§ Mr. Erskine-Hill (Edinburgh, North)
I am glad to have this opportunity of raising a question which vitally affects the small man. The incidence of war falls unevenly, in its hardship, on different classes of the community, and on no class does it fall more heavily than upon the individual small traders and small shopkeepers. My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour, in the course of an Adjournment Debate last February, expressed his own sympathy with the lot of the small man. I am sure we have his sympathy; but this House ought to ask whether everything possible is being done to relieve the lot of the small man, and to make it easier for him to struggle on. I am certain that it is the wish of this House that everything possible should be done to enable him to go on, or to start afresh at the end of this war. I put a Question to the Minister some time ago, the effect of which was whether, when 1112 anyone was being called up from a small shop, and his going meant the closing down of the shop, the Minister could alleviate his lot in any way, and help him to tide over his difficulties as long as possible. The Minister said:I have no evidence that the principles and procedure followed … are not adequate to deal with cases of exceptional hardship amongst small shopkeepers, but, if my hon. and learned Friend has any particular case in mind where he feels that exceptional hardship has occurred, I shall be glad to look into it.If that means that the Minister is satisfied with the lot of the small trader who is being called up, I profoundly disagree with him. I hope to persuade the Minister that there are ways in which the small man can be helped. Also, I deprecate this habit of meeting a large class of cases by saying, "I am prepared to consider any special case, and try to meet it in any way I can." That is dangerous, from the point of view of the subject, because not everyone knows that he can go to his Member of Parliament, and not everyone likes to bother other people when he has any grievance or trouble; therefore, many cases must be overlooked which involve hardship, which, no doubt, the Minister would relieve if he knew about it. It is undoubtedly true that hard cases make bad law, but if there are enough hard cases it is a clear indication that the law as it exists is bad and should be improved. The Minister, in reply to a supplementary question, said:If my hon. and learned Friend can show that any action which I am taking is treating this class of people unjustly compared either with the co-operative societies or the other multiple concerns, no one will be more anxious than myself to look into it, because I am particularly careful to try to be fair between those classes."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 23rd March, 1944; Vol. 398, C. 1017-5018.]I accept that. I want to show him that there is a distinction, and that he ought to look into it, to see what he can do. I will not weary the House with a lot of cases, although I have had a number of cases sent to me since I put down my Question; but I will describe one case, which symbolises a number of others, and which is particularly appropriate. Three brothers had shops in Glasgow. Each of those brothers had a family, who lived on the profits made by keeping the shops. Shortly after the war began, two of the brothers were called up, and two of the shops closed down, leaving one brother to support not only his own family, but 1113 his brothers' families and an old mother, who was dependent on him. Seven or eight months ago the remaining brother was called up. He appealed to the hardship tribunal, who twice gave him deferment, of three months each time. Then he faced the tribunal again, and was told that no further extension could possibly be given. I may say, and I hope that the Minister will take note of it, that the chairman of the tribunal said that he had no sympathy at all with the case. No man who could say anything of that sort, in such a case, is fit to be chairman of an appeal tribunal. I think it was most improper. Some people are apt to forget that they are servants of the public, and not their masters.
What then happened in this case? The man was asked to go to a labour bureau, where he was seen by an officer. This officer, if my facts are correct, as I believe them to be, told that man, "You need not go into the Services if you are prepared to accept a position as an employee of a co-operative stores in Lerwick." It seems to me that, to take a man away from his natural duties of looking after his own and his brothers' families, of keeping their concern alive, so that when his brothers came back they could all start again, is a terrible hardship, which ought to be put right. I feel that the Minister is not using some of the powers, which this House gave him, to relieve those people. Under the National Service Act, we gave him power to issue certificates of exemption. These involved no appeal to tribunals. There is no reason why he should call any person up, even if he does not like to give a certificate of exemption, if the facts show that there is hardship, which ought to be relieved. I think every Member will agree with me that once anyone is within the meshes of the appeals tribunal system, it is only a question of time before he goes, his time of exemption finished. I want the Minister to look into the whole of this subject, to see whether he cannot make an arrangement so that those hard cases do not come within the machinery which must eventually force a man out of his shop and into the Services.
Of course, there are different classes of people. There is the man of military age who can fulfil his service to his country in the most active fields. There, the Minister has his duty to see that, at whatever cost, the service is performed. But it 1114 is very different when you come to people who are going to be directed to some other branch of trade or industry. Particularly I would ask the Minister to lay down that, wherever anyone is being taken away from his own trade or employment, he should not be forced to go into a competing business, as his national service.
§ Mr. Evelyn Walkden (Doncaster)
The hon. and learned Member has made two statements which, he has admitted, are hearsay. Can he name the co-operative society or the employment exchange, or give any substantial evidence of where the incident occurred? The Minister, and probably the trade unions, would be glad to investigate the accuracy of the hon. and learned Member's statements.
§ Mr. Erskine-Hill
I am much obliged to my hon. Friend. The case occurred in Glasgow. Full particulars are being sent to the Minister. The co-operative store was at Lerwick. Obviously, I do not want to tire the House with masses of detail, but I can assure my hon. Friend that full particulars will be given to the Minister, and that they will be communicated to the hon. Gentleman if he wishes to have fuller details than I have been able to give the House. The lot of the small shopkeeper is made worse by the fact that he has competitors upon whom the burden is not falling so heavily. The effect of that competition is to worsen his position while he is away, and to make it more difficult for him when he returns. For that reason alone, I think that fuller consideration should be given to the matter. Knowing the susceptibilities of some hon. Gentlemen opposite, I want to be quite fair. I do not- want to make statements of my own to which exception might be taken. That there is this conflict of interest between the ordinary small shopkeeper and the co-operative stores has been stated, in no uncertain terms, by one of the leaders of the co-operative movement, a person whom I have met, and for whom I have great respect, a person who has recently been honoured by the Secretary of State for Scotland by being put on the Scottish Hydro-Electric Board. This gentleman, Mr. Neil Beaton, spoke at a conference at Skye, in the middle of February. After saying that the co-operative societies hoped to open shops in every town and village in the Highlands, he made it clear where, in his 1115 opinion, the small man stands. I will quote his words:There is a fight. The small shopkeeper will have to go, whether he likes it or not, and I am confident that, despite the power of the Press, we shall win.I heard, although I never saw any contradiction, that this report had been questioned. It formed the subject of a leading article in the "Daily Express." I want to make quite certain that I am not misrepresenting Mr. Beaton, and I, therefore, quote a passage from a book, called "The New Scotland," which he issued. On page 76, he says:We boast that we represent 900,000 households, equal to two-thirds of the consuming units of Scotland. Conjure up the proper application of such forces, and there is no power under the sun which can gainsay us. Linked up with the municipalities, the cooperative movement is capable of, and aims at, carrying through the whole gamut of production, distribution, and services for the entire community.That is exactly the same thing, in other words, as Mr. Beaton is reported to have said at that conference. What is happening in these days, when so many of our gallant fellows have gone out, at this time of crisis and worry to all of us? Shops in the North of Scotland are being bought up for very large sums by the co-operative stores. I am not questioning at the moment whether that is the right policy for the co-operative stores or not, but say that it is imposing additional hardship upon the man who has left his shop to go and fight. That is one aspect which the Minister ought to bear in mind, and to instruct his tribunals to have in view; because, if the hardship to the man, while he is away, is going to be increased, that ought to be taken into consideration in deciding whether he ought to go away at all.
On the question of women workers, I want to put this to the Minister. He has made some concession to the woman who is holding the fort while one of her relatives is away, and she is allowed to have exemption and not be called up at all. But what about the type of case where a woman has lost her husband and is left with a son of the age of 16, with whom she is anxious to carry on the business? Ought not the Minister to lay down a definite rule that in such a case she must not be disturbed? Ought it to be left to the "hard cases" being 1116 brought before the tribunals? I ask the Minister to consider extending the whole gamut of relief to these women, and I should say myself that there will be a strong case for giving women relief in every case where the effect will be to close down the business, unless there is a very special reason why she should be brought into the war machine in some way other than her business.
This country has been called, in derision, "a nation of shopkeepers," but I say I have great pride that this country has been likened to these people — the ordinary type of small shopkeeper. Their integrity, their honesty, their will to succeed, their patriotism—all these are things of which we may well be proud, and I think that, when they are making these sacrifices in the common interest and grumbling so very little about it, it is the duty of this House to keep on urging the Minister to do what he can for them, so that they may feel that they have a body of support in this House which is interested in their hardships during war time and will see that they have a fair deal.
§ Mr. Doland (Balham and Tooting)
I support whole-heartedly the appeal which has been made by the hon. and learned Member for North Edinburgh (Mr. Erskine-Hill), particularly in regard to the administration of the National Service Acts. Particularly do I emphasise this point in view of the fact that, after nearly five years of war, we have, in my opinion, reached a most appalling condition in regard to the small shopkeepers of this country. There was one point which the hon. and learned Member made in his speech into which I would like to go a little further. Owing to the administration of the Rules or Orders laid down under the Act, I understand that the Minister has no option but to support any decision made, not by the tribunal, not by the higher authority, but by the official known as the umpire. If I am right, under the orders of the Minister, once the umpire has given his decision, the man must go into the Forces, whatever the circumstances, after he has had certain deferment periods, and the Minister has no right or authority to override that decision. What does that mean? It means that only this House can overrule that decision by overruling the Minister. That is, in my opinion, an appalling state 1117 of affairs. I really think that, if such administration can come within the Act, it should be altered so that the Minister can intervene.
§ The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour (Mr. McCorquodale)
The hon. Member is quite right. The National Service Act, as passed by this House, says that, once the umpire has made his decision, that decision shall be final. It would need fresh legislation, a new National Service Act, to alter it.
§ Mr. Doland
I am very much obliged to my hon. Friend. I thought I was right, and, as I must not speak on a matter involving fresh legislation, I shall have to leave the matter where it is at the moment. I fully realise that the Minister and the Parliamentary Secretary have had a most difficult and, in some respects, very unpleasant task in these five years in calling up these men and women from their life-long pursuits. Has the time not arrived when we have got right down to the bone, as far as the small businesses of this country are concerned? I feel sure that the Minister and the Parliamentary Secretary must be aware of the acute position now existing. They must be aware of the number of closed shops, not only in the Minister's own constituency of Central Wandsworth, but in the whole of London and throughout the country. There are derelict areas of shops which tell us quite clearly that we have, as I say, got down to the bone in calling up these small men while leaving the larger employers fully equipped and going ahead in their businesses.
My appeal on this matter is on the ground that the distributive and other small businesses have given their maximum number of men to the Forces; in fact, both man and woman-power. Can we not ask that those persons who have reached the age of 43—the military service age—can be allowed to remain in their businesses, when it can be proved, as it can in many instances, that calling up would mean the closing of the business? My post-bag tells me of the most distressing cases, and other cases, no doubt, will be proved here to-day, where persons have been called up or directed into other businesses, and have had to close their shops, or, if fortunate enough, to sell them. Surely the Minister will agree that we have gone far enough in creating these derelict areas of shops throughout the Kingdom? Is he aware, 1118 as I feel certain he must be, that the members of one trade union consisting of shop assistants have given no less than 60 per cent. of their membership? That does not take account of those persons in that trade who are not members of a union, nor does it refer to key-men, who, I understand, number over 100,000.
§ Mr. Doland
I am not suggesting that. The position would be met if some more constructive action could be taken in cases brought to the Minister's notice when men have come to the end of their deferment. The man may be just over or just under 43 and might be compelled, through the call-up, to close his business or sell it. What is the position if he is called up, or if he has to sell? The position, as I understood it from the President of the Board of Trade, is that, if the man sells his business through being called up, he is precluded from obtaining a licence to re-open his shop when he comes back from the war. That is an appalling position. How many cases could I quote where a man has sold his business, not for the sake of the money, but because he was compelled to do so or close it down? Often, the money is very small, compared with what he would have done had he not been compelled to sell.
Instructions have been given by the Ministry of Labour that, if an employer can show that a man or woman is a worker whose withdrawal would result in the closing down of a business or branch, the employer will be allowed a period not exceeding six months' deferment on the first appeal, in which to find a substitute. I ask the Minister if, after five years of war, it is possible for these people to find substitutes. It is impossible, and this applies to shopkeepers as well as to the workers. I ask the Minister, in all seriousness, where are these substitutes to be found? The shopkeepers have had to put up with this state of affairs and have done so, willingly and loyally, from 1941, and through 1942 and 1943 right up to this very time, but, in view of this question of selling, has not the time arrived when this matter should receive greater consideration? These poor fellows, most of them now fighting, do not know what they are going to do when they come back. The shopkeepers have done their bit in this war, if any people 1119 have, but the Parliamentary Secretary, speaking recently, said:I would reconsider the matter further before suggesting that we should bring in new hardship regulations.I suggest that the time has arrived when this further consideration should be given, in justice and equity to these people, and I hope that, after these appeals, he will consider this question with an open mind.
At the beginning of this year, I understand a new Order was issued by the Ministry to all employment exchanges authorising fresh medical examination of every man of over six months' extension, deferment or postponement. I appreciate and realise that a re-appeal can be made to the Committee, but, on past results of these appeals, there will be still more businesses closing down through the calling up of these persons who are now being re-examined by order of the Ministry. I appeal to the Minister of Labour—after more than four years of closing down the small businesses of this country—at last to give favourable consideration to the issue of fresh instructtions, which will enable a man over 43 years of age to stay in his established business, if the calling up of such a man will jeopardise a livelihood, which may have taken a lifetime to establish.
The small business people are few in number in 1944, compared with 1941–1942 and 1943, and, up to the present, they have gone through a double sieve for the call-up. What is the difference between a departmental store, a multiple store and a co-operative store, as distinct from the small man? I want to make no distinction or invidious comparisons between them, but I do say that these departmental stores, these co-operative societies, these large one-price stores, are all in a better position to-day than they were in 1939. One has only to refer to the daily Press to see that the results of their trading have shown clearly that they are in a better position to-day to start off the mark, immediately after the war is over, than any of these poor devils fighting for their country in foreign parts. These large establishments are more prosperous to-day. Can that be said of thousands of small men who have been taken from their businesses? The time has arrived for reconsideration of the matter even at this critical stage of the 1120 war, and I appeal to my hon. Friend to give further consideration to this question. I will conclude by reading from a letter I have received from a firm, which is typical of many of these establishments. It says:We are makers and suppliers of nurses' uniforms and have been established since 1848. More than 50 per cent, of our staff have either joined the Services or been transferred to munitions.We have a Designation and an Essential Work Order for the production of nurses' uniforms, and we are now threatened with the call-up of part of the remaining and already depleted distributive and administrative staff.We fully realise the difficulty of the manpower position, and have already contributed 50 per cent. of our staff as mentioned above. But we do feel now that the members of the staff in question, i.e., seven, should be allowed to remain, as their effectiveness if directed elsewhere, would be infinitesimal compared with the crippling effect their withdrawal would have on our organisation.Owing to the great demand for nurses, we are working to full capacity and the withdrawal of this staff would practically kill our war effort, which we do not think you would consider desirable. It will be appreciated that, without the distributive and administrative staff, we could not produce a single garment.Finally, I will give a quotation from the Joint Parliamentary Secretary of the Ministry of Labour. On 18th February of this year, he said:The one thing on which I heartily agree with Members on all sides is that we do not want to get into the position of drifting into nothing but big combines, big firms and the like. We do want to preserve the life of the small individual man in this country.This is the point I want to emphasise, and it emphasises my point in asking the Minister for a reconsideration of his powers:The retail distributive trade, which is the one we are specially considering, has of necessity been drawn upon more hardly than any other trade to provide personnel for the war effort. It has responded magnificently." —[OFFICIAL REPORT, 18th February, 1944; Vol. 397, C. 618.]We have the sympathy of the hon. Gentleman, but we want him to go a little further and to reconsider his present powers in regard to these people.
§ Mr. McGovern (Glasgow, Shettleston)
I would like to add mine to the pleas that are being made on behalf of a large number of small shopkeepers who are having to face the greatest difficulties of their lives during the period of this war. Not only is this a case where every small shopkeeper ought to be given consideration, but it must be realised—and I am 1121 aware it is realised by the Ministry—that the difficulty of finding what the hon. and gallant Member described as substitutes is very great. There has been an elimination from the labour market of the substitutes for these small businesses. I have always suspected, in connection with the war, that the large multiple firms and combines have been given representations in the Board of Trade and other Government Departments and that they have used the national effort for the purpose of waging a conflict against the small man, so that in the post-war period they may gain advantages from the elimination of the small man. Small shopkeepers have given tremendous service to the people of this country, given a courtesy, consideration and service which, to a large extent, are absent in the case of the large combines and the co-operative stores. In the development of this country towards some form of new society, if that should ever come, it will be found that one of the main props in the service of the country has been the small man.
The Ministry of Labour has given consideration to many cases, and it is true that when its attention has been specially drawn to grave hardships it has been prepared to consider individual cases. But in the main there is a large small shop-keeping element who are simply mown down without knowing their rights in connection with the Service Acts. They are called to the Services and their businesses collapse; in many cases they are not able to sell their businesses and realise some of the capital they have invested in them. I know of a large number of small shopkeepers in the city of Glasgow who set up business after the last war out of the compensation given to them in connection with injuries. They have handed on these businesses to their sons, who, when they have got to the stage of being called-up for National Service, have see the businesses entirely collapse. One sees these things continually. I know of a small clothing business that had its girls taken away. One of these girls was sent to the cosmetic department of Boots' Stores. One would hardly have thought that cases of that kind could happen. There was the case I raised in the House early in the war of a co-operative store. A girl in Shettleston, who had charge of 17,000 books, was sent to a factory where her job was to collect a penny a week from those using the putting green con- 1122 nected with that factory. The Minister then decided that there had been a mistake. But mistakes continue to happen and many people who have no means of expressing themselves to the Ministry suffer in consequence.
I believe that a number of people on the hardship committees deal very justly and considerately with the applicants who appear before them, but there are others, and the chairman is the dominating figure. The chairman says "Appeal refused," and he looks at the two "stupids" beside him and they make no motion. Very often a trades union representative is sent there to protect their workers' interests. Invariably the employers' representative has been the individual to whom I have had to appeal, because I felt that I could get little or no support from the individual chosen by the trade union to safeguard the interests of these people. The chairman of these bodies no doubt feels that he has to produce results. It is rather like the conscientious objectors' tribunals, where it is a question of "Who is to get through to-day?" It is a question of about eight to two—eight refused and two allowed, and you cannot tell which two will be successful. The same is true of the hardship tribunals; the chairman has to eliminate a number of applicants. The individual who can make the best of his case is often successful and the poor individual who cannot put his case is unsuccessful. He has never been before any such body in his life before and he cannot even speak; his tongue sticks to the roof of his mouth and he cannot express his case, and he is turned down without any consideration.
There ought to be some sort of review of all these cases. There ought to be an obligation on the Ministry to supply a substitute if there was danger of the closing down of a business or the taking away of a key worker from a business. A man taken away from a job in an office, warehouse or factory and posted to the Army, if he is lucky, can get back afterwards and may be able to step into his old job, but the little fellow whose business has gone, with all his life's savings, may find a tremendous difficulty in restarting business, in getting a shop and then supplies and customers. I will give an example of a case about which I was in communication with the Ministry of Labour. The man, a small shopkeeper in Glasgow, was in the Army and his 1123 father carried on the grocery business. The father died, the mother was dead, and there was no other member of the family. The man came back for a week or two at the time of his father's death, but the grocery business has to be closed down now because the military authorities cannot release the man. Here are represented the life savings of this young lad. He is willing to sell the business in order to realise capital so that, if he comes back, he can start up again, but he has to close it down because there is no other labour to be had. Instances of that kind can be repeated in many parts of this country.
One of the great aims of a large number of men in the Socialist movement, in spite of their Socialism, has been to set up little businesses. I know a large number of Socialists who, with a certain amount of capital, started some little private enterprise—a newsagent's, a tobacconist's shop or a general store. Their politics may have undergone a change afterwards if successful in business. But a large number invested their life savings in such businesses and handed them on to their sons, who are now in the position of seeing the inevitable collapse of their businesses during the war. One cannot eliminate all the hardships of the war, but one can lessen its injustices among certain classes of individuals. Therefore, I plead with the Parliamentary Secretary to realise that this small class of business is peculiar to this country, and that it is embodied in the life of the country and is performing a tremendously useful service to the nation, especially at this time. I appeal to the Minister to give the greatest consideration to this problem in order to see if protection cannot be given to these people, with greater opportunities to carry on during probably the last year of the war so that they may survive the tremendous difficulties of our time.
§ Mr. Linstead (Putney)
The House is indebted to my hon. and learned Friend the Member for North Edinburgh (Mr. Erskine-Hill) for having once again raised this question. The impression I have is that the machinery for recruitment which was set up as long ago as 1939 is not suitable in the fifth year of the war. What could properly be done then ought to be reconsidered carefully now. I have the 1124 impression that the screw has been turned just too far and; that, if anything, a quarter turn in the other direction is needed now if public morale is not to suffer. The discussion we have had so far has been on a broad basis and I would want to keep it there, but I want to quote to the House one particular case, first because I think the Minister is likely to make a very grave mistake and to create a very grave injustice if he persists in his decision, and secondly because it vividly illustrates points that have been raised by one or two speakers. I am going to mention the name of the man, because he is in so desperate a situation now that an appeal to this House is practically all that is available to him. His name is W. A. Steele and he is an outfitter in High Street, Edgware. I would like to tell the House the family history. There are three brothers, of whom he is the eldest. One brother was captured at Dunkirk and is in a German prisoner-of-war camp; the second brother fought all through the African campaign and is at present in Italy; the third and eldest brother is left to run the family business. On that business there are dependent a widowed mother, an invalid sister, and the wife and three children of the soldier in Italy.
It seems to me that here there is every possible ingredient for hardship one could possibly expect to find, and yet I hold in my hand a letter from the Minister in which he regrets that he is not able to prevent the call-up of that man. The history of the case is the familiar one—an appeal to hardship committees, periods of hardship granted subject to his finding a manager, subject to his selling the business. He cannot find a manager, for reasons which my hon. Friend the Member for Balham and Tooting (Mr. Doland) has made clear; he cannot even sell the business because half of it belongs to his brother who is fighting in Italy. He writes to his brother who is fighting in Italy and says, "These people have told me to sell the business; can I have your permission to do it?" You can imagine the language of the member of the Eighth Army fighting in Italy, who finishes up his letter to his brother by saying this:Naturally you cannot dispose without my consent, and to that I must emphatically say, no. It seems pretty rotten that whilst I am away, all available staff taken, that you, left as the sole one to carry on the business, are told that you must dispose of it. It is enough 1125 to make one feel that there is no justice or fair play at all.That is from one of our soldiers fighting in Italy who is hoping to come back to a business upon which his wife and children, his widowed mother and his sick sister are all dependent. His eldest brother is going to be called up unless this House can make its weight felt.
The story of these hardship appeals culminated in a decision against him. He appealed to the umpire, who decided in his favour and he was given another deferment. On the last occasion, the hardship committee gave him six months and then, to my utter amazement, the Minister appealed against the decisions of the hardship committee and the umpire turned down the man. At that stage I came into the picture and I asked my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary if he would review the case. He replied, as he has told us today, that the umpire is the final statutory authority. That is the first general point I want to take up with the House. I maintain that at some stage after the umpire has come to his decision, there is a Ministerial act—the issue of calling-up papers—and in respect of that act the Minister cannot divest himself of his responsibility to this House. It is true the Act of Parliament says that the decision of the umpire is final, but I submit that means this, that there is no appeal from the umpire to the High Court, but I do not see how the Act can operate to divest the Minister of his responsibility.
As a result of pressure the case was reconsidered, and I had to point out to the Ministry of Labour, what they had themselves overlooked, that there are two roads by which these hard cases can be considered. One is through the hardship machinery, the other is by a direct appeal to the Minister. That is clearly set out in the Act of Parliament. I have had the final reply from my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary. He takes both those roads and deals with both. He says that, if the umpire has turned down a case, he can only delay enlistment when it is in the national interest that it should be delayed. I would submit that to impose this sort of burden upon a fighting soldier is not in the national interest and, on that narrow ground alone, the Minister would be amply justified in holding up an enlistment notice in this case. I am 1126 not going to worry the House with them, but I could give a whole list of contracts which this firm have locally which in one way or another have to do with the prosecution of the war. However, if you take the other road—the right of the Minister under the Act, independent of the hardship machinery, to give his own certificate—then my hon. Friend says this:Where the Minister does not grant a certificate, he is bound to refer it to a Hardship Committee.On this particular case my point is that the Minister has never applied his mind to the case, he has automatically referred it to the hardship committee. I suggest, even along that road, there is a duty on the Minister if he gets an application to turn his mind to it.
I have used that case, because I can see what I can only call an abominable injustice being perpetrated, to illustrate three propositions which I want to put to the House and which I hope will be accepted by my hon. Friend. I think first of all that there is a great deal of confusion in the minds of ordinary citizens as to their rights, and that there ought to be available in very simple form to men and women who are likely to be called up some pamphlet or statement which will tell them exactly what their rights are, even to the extent of coming to this House. The second point, I think, is important. I would suggest to the House that the Minister ought never to appeal against the decision of the umpire when the umpire's decision is favourable to the man—
§ Mr. Linstead
I beg pardon, I do mean that. If a hardship committee has decided favourably for a man, then I suggest it is scarcely proper for the Minister to appeal against the decision of the very tribunal that has to decide it and against the man himself. The third point is, that in every case there is a responsibility on the Minister to this House and that, however it may reach him, at the stage when he has to determine whether or not he issues a calling-up paper, the Minister must accept personal responsibility and not pass that responsibility on to an umpire and say, "It is no longer my concern." Those are the points of principle that I raise, 1127 but I would most urgently put to my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary this particular case of Steele, of Edgware, where I think a most scandalous set of circumstances is likely to arise if he is called up, and to urge him to take up the case with my right hon. Friend with the good will and support, I am sure, of the House, and have that case reconsidered and justice done.
§ Mr. Guy (Poplar, South)
I rise to support the plea expressed by hon. Members opposite, but I approach the subject from a totally different angle. I would have appreciated it very much had the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh North (Mr. Erskine-Hill) stated his case strictly upon the merits of the small traders and the injustice they have suffered during the last three or four years. But to quote, as he did, instances of the cooperative society and a statement made by one of the representatives of that society was not, I think, in accordance with the express wishes of those hon. Members who are desirous of supporting the claims of the small shopkeepers.
§ Mr. Erskine-Hill
Will the hon. Member give way to me for one moment? My reason in quoting a leader of the Co-operative movement was to show that the proof should come from the Cooperative movement itself. The reason why I mentioned it to-day was because the Co-operative movement's activities against the small traders are among the hardships which they have to face.
§ Mr. Guy
I appreciate that, but the fact of having quoted it makes one rather suspicious. The deep interest shown by hon. Members opposite in the small shopkeeper does not accord with the fact 4that a very large number of those hon. Members—roughly 5o per cent., in my opinion, if you look up the Directory of Directors—are connected with very big business, and that before the war we saw a process of gradually eliminating small traders and small industrial undertakings, and that it has continued during war-time under the Concentration of Industries Order.
I would have liked the subject to be debated strictly on the lines of the injustice that is being meted out to the small trader. I ask the Minister really to give serious consideration to the posi- 1128 tion of these people, because I do not believe it is very necessary to the war effort to call up men who are running a business who are in the categories of B.2, B.3, C.', C.2 and C.3. I do not think it is really necessary to take away a man who is running a small business with 1,400, 1,50o or 1,600 registered customers. There has been a case in my constituency in the last three weeks of a man who has, roughly, 3,700 registered customers. That man's category two years ago when he was medically examined was B.2. Now he is 41 years of age, He has just been informed that his deferment has ceased. In the East End of London, where can a substitute for that man be found to run his business?
§ Mr. McCorquodale
Has he applied for postponement on hardship grounds? Even if business deferment has ceased because of his responsibilities for food distribution he can always apply for postponement on hardship grounds.
§ Mr. Guy
I wish to thank the hon. Gentleman. I quote this because it is typical of cases all over the country, and I think it would be true to say that very nearly every hon. Member has constituents who are affected in this way. I think it only fair to say that the Minister is in a difficult position. We have to remember that these Regulations were passed by this House, and I cannot understand why the hon. Member who raised this question did not raise it at the time the Regulations were before the House.
§ Mr. McGovern
Does the hon. Member realise that when these Acts and Regulations were passed most people did not expect the war to last so long and that the difficulties of shopkeepers are now becoming very great?
§ Mr. Guy
Perhaps the hon. Member will forgive me: I am a new Member of the House. When these small shopkeepers are called up, it is almost impossible to find substitutes. In my constituency the employment exchange cannot provide a substitute of any character whatever, because every available man and woman is working elsewhere. The position of a widow whose only son looks after her shop is equally hard, especially if she has had other sons called up. This should be a non-party question; it should be looked at solely from the point of 1129 view of the hardship caused to a section of the community. As I have said, the Minister is in a difficult position. He is merely carrying out our wishes, as expressed by the legislation we have passed, and if we want an alteration, we must convince him of the necessity of altering the law.
§ Sir Stanley Reed (Aylesbury)
I do not wish to detain the House for long, because what has to be said has been said with great vigour and clarity by the hon. Member for Shettleston (Mr. McGovern), to whose remarks I can only say "ditto." I want to ask the Parliamentary Secretary to take from this discussion the firm conviction that the picture which has been drawn to-day, is the literal, bare and stark truth. I have had some experience of this matter, because since the beginning of this war I have been responsible, in Parliament, for two constituencies and, for a part of the time, for three. In my postbag the most distressing cases are these of the small traders, and it is one of my most grievous regrets that in so many of them I could do so little. I have seen family businesses closed and ruined. Unless more drastic steps are taken there is almost no hope whatever of a revival. As has been said, craftsmen and others who leave a job can go back to it, or to a corresponding job, but what chance is there for the small trader to re-establish himself after the war when his business has been closed and his capital has gone?
I do not wish to criticise the Ministry of Labour. In every hard case I have taken to them, or to the hardship committees, I have had courteous and sympathetic consideration, and the Services have often been most generous in giving deferments. But that has not been enough to preserve those small businesses, the owners of which are the salt of our community, a hard-working group of stable individuals who are a great asset to our society. During the war these have been hard cases; they have grown harder, and now we are reaching a stage when they are the hardest of the hard. The limited number of small tradesmen who remain cannot endanger the war effort, if further consideration is extended to them, even if the Government cannot go so far as to say that there shall be no further closing of small businesses. We feel very strongly about this; we know that justice cannot 1130 always be done but we are appealing for a class of the community which is the hardest hit of all. There is poor prospect of rehabilitation unless special measures are taken to give these small traders a fresh start in life.
§ Mr. Wilfrid Roberts (Cumberland, North)
I think all of us have come across very hard cases in connection with small traders and I must say that the lion. Member who spoke on behalf of the relatibes of a man in the Eighth Army put forward what seemed a particularly hard case. My experience is that the machinery provided for hard cases does not always work in such a way as to make the cases harder. The Ministry of Labour are not altogether unreasonable, and I think their officials very often do what they can to soften the hardness to the small trader. One or two Members have mentioned examples of the way in which a small trader has been directed from his own business into a competitive business. I have had examples of that, and I cannot believe that it can lead to efficiency. A case I have in mind comes under the Ministry of War Transport, as well as under the Ministry of Labour. I cannot believe that to close a small garage in a country district, transfer the owner and sole worker in that garage to a big garage 10 miles away, to a firm which has always been his fierce competitor against whom he has had to struggle hard, can possibly lead to efficient work. I cannot believe it leads to efficiency to tell an ex-soldier of the last war—the man I am thinking about—that although he was working 12 to 14 hours a day in his own business the work was not of national importance, and that he must travel for an hour or more by bus, and work for a big firm, which has always tried to bring him down. One hears a good many stories of large firms not always occupying the time of their employees as well as they should.
In trying to make a case for the small man, it is often very difficult to find any authority, which will recognise all his claims to be left in his own business. You can find a Government Department which is responsible for him for certain things; you can find a Government Department to which he can appeal for support that his work is of importance, but no Government Department, as far as I know, represents the general interest of the district in which the man lives. I am think, 1131 ing of the case of an ironmonger in a small town. The Board of Trade can say that it is not essential to have an ironmonger there. It may be that it should be the Board of Trade which does that, but I have not found, in cases I have taken up with them, that they looked at the matter from the point of view of the people in the district. The fact that there is not another ironmonger within 10 or 20 miles does not seem to be anybody's responsibility. Fortunately, this case solved itself, but there must be many others of the same kind in which the general interest of the neighbourhood in retaining the small trader is not represented or fully recognised by the hardship committee, which is thinking of the hardship to the individual who is called up and not the hardship to many housewives and others who will lose the service rendered by the business man.
I would like to add my plea to those which have been made that older men who are above military age, and who are in a low medical category, should receive special consideration. If the war goes on they will receive less consideration; they will be combed out more thoroughly, as they are being combed out now. There are men who have probably been in the last war, who will find it more difficult after this war to start in business if their business has been closed. They cannot be so adaptable if they are sent elsewhere. I do not believe that some of the moving about which is going on now is really helping the war effort, and I make an appeal to the Parliamentary Secretary not to be too hard on these people. It is impossible to find substitutes now, and thus the hardship becomes greater. I suppose it is inevitable that when you try to make out a case for the small trader you try to make his business as important as possible, but on the reverse side, the smaller the man is, the less likely is he to be allowed to stay at his job.
That may be one of the inevitable hardships of the war. As the war goes on, businesses may have to be curtailed for all sorts of reasons, including a shortage of supplies and the like. I recall the case of a country bootmaker who, because he was a small trader, is not allowed by the Board of Trade to have any quota of leather at all, the Board saying that his business was not large enough to qualify. 1132 These hardships often bear with the greatest severity on the small men, and I also appeal to the Ministry of Labour to lighten their demands a little, and be a little more ready to allow a few people to escape through the very close mesh of their net.
§ Mr. Bartle Bull (Enfield)
I should like to support my hon. and learned Friend in what he has said to-day—not that he needs very much support. I only say that because I should like to make a few observations of my own, and when I come to the end of them, I will not say, "In conclusion" and go on speaking. I will say that it is the end, and it will be the end, of my speech. With regard to what my hon. Friend opposite said about the calling up of men who are in categories B, C or D, I suggest that it is a little unfair to penalise only the men who are entirely fit. I think the men in B, C or D categories ought to be called up with others, regard being had, of course, to their ages and whether they are married and have a family, because such men can be posted to lines of communication, or stationed a little farther back than that, and thus release men in the higher category from their present jobs to go a little further forward in the line.
§ Mr. Bull
My view is that if such a man is put into the Army, he will be able to take the place of a man in a better category who is at present employed to answer the telephone. That is where I disagree with my hon. Friend. There has been a little unfairness in the calling up of small shopkeepers, which has resulted in the closing down of a number of small shops. There can be no dispute about that. My hon. and learned Friend has said that the Minister has stated that he will gladly look into cases of exceptional hardship which arise from the calling up of small shopkeepers, but I do not think that promise is quite adequate to meet the situation. I know that the Minister said it and, having said it, that he means it, but my complaint is that he does not look sufficiently closely into these 1133 cases. I do not wish to be misunderstood. I am not speaking against co-operative societies or multiple stores, I am only saying a few words in support of the small shopkeepers, because the feeling unquestionably exists among a lot of them, rightly or wrongly—and if wrongly let us have an explanation, let the matter be cleared up so that everyone can understand it—that the same rule is not applied to men in the multiple stores as is applied to the small shopkeepers. That impression undoubtedly exists. If it is wrong let us prove to the satisfaction of the small shopkeepers that what they suspect does not represent the real state of affairs. I do not know whether it is so or not, but the impression does exist in their minds. They see in the multiple stores young men who have not been called up, whereas many shopkeepers over 40 years of age, running their own shops, have been called up, and as a result have had to close down their businesses. And as my hon. Friend opposite has asked, how are some of these men over 40 who own their own shops, employed when they are in the Army?
Every shopkeeper with a wife and family who is called up and has to close down his shop, looks around and sees younger men still in the co-operative stores, or the multiple shops, or in factories, and he naturally asks himself, "How old are these men? Are they married? What are their categories?" It is natural enough that they should do so. I would suggest to the small shopkeepers that if they feel they are being treated unfairly—I do not say they are, but harsh things are being said—that they should combine. I can think of enough to say that without reading a number of letters from my constituents, but I have many letters which I could read if I wanted to. I will not read even one of them. I often think that instead of reading letters from one's constituents one ought to be able to have them inserted in the OFFICIAL REPORT without first burdening the House with them.
I was saying that I suggest that small shopkeepers should combine for their self-protection against unfair treatment, in the same way, to draw an analogy, as Members of Parliament should combine when an unfair book is written about them. I only quote it as an analogy, but the book which I have in mind contains a num- 1134 ber of disparaging remarks about Conservative M.P.s. I think there is nothing in it against Common Wealth or Labour Members; the Tories were the only poor, misguided fools according to this book, and I think that the Tories, instead of dividing themselves into young, medium or old Tories, should combine to protect themselves against this sort of thing. The book is made up of sentences torn from their context. When we in this House discuss small traders, or any other subject, and a Member makes a speech, it is reported in HANSARD and everyone knows what is said and who said it. This book has been written by some unknown person. In schoolboy language, it is a caddish performance—referring to a lot of other people by name while the author has not the courage to sign his own name to what he writes. In any event it is a poor thing to bring shame upon the name of Gracchus.
In a speech which I read in a newspaper the hon. and gallant Member for Hornsey (Captain Gammans) said that if we lost the small trader we should lose a very valuable citizen. I have seen it stated that 100,000 shops have been closed down, I should like to ask how many multiple concerns have been closed down. I understand there were before the war 600,000 shops, so that one-sixth have been closed. I wonder if one-sixth of the multiple stores have been closed down to correspond. I only ask for information. Napoleon said that we were a nation of shopkeepers. As a nation of shopkeepers we were good enough to get him down. I think this nation of shopkeepers and multiple stores will undoubtedly get Hitler down though, when it comes to that, I do not really think he will be much of a prize as far as I can judge from his pictures. It is a great pity that the small shopkeeper should be put out of business unless we are certain that we have something better, from the point of view of Britain's future, to put in his place.
§ Mr. Evelyn Walkden (Doncaster)
I like to follow the hon. Member because he is so reasonable and so amusing that no one can ever doubt his sincerity. Some of the points that he has made are worthy of examination but, as the Debate has gone on for nearly an hour and a half, I think we ought to get back where we started. I believe this is the third occasion on which we have discussed this question 1135 in an Adjournment Debate. Very few on the opposite side of the House ever come forward with a reasonable suggestion how to amend the various forms of machinery which deal in the localities with the small shopkeepers. They give individual cases, huge chunks from the propaganda of Lord Beaverbrook, a wholly misleading portrayal of the case, and they put forward challenges to the Minister, but they never come down to the realities of the situation. I would not question the honesty of purpose of the hon. and learned Member for North Edinburgh (Mr. Erskine-Hill) in bringing forward the sentimental touch of the grandmother maintained by a son. He was justified in it, but no one has ever questioned what has happened in the distributive trade over the last two or three or 20 years if you like, which has really led to the situation in which we find ourselves. The hon. Member for Enfield (Mr. Bull) asked what about the co-operative employees.
§ Mr. E. Walkden
I assure the hon. Member that there has been no deferment for co-operative employees. They went long ago. They are in the Fifth or Eighth Armies or somewhere in the fighting line. The hon. Member for Balham and Tooting (Mr. Doland) did honour to my union in quoting the ratio of our members in the Fighting Services. There are none left in most of our co-operative stores among the managers. They are grey-haired old men who were pensioned off by their enlightened employers long ago, and many of whom have been brought back. Old men are also in shops like those of the hon. Member, having replaced the younger men who went into the Fighting Services at the outset, with no deferment whatever. Where is the preferential treatment of which the hon. and learned Member for North Edinburgh spoke? He said he was going to prove the differentiation between multiple and co-operative stores and the small shopkeepers. Where is it?
Twenty years ago, Boots began their gigantic scheme of elimination. It is the principle in which hon. Members opposite believe. They believe in private enterprise. We believe that it is "red in tooth and claw." The co-operative stores 1136 just before the last war were not quite so vigorous in their challenge as they are to-day. The mass of the people had not taken to co-operative trading. But Boots taught the world a lesson, and then Lipton's, the International Stores, Sainsbury's and all the multiple stores came along, long before Woolworths and Marks and Spencers slowly eliminated the small trader. After the last war people were persuaded that they could make a little fortune by investing their small savings in a shop. Some succeeded but, where one succeeded, five lost their life savings and eliminated themselves, not because of the co-operative stores, but because of the vigorous challenge and the efficiency of the multiple concerns. The hon. Member for Balham and Tooting succeeded because he learned lessons from the multiple firms and fought back. He was a little man in his own area, but he became a multiple firm himself, because he learned the lesson and profited by it.
§ Mr. Erskine-Hill
The hon. Member said I did not say what was the differentiation between the co-operative store and the private trader. The difference is quite clear. It is that, where you call up a number of men from the co-operative stores or large businesses, you still leave something in being, but where you call up the individual man, the last stay as it were of the business, it involves closing down, probably for ever.
§ Mr. E. Walkden
In the last stage it does, and I am trying to present the position as it is, so that this hoodwinking of the small shopkeeper shall not be exploited by the Tory Party, because I believe that they are dishonest with the small shopkeeper, but that there is a case for him. The hon. and learned Member said the differentiation began in the first instance with the co-operative societies. Whatever may happen to them, their business continues. The reason is that, wherever they can, they adapt, train and equip people to carry on the business. I know one shop which had 70 employees at the outbreak of the war. To-day it has 58. Formerly all the employees were men. To-day there are only two men out of 58. The other 56 are women. The same thing has happened to the multiple firms. In Liptons, the International, Sainsburys and all the multiple firms, you 1137 see old men. Silverhaired, grey-haired men, some with beards, and some very efficient women are helping to carry on.
The little trader has really had preferential treatment up to a point. The small shopkeeper has been considered side by side with his fellow distributive workers employed by the multiple firm and the co-operative store. As his age group has come along, he has been sent for. He has probably been given three months' deferment, but the man of the same age in the co-operative store has had no three months given to him. He has had to go, and the employee of the multiple firm has also had to go. But the small trader has had his case examined and he has been given three months' deferment, then another examination and a further three months. I could quote one case in the road where I reside, of a man who had 15 months' deferment, and quite right, because, search as they might, the employment exchange could not find a substitute for him. The man is still there, but there are many like him who have not been so fortunate. They have not been so fortunate because somebody at the employment exchange has said, "I will send you a woman of 42 or 38, as the case may be, who knows a little bit about the business, and she will help you out." Consequently the small trader has had the benefit of help and advice. When we reach the fourth and fifth years of the war, we find that the older small shopkeepers, having had their periods of deferment, are now being combed out by the Ministry of Labour and their deferments terminated. Now they are presenting arguments, as they should do, to their Members of Parliament, and they are putting up a good case.
§ Mr. Walkden
Yes, a just case. I believe that, despite the Tory Party and its cunning, and the deliberate and wilful misrepresentation by Lord Beaverbrook and the exploitation of the small shopkeeper, there is something the Ministry of Labour have not done which they could do. That is to set up an independent committee in each area to advise on the needs of the distributive trades in the area and the circumstances of each case as it comes up, especially of men over 35. I do not think that any of my hon. Friends opposite would argue that a small trader who is under 30 should not serve 1138 like the small plumber or the small undertaker next door. The Ministry of Labour have displayed a shortcoming by not setting up any kind of committee to examine distribution in each area. In order to get any positive results from this Debate the Minister must be prepared to receive advice and to respond to suggestions made to him.
I would commend to his attention a Debate on this problem about six months ago in which it was suggested that local committees should be set up specifically to deal, not merely with the small shopkeeper, but with the needs of the distributive trades, whether they be foodstuffs, hardware, ironmongery or any other trade. There is overwhelming evidence that now is the time for each village and town to have these committees to examine the needs of each area from the distributive angle. The food committee could then tender advice on the case of every grocer, or even owner of a sweet stores; who is called up. I suggest that the ironmonger, the draper, the outfitter and every shopkeeper should be able to get some kind of advice and guidance from somebody. The worst cases that come to me are of the little shopkeeper who is bewildered and dazed by regulations, rules, ration books and every conceivable thing. He does not know to whom he can go for advice. If he goes to the chamber of commerce he finds that the officials are on the tribunal which will try him. He usually finds, too, that the people on the committee before which he appears have no understanding of the part of the town where his business is established. Whatever advantage may be derived from Lord Bea verbrook and the Tory Party in this Debate., the plea of the hon. Member for South Poplar (Mr. Guy) was a genuine and sincere one. Let us take this question out of the sordid atmosphere of politics and of trying to set the co-operative store against the private trader. Let us frankly recognise that a mistake has been made by the Ministry of Labour. They have tried to carry out the law, but they have missed something out by not setting up ccinmittees to deal with the problem of the distributive trades. They should do that without delay.
§ Lieut.-Colonel Marlowe (Brighton)
The speech of the hon. Member for Doncaster (Mr. E. Walkden) displayed a 1139 complete misunderstanding of the interest which we have in the small trader, particularly in relation to deferment. The hon. Member said that the small traders have had preferential treatment because they have had deferments of three and six months, and sometimes even 15 months. That is, of course, preferential in relation to being called into the Armed Forces, but we are not so concerned with that. That is merely saying "Is he not lucky not to be sent sooner into the Armed Forces?" It does not attempt to deal with the problem of keeping a business going. That is what we are concerned with. The difference between a small shopkeeper who works on his own and the employee of a multiple firm is that when the latter is called up there is someone left to keep the business going. There will be a business for him to come back to, but we are concerned about the position of the small man, who is taken away and has no business to come back to after the war. I shall not pursue that subject any further, because it has been adequately dealt with, but I wanted to answer the point, so far as it has been dealt with by the hon. Member for Don-caster.
I am particularly concerned with two matters. One is, not present deferment, but reinstatement after the war. We realise that small traders must at present be subject to controls, licences and regulations, and they have willingly submitted to them, but I want to know whether the Government have any policy for restoring these men to their businesses. I know of no reason why the Government should not set up a scheme of financial assistance for those who are hardly treated. Probably no section of the community has been more hard hit by this war than those on the middle income level, and nothing that we have seen recently of the Government's financial policy leads us to expect much comfort in that direction. If the cost of living is to be unpegged and repegged at a different level, it is again they who will suffer the greatest burden.
I am not concerned with the wealthy at one end of the scale, for they have reserves upon which they can draw, nor with those at the other end of the scale, who have bargaining machinery and will no doubt get adjustments in their wage 1140 levels which will improve their position. I am concerned with the man in the middle who has to earn his own money and has no means of increasing his takings; on the contrary he has to look forward to a continued period of decreased takings. He is the one who will be hit by the Budget announcement in relation to the cost of living. I want to 'know whether the Government have any policy for dealing with the shopkeeping section of that community, and for putting the shopkeepers back after the war. During the years between the two wars, a new form of finance sprang up in this country, known as the hire-purchase system. The companies concerned were enabled to take on what were really bad business risks, but they managed to remain solvent and prosperous in spite of that. I know of no reason why the Government should not put forward a similar scheme for financing these men and starting them up in business after the war.
A further consideration is that there are thousands of them who are less favourably placed than the employees of large concerns, because those in the latter category are in many instances getting their pay made up, but the shopkeeper who has gone to the war has no source from which his pay can be made up. Therefore he is suffering the double blow that his present income is decreased and that his future prospects have almost disappeared. It is for the Government to indicate what they are going to do for him. I do not suggest that, at this stage, we should be given any detailed plans, and I do not ask for any dates or details as to when controls can be relaxed, but I think the Government ought to outline the policy which will enable these people to have something to look forward to.
Moreover, I am especially concerned with shops in evacuated and defence areas. They represent a particular problem of their own. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will give us some encouragement in this respect. He has done a great deal, I know, in finding substitutes but the problem in the defence areas is that there are no substitutes. It is a problem of its own. This is a matter about which I hope the Parliamentary Secretary will give me a reply. He was good enough to come to my constituency a little while ago and make a statement on the matter. There must be in his 1141 mind a particular method of dealing with it and I hope that he will let us know in his reply what it is.
Some of the questions which were raised about co-operative stores were important. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Doncaster has left his place. He said there was no distinction in treatment between the small shopkeeper and the employee of a co-operative store but there is one outstanding instance of differentiation. Hon. Members opposite have been fond of throwing out a charge about vested interests against us; for once I am going to throw it back and say there was never a more outstanding instance of vested interest than the exclusion of the Co-operative Wholesale Society from the milk rationalisation scheme. It was monstrous and there was no justification for it at all, but I believe that the Government were afraid to tackle it. The results have been most unfortunate, because the small milkman has been interfered with and he has had his customers rationalised and regionalised, while the Co-operative Wholesale Society were left outside the scheme, and they were able to continue on the same basis as before. They were the only people who were excluded from the scheme and I consider it not only unfair but an unfortunate attitude for Government policy to have displayed.
There is certainly an uncomfortable feeling that no sort of control is being exercised over the buying and selling of property, so far as it affects this question. The chain and multiple stores are buying up property which will be the only shop property available, so that the small shopkeeper will not have the space. Most of the best sites are being acquired by the multiple stores. I hope the Government will direct more attention to that matter in order to prevent the small shopkeeper having nowhere to put his shop when he comes back. Another problem of defence areas is that some roads or streets have had to be closed. A man who keeps a shop in those areas suffers very badly, and unless he is in fact turned out he gets no compensation. The Government are not turning them out but are just leaving them there. When the street is closed, the man's business is gone.
I have taken more time than I intended to, but I hope that the Minister of Labour will give us some hope for the future. Let us be satisfied that he is bearing in 1142 mind what is to happen in the future. Let us remember the problems of the soldier now serving and determine what is to happen to him when he comes back. We want some reassurance from the Parliamentary Secretary that his future will be safeguarded.
§ Mr. Edgar Granville (Eye)
Earlier in the day we were discussing the procedure and the machinery of the House of Commons, and I think it is a tribute to our procedure and our machinery that we can hold a Debate on the small trader, and the small shopkeeper, which I think is the third Debate of its kind in a few months, and can voice his grievances in this manner. I thought the hon. and gallant Gentleman who has just sat down in many ways answered the hon. Member for Doncaster (Mr. E. Walkden) who preceded him, and the arguments he was putting forward to refute the case which had been advanced by the hon. and learned Member for North Edinburgh (Mr. Erskine-Hill), to whom we are indebted for initiating this discussion. I was a little surprised that the hon. Member for Doncaster, who has considerable knowledge and who speaks with great interest on this problem, in his argument with regard to the co-operative societies and the small trader, and the dispute which appears, according to him, to be going on in the columns of the "Daily Express" should continually refer to the Lord Privy Seal as a member of the Conservative Party, or as being associated with the Conservative Party, or as speaking on their behalf. I seem to remember that not long ago Lord Beaverbrook was spending a great deal of his time in attacking the very strongholds of the Conservative Party.
Listening to this Debate, and I think I have heard most of the speeches, it seems to me that a case has been made out. In fact the hon. Member for Doncaster, although he spent a great deal of his time in trying to answer the arguments of the hon. and learned Member for North Edinburgh, at the end of his speech came down in favour of the suggestion that something has to be done for the small shopkeeper, and he suggested an idea that has been put forward many times before to the Parliamentary Secretary, that committees should be set up to give this matter more careful local consideration. The feeling in 1143 the letters which we all receive from our constituents is that God is on the side of the big battalions on the home front. The hon. Member for Enfield (Mr. Bull), in one of the humorous speeches we have become accustomed to hearing from him, dealt with the book "Your M.P." and with the reign of Napoleon, and I could not help feeling that it was a long stretch from Uncle Tom Cobley to the hon. Member for Enfield. We have certainly come a long way from the days of John Bright who said that if the light of the Constitution failed to shine in the cottage of the poor and lowly as well as in the mansions of the rich we had still to learn the first duty of government.
There are various manifestations of this problem of power politics. You get the big battalions outside the influence of the House of Commons trying to exert influence over the little man or-the ordinary Member of Parliament as to how he shall speak and vote in the House of Commons. At any rate, I hope that to-day the big battalions of the Government, as represented by the Parliamentary Secretary, or at least the big battalions of the Ministry of Labour, are going to be on the side of the little shopkeeper, because if we allow this call-up to go on, as far as I can see, it will result in changing the whole character of the shop life of this country. At the end of the last war it was one of the things that produced cynicism and unrest, this feeling that there was unfairness and discrimination, and to a certain extent injustice. What happened? When the small shopkeeper and the big shopkeeper both went before the tribunal the little man was probably called up, and the big man continued in business, and because of this he, perhaps, attracted most of the trade which previously went to his unfortunate competitor, so at the end of the war the serving man who had left his shop in the charge of someone else very often came back to the situation that he had to go to the big man to get a job. This was the kind of injustice which of course produced bad feeling and a bitter sense of grievance. It must not happen again.
Therefore I want to enter a plea for the shopkeeper in the small country town. Many instances have been given of what is happening in the urban districts. Before the war the whole trend was, I am afraid, 1144 in favour of the multiple shop or the big store. Improved bus and transport arrangements were such that on market days the tendency was for people to go into the county town to do their shopping, leaving the one man business in the villages or small towns to struggle against unfair odds. To-day because of the war he must struggle for the right to keep open. I appeal to the Parliamentary Secretary to do something on his behalf. I have brought up in this House a case in a Suffolk village which is a glaring example of the kind of injustice this is producing. It is the case of a grocer's shop. I have referred to it before. There are five sons, all of whom volunteered for the Fighting Services. The father, in ill-health, tried to keep the business going, so that when the boys came back they would not have to look elsewhere but would have the inheritance of the business, which the father had given his life to build up. Eventually, because of overwork the father died, and despite efforts made to the Secretary of State for Air and the Ministry of Labour there is no chance whatever of getting one of those young men back out of the Services to help the mother, who is not in particularly robust health, to keep the shutters open.
Quite frankly if this kind of thing is going on, if these small businesses are to be closed, if you are going to see the scales weighted against these men who have volunteered to serve their country, they may be well asking themselves whether they are fighting this war any more for freedom or not. The Prime Minister said on Wednesday that he thought the war was losing much of its ideological character. I wonder if we are still fighting for the rights of the individual against great influence and power. Surely some way can be found to stop this extinction of their fundamental interests. It is on the lap of the gods when they come back whether they will find that their rights and inheritance have been preserved. It may not seem important to some people, but in the small villages and towns up and down the country this is a very real problem, as our postbags show time and time again. We are in the fifth year of war and the sustenance of the home front and the moral effort behind is of importance. It is these small things that are agitating the minds of the ordinary people. We see people who appear to be helping 1145 the war effort and yet one finds it impossible to say exactly what they are doing. Yet if you go to some of the small villages, such as I have in my constituency, you will find people struggling to carry on, with additional voluntary duties in the war effort, who are tired and showing signs of war fatigue. It seems something must be done to lighten their load.
We have had three of these Debates. I know that the Parliamentary Secretary has a large heart, and that he does his best to help these hard cases. I know that he has done his best with regard to the hardship committees and the man-power committee, but something more is needed. Surely, it is possible, with all the millions we have in uniform, to make a comb-out of some of the men in the lower categories—I do not mean the men doing combatant duties, but we get complaints from men in the Army, telling us that they have been called up from a small grocer's or chemist's shop, or something of that sort, and that when they go into the Army they do nothing but sit by a telephone or perform odd duties in base camps. These man-power committees ought to have the right to say that these categories in the Army ought to be combed-out, and that an opportunity should be given to some of the older men to go back to their businesses. I have asked the Parliamentary Secretary before who has the really effective voice on the Central Man-power Committee. Is it the Services—because the Prime Minister is always in favour of the uniform—who decide these margin cases? I submit to the Government that the time has come, even with impending military operations, to review this question of man-power, to make a comb-out of some of the lower grades, and to allow a strengthening of the civilian or home front. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will be able to tell us something more hopeful than he has told us in the past.
§ Lady Apsley (Bristol, Central)
I do not wish to miss this opportunity of adding my plea for the small traders, particularly those in our big cities, who are engaged on what I would call social work of national importance. I mean by that the small milk roundsman, the small builder, the small chimney sweep, and so on, whose work is of enormous social importance, particularly to people who live, under very difficult circumstances, in 1146 our bigger blitzed cities. I find, in my own constituency, that many oldish men have been called up, on a very low medical category, and put to work in the Army, scrubbing tables and floors, and so forth, when they ought to be doing civil work of national importance. I would beg the Parliamentary Secretary to consider such cases very much more on their merits, and to endeavour to deal with them with more flexibility and adaptability. I thank you, Sir, for giving me these few minutes, to support my hon. Friends, on both sides of the House, in the very moving pleas that they have made in support of the small traders.
§ The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour (Mr. McCorquodale)
We have had a most interesting Debate, which has run for more than two hours, and I do not complain in the very least of the quality or the fairness of any of the speeches. I could not help reflecting, as I listened, that they were possibly, in some ways, very nearly as important as those which were made in the very great Debate on foreign affairs which we have had in the last two days. During those two days hon. Members, in all parts of the House, painted the picture of the postwar organisation that they wished to see after victory had been won. But victory never would be won if we had not been able to mobilise fully our man-power and our woman-power for the war effort. We have been able to mobilise that on an unparalleled scale, because we have had at the Ministry of Labour, I believe, the general confidence, trust, and support, not only of this House but of the whole country, because we have endeavoured to deal fairly as between man and man. The whole policy that my Minister has laid down is that the overriding principle must be that we should try to be fair. In war many hardships are bound to exist, but we have endeavoured to act fairly. Therefore, when hon. Members wish to probe below the surface, to see whether we have lived up to our promise to try to act fairly, the answer is vital to our mobilisation, and to the general course of the war effort.
I would like to make one general observation, which must be continuously and urgently and overwhelmingly in the mind of my Minister and myself at the present time. It is a commonplace that we are on the threshold of a very great 1147 adventure. There has never been such an incessant demand for man-power and woman-power as at this very moment, on the eve of these operations; and I could not stand here—and I believe that, on reflection, no hon. Member would ask me to do so—and say that at this moment, of all moments in the war, we could, as one hon. Member said, call a halt, and, as another hon. Member said, comb-out the Forces. We cannot recommend any let-up of the rigour of our mobilisation until this operation has been concluded, and until we can see how speedily it can be carried out. The more speedily this mobilisation goes on, the more speedily can we attain victory.
We had a Debate on this subject on 18th February, when I delivered a carefully prepared speech, as indeed I was asked to do, setting out the whole position of the call-up of small shopkeepers. I do not want to go through that again. I cannot, as the hon. Member for Enfield (Mr. Bull) suggested, have a large piece put into HANSARD which I have not delivered, and no hon. Member would wish me to repeat what I said on the last occasion. Many matters have been raised which I endeavoured to answer on that occasion, notably the question of how we should try to temper the wind to the shorn lamb of the small shopkeeper as against the large multiple store and the like. The small shopkeeper has, over and above deferment, which is the same for all classes of shopkeepers, the hardship procedure. The procedure falls into two parts. First, there are men of military age who are due to be called up for the Armed Forces. They come under the National Service Acts. The hardship tribunal, to which they can appeal, is a statutory body set up by this House. It decides whether there is exceptional hardship, on Regulations which have been laid before this House, and, as one hon. Member said, there is an appeal, in certain cases, to the umpire, and the Act lays down that the umpire's decision is final.
We could not alter the position of the men of military age who are small shopkeepers without coming to the House either for a new Act or for a new set of regulations, and, as I have just said, this, above all, is not the time to do that with regard to the men of military age, every one of whom is needed for the Forces 1148 if they can possibly be spared. In that connection, the hon. Member for Putney (Mr. Linstead), who apologised for having to go off to an urgent engagement, raised a special case. This case has been to the umpire, and he has given his decision, which is final. The only thing that my right hon. Friend could do now would be arbitrarily not to call the man up. My right hon. Friend has taken the view, and I am sure he is right, that, if the statutory body set up by Parliament says that the man is available for call-up, it would not be right for the Minister to override Parliament and the statutory authorities in this way. I have the very greatest sympathy for this man, and so have we all, but he has actually had postponement, on hardship grounds, from being called up for over two years, and I would like to read just what I wrote to the hon. Member on this case:The Minister felt bound, however, to make it a rule that where he is free to issue an enlistment notice it should be delayed only when it is in the national interest to do so. Indeed, to adopt any course that took into account personal circumstances of any other character could but lead to the most invidious comparisons between one man and another.
§ Mr. McCorquodale
They are covered by the arrangement which the Prime Minister made early in the war. So much for the man under the National Service Acts, except that I would say, to one or two hon. Members who raised the question of the hardship tribunals—I think the hon. Member for Shettleston (Mr. McGovern) was one—and suggested that the chairman had sometimes not acted fairly or had been harsh on the man—
§ Mr. McCorquodale
I am coming to that point. I was talking about the National Service Hardship Committees which are statutory bodies set up under the National Service Acts. The hon. Member for Shettleston and I think one or two other hon. Members mentioned that sometimes they seemed hard and did not give enough attention to the cases, but that is not my experience. There may be some cases—everybody is human—but, by and large, these gentlemen and ladies who sit on these Tribunals have done a very invidious job very well in the 1149 national interest, and we owe them a debt of gratitude, first, for taking on that job, which is no child's play, but only likely to bring them hard, difficult and anxious problems, and, second, for doing it in the way that Parliament wished. So much, then, for the men of military age under the National Service Act. I think I have said enough to show that, at this moment, and I emphasise at this moment, when the exigencies of the war are so acute, we could not possibly come to Parliament to ask for fresh regulations or an alteration in the Act.
Men and women over military age are called up under the Registration for Employment Order, and are under the Ministry of Labour's direct control, and, although the local appeal boards and National Service officers, who deal with these people, do in general regard hardship on the same lines as it is regarded by the umpire under the National Service Acts, we, of course, can and in fact do make the rigour of these people's call-up or withdrawal from small businesses very much easier. In one of these Debates about six months ago my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton (Mr. Summers), now in Australia, raised the case, for example, of the wife or sister or other relative of a serving man endeavouring to keep his business open while he was away, and asked if the Minister would look into that case. The hon. Member believed that some of these people were being asked to transfer to other work. We did consider that, and not only met the hon. Member's request, but went further and issued instructions to our National Service officers, who are the first people to consider these cases, that, where anybody, man or woman, is acting as substitute for the original owner or single employee of that shop or small business, who has gone to the war or into national service, they shall not, in general, disturb them in any way. If the withdrawal of the substitute would involve the closing of the business, and it is improbable that alternative arrangements can be made, we do not take any further action, and we so instruct our National Service officers. They also give consideration to the actual persons whom we propose to withdraw from small businesses. If it is clear, from the state of health of that person, man or woman, who would be withdrawn under the 1150 Registration of Employment Order, that the proposal to withdraw him or her would not materially assist the war effort, then no further action is taken, and it is within my knowledge that the National Service officers have taken a very wide and liberal view of that instruction.
As regards food shops, in general no man is withdrawn over military age, and, indeed, excepting in special categories, there are, in my belief, at the moment, very few businesses which are being closed down because of the withdrawal, under the Registration of Employment Order, of women or of men over military age. I say "except in special categories." One category was mentioned by the hon. Member for North Cumberland (Mr. W. Roberts) with regard to garages. The Ministry of War Transport asked us to see whether we could, in some way, concentrate the effort of some garages in the country, owing to very special difficulties, and we endeavoured to do so. I am not sure that we made a great success of that scheme, and we have modified it very much. Similarly, a case exists in regard to bakers baking in very small establishments who, if working in larger premises, would be able to bake very much more bread.
When the National Service officer does consider that exceptional hardship would ensue he gives postponement up to six months as a maximum, and the suggestion is made to the individual to whom the postponement is granted that he should use that period to make alternative arrangements, if possible, for carryon or disposing of the business, but if the National Service officer at the end of the six months is shown that the business cannot be provided with a substitute and that alternative arrangements cannot be made, then, normally, he gives a further postponement. I have been told that I should not place too much on individual cases, but I did, on 18th February, specifically ask hon. Members whether they would send me cases of businesses which were being closed down under the Registration for Employment Order procedure outside the National Service age groups, and I promised to look into them. From my recollection—and I read every letter that comes to me in the Department—I do not remember a single one in which the actual closing down of a shop has taken place.
1151 Many points have been raised in the course of the Debate, and I would, in a few moments, like to run through some of them. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for North Edinburgh (Mr. Erskine-Hill) opened the Debate with what I thought was a most reasonable speech. I do not wish to take up the point he raised regarding the co-operative societies. My personal belief is that the small shopkeeper will always find a living in this country. We are a nation largely of individualists. We like personal attention, which the small shopkeeper can give, and I do not believe, however much any of the multiple shops try to close the small shopkeeper, they will be able to do so, and I certainly hope they will not succeed.
§ Mr. McCorquodale
I am talking about myself. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for North Edinburgh raised a case rather similar to that raised by the hon. Member for Northampton. It was the case of a woman whose husband has been killed or has died and who was endeavouring to keep the business open for her son or some other relative. I will certainly look into such cases and see whether they are covered. I think they are. If not, I will certainly see if we cannot include that case with the other one, and in that way help the position. He also raised a point, by way of example, of a man who was being withdrawn and who, instead of being put into the Army, had been offered the alternative of going to the Shetlands to work in a shop. That man presumably—I do not know the case—is over 35 and yet of military age. Men over 35 who are still of military age are often offered, where circumstances permit, the alternative, when further postponement is not granted, of either going into the Forces or going as substitute to some work of national importance which will allow a younger man than himself to be called-up and go into the Forces. That seems to us to be the sensible thing to do, because we get a net gain of a young man instead 1152 of a net gain of an older man over 35. I think that that case was probably one under that arrangement. It is an entirely voluntary arrangement for the man. He can go into the Forces rather than to the job which we find for him, if he so wishes.
The hon. Member for Poplar (Mr. Guy) made an eloquent appeal for more relaxation. He did not exactly explain to us how we ought to relax our efforts and I hope that what I have told him, how we endeavour to act as generously as possible under the Registration of Employment Order, though we cannot in any way upset the rigour of our call-up under the National Service Acts, will to some extent satisfy him. My hon. Friend the Member for Enfield (Mr. Bull)—and the case was also taken by another hon. Friend—mentioned the number of shops that were being shut down. He gave the figure of 100,000. I do not know where that figure came from. I have not been able to confirm it.
§ Mr. McCorquodale
I can only give the figure for non-food shops whose owners, after the shops have been closed down, have applied for registration under the Board of Trade scheme of registration. The Board of Trade wishes every nonfood shop that has been closed down to register with it in order that it can substantiate their claim to special treatment when they can start up again. It has 15,000 of these small shops registered which is a different figure from that of 100,000. I do not know where that figure came from, and we have not been able to substantiate it in any way.
§ Mr. McCorquodale
We have not the food shops figure. The hon. Member for Doncaster (Mr. E. Walkden) made a plea, for special committees. As far as food shops are concerned, we take the advice of local food offices. There are special committees set up and my hon. Friend the Member for Putney knows there is one with regard to chemists. I will again examine the point that has been raised, however.
§ Mr. E. Walkden
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will follow the point I made very closely. I mean local committees or district committees capable of judging the needs of each area for the distribution of any goods, whether food or whatever commodity it may be. That is the point, as distinct from the chemists' committee.
§ Mr. McCorquodale
My hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Mr. Doland) raised the position of the National Service Acts and I think I have dealt with that. My hon. Friend the Member for Putney raised a very special case. I have, against the principles I have announced, held up the call-up of that man until after this Debate, which is for a period of about a fortnight. In view of his fears and of the special emphasis he put into his plea, I will certainly discuss the case with my Minister again, but I do not see how we could in any way get over the decision of the umpire. Finally, there was the speech by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Brighton (Lieut.-Colonel Marlowe), who discussed the subject of reinstatement after the war. This is a very important subject and I cannot deal with it to-day, except to say that the consideration he mentioned is one we have very much in mind. He would not expect me at this hour to announce a complete scheme for the rehabilitation of the small shopkeeper after the war, but the principles he has put forward are very much in mind and we shall not overlook them. The hon. Member for the Eye Division (Mr. Granville) discussed a comb-out of low category men from the Forces. I think he was answered in part by my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, who said that low category men were needed in the Army so as to release higher category men in order to do the actual fighting. At any rate, I cannot suggest that we should comb-out the Army at this time.
I would also remind the House that the shops which have been closed down have by no means always been closed down because of lack of labour but because of the blitz, the shortage of goods to sell and for many other reasons. In our view, the shortage of labour and the call-up to the Forces has not been the major factor although it has been an important one in the closing of small shops. I believe that the whole House—and I certainly—regret the necessity of having to close down a single establish- 1154 ment, but, on the other hand, the small shopkeeper, I believe, would not like to be regarded as being in a category different from any other section of the community in that he could claim immunity from call-up for the Forces or for national service.
It is our duty to see how we can help him to regain his place at the end of the war in cases where in the national interest we have had to ask him to suffer the hardship of giving up his business during the war. I am sure that all Government Departments concerned in the post-war reconstruction period will agree with what I say in that respect. I would not like it to go out from this Debate that the Government or the Ministry of Labour are in any way unmindful of the fact that we have had to make exceptional calls on the distributive industry in this war, The whole country owes them a debt of gratitude for the splendid way in which they have responded to the call, and although we cannot now promise them a let-up, I hope that that day will not be long delayed.