Orders of the Day — Ex-Servicemen (Retail Business Licences)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 5 November 1945.

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Photo of Sir James Henderson-Stewart Sir James Henderson-Stewart , Fife Eastern 12:00, 5 November 1945

Whale undoubtedly these tragic problems must weigh most heavily on the minds of men at this time, nevertheless, at home each of us has a personal question to answer: the question of how he is to make his living. In the short time left, I would like to draw attention to the problem, in particular, of the soldier, sailor or airman, who, returning from the Services, desires to set up in business on his own account, and finds himself faced with almost unsurmountable obstacles. This is a very serious problem. May I say a word about release under Scheme C? I want to congratulate the Government upon having introduced a method by which men with one-man businesses may now be released from the Services. But I would like the Government to show more sympathy for such men, and provide still quicker release, because I assure the Government that the strain upon the wives and mothers left at home all these years is now almost unbearable. I wish that the Government would be still more generous in the attitude they have adopted.

I am concerned with the problem of licences issued by the Board of Trade to men who wish to set up in business on their own account. There are men in the Forces preparing for the day when they return home. There are men who have been released from the Forces who have no work to do, and want employment, and they are also very much concerned. It is highly commendable that men in the early release groups are now making plans for employment of their abilities, and the maintenance of their families, when their period of service ends. I have no doubt that a great majority of men in the Forces are wage earners and would be willing and happy to return to that status when released; but there are large numbers of men with ambitions to carve their own careers, out of their own independent endeavours, and it is for that kind of man that I am speaking. These men are the pioneers, the bright spirits of British life. These are the men of high courage and purpose and resource, who are prepared to sink everything they have, money, muscle, and brain, in an unaided effort to make their own fortunes.

I know that the Government do not like private enterprise. They have an insensate prejudice against anything, and anybody, who challenges mass production and State-controlled enterprise. This prejudice has become obvious in the legislation already introduced: in aviation, banks, housing—no private enterprise. But whether the Government like it or not, it remains a fact, and I think it is a most important and a most encouraging fact in the rather bleak situation in which this Socialist-ridden country now finds itself, that without the expression of the fullest enterprise, and the brightest endeavour on the part of individual men and women, there is no hope for the survival of Great Britain as a first class Power, with all that means for a higher standard of living for our own people and the people of other countries. The ex-Servicemen, for whom I am speaking tonight, are in that category of bright spirits; and I claim that they deserve the warmest support of this House in their gallant efforts to assist themselves.

I hope no one will suppose that just a few men are concerned. The last President of the Board of Trade intimated in June that on the Board of Trade list of what is called the Register of Withdrawing Retail Traders, that is to say those whose businesses stopped during the war, the number was 17,427. If I add to that the number of men now in the Forces who want to establish new businesses, the number may very well reach a hundred thousand or more. What happens to such a man when he comes out of the Army and wants to set up his own independent business? First of all he has to meet with all sorts of restrictions, regulations and orders that flow from the local authorities. To these are added further restrictions from the Ministry of Supply, recently the Ministry of Production, the Ministry of Agriculture, the Ministry of Food and others; and when, and if, these problems are surmounted, a somewhat disillusioned, but still eager applicant comes across the principle barrier to his enterprise. That is the Board of Trade with its licensing regulations. I brought to the notice of the President of the Board of Trade this afternoon a difficult case. I put it in the form of this question from one of my constituents: …if he has considered the case brought to his notice of the ex-Serviceman discharged through being medically unfit, whose application to open a small business on his own account in Cupar, Fife, has been disallowed by the local price regulation committee, though an Italian, interned during the war, has recently been allowed to do so; and what action he is taking. The right hon. Gentleman undertook to investigate the case; but it has been before his notice for a long time. I have brought several similar cases to the notice of the Board of Trade, and in no single instance has the application of the man been granted. In every case the application has been turned down, and these gallant ex-Servicemen are denied this opportunity, in this free country, to start a business of their own. This is a shocking situation. The regulations on which the right hon. Gentleman and his friends rely are, of course, based on the statement of the former President of the Board of Trade last June. But that was made only a few weeks after the defeat of Germany, and it is now six months since Germany was defeated. It was made before the Japanese war was over, and that is now finished. We are now in comparative peace; we find ourselves with Lend-Lease stopped; and with this great country on the ebb, not the flow. In such a situation, unless the most drastic, ener- getic steps are taken, we cannot regain our old position. It is a case now of "Do"—vigorously, manfully and with every form of enterprise—"or die"; and I am seeking that we should "Do." That is what the President of the Board of Trade is telling us day after day about exports. Surely it is common sense as well as justice that the ex-Serviceman, who has fought so well throughout this war, should be granted the liberty he wants

I would like the House to realise what is the problem. I take the case of a man whose circumstances I have brought to the notice of the Department. If a man applies for permission to open a business he is told to apply to the local Price Regulation Committee. In every case of which I know this is the answer he receives from the Committee: I have to refer to your application for a licence in respect of the business mentioned below. This has now been carefully considered, but I have to inform you that the Committee is unable to grant a licence. The Committee is not obliged to assign reasons for the granting or refusal of Licences"— a strange and somewhat disturbing phrase in a British document— the Committee, is not obliged to assign reasons for its actions. That, I believe, is just what the Gestapo used to say— but I have to draw your notice to the statement on shop licensing policy made by the President of the Board of Trade"— to which I have already referred. In view of this statement I have to inform you that in order to provide preferential treatment in commencing business for (a) persons disabled during the recent war, and (b) ex-traders who closed down on account of the war, the Committee is precluded, save in the most exceptional circumstances, from granting a licence except to a person who fails within one of the four classes…mentioned…overleaf. No licences can be granted on the grounds of meeting the essential needs of consumers. As your application does not fall within any of these four classes and as the Committee is unable to regard the circumstances of your application as exceptional, the Committee is accordingly unable to grant the licence. Here are the four conditions, at least one of which must be satisfied by the returning soldier, if he is to be allowed to start his own business. He must be a person disabled during the present war. That evidently means that he must have had a leg or arm off: apparently, it does not include men discharged because they are medically unfit. The President of the Board of Trade promised me he would look into that matter, but that is the situation at this moment. He must be a person recommencing a retail business which was closed down during, and on account of the circumstances of, the war. He must be a person who has acquired the good will of an existing business; or be a person who is removing an existing business to premises strictly comparable as to rent, size, and character, and in the near vicinity of the existing business. Why cannot a man who wishes to start a new business, a man with an idea and enthusiasm and faith in himself to make a contribution, make that contribution? Has not the moment arrived when these Regulations, which were no doubt proper in June, with the Japanese war still raging, are no longer applicable to the situation? I am appealing to the Board of Trade on behalf of ex-Servicemen for reconsideration of the whole matter. It is madness to shackle enterprise now in the way we are doing. These are men of all classes and all political creeds. They are not necessarily my supporters; they include men who voted against me at the Election, but who are determined to get a chance to display their own initiative in order that the greatness of this country may be recovered.