HC Deb 22 November 1906 vol 165 cc1071-85

Order for consideration, as amended (by the Standing Committee), read.

* MR. W. PEARCE (Tower Hamlets, Limehouse)

moved that the Bill be recommitted. When he examined the Bill for the first time last evening he found that it affected a multitude of persons who would be drawn within the meshes of its net. It was to be expected that such a Bill would apply to factories and workshops and to mines; its schedule so provided in sections (a) and (b), but the inclusion of many small trades in sections (c), (d), (e), and (f) was open to much objection. Unless the Board of Trade were very careful it would cause a lot of irritation to a number of people. These people would come under the powers of the Board of Trade, and no doubt he should be told that the President of the Board of Trade would introduce regulations under which they would not be brought under the Act. He thought, however, without casting any personal reflection, that it was undesirable that such wide powers should be given to the Board of Trade. Legislation by means of exemption could not be recommended. These powers would not be exercised by the President, but by the officials, and might cause a great deal of difficulty and ill will. For an offence against the Act people were liable to be fined £5, and under the Bill a large number of people would be placed at the mercy of the Board of Trade officials. In some, cases the penalties would amount to at least £1,500 in one year. He hoped the President of the Board of Trade would withdraw the Bill and bring forward one which would effect the object in a different way.

MR. LIDDELL (Down, W.)

seconded the Motion.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the Bill be recommitted to a Committee of the Whole House."—(Mr. Wm. Pearce.)


was understood to complain that the hon. Member had not given him notice of this Motion. He said the hon. Member had assumed that the Bill had been introduced in this autumn session, but had he made the slightest inquiry he would have found that it was introduced early in the session. It was supported by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for West Birmingham and carried without a division. So little opposition was there that the right hon. Gentleman apologised to the House for speaking on a Bill introduced under the Ten Minutes Rule, and excused himself for so doing on the ground that no one else got up to speak. The First and Second Reading stages, which were carried without a division, were taken before the House separated for the summer vacation. Since then in the Grand Committee on Trade the whole of the matters to which the hon. Member had referred had been gone into, besides many others. In that Committee every point was carefully scrutinised by traders, and on most, he believed all, he made concessions. He had never heard anybody get up and say they were not satisfied. He regretted that the hon. Member should have moved to recommit the Bill when all the points he had alluded to could have been dealt with at another stage. If the hon. Member thought he could draft a better Bill or improve this Bill he would have his opportunity on the Report stage. He did not think the recommittal of the measure would be of the slightest use.


said the right hon. Gentleman had reproved his follower for not having given him notice of this Motion. It was not for him to intervene in a family quarrel, but he would point out that most hon. Members were under the impression that the Plural Voting Bill would be taken to-day, and it was only at the last moment the notice was given that that Bill would not be taken, and that this Bill would be substituted for it. It was, therefore, a little hard that the hon. Member for Limehouse should be taken to task for not having given notice. He had been much surprised to observe that the right hon. Gentleman defended this Bill on the ground that it was approved by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for West Birmingham. The inference to be drawn from that was that as the right hon. Gentleman was doing some thing which had the approval of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for West Birmingham it was presumption on the part of the hon. Member for Lime-house to move his Motion. He was glad the right hon. Gentleman had changed his opinions and had taken the right hon. Member for West Birmingham for his leader and was going to follow him in matters of trade by bringing in this Bill. He was not against the principle of the Bill, but anyone looking at it would see that it was going to give a great deal of trouble and annoyance to manufacturers and involve them in expense. The questions which had to be answered were of a most inquisitorial character, and were such that many would not care to answer. For instance, one was "What is the net cost of production." He had never been in business himself, but he could quite imagine that many manufacturers would be very loth to answer that question, even if it was to be treated confidentially by the officials of the Board of Trade. The information so given might leak out and injure the person who gave it by enabling his competitors to know what he was doing. However careful the permanent officials might be with regard to these confidential matters, they sometimes leaked out. He was reminded that on occasions even Government Reports, marked "Con- fidential," got into the hands of those for whom they were not intended, so that it was not beyond the bounds of possibility that, quite innocently on the part of the officials, some of those special secrets that were supplied in this way to the Board of Trade might come out. Under these circumstances he saw no reason why the Bill should not be recommitted. The right hon. Gentleman said that if the hon. Member thought he could improve the Bill he would have an: opportunity on Report stage. It was difficult to make improvements on the Report stage, because when an Amendment was brought forward on Report it was usually received with scant courtesy by the House, who did not understand it, whereas in Committee the mover of an Amendment could, after hearing the arguments, rise in his place, point out where the misunderstanding arose, and if it was a reasonable one carry his Amendment. The President of the Board of Trade himself was a great exponent of the merits of debate in Committee. On many occasions when the right hon. Gentleman sat upon the Opposition side of the House, below the gangway, he had been known to rise in Committee and make a speech on an Amendment, and on more than one occasion after hearing the discussion to rise and make a second speech in order to explain the meaning of the first. He thought therefore the right hon. Gentleman ought to have encouraged his follower in this Motion. There was no violent hurry for the Bill. For many years we had been without a census of production in this country; the Bill would not come into force until 1908, so there would be plenty of time to pass it even if it were deferred till next session. As, however, there was going to be very great interference with trade and commerce under this Bill they ought to give the matter every possible consideration before passing it. Every rule and regulation should be carefully weighed and considered by men conversant with the particular trades or businesses which the Bill was going to affect. If this obligation was to be put on the trade and commerce of the country it ought to be very carefully examined, and he therefore trusted the House would support the Motion of his hon. friend. He was glad to see hon. Members opposite were beginning to have the courage of their convictions.

LORD R. CECIL (Marylebone, E.)

said he ventured to protest against the tone of the President of the Board of Trade in this matter. The right hon. Gentleman had reproached his hon. friend as though he had taken a course wholely unprecedented and quite unnecessary. He thought in the interests of private Members generally the time had come when a stand should be made against the increasing domination of the Front Bench. In his judgment the Motion was perfectly justified. The Bill was of enormous importance and made an entirely new departure. It was considered upstairs by only a small number of Members, and the details had never been discussed in the House. Indeed, he believed the Second Reading was taken under conditions which prevented any complete discussion of the Bill. It gave enormous powers to a Government Department. It had a great number of detailed provisions, but so far as he understood the Bill—and he had read it with some care—it might be contained in three lines, "The Board of Trade shall take a census of production, and shall do exactly as it likes in taking that census." Almost every clause conferred a power on the Board of Trade to take any action it liked. Undoubtedly the provisions with reference to the taking of the census were of an extremely inquisitorial character. Inquiries were to be addressed to every conceivable class of trader, even to the smallest builder and decorator. Hon. Gentlemen opposite had opposed the suggestion of a religious census on the ground that it was too inquisitorial. That, he admitted, was a matter of conscience, and though he would be the last to say that matters of conscience were not of importance, still, matters of trade were of some importance, too. He thought the Motion for the re committal of this Bill was justifiable, and ought to have been received with greater sympathy and courtesy by the President of the Board of Trade.


appealed to the House not to accede to the Motion. The last Member of the Government who should be lectured was the President of the Board of Trade, because not only in the Merchant Shipping Bill but through all the stages of this measure the light hon. Gentleman had treated every interest with the greatest conceivable courtesy. If ever there was a measure submitted to the House which had been thoroughly examined and sifts it was the present Bill. Every phase of the measure had received the greatest attention. He was very desirous, as a tariff reformer, of seeing the measure carried into law, and he would have thought that hon. Gentlemen who were free traders would have been equally anxious for its passing. He feared that if they lost the Bill this session they would never get it at all. What they desired to get and what he believed they would succeed in getting by this Bill, was a balance-sheet of the home trade, so that they should know for themselves, on absolutely reliable data, whether or not our home trade was suffering from the present fiscal system. Notwithstanding all our prosperity, poverty seemed to be ever on the increase, and this census would enable the country to form an impartial judgment upon the question. He thanked the President of the Board of Trade, who had throughout treated every interest with the greatest care and consideration, for his courage in facing the question. He appealed to the hon. Member opposite to withdraw his Motion. There was no possibility under the Bill, as it stood, of trade secrets being divulged.

* MR. COURTHOPE (Sussex, Rye)

said that although possibly the Bill was unnecessarily wide in one or two particulars, yet if it were re-committed there would be no chance of its passing into law this year. From every point of view he thought it was desirable that the Bill should become law. Speaking as one who sat on the Grand Committee which studied the Bill, and which thoroughly discussed this matter, he thought it could be very well dealt with on Report stage. The hon. Member for Limehouse spoke about the fines being too heavy. He would like to point out that a great portion of the members of the Grand Committee considered that the fines were not heavy enough. He did not think there was a single member of that Committee, after carefully considering the question, who came to the conclusion that the fines were too heavy. What would be the use of fining a big manufacturing firm a five pound note for making a false Return? It might be worth their while, under certain circumstances, to pay that fine over and over again rather than make an accurate Return. He did not say these circumstances were likely to occur, but they were conceivable. He thought it right that the maximum fine in a Bill of this kind should be as large as possible. He would also like to point out to the hon. Member for Lime-house that his fears as to disclosures which would cause great inconvenience and loss to traders were quite without foundation. If the hon. Gentleman had studied Clause 9. he would have seen that under the clause advisory committees of manufacturers and other interested persons were to be appointed to draw up the forms to be submitted to the various groups of trades. The Bill provided against any questions being asked which might cause the disclosure of any secrets damaging to the traders concerned. However one looked at this Bill there was nothing in it which could not be adequately dealt with on Report stage, and he hoped the House would reject the Motion.


asked to be allowed to withdraw his Motion. [Cries of "No."]

* SIR ALBERT SPICER (Hackney, Central)

said that as a general principle he approved the Bill. He believed it would be a great acquisition if there were an accurate Return of the home trade of this country. He knew that the Chambers of Commerce had generally approved it, and he almost apologised for raising a question at the eleventh hour; but he would not be just to his convictions if he did not tell the House what was in his mind and possibly on the minds of others. This Bill would not create a difficulty for the large firms with staffs, but he was concerned about the tens of thousands of small producers, to whom he was afraid the Bill in its present shape would be a difficulty and an irritation.


pointed out that there was a provision in the Bill with regard to small traders, and, if his hon. friend did not think that provision sufficiently protective, it was open to him to move an Amendment.


said he saw no reason whatever for the House refusing to assent to the hon. Gentleman's wish to withdraw his Motion for the recommittal of the Bill inasmuch as it was clear the Report Stage could not be got through now that evening, so that there would be time for the consideration of objections, which was what his hon friend's Motion aimed at securing. The greatest amount of care had been taken by the President of the Board of Trade to meet the objections of those who had approached him. It was evident, from the fragmentary debate which had taken place, that there were other points which the right hon. Gentleman would no doubt endeavour to meet. He felt sure that the courtesy and care with which the President of the Board of Trade had received the difficulties put before him, and the manner in which he had endeavoured to solve them, would make hon. Members feel that whatever points were brought forward would be met in a conciliatory manner.

MR. H. H. MARKS (Kent, Thanet)

hoped the Bill would not be recommitted, because that course might deprive them of a most valuable measure by which we should be enabled to obtain in the future full and accurate statistics of trade which were of such vital importance to the nation. The ground put forward for recommitting the Bill was that adequate provision had not been made for the protection of trade secrets, but the hon. Member for Grimsby had said that the Committee went fully into that matter, with the result that trade secrets were considered to be sufficiently protected. He joined issue with that contention, because the question was not covered at all by the Bill. He agreed that the exposing of trade secrets by officials was provided for, but they had had conclusive proof recently that important official secrets could be made public by persons other than officials He hoped that some provision would be made against the disclosure of trade secrets by persons other than officials.


said he was desirous that this Bill should get through, and he appealed to those Members of the Opposition who had supported the Motion of the hon. Member opposite to withdraw their opposition and allow them to proceed with the discussion of the Bill in detail. The arguments for the recommittal of the measure had entirely disappeard after the speech of the hon. Member for Grimsby.

Question put, and negatived.

SIR GEORGE DOUGHTY moved an Amendment to Clause 1 to provide that the census should be taken annually instead of at such intervals as the President of the Board of Trade for the time being might select. He desired that if they were to have a Return of this sort, it should be thoroughly reliable and effective, and those two points could not be secured except by an annual Return. If the fixing of the period were left in the hands of the President of the Board of Trade, pressure might be brought to bear upon him to have the census taken in a particular year. If they desired to make reliable and accurate comparisons they must have more than one year's Return on which to base their calculations. If they wished to see whether the trade of the country was developing the Return ought to be published year by year. If five years was the period fixed it might show a great inflation of trade, whereas during the succeeding five years the trade might be at the bottom of the scale. Consequently neither of those periods would show the natural development of the trade of the country. If the census Return were taken annually, then they would have just as effective figures in regard to home trade as they had in regard to foreign and colonial trade. He was aware that the objection raised to his proposal was that of expense, but everything that was worth having cost something, and if they were going to make this Return in a shoddy sort of way they had better leave it alone all together. He understood that the Government were prepared to set aside funds for this purpose, and he thought that it would cost very little more to make the Return annually. It would be quite easy for the trader to make an annual Return. Upon the ground of effectiveness and reliability he hoped the Return would be made annually. A Resolution in favour of his proposal was nearly carried in the Committee, and he hoped the President of the Board of Trade would be able to insert in the Bill the words he had suggested.

SIR FREDERICK CAWLEY (Lancashire, Prestwich)

seconded the Amend- ment. He felt that it might be said by his opponents that the President of the Board of Trade had fixed a date for a certain purpose. If an annual Return were made that difficulty would be got over. He also urged that an annual Return would be much simpler for those concerned. Unless some fixed period was put into the Bill he did not think there would be any confidence in the Return.

Amendment proposed— In page I, line 6, to leave out the words 'subsequently at such intervals,' and insert the words 'and each year following.'"—(Sir George Doughty.)

Question proposed, "That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Bill."

MR. ASHLEY (Lancashire, Blackpool)

said he could not support the Amendment of his hon. friend the Member for Great Grimsby. An annual census would undoubtedly entail very considerable expense. His hon. friend had stated that if they were going to do what was right, they should not allow the expense to stand in the way. But there was a limit to expense, and he thought the Government, and especially one like the present which came in on a cry of economy, should think twice or thrice before it accepted an Amendment of this kind, which would add a substantial sum to the Estimates. He also opposed the proposal to have an annual census on the ground that it would cause a considerable amount of trouble to the permanent officials at the Board of Trade who were extremely hard worked. The community at large must be considered. Although, it might not be difficult for firms with large staffs of clerks to furnish Returns annually, this obligation would be hard on small men who would be compelled to spend money in order to get assistance in the preparation of the Returns, and that might be a considerable tax on their profits. He could not agree that a period when the census should be taken should be left to the President of the Board of Trade. He had great confidence in the ability and common sense of the present holder of that office, but this was a matter which would be decided a great deal more by the permanent officials than by the right hon. Gentleman himself, and therefore, before the Bill left the House they should decide when the census was to take place. He should support the proposal of his hon. friend the Member for Hammersmith that the census should be taken not more frequently than five years since the date of the last census.

MR. CORY (Cornwall, St. Ives)

said there had no doubt been considerable opposition to this Bill in the country on the part of people who thought that they might be required to divulge trade secrets, and that the furnishing of Returns might cause a great deal of trouble. He had no doubt that the Amendments which were agreed to in Committee would, so far as these points were concerned, commend the measure in the eyes of the public generally. When people found that the Returns were not so dreadful as they had feared, there would be less objection to making them. It was better that they should have experience of the working of the Act before they determined how often the census should be taken. He opposed the Amendment.


said he had much sympathy with the idea of an annual Return, and did not think it would give much trouble to the trader, who, when he knew the census requirements, would keep his books accordingly. The opinion had been privately expressed to him by men of business that this would benefit many people who kept their books rather loosely at present, as it would help them to know how they themselves stood, whether it helped the nation to know how it stood or not. He did not wish the impression to prevail that the Board of Trade would make the census quinquennially. It ought to be taken often enough for purposes of comparison, and not at such intervals as might give them one census at a time of depression and another at a time of great boom. But he opposed the Amendment because he had the Treasury to deal with, and also because it was desirable to see how the census was going to work, and to give the traders time to realise that they were not going to be asked to disclose trade secrets, and that no catastrophe would follow their answers to Government questions. A reasonable demand had been made in Grand Committee by the noble Lord the Member for the Chorley Division of Lancashire, that after the first experiment the House of Commons should have the opportunity of discussing whether the census should be taken at fixed periods. This opportunity could be afforded by placing the sum required for the next census on the Votes. Probably the census would become biennial. If it were made annually, they must have a great body of officials to tabulate and assimilate results. He was, therefore, not hopeful of having an annual Return for the next few years, but he hoped it would be possible to make it more frequent than every five years.

LORD BALCARRES (Lancashire, Chorley)

said they were indebted to the right hon. Gentleman for the frank manner in which he had taken them into his confidence. He himself was strongly in favour of the view that whatever period was decided upon should be a fixed period. He would be content with a quinquennial census, but rather than have a census at unfixed periods he would desire an annual one. The President of the Board of Trade had said that it would probably be biennial, and he threw out the suggestion that when the first census and its results had proved to traders and the commercial world that the forms were less inquisitorial than they apparently now anticipated, confidence in the census would be established. The right hon. Gentleman had further suggested that the £60,000 or £70,000, or such other sum as would be required for the census, should be put on the Estimates in order that the House might be able to discuss the subject. The right hon. Gentleman was most anxious to meet the wish of hon. Members on this particular point. What he wanted to point out was that if the necessary sum was placed on the Estimates the responsibility must remain with the Treasury. Moreover, they could not have a sum of £70,000 in nubibus. It must really be brought before the House of Commons in a more concrete and orderly form than had been suggested. So far as he was concerned he was satisfied with the assurance of the President of the Board of Trade, but he hoped the right hon. Gentleman quite realised that unless the Government made up its mind on this point, with the sanction of the Treasury, there would be great pressure put on the President of the Board of Trade either to take or to refrain from taking a census. He did not know why his hon. friend behind him connected this question of a census of production with the question of tariff. If that were to be the case, what a serious responsibility would be placed on the President of the Board of Trade if he refused to grant a census in a particular year, because his opponents— whether Liberal or Conservative, Free Traders or Tariff Reformers—would be sure to say "Oh, you are afraid to take a census." That would destroy the public confidence in the census not only of that particular year but of any previous year. His own opinion was that there should be a census at regular stated intervals, so as to avoid pressure being brought to bear on the President of the Board of Trade or attacks being made on his Party.

MR. BRIGG (Yorkshire, W.R., Keighley)

said that in the Committee upstairs there was a considerable variety of opinion as to the time when the census should be arranged. In his own opinion there was some advantage in the elasticity of the words in the clause which stated that the census was to be taken from time to time. The idea had been suggested that a census should be taken at different times for different trades.


said that the clause read that the census was to be taken from time to time by order of the Treasury. He thought that the plan suggested of a certain sum being placed on the Estimates for a certain period, would not be altogether workable either from the Treasury or the Parliamentary point of view. There were certain Orders which had to lie on the table of the House of Commons for a specified period, and unless objection was taken to them they became law at the end of that period. He thought that that was a method which might be adopted in regard to the census, at any rate for the present until experience had been gained. The right hon. Gentleman might be in a position afterwards to bring in a Bill to fix the term at which the census was to be taken. Personally, he thought a biennial census would be best, but the suggestion he made would leave the question open for the moment.


thought there was something in the suggestion which the right hon. Gentleman had made, but he would have to consider the legal effect of it. A real apprehension was that the President of the Board of Trade might be guided by his views on fiscal and other questions, in fixing a particular year in which the census was to be taken. [Cries of "No, no."] Yes, that was a point which had got to be met. An hon. Gentleman had suggested that the President of the Board of Trade should, immediately after the first experiment was made, fix not the date of the next experiment, but the intervals at which the census should be taken in the future, so that the House might have an opportunity of considering further the whole question of how this census was to be made. He trusted that hon. Members would allow this Amendment to be disposed of now.

MR. CHIOZZA MONEY (Paddington, N.)

hoped that his right hon. friend would even now, at the eleventh hour, accept the Amendment of the hon. Member for Great Grimsby. What was their object in passing this Bill? Was it merely to ascertain the volume and value of production in a certain year? No, the object was to trace the course of production and the course of trade, and the only way to do that effectually was to have the census taken annually. As a matter of fact, that was already done to a certain extent in some of the most important trades in the country—the iron trade, the cotton trade, and the woollen trade—by the officials connected with the trade associations. He would point out that any other course than an annual census might mislead the country. In the present year trade was booming in this country above that of all other countries; and probably next year trade would be quite as good. But would any Member of the House venture to prophesy what would be the trade of 1908? If only a quinquennial census was taken, the trade of 1908, which might be good or bad, would be compared with that of 1913, which again might be good or bad, and the result might be very misleading. What was wanted was to ascertain correctly whether we were progressing in trade and production. Then we might keep our fingers on the pulses of trade and perhaps put an end to the ridiculous discussion which had been going on for two or three years past. He did not think the Bill went too far; in fact, in his opinion, it did not go far enough.

Motion made, and Question, "That the debate be now adjourned,"—(Mr. Lloyd-George), put, and agreed to.

Debate to be resumed to-morrow.