Orders of the Day — Licensing Bill
Mr Henry Harris (Cambridge University)
The eloquent speeches that have been made on both sides and the cogent arguments adduced, have left rather a confused impression on an untutored mind such as mine. Nevertheless there are one or two observations I should like to cast into the arena on my own account. Reversing the order of the Home Secretary and improving on his method, I should like to begin with Part I of the Bill and to say nothing at all about Parts II and III—that is the improvement on his method. I should like to start, like my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for West Derby (Sir D. Maxwell Fyfe), with the essential preliminary question that anyone must ask who comes to give consideration to this Measure. In reviewing a book, an exercise in which I sometimes engage, it is necessary at the beginning to ask whether there is any good reason why the book should have been written at all, and in a good many cases there is not.
We now have to ask ourselves whether there is any good reason why this Measure should have been introduced, or, in the phraseology which was so familiar a few years ago, we need to ask the Home Secretary: Is your Measure really necessary, and, if so, why? It is certainly not necessary in the interests of sobriety. It is not necessary to reduce drunkenness or excessive drunkenness for the simple reason that, as the right hon. and learned Member has said, the vice of drunkenness is disappearing so rapidly that it has almost altogether vanished. I suppose that I am one of a minority in this House who remembers the days of 1915, when the munition workers all over the country were going to Mr. Lloyd George, who was then Minister of Munitions, to tell him that their output was being reduced intolerably on account of the drunkenness which everywhere prevailed. As a younger journalist in those days than I am now I remember going down to Dumbarton Road on Clydeside and to Scotswood on Tyneside to see the conditions created, both industrially and socially, by the manifestly excessive drinking that was taking place. Fortunately, most of that is a thing of the past.
My right hon. and learned Friend quoted Chesterton at some length, and I will quote him very briefly:
The rolling English drunkard made the rolling English road.
I am afraid that, in the new towns and elsewhere, we shall have to be satisfied with straight roads for the future, because the rolling English drunkards are, as Members on the Government Front
Bench would put it, in short supply today. This welcome change in social habits seems to me actually to justify relaxation of some of the existing restrictions, and certainly some relaxation in the matter of hours, not at the later part of the day, but at the earlier part. If, like so many Members, I am doing the family shopping at 9 a.m. or 9.30 a.m., I regard it as an intolerable hardship to have to wait until 10.30 a.m. to buy a bottle of innocuous cider. I hope the right hon. Gentleman will consider abolishing these restrictions in the case of retail sales, or, if that creates an invidious distinction, let both the public houses and the retail shops open at 9 a.m.
But if all this is admitted, as I think it must be, that is not the last word on the subject. We all agree that whatever the extent of the excessive drinking that remains, drunkenness is an evil that must be regulated; everyone is agreed on the need for some regulation in the case of what is a potentially dangerous trade. Consumption of intoxicating liquor is not like the consumption of milk and bread, an excess of which will do no one much harm. An excess of intoxicating liquor can do great harm indeed, and a small excess may be very dangerous if a man is going to drive a car immediately after. There is no doubt that many of the motor accidents reported are not due to drunkenness, but are due to just a little too much indulgence, that dulls the faculties and slows down reactions. That is the reason why regulations in regard to intoxicating liquor must err rather on the severe than on the lenient side. I would not for a moment advocate anything like prohibition, and I am utterly opposed to local option, which seems to me an intolerable invasion of the rights of minorities. I should always oppose that, by whichever side it is proposed.
But when we are asked to look at the Carlisle experiment and consider whether there is a case for extending it to these new towns, that is a proposition which deserves our most serious consideration. The Carlisle experiment, in its day—and I can remember when it started—represented an immense advance in the standard of public houses of those days. There has been a great and welcome improvement in the standard of public houses all over the country, as the right hon. Gentleman said, since the days of the first great war—in other words, since the days when the Carlisle experiment was first initiated. When licensed houses were taken over by the State in Carlisle, they immediately made a profit, and out of those profits everyone of them, I believe it is true to say, was rebuilt in a vastly improved form. It is all to the credit of many brewers in different parts of the country that they followed suit, but the greater credit belongs to the pioneer experiment inaugurated by State management in Carlisle.
I unhesitatingly support this Measure, because it embodies the principle of disinterested management, which seems to me an essential principle that lies at the root of all reform of the licensing trade. It is most undesirable that people should be paid commission for the sale of drink, the sale of an excessive amount of which might do so much harm. I know it can be said, I have seen it in print, that the managers of tied houses or elsewhere do not push liquor on their customers. If that is the case, why are they paid a commission on what is sold unless it is to induce them to sell as much liquor to their customers as they can?
The largest group of hotels in this country, Trust Houses, follows the admirable principle that the manager of each house is paid a commission on refreshment sales and the accommodation he lets, but no commission at all on the liquor he sells. That, I believe, is the principle of Carlisle, and it seems to me a thoroughly sound principle The hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Grierson), I thought, made an admirable point when he reminded the House that by far the greater part of the history of the Carlisle experiment fell in the time when Conservative Governments were in office. During all those years when Conservative Home Secretaries were managing the Carlisle experiment, nobody criticised it. So far as I know, there was never any suggestion to hand those houses back to the brewers, though it would have been perfectly easy to do that. No Government of whatever colour thought of it.
I should like to say this about the brewers. I was struck by the fact that the Home Secretary kept referring throughout to his conversation with the Brewers' Society and not with the licensed victuallers. If a man who owned his licensed house was going to lose his trade through the movement of population and said, "This is going to be a bad thing for me; I am going to lose my livelihood, and, therefore I should be considered for a place in the new town," that is a proposition which would deserve some consideration and sympathy But when the brewers say they are going to lose a bunch of tied houses in London and ask for a bunch of tied houses in a new town instead, I suggest that that is not a proposition which should be received with any great tenderness or sympathy in this House. The prime business of brewers is to brew beer. If they start buying up free houses right and left, and turning them into places where a man cannot get the liquor he wants, but only what the owner brews, there is, of course, nothing iniquitous about that, but it certainly does not give them much claim on the tenderness of the House.
I have listened with great respect to all the arguments on this side of the House, but it seems to me that nothing has been said which should stop the Government extending the Carlisle experiment to the new towns. It is a very limited experiment. It is not proposed to turn out people who are already in possession. The Government are entering on what is practically virgin soil. They are planning the whole of the new towns, as indeed they must, because that is the very essence of them, and it is only rational that at the same time they should plan the places in those towns where alcoholic refreshment is served.
I quite realise that that is not the only method which might be applied. Many hon. Members have read with much admiration the booklet which has been prepared by the hon. Member for Rutherglen (Mr. McAllister) and a coadjutor, who, I am sure he would be the first to admit, is more talented than himself. They have described a very interesting experiment which was made in Welwyn Garden City, where a firm of enlightened brewers were called in and given practically all the licensed houses in the area. But it is specifically explained why that was done. It was because the local authority did not feel itself competent and had not the necessary experience to run public houses. That argument does not apply in this case. A great deal of valuable experience has been accumulated in Carlisle. Carlisle may not be better now than many other towns. That is because they are rising to the standard of Carlisle not because Carlisle has degenerated. If in visiting a public school, you see an old-fashioned swimming-bath, the reason probably is that that school was a pioneer in such things. They had one when no one else had one, and they held on to it because they could not afford, or did not actually need, a new one
I hope and trust that the experiment at Carlisle will not be instituted as it stands in the new towns. I hope the Home Secretary will improve on it a great deal. My right hon. Friend needs to be imaginative and bold. I hope he will give a choice of drinks. I do not see why he should not have draught beers of different sorts. In that he would have a great advantage over the tied houses. I have no doubt in a few years, when the new towns are built and this system is introduced, a great many Members of this House who are criticising the proposal today will be praising it. I earnestly hope that this Bill will get the Second Reading it thoroughly deserves, and will if necessary be amended in Committee, and that some hon. Members who are threatening to abstain from voting will, after all, cast their votes behind the Measure.