HC Deb 16 May 1906 vol 157 cc500-3

THE PRESIDENT OF THE BOARD OF TRADE (Mr. LLOYD-GEORGE, Carnarvon Boroughs): I have to ask the leave of the House to introduce a Bill to provide for taking a census of production. I think it is generally felt that we have not got reliable statistics as regards our home trade. We have got the volume of our foreign trade, and details more or less classified and complete, but no statistics at all reliable with regard to our home industry. All those engaged in recent controversy must have felt considerably handicapped owing to that fact. The figures on both sides were more or less conjectural. They were biassed with conjecture and partisanship on both sides. There was no means of arriving at dependable data, with regard to our home industries. I have seen a good many estimates of output, and they have varied by something like hundreds of millions, and there was no means of testing their accuracy. This is a matter of great importance. We have to decide a great question affecting our trade without any really reliable information with regard to it. If trade is going buck, or is at a standstill, or not making the progress we expect it to make, the sooner we know it the better. On the other hand, if it is making steady and sure progress, the sooner we allay all anxiety on the matter the better it will be. I propose by this Bill—I cannot now explain it at any length—that there should be a census of our home industries of the output and production of our manufactures; and that it should be taken in the year 1908 under the supervision of the Board of Trade. Forms will be distributed, and particulars will be demanded regarding the nature of the business, the output, the materials used, the days and hours of work, the persons employed, the wages of the employees, the plant and machinery used, and such other particulars of a like nature as may be prescribed. The census will be compulsory. It will be quite impossible to have a reliable census at all unless it is compulsory, for the very obvious reason that if a number of men fail to fill in forms, through neglect or opposition to the census, you never can say how much they represent—whether they represent 5, 10, or 15 per cent.; and the absence of whatever they represent would vitiate the whole return. With regard to the period, the first census would be taken in the year 1908, for the output of the year 1907. I proposed at first that this should be a quinquennial census, but I have had representations from many quarters representing all parties that it would be very desirable that the census should be biennial. I should not like to come to a final conclusion on that matter at the present moment. If there was a general desire on the part of the manufacturing community that it should be biennial, I should certainly not oppose it. But for the moment I propose to provide by the Bill that it should be at a time prescribed by the Board of Trade or by Order in Council. The question will be decided afterwards in Committee if there is a general feeling that the census should be biennial. There are provisions with regard to the secrecy of the return. It is exceedingly important that any information given by manufacturers should not be divulged. I can quite understand that there might be considerable objection on the part of manufacturers to giving full particulars of the turnout of their business, unless upon full security that these should not be divulged. There will be the same security as now exists with regard to the income tax. That is quite ample. I do not anticipate any difficulty upon that account, for I do not know that there is an instance of information given to the Income Tax Commissioners or Inland Revenue collectors ever having been divulged. What will be asked is not the kind of information required in the United States of America. There the information sought is much more detailed. We have been warned not to be inquisitorial. I rather agree; and all we want is enough data to form some sort of idea of the position of our home industries and home trade. That we shall be able, I think, to do under this Bill, which I now ask the leave of the House to introduce.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That leave be given to bring in a Bill to provide for taking a Census of Production."—(Mr. Lloyd-George.)

MR. J. CHAMBERLAIN (Birmingham, W.)

This Bill is introduced under the ten minutes rule, and I believe it has been the practice, although I am not certain it is an absolute rule, that the one other speech which is allowed should be a speech against the Bill which is introduced. All I want to say at the commencement is that if there is anyone who desires to oppose the Bill I will give place to him, because I am going to support the Bill. I feel that the object which the right hon. Gentleman has in view is a very desirable one. Whatever opinions we may have on the condition of trade or other matters connected with fiscal reform, there is one thing which we all want, and that is the possibility of having at our disposal correct statistics on which we can base perhaps very different conclusions. At all events, we all want correct statistics—a thing which it is most difficult to obtain. One thing will be admitted, that the statistics of the Board of Trade, collected with admirable care and no doubt with most perfect impartiality, are at the same time altogether inadequate and incomplete. To take one single point, you have pretty full statistics of the exports and imports of the country, but it is conceivable, though I do not believe it very often occurs, that a very flourishing foreign trade may be contemporaneous with a very depressed home trade, and even the consequence of a very depressed home trade. Before, therefore, we can judge of the general prosperity of the country, it is clear that we want to know what is going on at home as well as what is going on in our foreign relations. I entirely approve, therefore, of the object of this Bill, and I also approve of what has been said by the right hon. Gentleman who has introduced it. It is a difficult business; it will want care; and I only say that, so far as my humble powers go, I shall be glad to give him any assistance I can towards securing the efficiency of such a measure. The difficulty lies in this—that our people, our manufacturers especially, are much more adverse than seems to be the case in some countries—in our Colonies and the United States—to disclosing any particulars with regard to their business. I hope, and the right hon. Gentleman will agree, I am sure, we shall ask for nothing we do not want. What we ask for we must insist upon having from all. We must give them, as the right hon. Gentleman will give them, an assurance against any disclosure of particulars furnished. We do not want details of particular individual industries; we want details of trades and industries as a whole. I am sure a little experience will convince manufacturers that no injury is likely to be done to their particular trade by such returns as they will be asked to furnish. Great care will have to be taken as to the particulars which are asked for to avoid the charge of unnecessary inquisitiveness, and to secure absolute secrecy. Subject to that assurance being given, I am sure my friends on this side and myself will be glad to give any assistance in our power. I hope the Bill will pass.

MR. SOARES (Devonshire, Barnstaple)

said he supposed that after the precedent set by the right hon. Gentleman who had just spoken, a Bill introduced under the ten minutes' rule might in future be both proposed and supported.


said he hoped the hon. Member would not regard the course taken on that occasion as a precedent. If any hon. Member had risen to criticise the Bill he would certainly have called upon him; but no hon. Member rose, and he felt that the House was probably anxious to hear the right hon. Gentleman.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Lloyd-George, Mr. Kearley, and Mr. McKenna.