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Bank Holidays

Volume 827: debated on Tuesday 30 November 1971

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

10.21 p.m.

I beg to move Amendment No. 1, in page 1, line 16, leave out from 'Majesty' to end of line 19 and insert:

'shall by proclamation appoint not less than one nor more than six days in each year, either throughout the United Kingdom or in any place or locality in the United Kingdom, as bank holidays under this Act'.

It will be in order to discuss at the same time Amendments Nos. 3 to 5 in the name of the right hon Gentleman the Member for Kettering (Sir G. de Freitas), which are in Schedule 1, page 6, line 5, line 17 and line 23, at end insert 'the second Friday in May'.

If I refer throughout to public holidays the Minister of State will be aware that, although the Bill refers to bank holidays, most people think of them as public holidays.

The Amendment seeks to do two things. First, it seeks to put in the word "shall" instead of "may"; and, secondly, it seeks to ensure that the Queen shall by proclamation make at least one public holiday or bank holiday per year and not more than six per year. These should be not special holidays, as they are as the Bill is drafted, but regular holidays.

These are broadly the variations that we seek to make. Now that the Minister of State has had time to consider what we said in Committee, I am sure that he will be happy to accept the Amendment. What it seeks to do is still to enable the Government, by the Queen's proclamation, to have these public or bank holidays in different parts of the country. For example, it would not be necessary to make 1st January a bank holiday throughout the whole country. It could be made a bank holiday only in Heywood and Royton, or possibly only in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mr. Golding), but certainly not in Worthing, since the Minister of State was so Scrooge-like in turning down our reasonable request in Committee.

The Amendment would allow the Government, by the Queen's proclamation, to vary holidays, as happens at present in the case of 1st January. In the North, the North-West and in other parts of the country it is thought of as a public holiday and is taken as a public holiday by many people. I understand that in the South it is not considered a public holiday, and it is never recognised as such. It would be open to the Government to allow 1st January to be a public or bank holiday in the North and North-West, leaving Worthing and the rest of the South with some other day which is more convenient, or possibly with no other day. In some respects, the latter possibility would be more reasonable in the light of the hon. Gentleman's reluctance to allow us to have 1st January.

There is an overwhelming case for some extra bank holidays. International comparisons were made in Committee. It is clear from them that we in Britain do very much worse than most of our industrial competitors. There is a need for more public holidays for many reasons. There is a growing move towards greater leisure, some of it enforced by this Government's economic policies and the resultant level of unemployment. I believe that we should look further ahead, to a time when I hope we shall have a Labour Government and return to times of full employment, instead of the present situation where a desperate Government are taking desperate measures to relieve the situation which they themselves have created. We have seen reported statements today that there are to be further economic measures to help reduce the level of unemployment. However, I gather that the Prime Minister has been busy repudiating those statements which have emanated from Rome. What the Chancellor of the Exchequer is reported to have said is not correct. Apparently, the Government will not take measures of the kind that will relieve the unemployment problem—at least, not this week.

We had some strange arguments from the hon. Gentleman in Committee. For example, he said:
"It would most certainly be a counsel of despair if one were to suggest that one needed to increase the number of holidays to offset unemployment."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Standing Committee B, 23rd November, 1971; c. 13.]
We have a counsel of despair from the Government. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that many people should be left with the impression that we are in a situation for which the Government have no answer. Whilst we recognise that in the not too distant future we will, under a different Government, return to different levels of employment, we have a situation today which hon. Members are bound to take into consideration.

10.30 p.m.

It is for the future that we should be considering the Bill and the Amendments. For the future it is important to recognise the reality of the holiday situation. As I have said, most countries have more public holidays than Britain. There is a serious case to be advanced, which was not answered by the Minister of State in Committee, for a move to greater leisure and a recognition that the structural changes which are taking place in industry mean that over the longer period there will be a need for workers to work fewer days and hours.

For example, some figures which I saw today showed that about 30 per cent. of workers in manufacturing industry are working about 8½ hours overtime a week at a time when we have 1 million unemployed. Clearly, there is a case to be answered whether we should be thinking in terms of fewer hours to be worked by ordinary workers who have jobs in order to create employment for many who do not have jobs. This case needs to be answered. It has not so far been answered by the Minister of State.

In Committee and, indeed, on Second Reading the Minister said that we should leave this to negotiation between employers and workers.

I do not go all the way with my hon. Friend. No doubt he will be able to make a strong case.

I believe that, in the main, this matter should be left to employers and workers; but that does not mean that we in this House cannot say that there should be one extra public holiday and a maximum of six. That is not taking out of the hands of employers the opportunity to negotiate with their workers the totality of holidays. So it is not a good argument to say, when talking about an extra one and a maximum of six public holidays, that we need to leave it entirely to employers and workers to negotiate the totality of holidays or, indeed, just that one.

Then we had the most interesting argument of all from the Minister of State when he told us, in col. 14 of the Committee proceedings and in col. 1466 of the OFFICIAL REPORT On Second Reading, that if we allowed an extra one or two bank holidays this would have a "considerable inflationary effect". I do not want to take the House too far along this road, but it is an interesting argument. I appreciate that the Government have presided over an inflationary period of more than 10 per cent. I will not bore the House with the promises that they made, but, having had that level of inflation, for them to tell us that one extra public holiday a year would have a considerable inflationary effect is strange indeed. I am prepared to accept that they are experts on all kinds of things; but to argue, from their great knowledge of how to deal with inflation, that one extra public or bank holiday would have a considerable inflationary effect is strange indeed.

I have always understood that the Government want to see real higher wages—I had not understood that they were opposed to that—and that that must be combined with increased productivity. All the evidence which I have seen in Government reports and other pieces of research has been that higher productivity tends to come from working shorter hours and weeks. There is a very strong case for arguing that we need more public holidays rather than fewer. So the Minister's argument, on this count also, does not bear consideration.

I would only add that, after what this Government have done to the country in the last 18 months, we need an extra day's holiday.

I am in the odd situation of supporting the hon. Member for Heywood and Royton (Mr. Joel Barnett). Some years ago I asked the Government which he supported whether they would appoint 1st January a bank holiday, and I got a very dusty answer. On Merseyside that year, in many factories, so many did not turn up for work that those who did had to be sent home. What a waste that was. There is much to be said for giving the Government this option. Countries in Europe have many more holidays than we have. I hope that as our standard of living goes up, so will our leisure time.

I entirely agree about the desirability of 1st January being a public holiday. In my constituency, in Corby in particular, there are many thousands of Scots who feel very much deprived because they have to work on 1st January.

But I am more concerned about having a Europe Day. I want the second Friday in May to be a bank holiday called Europe Day. For many years the 17 Governments of the Council of Europe have agreed to celebrate 5th May as Europe Day. In this country each year more local authorities fly the Europe flag on 5th May. The schools celebrate it and make more and more recognition of the fact that we have in Europe a common culture and in many ways common institutions. The Minister of State said on Second Reading that he noted my point about the flying of the flag, and that he had encouraged his local authority to do so. The total of local authorities is up to 400 now. I hope that other hon. Members will encourage their local authorities to do so, so that it will soon be 500.

I would have suggested 5th May as Europe Day but for the fact that it can fall on any day of the week. The second Friday in May can be tied to a weekend and is not far from 5th May.

I particularly like the month of May for a bank holiday. As I reminded the Committee, not only are the birds and bees active, but, even if the sun is not out, the rain is warm, or relatively warm. All these considerations point to the desir- ability of May and to the desirability of the second Friday. Certainly, we want to celebrate Europe Day. I hope that the Government will accept this Amendment, and make a proclamation for Europe Day—in 1973 or 1974 or possibly sooner.

I am glad to note that my hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Royton (Mr. Joel Barnett), who is leading for the Opposition tonight, has raised his sights. Whereas in Committee he was arguing for four public holidays, he is now in favour of six. I like to think that his change of heart has come about as a result of the evidence I presented in Committee.

On that occasion I gave some international comparisons. I pointed out that if one excluded the Virgin Islands, which have 19 public holidays, and Spain, Portugal and the South American countries, which have followed in the Catholic tradition, the norm for public holidays throughout the world is nearly 11 days, and I hope that we shall soon have as many public holidays as the United States and the other European industrial countries.

In Committee the Minister argued against additional public holidays on the ground that the whole matter should be left to the trade unions and employers to settle. Holidays were a question for industrial negotiation, he maintained. We established in Committee, however, that the trade unions look to Parliament for a lead in this matter because there is no machinery through which all employers and all trade unions can come together to negotiate such a matter, be it May Day—to which we are surely entitled—1st January, the Queen's birthday—a holiday for which I have asked—or even Christmas eve.

I argued in Committee that the public holiday we are seeking would be a family festive occasion, and I have been disappointed at the absence of an Amendment to designate 1st January as such a holiday, which would be particularly welcome in the Midlands, the North-West, the North-East—indeed, all areas north of London. This day off is required to enable people to get over the festivities of New Year's Eve.

Perhaps people living in the South are too mean and miserable to enjoy themselves on New Year's Eve and do not need to rest on New Year's Day. But that cannot be so because among the many letters I have received asking for this change, some have come from the South. In the way that the men from the North won the battle for British Standard Time, so we shall win this one, and have a day off on 1st January.

In any event, many people will continue to stay away from work on 1st January, whatever the Government say. We pointed out in Committee that the present arrangement was creating two types of citizen—those who stay at home on 1st January feeling guilty, and those who go to work and feel mugs because they are the only people who have turned up and it is impossible to do the work for which they went.

10.45 p.m.

My other point is about the importance of a holiday on the Queen's birthday. It is unreasonable that servants of the Crown may enjoy the privilege of a holiday on the Queen's birthday when a potter, a miner, a baker or an engineer has to work. I shall not burden the House with all the details, but in Committee it was made clear that Japan has the Emperor's birthday as a holiday, Dr. Sun Yat Sen's birhday is a holiday in China, and in New York the birthdays of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln are taken as holidays. Why should we in Britain not enjoy, as a nation, a day off in celebration of the Queen's birthday? In New Zealand, a small country, our Queen's birthday is loyally celebrated by a public holiday.

If my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition has his way and the whole of Ireland becomes part of the Commonwealth, with the Queen at its head, it would make it much easier to persuade the Irish that they should accept the Queen as the head of their country if there went with the acceptance a day off on the Queen's birthday.

I do not want to address myself to that point. From my knowledge of Ireland, I am certain that the Irish enjoy more holidays than we do. That may also be a contrary argument. The Irish may be listening even now, saying that the English have only a handful of public holidays and that if they were to return to the Commonwealth it may be that they would be swapping a handful of saint's days for one Queen's birthday.

This is a very important subject to all those who work so very hard in Britain and have so very few holidays compared with industrial workers in Europe and the United States.

I follow my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mr. Golding) before covering one or two other matters on this very important Amendment.

My hon. Friend discussed first the point mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Royton (Mr. Joel Barnett), about the rather spurious argument developed in Committee that it was not appropriate for the House to give a lead in designating extra bank holidays because this was a matter for employers and employees. But that argument falls because we also learned in Committee that making a day a bank holiday does not make it a public holiday. All that we would be doing by asking the Queen to proclaim that there should be six additional days as bank holidays would be making sure that the banks and certain other institutions closed and, for example, that customs officials had the day as a holiday. It would, however, be giving a lead to employers and employed in order that they, through negotiation, through bodies like the N.E.D.C.—one form of economic development would be more public holidays—could agree on six additional holidays.

My hon. Friend returned to the theme he pursued in Committee—the subject of the Queen's birthday. I accept many of his arguments. However, in the context of the Amendment I see some difficulties. It is somewhat difficult to ask the Queen herself to make by Royal proclamation her own birthday a holiday. It would be more appropriate for her loyal servants—her Secretaries of State—to designate her birthday as a public holiday rather than ask her to do it. Perhaps the Government will consider this and in another place bring in an Amendment making her birthday a public holiday so as to avoid embarrassing her by leaving her to do it by Royal proclamation.

Before we decide our attitude to the Amendment, perhaps the Government could tell us about the way the Queen has exercised her powers. On how many occasions during her reign has she taken advantage of the powers she has under existing legislation to proclaim a special day throughout the United Kingdom or in some particular locality a public holiday?

If it is not improper to suggest one particular day which the Queen might consider appointing as a bank holiday, I hope she would consider 24th October—or 25th October if the 24th falls on a Sunday—as being suitable. It happens to be a period when we have not got many public holidays, falling two months from the late autumn bank holiday and two months from the Christmas bank holiday. It is also, of course, United Nations day. There is now before the General Assembly a motion that 24th October be proclaimed a world holiday. I hope that the Queen, if this Amendment were accepted, would indeed accede to that suggestion and so designate 24th October.

I was sorry to read, after the Committee stage had concluded, that in another place the Government had said that they were not proposing to support the motion—proposed by Zambia—in the General Assembly, but in the event of its being adopted by the Assembly, this Amendment would give the Queen power to make United Nations day a bank holiday in the United Kingdom.

It is important to find some method of ensuring that we have a reasonable number of bank holidays, for it is clear that we do not have a reasonable number at the moment. The Amendment would ensure that we could have up to an additional six days.

I admire the loyalty of right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House in wishing to celebrate the Queen's birthday. I admire their idealism in wishing to celebrate United Nations day and United Europe day, but if the hon. Member for Farnworth (Mr. Roper) wants a bank holiday in October I recommend Trafalgar Day. I admire the devotion of hon. Members in wishing to commemorate a wide range of saints, St. Karl of blessed memory coming first. Why not add St. George of England, St. Andrew of Scotland, St. Patrick of Ireland and St. David of Wales? I hope I do not expose myself to a charge of insularity with this multiplicity of bank holidays and saints' days, which is reminiscent of a banana republic.

Has the hon. and learned Member examined the holidays given in New York, and, if so, would he describe New York as a banana republic? Has he examined the holidays given in each of the Six countries in the Common Market, and would he describe those countries as banana republics?

It is not for me to comment on the fruits grown in New York City or on the Continent of Europe. Speaking for myself, it would perhaps increase the flow of production, improve our health and provide more scope for civilised living if employees and employers would negotiate for a third or even fourth week's holiday, rather than having a multiplicity of bank holidays and saints' days. In that respect the Government have always given a splendid example which I am sure will be followed by private sector industry. For these reasons I cannot support the Amendment.

In Committee I was requested by hon. Gentlemen opposite to increase the number of holidays. I said on that occasion that I was in some danger of being like the visiting speaker on a school speech day who announced towards the end of his speech that he would not give an extra holiday to celebrate the occasion. Now I find myself in the position of being asked back the following year to make exactly the same pronouncement.

My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Dover (Mr. Peter Rees) has introduced some variety into the discussion. Trafalgar Day was not suggested either on Second Reading or in Committee.

It has been said that I am adopting a Scrooge-like attitude to this question. I do not believe that is so, but we cannot accuse the hon. Member for Heywood and Royton (Mr. Joel Barnett) of doing that because he is increasing his bid. Whereas in Committee an Amendment was moved to increase the number of holidays to four, it is now being suggested that the number should be between one and six. I regret to advise the House that I cannot commend the Amendment.

I will not go over again the ground which has been covered many times before on the distinction between bank holidays and public holidays. I find rather strange the argument that the Amendment would enable us to have regular holidays, when this is precisely what the Amendment does not do. The Amendment suggests a degree of variation, but does not necessarily create a situation in which the holidays proclaimed will cover the entire country. To this extent it would be somewhat unfair and discriminatory.

The hon. Member for Farnworth (Mr. Roper) asked me a specific question as to which holidays had been granted under the proclamation procedure. I think I am right in saying that the actual dates are 20th November 1967, 15th and 16th March, 1968, and 2nd June, 1953, which was Coronation Day. Clearly, these were exceptional occasions, rather than being within the context of the kind of point the hon. Member for Heywood and Royton had in mind, when he tabled his Amendment.

11 p.m.

I should also make one other point, the fundamental reason why it is not necessary to accept the Amendment. As I pointed out in Committee, there are already powers, by Royal proclamation, to declare additional holidays, and Amendments moved in Committee and today are to that extent otiose. It may be that the Amendment before us now would impose some limitation on that right which does not exist already, and to that extent it is hon. Gentlemen opposite who are being Scrooge-like, although I cannot speak for what action may be taken on this matter.

An additional point I made at the Committee stage is that the Government view is that the establishment of additional holidays is for negotiation between employers and employees. This preserves the flexibility of those concerned to take account of local circumstances. The Government cannot support this proposal to increase the number of holidays. If these are to be regular holidays, it is right that they should be embodied specifically in legislation, as is done in this Bill in one case.

I now turn to the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Mr. Tilney). He returned to the point we discussed in Committee, although he was not a member of the Standing Committee. That was the question of a holiday on 1st January. As I have already pointed out, this is already a holiday in some parts of the country—Tyneside and Teesside, where it is a customary holiday. If there is a local holiday on this day, it is better that there should be flexibility and that it should be by agreement between employer and employee.

It is important to bear in mind what would happen if we were to close the banks by Statute on New Year's Day. It might cause considerable inconvenience, since in some years it would result in the banks being closed on three consecutive days on two consecutive weekends. This does not commend itself on grounds of convenience and banking facilities.

Turning to the points raised by the right hon. Member for Kettering (Sir G. de Freitas), I would pay tribute to the strong and unwavering support he has given to the cause of Europe. I would pay tribute to the cause he has championed for many years. British entry to the E.E.C. is a beneficial and long-awaited development. On the other hand, I do not believe we can accept the creation of a Europe Day holiday, because it is essential to preserve the flexibility which the existing scheme gives.

The hon. Member for Farnworth put forward views which I found a little inconsistent. On Second Reading he suggested that provisions in Clause 3 were backdoor harmonisation, and yet I find him supporting this Amendment seeking to go in for a degree of harmonisation. There are no specific proposals for this in the Community. While I sympathise with the motives of the right hon. Member for Kettering, I do not feel able to recommend the Amendment to the House.

I explained in the Committee stage that another part of my speech on Second Reading appeared to have been misunderstood. I was not supporting my right hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Sir G. de Freitas) only on harmonisation with the Six. He was suggesting that the day should be celebrated among all countries in Europe, not merely those in the Community.

I had fully appreciated that there was a distinction between the E.E.C. and the Council of Europe. I understood that the right hon. Gentleman was looking at it in the broad and narrow contexts. He does, however, request a holiday on a date in May. There are two points to be made about that, one purely technical. The Amendment originally was to be from 1974 onwards, whereas the present Amendment would have the effect of creating a holiday from 1972 onwards. There is also the point that because of the peculiar distinction between bank and public holidays, the situation would not extend to Scotland and Scotland would be in some way left out of the general European context, which I am sure he would agree is not desirable.

Also, if we are to have an additional holiday in May, there is already in England a bank holiday on the last Monday in May and in Scotland on the first Monday. Both would be retained but there would be some bunching if the Amendment were accepted. We have discussed this at some length, and I understand the arguments put forward, which I have no doubt are popular. The arguments on the other side are, however, overwhelming and I must ask the House to reject the Amendment.

We have had a very disappointing reply from the Minister of State in a remarkable debate. We have heard about the birds and the bees and the warm rain in May and the birthday of Sun Yat Sen and the 19 days' holiday in that important place, the Virgin Islands. The name is interesting and the number of days' holiday in that delightful spot equally significant.

There have been remarkable arguments. I am sorry that my hon. Friend the Member for Southall (Mr. Bidwell) did not develop his point about solving the Irish problem with a few extra bank holidays. It was interesting to hear about banana republics, such places as New York City and the countries of the Com- mon Market. The hon. and learned Member for Dover (Mr. Peter Rees) did not want extra days so much as extra weeks, and the Minister of State did not seem to deal with that point.

The hon. Gentleman said that I was being discriminatory. I was pointing out that under the terms of the Amendment the Government could, by Queen's proclamation, vary the days so that we could have 1st January as a holiday in the North and the Midlands. I can understand a Government which seem to favour the South not recognising the needs of the North. If they are not prepared to vary it I am happy that they should allow the people in the South to have 1st January as well.

My Amendment limits the number of days that the Queen could name as special days. Whereas she could have had more than six by proclamation, I have limited it to six. I am willing to concede that. But the Minister did not deal sufficiently with the interesting question put to him by my hon. Friend the Member for Farnworth (Mr. Roper). How often have we had a proclamation of special holidays? [Interruption.] I understand the hon. Gentleman said four times in 18 years. Now he is arguing that, because I have suggested there might be only six per year, I have limited the number of days.

The Minister of State said we would have four in 18 years, but three of them in future would have to come not under Clause 1 of the Bill but under Clause 2, being closures of the banks for technical reasons and not public holidays. So in terms of Clause 1 there has been only one—Coronation Day—in 18 years.

I am obliged to my hon. Friend for expanding the argument in answer to the spurious case presented by the Minister of State. If he still feels I have limited it too much by allowing only a maximum of six, then I am sure this could be amended in another place to ensure that, if necessary, we could have more than six days a year. I am willing to allow such an Amendment in another place if the hon. Gentleman wishes.

The hon. Gentleman then reverted to the argument about flexibility for employers. When all we are asking in this Amendment is that there should be a minimum of one day a year, I do not see how this would affect the flexibility of employers' negotiations.

The hon. Gentleman did not repeat the argument he put forward on Second Reading about the inflationary effect. But he did give us the argument about convenience of banking facilities. In these days when we are thinking in terms of opportunities for the public to use banking operations, it is a little odd to be told that an extra day would cause considerable inconvenience in banking facilities.

I find the whole of the hon. Gentleman's case most disappointing. Our case is not only popular, but is a good one, and I was grateful for the support of the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Mr. Tilney).

Amendment negatived.