HC Deb 07 May 1902 vol 107 cc1053-64
(11.10.) MR. LOUIS SINCLAIR (Essex, Romford)

The Motion which stands in my name is intended "to call attention to the fact that the increasing volume of trade of this country with all the world renders it imperative that a Minister of Commerce be appointed; and to move, That the present constitution of the Board of Trade is obsolete; and that, in the opinion of this House, the paramount importance of industry and commerce to the well-being of the Empire requires that these interests shall be administered by a Department in no respect inferior to other Departments of State, and to which should be entrusted every function of the executive Government especially relating to industry and commerce." It is not my object in moving this Motion to make any reflection on the President of the Board of Trade, for everyone is aware that his courteous and conciliatory spirit has rightly won him the position of a favourite in the House of Commons, but it is imperative that we should realise that what was necessary in 1620 cannot be sufficient for purposes of the Empire in 1902. So far as I can trace, the first Ministries were the offspring of the Privy Council, and in the year 1620 the Council proposed four Committees, and constituted (1) a Committee for Foreign Affairs; (2) a Committee for Naval and Military Affairs; (3) a Committee for Complaint and Grievance; (4) Committee for Trade and Foreign Plantations, and this last Committee was appointed by Order in Council at the beginning of every reign. It consisted of (1) a President; (2) a Parliamentary Secretary; (3) the Lord Chancellor; (4) the Principal Secretaries of State; (5) the Chancellor of the Exchequer; (6) The Speaker; (7) the Chancellor; (8) Privy Councillors with special knowledge of trade; (9) Irish officials with rank equal to that of Privy Councillor.

The office of a Vice-President, previously held, was abolished in 1867, as it was found that the orders given by the President of the Board of Trade were often rendered nugatory when they came into contact with those of the Vice-President. In 1860, owing to the increased work placed upon the Board, a demand for extra help was made, and a special Departmental Committee was appointed to look into the whole of the administration, and it was recommended that the Board should be divided into four departments: (1) Railway; (2) Mercantile and Marine; (3) Harbours; (4) Commercial Business.

This division was not sufficient to meet the ever-increasing demand on that Board, and so in 1867 it was divided into twelve departments. It is, therefore, evident that the constitution of the word "Board" in Board of Trade is absolutely an anomaly and an absurdity, because, although the Speaker holds a position on that Board, as a matter of fact he never sits on it, nor does the Lord Chancellor, and nor do other Members whom I have just named, and the administration of the whole of our commerce at the present time seems to be entirely in the hands of paid officials who are not selected through any business qualifications, and who cannot, therefore, pay proper attention to the requirements of our merchants. In 1814 much dissatisfaction was felt that the Board of Trade was held in little esteem in our Ministry, and that in consequence the Foreign Office looked down upon that Department and paid no attention to its requirements. On an inquiry being made, it was recommended that the Board of Trade should have a higher footing and be more on an equality with the Foreign Office; that it should have direct communication with the diplomatic and foreign service in connection with foreign trades; and that the Foreign Office should have an officer to conduct correspondence with the Board of Trade In 1865 the Foreign Office established a Commercial and Consular Division, which so far as I can trace, was the first step in giving this country some commercial knowledge of what transpires abroad. In order to show the difficulties attending the position of men of commerce in those days it need only be stated that it was thought derogatory for the President o; the Board of Trade to have any connection with a business house, and Mr. Goschen when appointed Vice-President, retired from a well-known position as head of an important firm and from the Director ship of the Bank of England. Mr. Cave did the same in 1866.

I am sure the present feeling of the nation would be to welcome at the bead of our administration on trade such men as Mr. Goschen, who are qualified to see that our commercial interests do not suffer at the hands of foreign competitors. At the present time trade and commerce is administered by four departments. The Foreign Office appoints commercial attached and consuls. Many of the latter are selected from the class of retired foreign merchants who often live miles out of the town where they hold office, and when required cannot be found, and are useless, not only by their absence from their post, but also on account of the inadequate and unbusinesslike reports they furnish to our country through the Foreign Office. Commercial attached are even in a worse position. Their spheres are limited, their staff is inadequate, and they are not selected from the best schools of commercial enterprise.

The Home Office frames the laws for and regulates our home industries, and, although its present head has a great knowledge of business, the Statutes framed by that Department have proved that they are not based on any intimate conception of the requirements of employers or employed. Consequently the industrial classes are injured and our manufacturers are hampered by useless and entirely inapplicable restrictions, which cause them personal loss and handicaps them in their competition with foreign countries. The officers who administer these laws have to exercise the greatest discretion as to what to enforce and what to pass over. I can understand that if the Home Office confined itself to the administration of justice in the land it would have its proper work to do, and if a redistribution of work became necessary it would be well fitted to take over the Bankruptcy Department from the Board of Trade.

The Colonial Department has no representatives in our colonies, and merchants at home are accordingly at a great disadvantage. They have to compete with foreign nations who are supplied with most minute information of the needs of our colonies by competent and businesslike attaches and consuls. Is it fair that owing to the apathy of the Government at home we should be deprived of an outlet for our own commerce in our own colonies? Is it not apparent, from these remarks, without diving further into thousands of incongruous anomalies not only in the formation of the Board of Trade, but in its administration, that it is an obsolete institution? Is it not time that we should realise that commerce and trade is not only the backbone, but the most vital organ of our existence? Is it not time that the nation should awake to the fact that foreign competitors are ever increasing and encroaching on our preserves? Does not everyone know that our merchants have no facilities, and that in every market foreign firms obtain contracts which are ours by right?

What is wanted? We should have a Minister to represent trade and commerce, capable in every way, and he must have high Cabinet rank; a Minister whose weight and influence in this Council would be recognised by all—that in all questions of diplomacy our commerce and trade should be taken into account. This Minister, in my opinion, should not be above trade, and we might well seek such a man amongst our City and merchant representatives. It should not be necessary for him to dissociate himself from his business to prove his integrity. He should have under his direction the whole of such administration as appertains to trade, commerce, and industry. It is he who should appoint all consuls and commercial attaches. All laws regulating factories and workshops should emanate from his Department, which must thoroughly understand the question of capital and labour. Is it not time that Members of the House of Commons should recognise that there must be something in the demands of our merchants, voiced in such powerful language by the Chambers of Commerce? Is it not the duty of the House to listen to this most important section as much as to those who advocate reform in education, water supply, and Rules of Procedure? Would not a Minister of Commerce be the best adviser to the Chancellor of the Exchequer in determining taxation? Surely it is time for us to have at the head of our Department of Trade a man possessed of such qualifications which contact with the world has ensured for him, and whose ability and success have already won for him the esteem of business men? Would not such a man be capable at the head of, what I may term, our most important administration, and be able to safeguard the interests of a nation which can truly claim to have been the pioneer of commerce and an example to all other nations of the world, but whose very existence is threatened in no small degree by the competition which it has taught the foreigner to wage against itself?

(11.30.) MR. HELME (Lancashire, Lancaster)

When the Board of Trade was founded it was called the Board of Trade and Plantations, which reminds us that the shackles were not then removed from the limbs of the slaves. What we now want is to get some of the red tape and the shackles which at present embarrass the Board of Trade removed. The supporters of the Motion claim that it would be an advantage to the commercial interests of the country if a Minister of Commerce were appointed equal in rank to that of the other Chief Secretaries of State. A rearrangement is required. For instance, at the present moment, communications coming from abroad in regard to our trade and commerce pass through the hands of the Foreign Office or the Colonial Secretary's Office, but the commercial men of the country would prefer that all these communications should be carried on by an independent Department. The President of the Board of Trade has, at the present time, an Advisory Committee, but its functions are too limited, and it cannot deal with the initiation of business, or suggest any course of action which would be for the benefit of the commerce of the country. The Motion before the House is supported by the Chambers of Commerce throughout the country which have business relations with all parts of the world, and whose aim is that everything should be done to keep this country in the premier position of the trading nations of the world. Although I do not altogether agree with the hon. Member who moved this Resolution that if we had had a Minister of Commerce the shipping combine would not have taken place——

Attention called to the fact that forty Members were not present. House counted, and forty Members being found present—


On the present occasion I shall content myself with seconding the Resolution; and I hope that everything that can possibly be done will be done to rearrange the management of the commercial affairs that come within the scope of the Government, so that our national interests may be protected and developed.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the present constitution of the Board of Trade is obsolete; and that, in the opinion of this House, the paramount importance of industry and commerce to the well-being of the Empire requires that these interests shall be administered by a Department in no respect inferior to other Departments of State, and to which should be entrusted every function of the executive Government especially relating to industry and commerce."—(Mr. Louis Sinclair.)

(11.38) MR. FIELD (Dublin, St. Patrick)

I desire to support the Motion. I have been in the habit of attending meetings of the Associated Chambers of Commerce for ten years or thereabouts, and I have had an opportunity of introducing at these meetings, Motions advocating the appointment of a Minister of Commerce for the British Empire. These Motions were at first looked upon as being premature; but, of late years, they have been passed not only by Chambers of Commerce but by Trade Associations also. The commercial mind of the country has become aware of the fact that England is behind every other country in the world in commercial organisations. We can draw the moral between the attendance in the House when we were discussing a political matter this evening, and the attendance now when we are discussing a Motion of this magnitude. It shows how much interest is taken in these matters. The House, in my experience, tikes no interest in commercial matters, and the result is that we have no Minister of Commerce. France, 100 years ago, had a Minister of Commerce in the principal of one of its Universities Commerce would not, however, be admitted into Oxford or Cambridge. It is one of these thing which the gentlemen of England do not wish to touch unless to get profit out of, and the result is that other countries like America, and Germany are simply forging ahead, and are leaving England standing. Where is England today as regards exports, imports, and railways! As another sign of the little interest that is taken in commerce, the railways are permitted to do practically what they like. They are even allowed to give a preferential rate to foreign imports, and the result is what is called Free Trade, but, which I call free imports and practical protection for the foreigner. That would not be permitted in any other country, because an intelligent interest would be taken by the Government in the man who pays the taxes. That interest is absent in this country, and the remit is that the foreigner finds the country practically a paradise. In Germany last, year many millions of money were earned by the railways, and were put to the credit of the State to reduce taxation. When I ask the President of the Board of Trade a Question about railways, he always replies—I am quite sure that he is perfectly frank and sincere—that it is so difficult to get information. I sat on the Railway and Canal Rates Commission for six months in 1893–4, and I found that the railways governed this country and this House; and I am not at all surprised that the President of the Board of Trade is unable to obtain any information from them?

What is the Board of Trade? I elicited by a Question in this House the fact that the Board of Trade consists of permanent officials. We have no Board of Trade in the proper sense of the word. Does not every business man in this House know perfectly well that if you have a change of Ministers, and a Minister is sent to preside over a particular Department, without any special qualification, he is simply in the hands of permanent officials, unless he is a very strong man. The permanent officials govern nearly every Department in this country and more particularly the Board of Trade, and the result is a cast iron policy. The officials are sure of their position, no responsibility attaches to them, and there is no opportunity of criticising their actions except on Supply and they can do what they choose. The result is, as every hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well, that, unless under exceptional circumstances, Ministers are practically in the hands of the permanent officials; and they cannot he otherwise in the existing state of things. I would not advocate a change such as occurs in America every four years. That would be one of the greatest evils that could befall an administration; but it is the other extreme. The condition of affairs in this country shows that the Board of Trade is unable to cope with the competition which at present exists. I believe it collects statistics as regards Great Britain, but not as regards Ireland, but I maintain that Ireland is entitled to a special Department of the Board of Trade, and that it ought to be the duty of this House and the Board of Trade to develop the industries of Ireland as well as of Great Britain. We are face to face with what might be called a national crisis in this country. We have a great shipping "combine," we have imports from every country in the world, and we have a system of so called Free Trade. One of the reasons why Great Britain has not progressed in recent years is that there is no special Department to deal with trade and commerce such as her competitors have. America, Germany, and even Japan have Ministers of Commerce.


America has no Ministers of Commerce.


The Americans have a system of collecting statistics, and whether they have a Minister of Commerce or not their methods are superior. They are buying up everything. It is even said that they will buy up London and the Houses of Parliament. I entirely agree with the terms of this Motion, and trust that the Government will, in their own interests and in the interest of the commerce of this country, consider the necessity of appointing a Minister of Commerce.

(11.48.) MR. HOULT (Cheshire, Wirral)

I do not know whether the time has arrived when the appointment of a Minister of Commerce should be considered to be within the region of practical politics, but I do know that the exigencies and requirements of trade and commerce require more attention than they are in the habit of receiving. I am rather inclined to fancy that if we had a man with the necessary business knowledge and capacity appointed to some position in the Government to watch over the trade interests of this country, it would be a distinct advantage. I think that such, a man at the present time would view with some alarm the decrease in the number of our sidling ships. It is well known that the French Government gives very considerable bounties to French sailing ships, and it is quite impossible for English sailing ships to compete with French sailing ships, and, in the course of time, our English sailing ships may be wiped off the seas. Ten years ago the tonnage of English sailing, ships was 2,400,000 tons; today it is only 1,500,000 tons. That must necessarily be a matter of very serious consideration because our sailing ships are really the nurseries for the sailors of our mercantile marine. I think that such a man would regard seriously the statement we have often heard from the hon. Member for the Chelmsford Division that in his district there are thousands of acres of derelict land suitable for wheat-growing, perhaps the best wheat growing land in the world. I think that a business man would conclude that there is something wrong in our system which permits that agricultural land to be derelict, while at the same time we are purchasing wheat produced in other counties at a cost ranging from 27s. to 35s. a quarter. Then, I am rather inclined to fancy that a business man would regard the sale of two lines of steamers engaged in the Far East coasting trade to foreigners as being a matter which required some serious consideration and attention, because those ships are not sold because they are old or because their owners wanted to part with them, but because foreigners wished to buy them and can make them pay when Englishmen cannot. That must, of necessity, be a very serious matter in connection with the maritime affairs of this country. A business man, representing commerce and industry, would regard the importation of steel plates from America, which we have hitherto produced entirely ourselves, for the purposes of shipbuilding as a matter of very great importance, and he would be rather puzzled to account for it, America being a protected country in every sense. I think that a Minister of Commerce would view with very considerable alarm the fact that our imports are gradually increasing at a greater rate than our exports, and that last year our imports exceeded our exports by the enormous sum of £183,000,000, and that in the previous year the excess was £178,000,000. Perhaps he might be able to show that, some way or another, this balance of trade is not a loss to this country. Many of us take the view that it is a very considerable loss to the country, and that we are living in a fools' paradise. Then, I am inclined to think that if we had had such a Minister of Commerce when the Sugar Bounties came into existence, they would never have been allowed. There is no doubt that the position of our trade is on an entirely different footing to what it was in years gone by. What was suitable twenty or thirty years ago is no longer applicable. Our trade is attacked not only by bounties but by "combines" as well, and it may be necessary for the Government of this country to take in the future a different view with respect to trade interests. It may be necessary for the Government, as the custodians of the trade interests of the country, when they see the possibility of a trade or industry being ruined by unfair means—I do not fear fair and honest competition—to take steps to help that trade or industry through that unfair competition. I have the greatest faith in my countrymen. I believe they have the same grit, energy, and determination; they work from early morning until late at night, and they can compete with foreigners on fair lines and hold their own. I hope that the outcome of this proposal may be that more attention will be given to the trade interests of the country than they have hitherto received.

MR. BANBURY (Camberwell, Peckham)

The hon. Gentleman who has just sat down has enunciated some very startling doctrines. He has informed us that if we had a business man as Minister of Commerce he would see in Essex the best wheat-growing land in the world, and immediately wheat would grow there. That is a very excellent sentiment, but I do not see how even the most excellent Minister of Commerce could make wheat grow unless the price were raised, and I do not think any Government would remain long in office that proposed a duty of 15s. or 20s. on wheat. Without that, no Minister of Commerce could cause wheat to be grown in Essex at a profit. Then the hon. Gentleman said that a subsidy should be given to sailing ships. Are we to be taxed to save the sailing ship industry? The hon. Member for the St. Patrick Division took a different view of the functions of a Minister of Commerce. According to him, his first duty would be to reduce rates on railways, and, therefore, the Minister of Commerce would be in this curious position—that while, on the one hand, he would be safeguarding the pecuniary interests of certain gentlemen interested in shipping, he would, on the other hand, be taking away money from the vast number of people who own shares in railway companies.

It being midnight, the debate stood adjourned.

House adjourned at ten minutes after Twelve o'clock.