure coincidence, and I agree with every word that hon. Members say when they state that inspection is not satisfactorily carried out. A short time ago I rang up the London County Council and reported a certain shop, in one department of which I knew there was deliberate persecution of assistants who attempted to sit down. I was not very graciously treated by the London County Council when I made that report, but 10 days later they visited the shop and found, as I could have told them they would find, that no seats were provided for the assistants. The excuse given was that there were plenty of seats downstairs. It is difficult to understand what use that was. However, the inspector was not satisfied and said that seats were instantly to be brought into the department. Two kitchen chairs were sent for and were brought into the department, 2048 where they still are. The buyer in that department, however, has seen to it that the legs of one chair are broken, and the position of the girls is far from secure if they attempt to sit on the other. In the Shops Act, 1934, it was laid down thatit shall be the duty of the occupier of the shop to permit the female assistants to make use of such seats whenever the use thereof does not interfere with their work, and the occupier shall in the prescribed manner and in the prescribed form give notice informing such shop assistants that they are intended to do so.I have very good eyesight, and I have looked round a large number of West End stores, but I have failed to see where those notices are that tell shop assistants that they can sit down.
§ Mrs. Tate
Thank you. Well, they may be in the staff room, but I would like them in every department where the assistants are serving in order that the general public may see them as well as the assistants. May I say that seats on the public side of the counter are often useless? It is impossible for a girl who is serving in, say, the lingerie department, to summon the courage in front of the buyer to walk round to the front of the counter and sit on a seat there. What she wants is a little seat that draws out from the back of the counter. There is a great deal of interest to-day in the decline of the population in this country, and there is general agreement—
§ Mr. Markham
The hon. Lady has quite misunderstood me, and I am sorry that she has taken it in that manner.
§ Mrs. Tate
What it has to do with it is this. The health of a girl who stands continuously week after week, month after month in a shop for long hours may be so much impaired that her capacity for child bearing may be seriously impaired. No medical man will argue about that for a moment. It is an accepted 2049 fact. There is all over the country general agreement that the health of our young girls is of vital importance, not only from a humanitarian point of view, but from the point of view of the health of the race and the welfare of the children which we hope to bring into the world. Therefore I say that the provision of seats for shop assistants, which may seem a very small and unimportant point, is one which may have very far-reaching effects. Legislation was passed as long ago as 1899, and the fact that it is no longer in many cases any more than a dead letter should not be ignored. What is the good of talking of passing fresh legislation in the future with regard to conditions in the distributive trades if we in this House know that when we pass it, with the best intentions in the world, it will be ignored? I would rather never see a law passed at all than pass one which will become a dead letter. I hope that if legislation is brought in, the tiny shop which is run by the individual family, will be left outside it. That is not a revolutionary proposal. It is general in many parts of the world because it has been found that the inspection of these little family shops is so difficult to carry out that it is impracticable.
There is another law with regard to distribution which needs enforcing. It is, I believe, illegal for tradesmen to bribe their way into houses in order to gain custom. That law is ignored all over London. There is practically not a small trader in London to-day—in the West End at all events—who is not bribing his way into people's kitchens. That is a heavy charge on his expenses and it must add a great deal to the prices he has to charge. I will give the House an instance, because it is better to speak of what one has experienced. The last time I gave my custom to a butcher in the West End of London I sent for him personally, and said, "If I give you my custom you must clearly understand that I will not be a party to commissions of any sort, kind or description being given to my cook." He said, "Oh, of course not; we cannot possibly afford to do anything like that; we have to compete with the large stores." Shortly afterwards I had a new cook in whom I have great confidence. She had not been in the house a fortnight before she told me that the butcher had approached her, and said, "What do you want on the monthly books?" She 2050 told him she wanted nothing, as the giving of commissions was something of which I gravely disapproved and which I would not tolerate. At the end of the year—this was last Christmas—he left her £2, in an envelope as a present. I hear an hon. Member say that that was very nice, but it cannot be very nice for the small trader who has to do it. It must add enormously to his overhead expenses. It is against the law, and we should see that the law is enforced. Otherwise, it is far better not to have the law at all.
Another point which needs consideration in the interests of the trader, if there is to be legislation in regard to the distributive trades, is the vast amount of trading which goes on in offices, clubs and societies. No body of people is more guilty of this than the Civil Service. People will always do it while it is permissible, and it is natural that they should. It is a well-known fact that in the Civil Service arrangements can be made with large distributors to supply large quantities of chocolates or cigarettes. These are sold by individuals in the offices who have of course no rent, lighting or other overheads to pay, and they are sold at the wholesale price. That is unfair to the traders who have to compete with it. That trading in offices, clubs and societies should be ended.
Hon. Members have spoken of some of the unsatisfactory wages paid and long hours worked by assistants in the distributive trades. I will therefore speak of another matter of which no one has spoken, a matter which I think is serious and is not of small proportions. I will quote only two instances, of which I have personal knowledge. There are certain shops which take on young people in what one might call the pretended role of apprentices, though they are not really apprentices, but just nothing more or less than assistants. To quote one example, a girl paid £45 for a three-term course of training at a florist's. The idea was that at the end of the training she would be able to get a good job. Having paid her £45, having done three terms of quite hard work, serving in the florist's shop, she goes out into the world to get the job for which she has been trained. She was unemployed for three months, and then got a job with a florist in Berkeley Square. Her wages were 10s. a week. I 2051 submit that that kind of thing really ought not to be allowed.
There is another question of that type which needs to be dealt with. As hon. Members know, there are in this city of ours a large number of beauty parlours—very necessary and admirable. They sometimes take on assistants, who go, believing they are apprentices learning a trade. They sign on for a certain number of years, and they massage and manicure people for long hours daily. It cannot be particularly amusing to spend your days massaging faces and hands and manicuring nails, but they become in time quite skilled workers. In some instances they receive no pay whatsoever. They have sometimes signed on for several years. The idea is that when they leave at the end of their term of service they will be experts in beauty culture, and will know how to manufacture the various creams and lotions. But this is the one thing they never learn. They may be very good manicurists and able to massage a face, but the proprietor of the shop has taken every known precaution to prevent them from learning one of the recipes for making the creams or lotions. The girl goes out into the world scarcely more fitted for skilled employment than when she first went into the shop, because for a comparatively small sum of money one can learn manicuring. If we are going to have legislation with regard to shop assistants, that is a matter which ought to be investigated.
Another case—there is in the West End of London a very large store which, in its millinery department, will take a girl who is called an apprentice. She runs errands in the millinery department. She is supposed at the end of a certain number of years to be able to go out into the world and get a highly-paid job in the hat department of any other West End firm. While she is learning her trade, which takes three years, she is getting 3s. 6d. a week. The House may think that that does not matter very much; that perhaps the girl can live at home, and that at any rate she knew what the conditions were when she took the job. I do not want to see girls working for 3s. 6d. a week. If they do a job they must get the proper wages for it, 2052 and if they are running about from morning till night, as the girls in a millinery store are, they are worth more than 3s. 6d. a week. They are not even learning a very great deal. Reverting to the first case I mentioned, I say that no shop or business ought to be allowed to take £45 from a girl in order to teach her to arrange flowers or another trade and then, at the end, not be able to find her work, nor should she have to take work, after three years training at 10s. a week. These things need looking into.
The hon. Member for Westhoughton (Mr. R. Davies) did not raise one point which I felt sure that he would not raise, but which I intend to raise even if no other Member who speaks supports me. I noticed that in this agreement between employers and employés which has been put forward there is a summary of the scales of wages which it is proposed to adopt. They are exceedingly interesting. A male assistant's wages are to run from 17s. a week at 16 years of age to 63s. at 25 years of age. A female assistant's wages run from 14s. at 16 years of age to 39s. at 24 years of age. Of course, not one hon. Member in this House drew attention to that, because the party opposite is just as guilty as my own, and just as stupid, on this question of equal pay for equal work. Anyone who has had anything to do with the training or upbringing of the young knows that both boys and girls of 16 are sometimes tiresome, that it is a trying age, but I should say that a girl of 16 is, if anything, rather better as a saleswoman than a boy of 16 as a salesman, and I think it is quite indefensible that her wages should be 3s. a week less, for the same hours, than a boy's. There is a great complaint about the shortage of domestic workers in this country. I wish to sec equal opportunities of work and of life for all people. One of the best ways to get girls to do girls' work is to see that wherever men and women are working together at identical jobs they should be given identical pay. It is no good the hon. Member opposite nodding his head in assent now. He will not nod his head when his party are in office. I know well enough they will never take up this problem. Have they when they were in office ever done anything for women in this matter of equal pay?
§ Mrs. Tate
And you need not say "Shame" for you are all as bad as one another. When it is found in years to come that the influx of women into industry is depressing wages, do not come in amazement to the House and say, "The wicked employers are employing girls and depressing wages." Hon. Members themselves will have contributed to that situation. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Westhoughton, who raised this question, had not the courage to bring up this point, which he very well knows ought to be raised, of equal pay for equal work in the distributive trades. We could have tried to start here, because there must be a beginning, and I should have liked to see a gesture come from the hon. Member for Westhoughton, astounded as I should have been had he made it.
§ 6.38 p.m.
§ Mr. Alexander
We have all admired the spirit of the contribution of the hon. Member for Frome (Mrs. Tate), and I am sure that what she has said will be duly noted by all the members of the inferior sex whom she has so successfully lectured. I think those of us who are trying to improve conditions in the distributive trades always take note of any real cases of injustice such as she has put forward, and I hope that when we come to deal with the situation—and we hope that we on this side will have the opportunity to bring in real legislation—we shall find her a 100 per cent. supporter of that legislation. I should not have intervened if the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Mabane) had not raised the question of the conferences which have been held and were first initiated by the Minister in 1936. I should have thought that it would have been better not to discuss the matter at this stage if it could not be treated with complete freedom, but in view of what he has said I want to make it plain that the people whom I represent, the Co-operative movement, have been as forward as anybody in responding to the Minister's invitation to assist in getting a general agreement. It must not be thought that the case presented by the hon. Member for Huddersfield represents the views of all the people concerned. Some of us hold very strongly to the view that it will not be possible to operate successfully one great national machine for the distributive trades, and that if the Minister had 2054 found sufficient support in his party and in the distributive trades to apply to them the general principles of the Trade Boards Act we should have been able to get on more rapidly, to get more effective improvements at once in the conditions and wages of the employés.
I was extremely disappointed with the statement which was drawn from the Parliamentary Secretary by the speech made by the hon. Member for Huddersfield. I wish the matter had not been discussed from that angle to-night. The Minister said—I put down his words—that if there could be an extension of voluntary agreements they hoped to make the area in which compulsion was necessary as narrow as possible. That statement makes those of us who are interested in securing better conditions in the distributive trades considerably nervous, because if the Minister is likely to approve the sort of agreements which have already been entered into voluntarily, I should be disappointed to think that it indicated that he does not think legislation is necessary. Let me give two examples. There is the agreement made with the Multiple Shops Association. I quote from the "Grocer" of 27th November, 1937. According to that, males in the assistants' class at the age of 25, in London, get 58s., and in the Provinces 55s. Is anyone going to suggest that agreements of that kind would provide such a standard in the trade as would make it necessary to have general legislation for improving the conditions? I compliment the trade union on having got that far, in view of what conditions were before the agreement was entered into, but it certainly does not indicate that that will be a sufficient substitute for the trade board's principle which we had actually operating in the grocery trade as long ago as 1919 to 1921.
Another agreement which has been entered into in the North of England is certainly not such as would lead us to suppose that legislation will not be necessary over a very wide area of the distributive trades. I would beg the Minister to consider that those who have to pay the higher wages are by no means satisfied with the situation. The hon. Member for Huddersfield said that unless agreements of this kind could be supported by legislation the position would be in jeopardy, but I do not hold the view that 2055 the firms who have entered into that agreement cannot pay much more. When the hon. Member for Westhoughton (Mr. Rhys Davies) was speaking the hon. Member for Huddersfield mentioned the case of the International Tea Company, which was said not to be making large profits. One may find a multiple shop company which it not making good profits in this or that particular year, but we ought to consider what the profits of multiple shops concerns have been since the War. Let hon. Members read the history of that company's shares from the days of the acquisition of the Star Tea Company, and they will see that they have distributed as much as 30 per cent. year after year, up to about 18 months ago. The case mentioned by the hon. Member for Huddersfield no longer bears examination.
The position of co-operative societies is that for many years they have been operating a voluntary agreement, to which the Parliamentary Secretary referred, and all that time they had been subject to unfair competition by the great majority—happily, not the whole—of the distributive trades with whom they are in competition. The rates in those agreements are many shillings above at this moment the new trade agreement with Lewis's and with the multiple shops. If the co-operative societies have been able, in those very difficult circumstances, to pay those higher wages, there is not the slightest reason why those large companies should not reach at least equal conditions with those of the co-operative societies. We are now in a more difficult position perhaps than we have been in for many years, because of the absence of statutory enforcement of the rates, not of the kind mentioned in the new multiple shop agreements, but of the kind that we have paid in the past. I do not want to say, nor do many of my colleagues, that the wages paid to co-operative employés are the last word, and that there is no right to ask for an improvement, but it is the measure of the improvement rather than the static position of those employés which depends upon how far the Government are prepared to deal with the problem of the very low wage-level throughout the distributive trades, in order to bring it within measurable distance of the competitive standard that we have set.
2056 I did not want the Parliamentary Secretary to be under any misapprehension as to the co-operative point of view. We cannot possibly accept the general principle which has been laid down to-night that the matter should be dealt with by compulsion only in as narrow an area as possible. We are convinced that conditions in the distributive trade and the state of organisation of the employés are such that a general statutory provision is required for settling a reasonable and equitable standard of conditions in the distributive trades; and the sooner the Minister gets on with the job the better.
§ 6.48 p.m.
§ Mr. Orr-Ewing
I shall not attempt to follow the right hon. Gentleman in the complicated and difficult question of agreements made by large numbers of workpeople on the one hand and large employers on the other; rather would I turn for a moment to the small employer with possibly one employé or an employer who works with two or three others only. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Hillsborough (Mr. Alexander) compared the position of the co-operative societies with other organisations of similar traders; perhaps I might suggest to him, without wishing in any way to attack the cooperative societies, that in certain directions co-operative prices are as high as, if not in some direction slightly higher than, those of competing establishments. The co-operative societies are not supplying an equivalent service to other establishments of the same size, which does allow the societies a greater margin out of which wages are paid.
§ Mr. Orr-Ewing
I am sorry to hear the right hon. Gentleman say so. I was sure he would agree on the question of the service supplied. I want to refer to a point made by the hon. Member for Westhoughton (Mr. Rhys Davies) regarding Sunday trading. He assumes that the Restriction of Sunday Trading Act is being well received by all concerned throughout the distributive trades. I can assure him that there is, rightly or wrongly, considerable feeling on the subject, especially in seaside resorts, not only among employers but in many cases among employés, who lose certain benefits as the 2057 result of the seasonal operation of the Act. The hon. Gentleman cannot put it forward as a fact that the Act is universally accepted. The hon. Member also stated as a fact that those employed in the distributive trade had doubled in number during the last 20 years, and he gave an estimated figure of something like 2,500,000. He coupled that statement with an attack, which I am sure he did not mean to be general but which certainly sounded general, upon the conditions of those employed. Those two arguments seem to cancel themselves. How is it that the number employed has doubled in the last few years when conditions within the industry are so bad as he suggests? I do not say that there are no bad cases, but I think they are not, and his figures of increased employment prove that they cannot be very widespread.
An even more sweeping statement was made by the hon. Member for Hudders-field (Mr. Mabane) in the other direction, that there was a considerable amount of work under sweated labour conditions in small shops. I do not think I am misrepresenting what he said in his speech and in reply to questions and interruptions. That is far too dangerous and sweeping a statement to be made. One can find low wages in small shops as in large shops, but it is not fair to the small employers in small villages and towns to place them under that stigma. If he were now in the House I should ask him to reconsider the actual words which he used.
But I want to turn to the problem of those who work in the small country towns and villages in small establishments. We know that the hours and wages of those who work in the countryside must be affected to a considerable extent by the prevalent agricultural wage in the district. I do not mean that it is the same, but undoubtedly the wage rate in the countryside is bound to be affected by the lower rate existing among those who work on the land, and not by the wage rates which exist among those who work in the cities. Making due allowance for the lower rate which we can consider fair to be paid in the distributive trades in such rural districts, I would point out that there are many people who are outside the existing provisions of the law and whose conditions cannot be fully covered. I am not speaking about my own constituency nor about Somerset in particular, but certain cases have been 2058 forced upon my attention in some parts of the country. I have ultimately found that there must be considerable hardships among certain sections of employés. The sort of case that happens is that the country butcher employs a man to help him, not only in the slaughterhouse and behind the counter but to drive a van around the countryside and feed the beasts that practically every country butcher has resting under his care or that he, as a dealer, proposes to make use of for himself or to hand over to somebody else. The hours of work I have found in some cases to be over 70 per week, and the remuneration practically no better than, or within a few shillings of, the prevailing agricultural rate.
There is the similar sort of case of the country baker with perhaps added danger to the health of the man employed. We can well imagine what the effect must be upon a young man a baker, employed at a low rate, coming out of a hot bakehouse practically straight through the shop and out into the cold winter air, in order to deliver the goods which he has manufactured in the preceding hours. In neither case is the man covered, so far as I have been able to discover, by any law made by Parliament, and I was glad to hear the Parliamentary Secretary state what his right hon. Friend was proposing to do. What is needed is a tightening up of the application of the law, but even so we should find gaps over which we had practically no jurisdiction. Whether those gaps should be remedied by major or minor amendment of the law I should be out of order in discussing at the present moment, but I believe we might be able to do something, even as a result of this Debate.
One of the reasons why the small shop in the countryside is experiencing great difficulty is very largely because of the demand for improved service and the high rate of service offered by some of the larger establishments, which send out their vehicles to deliver goods 30 miles or 40 miles away in rural England, to places which are perhaps many miles from any large centre of population. One of the chief drawbacks of the small country trader, tending to keep his wages down if he is to make any sort of living at all, is the necessity to deliver his goods over a very wide area. He often drives out in his motor van or horse and cart, and he cannot impose an additional charge to the 2059 customer in respect of delivery. The ideal customer to him is one who has paid for the goods and has taken them away across the counter. One of the finest things that the large distributive establishments could do to raise themselves in the esteem of the public would be to show that they are prepared to co-operate in working out an economical and efficient distributive system by coming to some arrangement as regards charges for distribution. I do not think it is right that the woman who buys something across the counter should pay more because the woman who lives five miles away is not charged for the delivery of exactly similar goods to her, or that the large establishments should force the smaller one into great difficulty by the fact that they are able to transfer a loss from one side of the business to another side which is making a profit, and can deliver goods at a loss in an area which is not in their own district.
I really rose to direct attention to the difficulty of the small man in the typical English village or small country town. I do not believe that the small trader in such circumstances would grind the faces of those who work for him; the faces of those who do the work are a complete answer to that suggestion. The majority are ruddy, hale, healthy and happy. But I suggest that there are gaps in the existing legislation that ought to be stopped up.
§ 7 p.m.
§ Mr. Leslie
It is gratifying to notice that although many hon. Members have spoken on the Motion hardly anyone has yet said a word against it. An exception was the hon. Member for South Nottingham (Mr. Markham), who said that the Motion was rather ungenerous in its terms towards the Government and to what the Government had done to improve conditions of life. I have no desire to be ungenerous, and therefore at the outset I want to pay a tribute to the work done by the officials of the Ministry of Labour, and particularly by Mr. Leggett, who has striven to bring individual employers as well as associations of employers and the trade unions together, with the result that quite a number of agreements have been put into operation. These agreements with the shop assistants have recently been made with 45 firms, covering 80,000 2060 workers, 24 other firms in the grocery and provision trades, employing 20,000 workers, and a number of departmental stores covering the grocery and provision departments—altogether over 100,000 workers. Then there have been agreements in drapery and departmental stores operating 17 stores in the following towns—Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, Leicester, Birmingham, Hanley, Glasgow, Preston, Coventry, Wolverhampton, Chester, and Bolton. Altogether these agreements cover 150,000 workers. But, after all, that is a very small number out of the great army of shop assistants throughout the length and breadth of the country.
The hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Mabane) said he did not think that it was right to say that wages within recent years had been very low. As a matter of fact, wages within recent years have indeed been very low, and I will show the reason why. When the men left the armed forces of the Crown after the War they were organised in our Shop Assistants' Union at an average of over 2,000 a week, and we were able to secure improved conditions, which meant increasing wages by over £7,000,000. We secured a 48-hour week for thousands in the retail trade, and a 44-hour week for thousands in the wholesale trade. But when the trade slump came and there were very few openings for young people in productive occupations the result was a huge influx of juveniles into the distributive trades; and ever since then wages gradually worsened until investigations made by the Ministry of Labour so impressed the Minister that he started the idea of trying to bring the associations of employers and representatives of trade unions together. The hon. Member for Huddersfield mentioned the attitude of the Grocers' Federation. I well know their attitude. In the past they have always been very anxious to co-operate with the Shop Assistants' Union when it was a question of early closing. But when you mentioned the question of wages, that was another matter, and there was nothing doing. That has been their attitude all along. It is good to learn from the Parliamentary Secretary that the Home Secretary has decided that if complaints are lodged against the inaction of local authorities the Home Office will get into touch with those local authorities.
2061 I want to deal with the question of shop hours. There is no question that has been more often before Parliament. The first Bill was introduced in 1873–64 years ago; and no fewer than 30 Bills have been introduced since then. The question has also been very fruitful of Commissions. No fewer than six Commissions of Inquiry have been appointed at various times by different Governments, and the evidence in all the Blue Books is absolutely overwhelming as to the long hours worked and the injurious effects of such long hours upon those employed behind the counter. Especially is that true in the case of women and young persons. The Mover of the Motion pointed out that until 1934, when an Act was passed dealing with the hours of young persons under 18, the only legislative measure was an Act passed in 1886. Thus that Act stood for 48 years before anything was done to restrict the employment of young persons under 18. The old Act was allowed to be exploited up to 74 hours, inclusive of meal times. In 1911 we hade the Early Closing Act, which provided for a weekly half-holiday. That certainly was a big boon for shop assistants. It also provided for the regulation of meal times and the enforcement of local closing orders, but unfortunately local closing hours were restricted to a time not earlier than 7 p.m.
Our contention is that early closing is not enough. It is perfectly true that if you go to any town and any street you like you will find assistants working long after the shops have been closed. That is due in the main to under-staffing—under-staffing at a time when at least 200,000 distributive workers are unemployed. In that connection I want to give two figures. Take Scotland. Between the ages of 14 and 15 unemployment in the case of boys is 4.35 per cent.; between 16 and 17 it is 12.29 Per cent.; between 18 and 20 it is 15.79 Per cent.; and at the age of 21 and over it is 20.69 per cent. In the case of Wales the figures are much worse. Boys unemployed between the ages of 14 and 15 are 6.10 per cent.; between 16 and 17, 13.22 per cent.; between the ages of 18 and 20, 19.89 per cent.; and at the ages of 21 and over, 24.72 per cent. There is no occupation in the country that consumes the young life of the nation to such an extent as the distributive trades, and no occupation where more women and young persons are 2062 employed—750,000 between the ages of 14 and 20. So that, like painters, who are only wanted in the springtime of the year, the shop assistants are only wanted in the springtime of their lives. Long hours, often in a vitiated atmosphere, have a decidedly detrimental effect on health. I am glad that the hon. Member for Frome (Mrs. Tate) took up this question of the unhealthy conditions of work of women. Over 40 years ago a very eminent physician, Dr. Richardson, said:The effects of shop labour on females under 21, or on males under 21, is of necessity injurious, as impeding the growth and the natural development of the organs of the body. To the female the mischief is of a kind calculated to extend to the offspring which she may bear. In my opinion eight hours daily is the maximum time during which labour ought to be carried on in shops.That was said 40 years ago, and even to-day there is no limitation of the working hours of assistants over 18 years of age. The medical fraternity have time and again condemned long hours in shops. A petition was at one time presented to this House signed by a very large and representative body of doctors, praying the House of Commons to reduce the hours of shop assistants. In 1930, before the Select Committee was set up, Dr. Ethel Bentham, speaking in this House, from her experience as a medical practitioner said that the health of shop assistants compared extremely badly with that of people in almost any other trade. Assistants suffered from varicose veins, flat feet, and all the disabling things which make life a misery; they aged very early, and broke down very early. With regard to women the matter was even more important and vital.
Long hours, we contend, are absolutely unnecessary. The hours of the cooperative societies, which cater for working-class customers, are 44 a week in the North of England, and 48 in the rest of the country. It has never been contended that the well-to-do classes desire late shopping. In the West End of London you will find a 48-hour week, and in some cases 45½ hours. The Great War brought about many changes, and not least in the shopping habits of the people. True, that was largely due to D.O.R.A., but late closing is a waste of human life, and in scores of towns a 6 o'clock or 6.30 closing time came into operation. But, unfortunately, under a voluntary arrangement 2063 it only required one or two cantankerous individuals to break away and the voluntary arrangement collapsed. The present Shop Hours Act fixes local closing orders for an hour not earlier than 7 p.m. A slight amendment—and, after all, that was recommended by the Select Committee—to permit closing orders for an hour earlier than 7 o'clock would be welcomed by many traders. The report of the Select Committee in 1931 was the most important that has ever been issued affecting shop assistants. It was a far-reaching document which recommended not only the limitation of working hours but better sanitation, ventilation and heating. It is true that the 1934 Act reduced the hours of young persons by a gradual process to 48, but unfortunately it left 52 hours of unpaid overtime per annum. The evidence of the Juvenile Employment and Welfare Officers' Association given before that Select Committee showed how long hours prevent assistants from attending evening classes, and this at a period of life when opportunity should be given for intellectual, cultural, and physical improvement.
§ Notice taken that 40 Members were not present; House counted, and 40 Members being present—
§ Mr. Leslie
Unfortunately, infringements of the Act of 1934 are very common. I will give one or two cases. One is that of a girl 18 years of age employed by a Sheffield firm for 71½ hours a week at a wage of 12s. The 71½ hours were worked as follows: Sunday, 10.30 a.m. until 9.30 p.m.; Monday to Thursday, 9.30 a.m. until 9.30 p.m.; Saturday, 9.30 a.m. until 10 p.m. "On Friday she had a whole day's holiday, and she might well need it," declared the shops inspector. In addition to exceeding the legal maximum of hours by 19½ per week, there were five charges against the firm for not allowing proper intervals for meals, and a charge of failing to keep a record of the hours worked and the intervals allowed for rest and meals to the assistant. Another case is that of a lad of 16 who was employed until 11.30 on several evenings in the week, on Saturday till 12 o'clock, and also on Sunday mornings. I could quote a number of these cases, but I have said sufficient to show that even the Act of 1934 is not being properly administered at the present time.
2064 The evidence given before the Select Committee showed that there was a high mortality between the ages of 16 and 20, and that these assistants suffered from lowered vitality and chronic affections attributable to long hours of standing, bad arrangements for meals, and lack of fresh air and natural light. The Select Committee recommended a strict enforcement of the statutory provisions with regard to meal-times and half-holidays, and the evidence generally showed what the hon. Member for Frome has told us to-night, namely, that very little use of seats was being made in practice. Indeed, the investigators who went round were told that the girls got used to standing, and that it looked more businesslike for them to stand than to be seen sitting. This is a purely domestic occupation, in which shorter hours are possible. There is no foreign competition or international complication. To-day a 48-hour week is operating in Belgium, Czechoslovakia, France, Germany, and nearly every State of America, while in Finland the working week is 47 hours, and in Poland 46. Surely, it is not too much to ask that we should have a 48-hour week in this country.
Unfortunately the Government, so far, have failed to give effect to all the findings of the Select Committee. When the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Morgan Jones) introduced a Bill to give effect to the findings of the Committee, the Government spokesmen on that occasion objected. He said it would create unemployment, but that seems to be a new theory. Our impression was that by reducing hours from, in many cases, 60 to 48, we might be able to absorb at any rate some of the 250,000 who were then unemployed. The second objection made to the Bill was that it would increase the cost of commodities. In my evidence to the Committee I showed that, in shops where the hours were 48 or less per week, no more was charged for commodities than in shops where 60 hours and more were worked per week. The third objection was that it would reduce wages. Wages were already so low that the Minister was convinced that something had to be done, and therefore he called together employers and trade unions; and, as I have already said, thanks to the persuasive powers of Mr. Leggett, agreements on wages were arranged between a number of individual firms and 2065 associations of firms and the trade unions concerned. Unfortunately, however, these represent but a tiny minority of the 2,250,000 people employed in the distributive trade. Therefore we say that wage-fixing machinery is absolutely necessary. I could quote a number of cases of low wages. Here are one or two. The "Situations Vacant" column of a Liverpool evening paper recently contained the following:Grocery and provisions. Smart experienced young man for both counters. Good at figures. References. 28s. weekly.I suppose that, when they were getting an assistant at 28s. weekly. they thought it was very necessary to have a reference with him. In another case, in the tailoring trade, a young man who wears pinstriped trousers and a black coat and waistcoat is getting £1 a week; he is 22 years of age. Another, 21 years of age, is receiving 21s. a week. Here is a letter that was written by a mother to the "Grocer," which is the "Times" of the grocery trade:My son has been employed for eight years in the trade, and his wages are only 34s. per week, with the insurance deducted. He is now 23 years of age. Another assistant employed at the same shop, whose age is 21, receives 21s. per week.She also says that her son was advised to attend classes at the technical institute. He did, and gained several certificates, and he was told that it would mean 10s. a week more on his wages; but the grocer who advised him to do that was discovered to be paying only 25s. a week to his own assistants, and if they asked for more they usually got the sack.
The hon. Member for Huddersfield assured us that in the distributive trade it was possible to rise from the bottom right up to the top; in other words, that there was always the marshal's baton in one's knapsack. I will give an illustration of the marshal's baton in the knapsack. A grocer's manager in South Wales was charged with embezzling a sum of money from his employer, so evidently he wanted something more than a baton in his knapsack. In the course of the evidence it transpired that the manager was receiving £2 11s. a week, that he was responsible for stock valued at over £400, and that he was handling money amounting to between £150 and £200 per week. He worked 60 hours a week. Here is the wage bill of that shop:
|Assistant (18 years of age)||11||0|
|Boy Assistant (17 years of age)||10||0|
|Girl (17 years of age)||8||6|
|Boy at week-ends||2||6|
§ That is a total wage bill of £4 19s. 6d., for an average turnover of £167 a week. Not content with paying these low wages, some firms still adhere to radius agreements debarring ex-employés from starting in business on their own account or accepting situations with any other firm in the same line of business. These radius agreements are usually for a radius of three miles and a period of three years. That puts a man outside almost any town, and during that period he cannot accept a situation in the district with any other firm in the same line of business. It is bad enough for firms to pay low wages, but is infinitely worse when they can reserve the right to prevent a man from selling his labour to anyone else after dispensing with his services. Scores of these people are thrown on to public assistance because of these radius agreements, and I think that the Government ought to take note of that fact. Imagine the position of a married man with a wife and children dependent on him. Another grievance is that a character may be with held for some trivial reason. The average shop assistant is not in the happy position of the errand boy who applied for a job to a cantankerous old grocer in Scotland. The first question he was asked was, "Have you a character?" and the boy confessed that he had not. "Then," said the grocer, "run away home and ask your mother to get a line from the school teacher or the minister." Shortly afterwards the boy returned, and the grocer asked him whether he had got a character. He replied, "No, I have not, but I've got yours, and I'm no' comin'." The average assistant is not in that happy position. He is often compelled to take any sort of situation with any type of employer under any conditions that the employer cares to impose. Parliament may pass legislation to safeguard the conditions of employment, but, unless the spirit and intention of the Acts is observed in their administration, they become virtually a dead letter.
§ In this connection I want to call the attention of the House to the attitude 2067 adopted by certain magistrates. Some magistrates go out of their way, when cases of infringement of the Acts come before them, to cast reflections on the Acts, and impose fines of a trifling character, calculated to bring the law into contempt. There was the classic case of a London magistrate who imposed fines of ½d.; and 1s. and 5s. fines are quite common. Deputations from the trade associations and trade unions have gone to the Home Secretary on this matter, but, naturally, the Home Secretary's attitude is on the lines of clemency. Perhaps, however, a word from the Home Secretary to magisterial benches enjoining them not to bring the law into contempt might have the desired effect. The Mover of the Motion dealt with the administration of the Shops Acts by local authorities. Recent legislation has always been in the direction of seeking to save the taxpayer at the expense of the ratepayer, and the result has been that Act after Act has been thrown on to the local authorities. Unfortunately for shop assistants, many local authorities fail in their duty of seeing that sanitation, ventilation and heating are properly carried out, not to mention dealing with breaches with respect to the hours of young people. I hope that this Motion will receive the unanimous support of the House, so that employers in the distributive trade may see that Parliament will not tolerate sweated conditions. What we want is a living wage and fair conditions of employment generally.
§ Question put, and agreed to.
That this House views with concern the long hours of labour, low wages, and bad conditions of employment prevalent in the distributive trades, and, whilst welcoming the efforts made by the best employers and the trades unions through collective agreements to establish better standards, is of opinion that further measures, including a more strict and uniform administration of the Shops Acts, are necessary to raise the social conditions of this very large section of the working community.