We are still in a difficult situation, and until we are out of that situation we are going to defend the men and women who have served us so well. The hon. Member made a number of other references and I want to draw the attention of the House to this. Hon. Members have rightly spoken about men returning from the Armed Forces, but they have failed to mention that thousands of them have not yet returned. [An Hon. Member: "Millions."] Yes, millions; I do not know in what sense the word is used, but if it is used in one sense in which it could be interpreted I think we had better not be drawn into it. The war has not been over very long, and there are still millions who have not returned. We have a duty to those millions, because the Coalition Government made promises to them and, as far as we are concerned, we are going to keep those promises for a change. The hon. Gentleman referred to decisions which have been made in individual cases. I have had no notice of those individual cases and cannot, therefore, be expected to deal with them, but I will say in defence of those who have made the decisions that they are not the decisions of a "rubber stamp, "but of local democratic machinery run by local personnel, men and women who have the confidence of their fellows because of their character and their record in their locality. Those are the men and women who are administering the Regulations laid down by the Coalition Government
The hon. Gentleman will agree that we have had short notice of the raising of this question; I am not complaining of that, I am only explaining it because of what I want to say. It will be most important that from now on I should weigh very carefully every word I use, because in all probability this Debate will be read by thousands of men and women still serving in all parts of the world and I must not mislead them. We have to think of the men and women who have served us so well and are still serving. There is no bureaucracy about this; speaking for myself, as an individual, I would be glad to co-operate in rooting out bureaucracy wherever it may be found. Those of us who have suffered from the bureaucrats in the past will be glad to receive co-operation in that direction. We have to rely on local democratic machinery to administer this business; the personnel of the local committees is known in the areas and consists, in the main, of public-spirited men and women who, in order to secure uniformity of administration throughout the country, act upon a basis of principle, which the hon. Gentleman correctly outlined. The main principles upon which persons can qualify for a licence are these: Persons disabled during the recent war—and if anyone wants an interpretation of that, I have here a reply made by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Oliver Lyttelton) in reply to a question: second, persons recommencing a retail business which was closed during and on account of circumstances arising out of the recent war; third, persons who have acquired the goodwill of an existing business and, fourth, persons removing an existing business to premises strictly comparable as to rent, size, and character in the near vicinity of the existing business.
It is very important that we should get this on record. The Location of Retail Businesses Order was first made in November, 1941, and it had two main objects: first, to safeguard the position of those who, through being called up or directed to other work, or for lack of supplies, had to close their businesses during the war; and second, to prevent the waste and interruption of distribution resulting from increasing the number of shops when supplies were so scarce. I am sure every hon. and right hon. Member will agree with me when I say it is most important that we should carry out those two promises that were made to the people who have suffered as a result of the war. The Order prevents the establishment of new retail businesses, or the transfer of shops from one area to another, without a licence from the Board of Trade. In January, 1943, a Register of Withdrawn Traders was established on which those who were obliged, owing to the war, to close their shops, could set down their names in order that their interests could be considered and watched in the administration of the Order.
The policy has been administered by the local Price Regulation Committees, except in London, where there is a special Committee to deal with the large number of cases under this Order; and I want to emphasise that we are indebted to the public-spirited men and women who have served us so well on these committees in very difficult circumstances. They have been most careful in their administration of the principle of the licensing; they have been most careful in interpreting the main principles laid down for their guidance, and the least I can do this evening is to place on record the tribute I have just paid them.
In June of this year the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Aldershot, who was then President of the Board of Trade, announced that from that time all ex-traders who were eligible for inclusion on the Register of Withdrawn Traders, whether they had inscribed their names on it or not, would be granted licences if they applied for them to resume their businesses. In addition, licences to open new businesses were only to be granted to disabled ex-Servicemen, or for special cases of hardship. The House will remember that in December, 1943, the right hon. Gentleman who is now Chancellor of the Exchequer and who was then President of the Board of Trade, announced that, while it was not the in- tention of His Majesty's Government that the arrangements should be permanent, the Location of Retail Businesses Order would not be brought to an end with the cessation of hostilities in Europe, but would continue for some time during the transitional period, and further that, as long as it continued, the Order would be operated so as to facilitate the return to their former businesses of persons on the Board of Trade Register of Withdrawn Retail Traders. The Government are now examining this Order. We are in that transitional period, and although I cannot give a definite promise tonight, I will give a promise to this extent, that we are examining the Order with a view to considering whether any changes, either in the policy or in its administration, can be made in the light of our experience. We are considering whether it is desirable, and if so at what time, that any changes should be made. I will give an undertaking that what has been said in this Debate will be considered at the same time; and I conclude by repeating that, above all, we must remember the promises that were made to our fellow countrymen who have served us so well during the war. We are determined to maintain those promises.