Orders of the Day — Licensed Premises in New Towns Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 27th February 1952.

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Photo of Mr James Hudson Mr James Hudson , Ealing North 12:00 am, 27th February 1952

The interlude in the debate, which has been filled by Scottish Members in an interesting way, has, I hope, thrown light on the fact that things in Scotland are different from what they are here in respect of the matter under discussion. There are many differences. They have the Scottish Temperance Act, and they are proud in Scotland to call it by that name. Legislation and public opinion there are of such a character that this Government have not dared, in the legislation before us, to interfere with the operations of the Scottish Temperance Act.

I will not attempt to interfere in Scottish affairs more than to say that the extent to which the new town areas can be made to utilise the advantages that are available under the Scottish Temperance Act will be a way of providing protection for the more decent attitude in Scotland against the machinations of this Bill.

I turn to what I call the machinations of the Government or of the trade. This is an old story. The venal and furtive pressure of the liquor trade on pliant Governments, particularly Conservative Governments, is a well-known story. Nobody has commented upon it more vigorously than the present Leader of the Tory Party. If I have time, I hope I may be allowed to quote the Leader of the Conservative Party, the present Prime Minister.

Some things have been said tonight about the way the Bill has been brought about; indeed, that is the main issue before us. The provisions of the Bill have their own importance, but nothing like the importance of the revelations which we have had tonight about the way in which the Tory Central Office works in matters of this sort. I find it difficult to say all that is in my mind about this subject in front of the Home Secretary, because I admire him and reciprocate the very kindly words he uses about me; but he is a member of a dreadful party. He has given me information tonight which I am sure he believes, but which has been shown to be quite mistaken.

Lord Woolton did not, certainly in the places where he should have made statements, say anything about this Bill so that the Government might be judged by the people who were voting at the General Election. Lord Woolton, apparently knowing nothing about it—I do not intend to read his private letter —had left it to the Tory Central Office to make statements about what the Tory Government would do if they were returned in a General Election.

I have hunted carefully through all the records. I have had the assistance of churches and temperance societies in hunting through all their records. I find that the newspapers also were hot on the trail. They joined in the hue and cry. One might almost have thought they had got a scent of red meat again. None of them could find what Lord Woolton had said.

It is true that my right hon. Friend the former Home Secretary told the House that there was an unofficial statement—one that I have never heard of before—which was not published in any prominent place until the Election was over. Out comes Mr. Percey to tell an audience in the Isle of Wight what would happen if we had a Conservative Government. There are a lot of people besides Mr. Percey's friends in the liquor trade who are interested in the vote that ought to be cast on a matter of this sort. The churches are very interested in the matter; they are as interested as my friends in Scotland. The temperance societies are very interested. They had a right to know before the Election if this matter was to be made the important issue which it has proved to be.

We can postpone Budgets apparently, but not this question. We can put off all that we promised about steel. We are not dealing with the explicit promises made about transport. There is a whole series of very vital issues dealing with health, schools and children. They are all postponed or not introduced. But this Measure on licensed houses—yes, this is the thing. I repeat that, as has happened before—I am not including the right hon. and learned Gentleman in this —the liquor trade knows that it has got its agents—the potmen of the Tory Cabinet.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman has spent some time in saying that he did not give the liquor trade all they wanted. But he has given them enough in this Bill to satisfy them entirely. It is not good enough to say that there was in existence a type of legislation which it was better to follow than the legislation which my right hon. Friend introduced—the legislation following on the Morris Report. I was temporarily outside the House in those days, but I was a very interested observer and I sat in the box allowed to the public to watch all the proceedings. I understood the validity of that Bill. It was justified by the special circumstances of the blitzed areas, the overspill areas as they came to be known. It was put forward by a Coalition Government that hoped it had got public opinion behind it. It was only a few months before the General Election, and it found it had not got any public opinion behind it. In fact that Bill was no indication at all of public support.

I suggest that a far better type of legislation was that which followed the frank proposal of the Royal Commission that there should be an experimental extension of the Carlisle scheme which, it is said—I do not altogether agree—had been successful enough to justify a further extension. Although the Royal Commission made recommendations about this matter, the Conservative Party following 1931, when the Report was made, always took the line—and particularly Sir John Simon at Question time in the House, and even when Measures were introduced here —that they could not stand for a piecemeal approach to the licensing problem, that there ought to be a complete frontal approach to this problem which was presented by the whole of the licensing conditions in the country.

I thought there was some sense in that view. It is right, if this matter is so important, that if we are going to do something we should not nibble at it. The Labour Government was justified because it found the brewers nibbling at it anyhow in the new towns, and if they had not taken action in the new towns the brewers would have gone off with the whole of the swag before anything could have been done about it.

But even that does not justify this continued neglect by all parties in this House of the problem that confronts us. The problem is twofold. It is represented by the expenditure on drink last year and the year before—in these difficult years. We hear talk about a financial crisis, but in 1949 the expenditure on drink was £719 million and, in 1950, £727 million. As far as we can make out, in 1951 the amount was about the same —a little less on beer, but more on spirits and wine.

This problem is represented by the wholesale diversion of badly needed food such as sugar and grains which could be used for feedingstuffs and which this House is constantly discussing. It is a problem represented by repeated accidents on the roads and the Lord Chief Justice pronouncing in favour of imprisonment and all sorts of extreme penalties because of what is taking place.

It is a problem represented by the return of drunkenness, as my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields said, which we thought was disappearing. In 1946 the number of drunkenness convictions was down to 20,000 for the year. In 1950, only four years afterwards, there were 47,000. In 1951 Chief Constables were already reporting to their watch committees that, as far as they could see, the increase was continuing.

It is all very well the right hon. and learned Gentleman talking about what the liquor trade has done in improving its houses. What has it done to lessen the drunkenness statistics? The Royal Commission surveyed all this and came to certain conclusions about it. It said that there ought to be set up a new central national licensing authority which would have better powers in levying the trade and in continuing the work of clearing out redundant licences which for years the Tory Party admitted was a great problem in this country. It is a problem, that, to use a phrase of the right hon. Gentleman the Prime Minister represented horrid havoc.

That was what the Prime Minister once said about the liquor trade. What did the Tories set out to do in 1904? If anyone doubts it they may find a recital of the facts in paragraph 115 of the Report of the Royal Commission. The Tories, through their leaders, set out to bring about a reduction of licences in this country from 99,000, as they then were, by 48,000—at the rate of 2,500 a year. They passed their legislation, but they never got a reduction of 2,500 in any year. They exceeded 2,000 in one year only. They are now in the neighbourhood of only 300 a year reduction.

The position has got steadily worse and today, instead of having a reduction of 48,000, which the Tory Party agreed ought to be brought about, they have got something like 64,000 licences. I think that is the figure to which my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Bing) referred. Now there is an addition of all those institutions which my other hon. Friend the Member for Consett (Mr. Glanville), persisted in recommending—the registered clubs, to which we should also add innumerable bottle shops and licensed restaurants, with heaven knows what, to meet his requirements.

There are now far more drinking institutions in this country than there were when the Tory Party, with honesty in the matter, began to deal with this licensing problem. The Royal Commission was right in its recommendation to establish a national licensing commission, which could have dealt with these new towns and which could have hurried up the backward areas, where magistrates were doing nothing. Something of that sort was called for. To have carried that plan through would have been a problem of statesmanship. The Labour Party did not adopt the line of a national licensing commission, but it took one part of the recommendations of the Report of the Royal Commission. It is the part that I like least, but at any rate it did not neglect its duty.

The line that the Royal Commission suggested is not what is being proposed today. I know there is an expectation that I shall be greatly embarrassed by the vote that I shall record tonight in that I shall appear to be supporting this idea of the extension of the Carlisle experiment. In principle, I do not stand for the nationalisation of those things which bring curses in their train instead of blessings. I stand for the nationalisation of coal, because it is a good thing to extend the production of coal and we all thank God today that we can say, "More, more and more coal." Apparently there is an hon. Gentleman—who has now departed—the Member for Barnet (Mr. Maudling) who has been half suggesting tonight that it would be a good thing, too, to extend the production and consumption of beer. At any rate, the licensing legislation of the Tory Party in 1904, which aimed at a reduction of 48,000 licences, was not thinking about a considerable increase—