§ Mr. FERENS
I beg to move, "That this House regrets the rise in the price of the necessaries of life, and calls upon the Government to use every endeavour to prevent a continuance of this unfortunate consequence of war, which is causing much hardship, especially to the poor."
This House and the country are grateful to the Prime Minister for having so readily acquiesced in the desire to have a day set apart for the discussion of the extraordinarily high prices of the necessaries of life. Generally speaking, I do not believe that there is anything like abnormal distress throughout the country—firstly, perhaps because the country has treated the dependants of the brave men who have gone with the Forces with such generosity, a generosity which I believe every section of this House approves; and secondly, because there is little or no want of employment in the country. The difficulty is not to find work for the men, but men for the work. Where the shoe pinches is in the case of those who had a very small weekly wage and unfortunately, as often happens, very big families; also those whose weekly incomes may be of the character of old age pensions or small annuities, and in those 757 cases the hardship is felt very keenly. In ordinary times these people have had "all the water on the wheel" in order to make both ends meet, but in the present circumstances they find it quite impossible to do this. Coals have risen from the period just before the War broke out something between 50 to 100 per cent. I do not think that the price of wheat can be accounted for by the shortage of wheat in the country, because in answer to a question that was put by the hon. Member for the Tradeston Division of Glasgow (Mr. Dundas White) it was stated in this House that the increase in the imports of wheat, wheat meal and flour in the equivalent of grain for the last six months of 1914 as compared with the corresponding period of 1913 was 112,250 tons. So that we have an abundance of grain to meet all the needs of the country.
As to coal I understand that in some parts of London it is being retailed at 2s. per cwt., which is an enormous price for the working-class people to pay. Many labourers' families have now to be content, owing to the high price of the necessaries of life, with one meal of meat in the week. I hold in my hand a letter that was kindly given to me by an hon. Member who sits below the Gangway, from a lady who works amongst the poor in the north of London in the Hoxton district, and she gives a case, which I am sadly afraid is only symbolic of many others, of a poor woman who had got no coal or wood, and she was endeavouring to keep warm by burning cardboard taken from the waste heap of a neighbouring factory. No doubt the times would have been infinitely worse but for the splendid way in which our Navy has kept our trade routes open, and the action of the Chancellor of the Exchequer at the outbreak of War, which saved the country from what would have been a very serious financial crisis. Even the bankers at their annual meeting have been loud in their praise of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. It seems to me in these circumstances that it cannot be beyond the wit of man to devise some means by which the price of bread and coal may be brought back to the figures at which they stood before the War. What has contributed to the present state of affairs? There are a large number of ships which have been commandeered by the Government for transport purposes; there is a shortage of labour on the docks, and many cargoes are held up in the Thames and elsewhere. The railway companies have experienced 758 difficulties in dealing with their traffic, because of the necessities of the War imposed upon them by the Government. Nevertheless I have every confidence that the Prime Minister will be able to bring relief to our minds on this all important question.
§ 4.0 P.M.
§ The PRIME MINISTER (Mr. Asquith)
There are upon the Paper several Motions in supplement of, perhaps I may say in competition with, that which has just been moved and seconded, dealing perhaps more specifically in their terms with the particular aspects of what we must all admit to be a very serious problem, and in the circumstances I have thought it right to depart from our normal procedure, and to state at once for the information of the House, and possibly with the effect to some extent at any rate of concentrating the Debate, the result of the inquiry which the Government has made, and to define in outline at any rate the steps which have been taken, or which are in contemplation, with a view to dealing with the urgent necessities of the case. All these Motions assume and proceed upon the basis that during the last few months, and particularly during the last two or three months, we have witnessed a serious and even a formidable rise in the cost of the prime necessaries of life. That is so, but I think it is very desirable at the outset, before we proceed to discuss anything in the nature of a remedy, that we should clearly realise what are the actual facts, and before I trouble the House with any figures I will make two preliminary observations. In the first place, the rise, stated in its most extreme terms which the facts permit, is, I think, substantially below the level at which the most sober-minded and the best informed judgments in the country would have apprehended or anticipated if they had been told that a war upon this scale—involving as it does practically the whole of the civilised world with the exception of the United States of America and a few of the smaller Powers—had been continued for so long a time as six months. The other preliminary observation I would 759 make, and which I will fortify in a moment by evidence, is that substantial, and, indeed, serious, as is the rise in the prices of food, the level they have obtained, or are at all likely to obtain, so far as one can form any forecast at all, does not exceed, and in many respects falls short of, the level which those of us who are living now, and still more those who went before us, have experienced and been accustomed to in times of profound peace. Now let us see what are the actual facts. I am afraid I shall have to trouble the House with some figures, but it is very important that we should have them. We have made most careful inquiries as to the real state of the case. The first comparison I make will be in the general level of retail food prices on the 1st of the present month as compared with the level which had been reached in July last year, just before the outbreak of the War. Broadly stated, the rise in regard to this class of goods, retail, during that time has been, in London, 23.9, call it 24 per cent.; the other large towns, 22.8, call it 23 per cent.; and in the small towns and villages, 20.4 per cent. As the House will readily see, it is not very convenient, and it is perhaps in some respects a misleading thing, to compare, under any circumstances, prices in the month of February with prices in the month of July. The seasons and conditions are so very different that they may vitiate comparison in many not unimportant respects. Therefore, I have thought it better to have had taken out figures comparing February of this year with February of last year and with the average of the three Februarys from 1912 to 1914.
The material commodities which fall within the category of the necessaries of life and which require to be considered are, I think, five in number: wheat, first and foremost, flour, meat, sugar, and coal. These are the things which really enter generally into consumption in ordinary families. Dealing now with the month of February I take first wheat. The "Gazette" average price of wheat shows an increase in February of this year over 760 February of last year of 72 per cent., and over the average of the three preceding years, 1912–14, of 66 per cent. Flour brings out very much the same figures—a 75 per cent. increase as compared with February of last year and 66 per cent. as compared with the average of the three years. There is a distinction between British and imported meat. The increase as regards British meat over February of last year does not exceed 6 per cent. and over the average of the three years 12 per cent. Foreign meat, compared with last year, is 12 per cent., and as compared with the average of the three years 19 per cent. I have now given wheat, flour, and meat, and I come to sugar. Sugar, which was abnormally low a year ago, shows an increase this February as compared with last February of no less than 72 per cent., but as compared with the average of the three years its increase is only 43 per cent., showing how very misleading it is to take only one particular year. Coal, as compared with last year, shows an increase of 15 per cent., and compared with the average of the three years of 14 per cent.
That undoubtedly shows, in regard to all these five commodities, very substantial increases, most marked of course in the case of wheat and flour, serious in the case of sugar, and in the case of meat and coal not so serious as compared either with last year or the average of the three preceding years, but I think it will interest the House to know and they ought certainly to take it into account when they are considering what practical steps Government and Parliament ought to adopt, how these figures compare, the range of prices now prevailing, with the range of prices after the conclusion of the Franco-Prussian War from 1871 to 1875. With the exception of coal, everything in the list which I have given was dearer then than it is now. Let me give one or two figures which prove this. I take the month of February, or where February is not possible the month of January. Take wheat, The "Gazette" average price of English wheat, home-grown wheat, was in the week ending 6th February this year 53s. 3d., and the average price in those five years—1871 to 1875—was 54s. 8d. Imported wheat, 761 which in January this year reached the prices of 49s. 1d., was then 51s. 5d. Flour was substantially the same in the two cases. Sugar, which is now 3¾d., was then 4¾d.
It is only in the case of coal that there is any substantial diminution in those years as compared with now. The price of coal, for what are called Derby Brights, which is a typical well-known coal, which is now 33s., was during the average of those years 26s. 2d. The House will see from those figures that in the years immediately succeeding the last great European war people were paying substantially higher prices for almost every one of the main commodities of life than they are doing to-day. That was not the case merely during those four or five years. You can go further. You can go up to the year 1885. Of course, this is a very material consideration. Wages were not so high then as they are now. Money wages were certainly from 15 to 20 per cent. lower, and common articles of food—I am speaking now of right down to 1885—were as dear throughout the year as they have become with the recent marked advance. I take the year 1875, just before the outbreak of war. The Gazette average price of wheat in 1877 was 56s. 9d., and for four months in that year it exceeded 60s.; it rose as high as 68s. 9d. The average weekly price of flour in this year, 1915, is not higher than the price which prevailed in most of the years 1875 to 1885.
The House must not suppose that I am trying to minimise the present position, but I think we ought to get ourselves into perspective and realise what the past experience has been before we deal with the problem now presented to us. Coal is no higher in London to-day than it was during the period from 1875 to 1885, sugar is at about the same level as it was in the later 'seventies, and potatoes this year are plentiful in quantity and moderate in price. If, as a result of the War, there had been, as many people anticipated, widespread unemployment and general distress consumption must have fallen off and the rise in prices would have been therefore considerably checked, but the large expenditure which has taken place on behalf of the Government in the various 762 branches of industry, and I think I must add the liberal separation allowances which have been granted to the wives of men who are fighting at the front, enable the consuming class of this country, the working classes, to consume very nearly the same scale as they did before in spite of the high prices. So far as we can make out, and we have made the most careful inquiries, there is very little evidence of a diminution on any important scale in the country's consumption. When you take into account the men in the New Army, the working-classes of this country are probably consuming more food per head than at any former period. Broadly speaking, as the House knows, since the War began the money level of wages has been well sustained. Those, I believe, are the facts with which we have to deal, and I think the House will agree with me that it is not irrelevant to look back upon the past and to make the comparisons which I have ventured to make.
I come now to my second topic—a very difficult topic indeed to pursue—and I must ask the House for an unusual measure of indulgence, as I am going to deal with matters in great detail. What are the causes, so far as we can ascertain, of the rise in prices of these various commodities? I will take first of all—it is always the most important—the case of wheat. The rise in the price of wheat, which the table I have already given shows is most serious and most important to consider, is due to two sets of causes—diminished supply and increased demand. Let me first say a word about the diminution of supply. There you must endeavour to discriminate between forces which would have operated if there had been no war and forces which have been brought into being by the existence of a state of war. In the first category, forces independent of the War, there is the failure, the almost complete failure as regards exportation, of the Australian crop. There is next, the high prices ruling in India which led the Government of that Empire to put a temporary embargo on the export of wheat, and there is, thirdly, the fact that the Argentine crop, which is a good crop, is, owing to the extraordinarily bad conditions of weather 763 and internal difficulties of transport, at least three weeks later in coming to the coast and being made available for exportation to Europe than would have been the case under normal conditions. These are causes which are independent of the War. The War itself has contributed to the diminution of the supply—I mean the effective available supply. It has done so, first and foremost—and that is a most important factor—by the closing of the Dardanelles against the Russian crop. We have various estimates—I do not profess to say that they are all trustworthy, for they must be to a large extent conjectural—but I do not think I am exaggerating much when I say there is something like ten million quarters of wheat lying in various Russian ports, which, under normal conditions, would have been available for exportation to the West of Europe, and which, owing to the closing of the Dardanelles because of the War, are for the time not available. That is a very considerable part of this country's supply.
Another circumstance, due entirely to the War, but perhaps not so extensive or serious in its operations, is the depredation of the crops in Belgium and Northern France and elsewhere. France this year is an importing country. She is competing with ourselves for wheat in the markets of the world. Again, actual war or the fear of war has greatly reduced production in the Balkans. All these conditions—some of them artificially set up in consequence of the War—will enable the House to realise that there has been and is, for the moment—I say for the moment purposely—I do not think it will last long—but at any rate for the next few months there will be a serious contraction and shortage of what would otherwise have been the available supply of wheat. But it is a question not merely of diminished supply, it is also a question of increased demand, and under that second category you have to take into account the largely increased consumption of the Army as compared with what the same individuals consume when in civil life. That applies to wheat, but it applies still more, as I shall show presently, to meat. Another 764 factor is the increasing demand, and the purchases quite abnormal—quite outside ordinary experience—which have been going on by foreign Governments—Italian. Dutch, Greek, and French—purchases of wheat with which, under normal conditions, they would supply themselves. On the other hand, with these increased sources of demand, there has been no corresponding or equivalent diminution in the demand at home, because for reasons to which I have already adverted the consuming classes of this country are practically demanding as much flour and as much bread as they did before the War. While still on wheat, and wheat alone, I must point to another aspect of the case, and that is the difficulties of transport and the rise in freight.
I shall deal presently in another connection with the general aspect of this matter. But in regard to wheat, no doubt it has been a factor of considerable importance, but not by any means the main factor, and I am not sure that an exaggerated value has not been attributed to it in some quarters. Let me give one or two illustrations. Experts in these matters are accustomed to take what is called No. 1 Northern Manitoba Wheat as the standard. The price in Liverpool of that quality of wheat rose between July, 1914—just before the War—and January last, from 36s. 3d. to 57s. 11d. per quarter. Of the rise of 22s., no less than 18s. 6d. is to be attributed to the increased price of wheat, and that only leaves 3s. 6d. for increased freightage. If you take another illustration, the Argentine, there, undoubtedly, the rise in freights has been more substantial. The Argentine crop, to which I have adverted, is only coming forward now, and it is the American prices that have dominated the market during the whole of that time. I am not at all sure if the Argentine crop had been forthcoming, as under normal conditions it would have been at an earlier date, whether the Argentine growers would not have got quite as much as the shipowners of the increased price. I do not in the least minimise the importance of the question of freight. As I shall show presently, it has not been a determining factor, although it has been a contributory cause.
§ Mr. JOHN WARD
Will the right hon. Gentleman give figures showing the increased freights from Argentine?
§ The PRIME MINISTER
I am quite willing to admit that they are enormous, but I repeat that has not been the determining factor. The crop has not come forward except in very small driblets, and the determining factor in ruling prices has been found in the New York and Chicago prices; and these high American prices, I suspect, are due, to a large extent, to what I may call the legitimate causes to which I have adverted, the curtailed supply and increased demand, but they are also due to speculation. There is no doubt there has been a great deal of speculation. The market there is in a very sensitive and, it may be termed, a nervous or jumpy condition. I do not know that there is any means by which the Governments of the world can control speculation in the markets. As a rule, speculation provides its own remedy. But, at any rate, after next June, as far as we can anticipate, there is no great likelihood of any substantial shortage in the wheat supply of the world, and the era of speculation will come to an end. I will say something more about that presently.
Let me come to the next commodity I have to deal with, and that is meat. There is no evidence of any unusual shortage of supply in regard to that. The rise in prices, which is not nearly so serious as in the case of wheat and flour, is largely, if not entirely, due to the increased consumption of the Army. I do not think it will be in the public interest to give the figures, striking and interesting as they are, of the amount of meat which is consumed by our own Army now fighting at the front. I will not give the figures, because they might afford some indication of numbers which it is not desirable the world should know, but the House may take it from me they are very large. No Army in the world has ever been so well fed in respect of meat. By far the larger proportion of the meat that has gone to the front to supply the Army is frozen or chilled meat, which comes from remote parts of the world—the Argentine, Australia, and New Zealand. I think anybody 766 with knowledge of our conditions of life normally here at home will agree when I say that undoubtedly the men now engaged in the Army fighting at the front consume per head a substantially larger quantity of meat than they would have done if they had remained in civil life at home. Of that there can be no doubt whatever. That accounts for what has puzzled me and appears to be a very curious fact, namely, that the wholesale price of imported meat has gone up substantially in a larger proportion than the retail price. It looks at first a very paradoxical thing, but it is so.
I think the explanation is that the meat-eating male is at the front, while the comparatively—what shall I say—the less meat-eating female and children and so forth are left behind. The men who take the prime joints and the best qualities of meat are away, while those who are content with what I believe in the trade are called "scrags"—I mean the less prime qualities—remain behind. At any rate, although it is not a good thing for the retailer of meat in the nature of profit, there can be no doubt that there has been a very substantial—indeed, an unprecedented—inroad upon the wholesale supply of meat, which is due mainly, if not entirely, to the exigencies of these large Armies. There again, those who are interested in the question of freights, will ask me how far the substantial rise in, the price of meat is due to the rise in freights. The Royal Mail Steam Packet Company, which, as everybody knows, is, if not the most important, certainly one of the most important lines of transport between South America and this country, tell us, and they give us figures to prove the truth of their statement, that the rise in the price of what is called "chilled" meat up to the end of December, 1914, was more than twopence a pound, and of that not more than five-sixteenths of a penny was due to the rise in freights. If that is true, freight, although a contributing is by no means the dominating element in the rise.
Now, Sir, I come to sugar. In the case of sugar the Government, as the House knows, resorted in the very early stages of the War, under the auspices and with 767 the able management of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, to purchasing upon a very large scale the available stocks of sugar in the world. The stocks of sugar now in the hands of the Government are sufficient to last many months. It is quite true that there has been a rise in the price of sugar—I think I gave the figures earlier. Compared with February of last year the rise was 72 per cent. That is compared with an abnormally low figure, but as compared with the average of three years the rise was 43 per cent. Even now the price of sugar in this country is approximately the same as it is in the United States of America, that notwithstanding the fact that the United States have a considerable internal crop as well as the advantage of their close connection with Cuba. As lately as 1911 the price of sugar was as high as it is now. I think we may claim that our policy has prevented the purchase by this country, directly or indirectly, of enemy sugar, and in consequence has restricted the sale by both Germany and Austria of their surplus stocks. My right hon. Friend who looks after this matter assures me, and I think the House may take it, that so far as any change is likely in the price of sugar in this country in the course of the next few weeks or months, it will be a downward change and not an upward change.
I come to what is one of the most serious of all in its effects upon the comfort and life of the people, one of the most important of all these commodities—namely, coal. Perhaps I may remind the House that in the case of coal the increase has been 15 per cent. as compared with February, 1914, and 14 per cent. as compared with the average of the three years. In the case of coal, undoubtedly freights have been an important contributory cause. There has been a very substantial rise in coastwise freight. When I say substantial, I might say enormous. Whereas compared with the pre-War rate—if I may use that expression—of 3s., freights had risen three weeks ago—that is, coal from the Newcastle and Tyne ports to London—to 13s. 6d. and even to 14s. At a very early stage of our investigation 768 of the matter—the Cabinet Committee have now been considering this subject for a very long time—that seemed to us a most material and most formidable fact, and we at once directed our efforts to increasing the supply of available vessels to bring the coal from the coalfields to the markets here, because there was a real shortage of vessels which enabled the shipowners to charge these high rates. We succeeded in securing the setting free of twenty vessels that had been captured and interned, which are now at work, with the result that the market rate has fallen from 13s. 6d. and 14s. to 10s., and it is hoped that within the course of next week fourteen more vessels will be released, which will have a very material effect. I will deal with the question of the use of ships in a more general way a little later in my statement. Confining myself for the moment to the question of coal, I must point out to the House that it would be a mistake to assume that the rise in the price of coal is due exclusively to the increase in freight. There has been another very important contributory cause, namely, the diminished volume of labour available at the mines. I quote now from the Board of Trade:—The quantity of coal at present being raised is not known, but a considerable reduction can be inferred from the figures relating to employment. By December of last year 13.9 per cent. of those employed in July in coal-mining were known to have joined the force—that is a very creditable record—and their places have been tilled to the extent of 3.4 per cent. only, leaving a net reduction of 10.5 per cent. As it is likely that on the whole the stronger and better class of men have enlisted, there is no doubt that the loss in working efficiency is greater than the actual figures themselves.That, I think, is a factor which has had a great deal to do with the rise in price of coal. It is one about which we cannot complain, which we cannot mitigate, and which we would not desire to mitigate, because these men are among the very best of those who have joined the Forces. Generally, before I leave this branch of the case I think I might say it is evident, and I believe the House will agree with me, that in so far as the high price is due, as it is in the case of wheat, to a very considerable extent to a real shortage of supply which has been produced by natural 769 or artificial causes in consequence of the War, it is not within the power of the Government to do very much to curb the rise. There are certain features in the case, particularly as regards wheat, which point in all probability to an easement of the situation by what I may call a natural process. In the first place, the Argentine crop is now coming forward and will very soon be available for European use. Next, as regards Russia, where, as I pointed out a short time ago, there is locked up an enormous at present unavailable supply, it was agreed last week in Paris, at the conference which took place between my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Finance Ministers of France and Russia, that Russia would facilitate in every possible way the export of wheat to the Allies. M. Bark, the eminent Russian Minister of Finance, who, I am glad to say, was our guest here last week, was in communication with the Board of Agriculture and promised to do his very best in that sense. Archangel is, for the time being, closed by ice. Vladivostock, to say the least, is a very long way off. In the case of Salonika—I am speaking of railway transport—it is served rather scantily by a single line of railway, with probably not an overflowing provision of railway trucks, and it would take some time, if by railway alone, for the Russian supply to be really available. Then there is India. There we are on very delicate ground. The Indian new crop will be coming forward in the course of the early summer. I do not think I ought to say more now than that steps are being taken which we hope will prove effective to make Indian wheat available in as large quantities as is compatible with the interest, which we must always keep in view, of the Indian consumer at home. I should say, without assuming the rôle of prophet, that forming the best estimate one can from the business point of view of the probabilities of the case, in respect of wheat there is fairly good reason to think that certainly after June it will be available in sufficient quantities, and I hope—I do not more than express a hope—that it may happen before.
770 I should like now to deal in a rather more general way with a question which affects all these commodities in varying degrees—I have alluded to it incidentally more than once already—the question of transport both by sea and by land, because there you may very fairly say—I see one of the Motions on the Paper does suggest—that it is within the power of the Government to do something really effective to ease the situation. We have given most careful attention to this problem of transport, and I will deal with it under two or three different heads, namely, first of all the shortage of ships, next the shortage of labour in connection with transport, and further the alleged lack of organisation at the ports, and finally railway congestion; because these, after all, are the main heads into which this question of transport subdivides itself. First of all I will deal with the question of ships. The situation in regard to shipping is anomalous, unique, and absolutely unprecedented in the history of the world. First of all we have had to withdraw from the carrying service of the civilised world practically the whole of the shipping of Germany, Austria and Hungary. I do not believe there is a German merchant ship now sailing the seas, thanks to our Navy—not a single one! That, of course, has had its effect. These three countries possessed 14 per cent. of the merchant shipping of the world. That has gone, so far as the transport of commodities to this or any other market is concerned. That is one factor. Another is that the Admiralty is employing for the necessary purposes of transport of men, stores, munitions, supplies, and so forth, one-fifth of our British tonnage, which means 10 per cent. of the whole world's tonnage. These two things in themselves account for a great deal of the curtailment of the shipping.
§ The PRIME MINISTER
I would rather not say how many. It is a very large subtraction under both heads from the shipping which would otherwise, under normal conditions, have been available for the transport of food and other commodities. 771 But that does not complete the account. The shortage is also due to ships not being in the right place, for very obvious reasons—dislocation caused by the War, partly on account of the lack of outward cargoes, and partly the after effects of the stagnation and disorganisation in the early months of the War. That is a temporary cause only, and the shipowners with whom we have been in constant consultation and co-operation are of opinion that when things have shaken down there will be no substantial, at any rate serious, shortage of tonnage, because important sections of the world's trade have of course come to an end, the ships which I spoke of as having been in the wrong place are now getting to the right place, and the process of readjustment of routes and so on is going steadily on. Therefore we have every reason to believe that in the course of a very short time, I hope a very few weeks, there will be, so far as the diminished amount of available shipping permits, an adaptation of available ships to the routes, to the trades and for the necessities which ought to dominate the situation.
But of course we have not been content with that. We have tried various means to facilitate the most advantageous use of available ships. I have also spoken of the release of twenty and now another fourteen vessels for the purpose of carrying coal. Nine vessels of considerable size and carrying capacity which are at present occupied by prisoners of war will be released from that service, and other vessels similarly employed may be released later. Steps are being taken in consultation with the Admiralty to secure the most economical employment by them of the ships which they have chartered—a very serious and a very difficult matter—and we hope by concert between the Admiralty and a small body of persons of experience, skill and knowledge in the management of merchant shipping, that the demands that the Admiralty makes for military and warlike purposes upon British shipping may be so adjusted that whenever opportunity offers ships may be set free for mercantile purposes 772 and the carriage of cargo. Another point to which we have also directed a good deal of attention, and I think with good results, is the acceleration of the proceedings of Prize Courts, especially abroad. There has been a great deal of delay in some cases between the seizure of a ship and the ultimate decision, and we have done what we could, I hope now with substantial success, to use a more accelerated procedure, and, in particular, I may give as an illustration the good hopes that most of the ships at Alexandria may be on their way home. One or two have been sent to India, but the majority of them, I think, will be used for the purpose of transport here. These are practical steps—they may not sound very ambitious—which I believe in the course of time, and a very short time, will relieve to a very large extent the evils which are due to shortage of shipping.
I come now to my next head—shortage of labour. I am speaking of transport labour entirely. As a result of the progress of recruiting this is a very important factor. The House is aware, but they may like to have the figures, that no fewer than 72,000 railway employés, 10 per cent. of the whole number, have enlisted—a magnificent record. Mind you, as in the case of the coal mines, many of them are picked men. You cannot possibly go on exactly as before. Again at Liverpool—I take Liverpool as not perhaps typical, but as a very remarkable case—thanks to the efforts, among others, of Lord Derby, one of the best recruiting agents in this country, the Army has taken away, I do not like to say the cream, but, at any rate, a very large proportion of the best men among the dock labourers—something like 6,000 in number. These are just illustrations which could easily be multiplied throughout the country. The position in London, which was not at all satisfactory a short time ago, has very much improved. The men have been making good time. I may pay a tribute here to the efforts made by Mr. Gosling, who has rendered us very great service, and the London problem is not nearly so serious as it was. I am quite sure I may appeal to hon. Members sitting on the Labour Benches to use the 773 great influence they have with the dock labourers, not only to make, what I am sure they will make, good time, but to allow as far as they can the temporary importation of labour from outside throughout the country. Elasticity in a matter of that kind seems to us almost a patriotic duty.
Then there is another very important shortage in regard to transport labour, and that is the seamen to man our ships. The enlistment of seamen, the removal of enemy aliens from our shipping service, and the recall of our Allied aliens to their own countries have reduced by 15 per cent. the seamen available for the mercantile marine. That, of course, is a very serious thing. The Board of Trade has taken measures as far as they can to secure men for the mercantile marine, and in particular all restrictions on the employment of fishermen on merchant vessels have been removed and the employment of boys who have gone through a training ship course is being encouraged by allowing them to become efficient sailors after a year at sea. That is the best temporary expedient that they could adopt to fill an unexpected gap. Next I come, still under the head of transport labour, to the alleged failure of organisation at the ports, a matter which is closely bound up, as the House will realise, with labour difficulties, cartage difficulties, and railway congestion. An Advisory Committee was appointed by the President of the Board of Trade. There was some misunderstanding about it which has now been removed. It was really a Committee of representatives of port authorities, in order, that they might come together and arrange what I may call a good system of pooling as between themselves, and the result already of their deliberations and their action has been most beneficial. For instance, carts at the Liverpool docks, a source of very great difficulty, because there are large supplies of sugar there which cannot be removed, have been pooled, and an arrangement is on foot and will soon be complete for pooling facilities generally in the Port of London. Perhaps the House would like to hear a report with regard to our most important centres in 774 this respect furnished by the Board of Trade:—Telegraphic reports from the Board's principal officers at the chief ports of the United Kingdom indicate that there is no congestion now, except at Liverpool and in London. At Liverpool at present there are thirty-two vessels, excluding coasters, waiting to discharge, and the congestion is considerable. In London there are fourteen vessels at the Port waiting their turn to discharge. The report is that there is now an indication of improvement. At Hull there are no vessels waiting to discharge On the Tyne there is no congestion or delay. At Leith there are at present two clear berths…. No delay at Glasgow or at Cardiff. Cardiff's principal officer reports thirty-four berths vacant.… and several berths vacant for small cargo vessels.On the other hand, the state of things in foreign ports is, I am sorry to say, still very unsatisfactory. At Havre there is an average delay of ten days. At Genoa, which is I think the most serious case, there are 130 ships in port waiting their turn, as compared with fourteen vessels in London, and the average delay in discharging is something like twenty-four or twenty-five days. I think we may say we have gone a long way towards remedying whatever was wrong in the congestion at the ports.
Finally, under this head, I come to railways. The railway companies—the railway executives—have combined together, and they have rendered, and are rendering, very great assistance in this matter. They point out with perfect truth that they have had to carry increased quantities with decreased facilities, that they have constant calls naturally from the military, and that they have to be in a position at all times to provide whatever the military movements may require. During the last six months, to take one illustration, the London and North-Western Railway Company alone has run 7,000 special military trains, apart from goods trains. Of course the railway companies have found it extremely difficult to fill up the places vacated by their servants who have enlisted. The House will perhaps be glad to know what special steps have been and are being taken. Special facilities are now given to ensure the free and continuous movement of food-stuffs and perishables, which have been congested and hitherto mixed up with the ordinary traffic. They now get 775 priority. Of course the Government traffic and Government contractors' traffic have the first claim, but, subject to that, the companies act in concert and assist one another with rolling-stock and engines. Goods wagons have now been pooled, and payment of demurrage has been experimentally suspended. That is a very important item. A committee of experts has been set up specially to deal with all problems arising out of possible or actual railway congestion. Information is obtained daily by this committee as to the requirements of each company and as to difficulties likely to arise. Steps are then taken to render assistance, traffic is diverted if necessary from one route to another, the provision of emergency works—such as sidings, special lines, and so on—is recommended where necessary, and redundant passenger facilities are curtailed to give greater accommodation to goods traffic. These efforts on the part of the companies have already produced a most sensible and growing amelioration. These, again, are practical steps to deal with what is essentially a practical problem. I am sorry I have had to go into so much detail, but I thought it was respectful to the House and desirable in the interests of debate that hon. Members should have at their disposal from the beginning all the information in possession of the Government.
Reviewing the situation as a whole, while I agree that the rise in the prices of some of the necessaries of life is imposing a severe burden and substantial hardships on the consuming classes of the country, and while I also agree that everything that the Government can legitimately and fruitfully do ought to be done to mitigate those hardships, yet we must all recognise that we are in a state of war, and that the safety of the country and the prosecution of our cause demand sacrifices on the part of the working classes, who have not been behind or the least to recognise the fact. So far as the Government are concerned, they have taken the various steps I have indicated. They have been invited to take more heroic steps. It has been suggested, for 776 instance, that they should fix maximum prices—an experiment which the German Government have made with most disastrous consequences. The only result has been to lead to evasion, confusion, and the frustration of the purposes which they had in view. We have been invited to buy up the whole available supply of wheat and other necessary commodities ill the world, and to commandeer the stocks of our farmers here at home. I am not speaking with the prejudice of an old-fashioned political economist but as a practical man when I say that I do not believe steps of that kind would facilitate in any way the object we have in view. We are accessible and open, and we are desirous to receive facts and to act in the light of the facts which I have been endeavouring to bring before the House. We will consider any practical suggestions from any quarter. We shall not, from prejudice or prejudgment, or through any indisposition, hesitate to substitute for methods which commend themselves to us methods which seem likely to lead to more fertile and fruitful results. We shall not close our ears to any proposals that may be made. After all, we are all co-operating with a single view for a single purpose. I am perfectly certain that the country, while it expects from us, and rightly expects from us, here in Parliament, that we should do everything we can to secure a free influx at reasonable prices of the food and raw materials upon which our population and industries depend, expects that we should not hesitate to face the great emergencies which confront us, and, in the gigantic responsibilities which we have incurred, to make the sacrifices which patriotism and public spirit demand.
§ Mr. CLYNES
I confess myself grievously disappointed at the proposals put before the House by the Prime Minister. I believe that they will go but a very short way to relieve the masses of the poor of the extreme difficulties under which they now live and labour. We on these benches have associated ourselves with other Members of the House in what we regard as the necessary task of prosecuting this War to a successful conclusion, and we are hopeful that at no remote date the conditions of an abiding peace may be 777 attained. But we would ask the House to exercise the right of full and free criticism of the actions of the Government in order that the Government should take every step which the law can allow them to take to deal with people who are outside the House, and who are exploiting the conditions of the occasion and exacting very much higher prices than there is any economic necessity whatever to call for in view of the low wages of the poor. We did not expect that this Resolution on the Paper would come first before the House for discussion. The Resolution itself is, to my mind, quite inadequate as making a call upon the Government to take the steps necessary in the situation. I think every endeavour should be made by the Government on the lines of the speech of the Prime Minister, but if no endeavour is made on these lines I fear that the situation in a few months, or a few weeks, from now will not be so much relieved as the rosy forecast of the Prime Minister led the House to expect. I must quarrel with the Resolution, because of the needless qualification there is in the closing words of it. It speaks especially of the hardships on the poor. The fact is that the increased prices for the articles we are considering this afternoon fall solely or largely on the poor.
There are millions of people in this country, and in that number we must include every Member of this House, who are so fortunate as not to feel the effect of a change in the cost of the necessaries of life up to a matter of 10s. or 20s. a week, one way or another. That margin, however, is the amount that guarantees the safety of the richer part of the community from any sense of suffering and hardship whatever under such circumstances as have been recently created. Our duty is to deal with the difficulties and try to remember the less fortunate people who are hit in a double sense by an increase in prices which this War imposes on the country. I say that there is no consolation whatever in the recollections brought before the House of the conditions in 1870 to 1875, and the five years afterwards. Surely we have made some headway in the past forty years in the matter of economic and political government. What Parliament would not do forty years ago we should not hesitate to attempt to accomplish under the conditions of newer and altered political circumstances. We have modified a great many laws, and we have entirely swept away a great many of the older theories and doctrines which so 778 strongly stopped the way of attempting to deal with high prices forty or forty-five years ago. In some respects the Government has taken action on the lines, and on the very principle, which we have submitted to the House in one of the Motions on the Paper. I will explain what I mean. Prices have gone up. The Prime Minister has explained to the House that it is because of the demand for commodities. Therefore the Government evidently is going to allow the big contractors to impose higher charges because the demand is greater. But the Government does not allow every working man or poor lodging-house keeper because of being compelled to buy the commodities to charge according to the demand that is being made on them. I was in a big Lancashire town on the Monday of this week. There are 12,000 soldiers in training there, and the poorer class of lodging-house keeper there tells me that he has to provide each soldier with a single bed and three good meals a day for 3s. 6d. That is the price fixed by the Government, and there is practically a condition of compulsion which obliges the poor lodging-house keeper to accept those terms, despite the enormous demand created by the large number of people in the town.
Take the case of coal. The Prime Minister explained that fourteen colliers out of every hundred had gone to the War, and therefore the remaining eighty-six must pay more for their coal. Neither contractors nor merchants ought to be allowed to charge the colliers who remain, following their peaceful pursuits, these higher prices, because so many of their men had responded to the nation's call and had gone into military service. I would remind the Prime Minister, in reference to this question of coal, that there has been considerable under-working, and a good deal of short time, and there have been none of these economic causes to bring about a condition which would justify any increase whatever in price. Let us accept the idea that some increase was to be expected on account of the general economic conditions resulting from the War. That is an admission which we make ourselves in the Resolution that we have placed on the Order Paper. But although there may be some economic causes which produce some amount of this increase in cost, the increase has been so general and constant and so high, as to exceed entirely anything like the economic necessity or any just cause of an increased price. I would want even to go to the 779 extent in these times of modifying the laws of supply and demand. If we are to co-operate, as we are doing for military and naval purposes, in the nation's interests, I submit that we must also co-operate for peaceful objects and for general household reasons, and if a section of traders and merchants will not co-operate but will stand by their bond, and if they insist in taking advantage of this opportunity which the War creates, then the Government should stop it and prevent them from using that very opportunity, because it is so injurious to the poorer section of the people, and produces conditions which it is quite impossible for them to bear. It was stated in the "Times" of 23rd January, on behalf of the Government, that—The Government were not disposed to come to any hasty conclusion, and what the Board of Agriculture mainly relied upon to ease the situation was the free play of competition.The free play of competition is just what we have not got. What we have got is, combines, syndicates and rings, which arrange the prices for themselves. It is not the free play of competition which is regulating and deciding prices. It is the secret united action of a number of men who have only one consideration to determine their action. The Prime Minister has, and rightly so, given so many figures in regard to the existing position of prices, that we are relieved from the task of submitting more. He has proved fully to the House our case, and our grievance, long expressed in the country, with regard to the severity of these prices and, of course, during the last few weeks, the difficulty has been considerably increased. I will read one or two facts on the point, not of a statistical character, but still illustrating clearly the point which I am trying to make. I have here a quotation from quite a recent number of a reputable journal that has gone to some trouble lately to estimate the facts. I refer to the "Manchester Guardian. This is its report:—Some excitement prevailed at the Ormskirk Corn Market yesterday. Wheat quotations opened at 57s. 6d. per quarter. Rapidly prices advanced to 58s. 4d., the highest price for over fifty years. Farmers, however, declined to sell, even at such high prices, believing that prices would eventually go higher still. Oats reached 4s. 6d. a bushel, the highest price for sixty-two years.The report continues to give similar accounts of the action of these traders in a number of other places. Again, I say, if workmen attempted any corresponding action, the Government, the Opposition, and the country generally, would at once 780 cry out against men who had no patriotisn[...] and were not concerned to assist the country through its great trial. There is now as great a demand for labour as for food. There is a greater demand for labour in some occupations than there has ever been in recent years. So great is the demand that I am told that some men who went to serve their country, and left their trade, have actually had to be brought back because the demand for their services was so urgent. Suppose these men said, "We know our price. The demand and the need for ourselves are now greater than ever before. We will not work for £1 or £2 or £3 per week. We will have double the price. We will make our price higher than it has ever been in the history of this country." If workmen took up the position which many traders and dealers have taken up now the voice of this House would be united in the strongest condemnation. I will just read for the House one or two figures illustrating the seriousness of this question. Inquiries were made in the case of four reliable and, as one may say, typical families to illustrate the condition of thousands of people, and tables were prepared and published in the "Manchester Guardian" which show that, taking a family of two adults and one child, for such commodities as tea, sugar, bread, bacon, potatoes, milk, cheese, and so on, the increase for such a family is 25½ per cent. For a family of one adult and three children it is 27½ per cent., for one adult and five children it is 26½ per cent., for a family of two adults and four children it is 33½, per cent.
The Prime Minister, I think, was not at all accurate in his allusion to potatoes, a very considerable article of food, as the House knows, for the masses of the poor. For potatoes are included in these various articles and are proved to have gone up considerably in price during the past month or two. Mrs. Pember-Reeves has made a detailed investigation into the way in which these increases of price affect families whose breadwinners have gone to the front. The workmen changes from the civilian to the soldier. His family is left under conditions of the greatest hardship because of his absence. Here is a case furnished by Mrs. Pember-Reeves. The husband before the War earned 25s. per week. Of that 10s. 6d. was paid to the household to provide plain food for six children, the husband and wife. I will not weary the House with the items or the details, but the figures prove that 15s.
781 must be paid now to purchase the same commodities for which 10s. 6d. was expended a month ago. The income of the household is reduced because the man goes to serve his country. The burden is, in a sense, made doubly great on that account. The Prime Minister made no allusion to the fact that in regard to many classes of workmen this increase in prices has become a burden impossible to carry, because of the very serious reduction in the earnings of some hundreds of thousands of workers. We are not inclined to blame the poor trader. Here is the instance of a working-class baker in the East End of London. The statement supplied to me to-day is as follows:—When the War broke out it was 5d. for a 4-lb. loaf To-day it is 7½d., and next week, probably, it will be 8d. The bakers round about us in this district are selling the same quality, or even inferior bread, at 8d. already, and the tendency of flour prices is upwards. To a family of eight persons, two adults and six children, the average bread consumption is put down as nine quarterns a week, and there is flour for other things besides loaves. The difference in the expenditure of the household for a week would be 2s. 9d.I do not accept the statement of the Prime Minister that any real increase in the case of wheat has been due to shortage. The figures from official sources appear to prove that supplies of wheat have been well maintained, and that so far there has even been an increase, and the supply, I believe, was larger, but, as the hon. Gentleman who moved this Motion said, last month's figures as furnished by the Board of Trade show that the imports of food, drink and tobacco increased by £7,362,935, and in that total the grain and flour increase was £3,750,544. So here you have a condition where, despite an increase in the supply, prices are still being increased by those who are able to manage the market to determine the prices of ordinary household commodities.
Nor do I accept the statement of the Prime Minister that a considerable part of this increased price is due to labour shortage. Why, the "Labour Gazette" at this moment shows that by the last returns of the Labour Exchange books there were on the books the names of 50,000 men who had applied for work, and we can see every day still some hundreds of dockers and men fit for dock and seafaring labour clamouring for jobs and unable to get them. It is true that in the case of some of the higher skilled trades, and in some of the manufacturing industries, there has been a shortage, but there has been no shortage of the supply of labour in contributory branches of employment, and 782 it may be said there has been no reduction in the supply. I said a moment ago that this was the most serious matter for a large number of workers who, in several trades, have suffered great reductions in their wages. I have already mentioned that in some of the coal areas there has been continuous short time for some months past, and at present colliers are earning but poor wages. I believe, further, that hundreds of thousands of women in a number of occupations have been thrown out of employment, or had their working hours considerably reduced. Indeed, in the case of women in almost every large centre in the country it has been necessary for various committees to organise relief, and women have done a great deal through their various organisations to find employment for the large section of women who must live by their own labour.
In the cotton trade, a trade directly affecting some hundreds of thousands in the county of Lancashire, there was continuous short time for nearly the first three months of this War. It is true that there has been a very great improvement in the past month or two, but it cannot well be said that the masses of the operatives have been restored to anything like the level of full earnings; so that there are very large numbers in regard to whom this increase of 33 per cent. in prices of the necessaries of life is coupled with greatly reduced earnings on account of the conditions arising from the War. There is another side of the question. Many, many thousands, I do not know how many, of workmen have had to be removed from their ordinary vocation and from their ordinary homes to other places—to various coast towns and to other parts of England. Thousands of men have had to find new homes, and have had to pay rather high prices for private lodgings; they have had, in a sense, to maintain two homes on one wage. Families are left behind at one end of the country, while the worker has to go to the other end, and he has to pay out of the one wage in respect of two homes in two places, and he has to do that while subject to these unnecessarily increased prices. Surely this must be to this House the most important topic until some drastic and effective action is taken by the Government to bring about the necessary relief. Relief money has been doled out to a large number of people who have not been able to earn anything, most of that relief money having been sub- 783 scribed by the working classes themselves. The millions of the Prince of Wales' Fund and other funds prove that very much of the money has been collected in our great workshops and in small trading and business shops, and paid over by the working classes themselves. It is the case that it is mostly the poor that have to help the poor. I would appeal to this House to have regard to the fact that people who could not possibly find work are now receiving this relief money, and that relief money does not enable them to pay these unnecessarily high prices that have been imposed upon them. We are as anxious as anyone in the country to keep trade and business going without disruption, disturbance, dislocation or quarrel with the employers, but it is quite patent to us, who are perhaps a little nearer to the conditions of the working men than other Members of this House, that a big truce in industry cannot be continued unless some effective relief is given. I received this letter this morning from a body of quarrymen in Staffordshire. They held a meeting and passed a resolution expressed in very strong terms and demanding redress, and giving this information:—You will understand the deplorable position of these men, when through bad weather and other causes over which they have no control, they have only been able to make 14s. or 15s. per week. Some of them have large families. It is a mining district, with coal at 18s. per ton at the pit head. We remember getting better coal for 6s. 8d. per ton. Starvation is facing these men, and will soon overcome them, unless something be done quickly.That is not an isolated instance of what the men are feeling and suffering in various trades and industries in this country, and I want therefore to appeal to the Government to review the situation and to give us some more practical undertaking than has been submitted to the House in the speech of the Prime Minister. We cannot live on hope under the circumstances, or trust ourselves as a country or as a class to the mercies of those who are exacting the highest prices according to the laws and practices of their trade and business. You cannot expect the wage-earner to have confidence in the Government if, at one and the same time, it asks them to fight for the victory of their country, and leave those who remain behind at the mercy of men who, by what they have done, show that they have no mercy whatever. It may be that if we were in their place that the result would be exactly the same, but what we want 784 is to remove from certain trading classes temptation, and you can only do that by insisting that prices shall be no higher than, in the judgment of this House, they ought to be. I say that if the supplies were reduced by one half, or if we were reduced to the barest subsistence, even under that condition there would be no justification for high prices, or dipping deeper into the pockets of the poor than under ordinary conditions. If this is a state of war, then let us see that one class shall suffer as well as others, and that it shall not be able to make huge profits out of the necessaries of the masses of the people. The Government have not, therefore, in my judgment, in any sense seriously relieved the tension by any promise or statement which the Prime Minister has made, and we look forward, I should say not without hope, to some early review of these statements, and under the pressure of public opinion, and with this Debate and the action of Members of this House, to some better result than so far has been obtained.
§ Mr. BONAR LAW
I did not rise after the Prime Minister had spoken, because I thought I should like to hear the case made on the benches below the Gangway. I wish now to state, speaking for myself, that I at least find no fault, either with the temper in which the hon. Gentleman has spoken or with the aspiration which he has expressed. No one will doubt, and I hope no one will try to minimise, the importance of the subject which we are discussing to-day. I am quite sure there was no intention on the part of the Prime Minister to minimise the present situation when, as I should have done in his place, he tried to make us realise exactly what the facts are, and then deal with them on the basis of existing realities. In that connection there is only one supplement I should like to make to his review of the actual facts of the situation. So far as I have been able to find out, and I have taken some trouble, taking into account the volume of employment and the price of the necessaries of life to-day, there is not, I think, any country in the world, not even any neutral country, of which you can say that the working classes are on the whole in a better position than is the case with the people of our own country. I 785 think we should keep those facts in view. I entirely agree with what the hon. Gentleman said, that at a time like this we are not to be bound by any maxim about the Jaw of supply and demand. We ought to be bound simply by what, in the existing facts of the situation, we believe would be the best method of dealing with the facts as they exist. The organisation of the nation in time of war does not consist merely in sending men to the front and equipping them, but consists in organising the whole life of the nation.
Our enemies very well realised that from the beginning and before the War, and devoted as much thought to that side of their organisation as I believe they did to the other. I admit that in that organisation there is certainly no part which is a more important factor in carrying on the War than the condition of the civil population during the time that war is going on. No one doubts that one of the strongest duties which rests on this Government is, without any regard to prejudices or preconceived opinions of any kind, to do everything in its power that, while the War continues, the conditions of life at home are as good as they can possibly be. We are all agreed about that. But I am sorry to say that in my opinion in regard to this matter the power of this Government, or of any Government, is very severely limited. I do not mean that they can have all the powers they want. In a time of great danger like this the only method of conducting the business of this country is the method that was adopted in Rome. As we all know, when that country was in danger, it had to create a dictatorship. There must be that, and we have it here. It is not the dictatorship of a single man, but all of us willingly, throughout the country, have said that we must leave the War, and everything connected with it, to the Government, and we will give them all the powers which we think are necessary, and which we think to be in the interest of the country. That is all we can do. I am not going to attempt to go into details, and I shall confine my remarks pretty much to the one necessary question, and what I will say about it will cover all the rest.
786 It is quite true that wheat has often been very much higher, but it is very high, and experience of the question shows that is not merely the present price, but it may be very much higher before we are done. The hon. Gentleman who spoke last pointed to some figures which were given in answer to a question the other day as showing that there is no shortage in the visible supply, and that it is rather greater than it was this time last year, and he draws the inference that prices ought not to rise, and that it must be the fault of somebody who is making a combination if they do. I think the hon. Gentleman is entirely mistaken. In my belief, and it is a belief formed after a great deal of observation, inflated prices never occur at the time the actual shortage is there. What happens is that people look forward. They expect a shortage, and the price rises in consequence of that anticipation, and in every instance in my own experience I have invariably found that at the time the shortage actually did come, prices had rather fallen because they had been discounted in advance. That is the position here. It is the fear of the shortage, and, if I am right, if the Prime Minister could convince all the dealers in wheat all over the world that he is right, and that when June next comes there will be plenty of wheat for everybody, if he could convince them of that, in my belief there would be an immediate fall of prices. It is the fear of what is in front that always causes these inflated prices.
What can the Government do? There is one thing that I think they might have done, though I am sure the House will realise the last thing I would do is either to attack them in this matter or to suggest that I knew better than they what was wrong; what I think they might have done and ought to have done was on two occasions to have stepped in and themselves made large purchases of wheat for the benefit of the nation. I think so, and I will tell the House the occasions to which I refer. The first was the outbreak of War; but when they did not do it then, there was another occasion. The Government knew, as we see now from the dispatches published, long before the public knew, that 787 Turkey was going to join in the War against us. That meant, as everyone knows, that supplies from the Black Sea would be shut off, and I think it would have only been a reasonable precaution to have stepped in and bought for the nation a supply of wheat. I do not expect at all that everyone in this House, and I am sure a great many out of it, would entirely agree with that view. They would say that "the best thing to do," and I think the right hon. Gentleman opposite is one of them, "the best thing you can do is to leave things to their natural course;" but in a time like this I do not think so, and the Government did not think so either. They bought sugar. The Prime Minister was rather congratulating himself about it and congratulated the Government and the country. I happened to say last year, in the earlier part of this Session, that I did not think there was need for the purchase of sugar. I am not going into it now but I would point out this fact, that at the time they bought it sugar had already reached a very high price, which, from my Scottish turn of mind, would have made me rather hesitate to buy it.
That did not apply to wheat. At the beginning of the War it was a normal price, an absolutely normal price, and I really think the Government might then have stepped in with this knowledge that even as a business transaction they could not lose. And in view of the fact that this terrible War was upon us, it was almost as certain, as anything in human affairs can well be, that sooner or later there would be a rise in the price of wheat. If they had decided to purchase, purchases to the fullest extent could have been made without forcing up the market. If they had done that it would not merely have had the supply available to-day for this emergency, but the knowledge that that supply was in the hands of the Government, would in itself have prevented speculation and to a large extent counteracted the rise. That is my view, and whether it is right or wrong, it is not being wise, if it is wise, after the event. Before we had declared war I went to the 788 right hon. Gentleman I see sitting opposite and to another of his colleagues and urged upon them to take that step. My right hon. Friend the Member for West Birmingham (Mr. Chamberlain) reminded me the other day that he was in my room when I strongly urged it on one of the most important Members of the Government. They considered it but they did not carry it out. I think it was a pity. I think it was a risk which under the circumstances they might have taken, and which would have to-day been of great advantage.
But whether I am right or wrong the question is: What is to be done now? The hon. Gentleman who spoke last has a remedy that is so simple that it is very attractive. It is for the Government to seize the supplies and fix maximum prices. I would say to him with absolute sincerity, and I believe I express the view of every Member of this House on whatever bench he sits, that I have as little sympathy as he with anyone who makes money unduly out of the great calamity in which this country is engaged, and I should hesitate as little as he in taking any action which would prevent them from getting those profits, and which would prevent prices from rising to an improper level. But how is it going to be worked? The Prime Minister said that in Germany they had tried it and it had been very disastrous. I did not realise that the disaster came from that cause, but if our position were similar to the position in Germany I do not say that I would hesitate at a time like this to do it. The bulk of the supply is in Germany and under the control of the German Government, and therefore they can regulate it. But what about this country? We have only, I suppose at most, two or three months' supply of wheat here, and that is all that this Government can control. Suppose they stepped in and took control and fixed a maximum price, and if they made that price below the world price—and if they did not there would be nothing in it—then not a quarter of wheat would come here and the result would be that simultaneously, for the time being, all ordinary channels of supply would dry up and the Government themselves would be the only suppliers and would have to go out into the world and buy wheat.
§ Mr. BONAR LAW
I do not deny that is possible, but I see that the hon. Member does realise my point, that to do this means that the Government are to become the only suppliers and are to go out to the markets as well, and I do not think they will get it cheaper than other people. That is my view. I do not think that there is any relief in that direction. The cause of the high prices is due, to a considerable extent, to transit. The Prime Minister was perfectly right in saying, that as regards the wheat that comes from North America where there has been an immense rise in freights, that plays a comparatively unimportant part in the rise, though with the wheat from the Argentine it is quite different, and there, of the rise of about 22s., more than half, from 11s. 6d. to 12s., is due to the freight. I must say I do not quite agree with the right hon. Gentleman's view that the position in the Argentine does not affect the main issue because the crop is not available now. The same considerations, which I expressed earlier, about people looking forward, apply, I believe, here. The price that obtains for American wheat to-day, to some extent depends on the price which Argentine wheat is being sold for.
§ The PRIME MINISTER
That is not what I intended to say. What I intended to say was, that the price ruling in New York in the winter months was determined mainly by the American freights.
§ Mr. BONAR LAW
I quite accept that. There are inflated prices, and freight, therefore, in the price of wheat is a very important factor. Here, I think, the Government can do, and might have done earlier, if I may say so, a great deal to relieve the situation. The high rates of freight, in my opinion, are due to three causes alluded to by the Prime Minister. The first is that the immense German fleet has been withdrawn from the seas. But that is mot enough, or nearly enough in my opinion, to account for the great rise that has taken place. If the German fleet has been withdrawn, German over- 790 sea trade has also to a large extent disappeared. Therefore, I do not think that is enough. I think the Government might earlier have relieved the situation by putting those ships, which for the last five or six months have been in our hands, at work, and so enable them to carry goods and bring down the price. I am very glad they are doing it now. I do not know exactly under what conditions. They may be as perfect as can be imagined, but I am going to express now a view which I hold more strongly than any of my political opinions, and that is that in this War, as in all previous wars, full and proper use has not been made of one of the greatest assets of this country, that is the business organisation of a business people, that we have not used business energy and talent in the way we ought to use it. I am bound to say that men trained in the arena here and at the bar and at the university have rather a contempt for the intellectual ability of the ordinary business man. They would not admit it, but I think they have.
I remember reading with some amusement a speech which was made by the Chancellor of the Exchequer a year of two ago. He said that anyone who had the ability to become a Cabinet Minister or something of that kind could have got far greater rewards in any other profession. I think it is just as well for them they have not had to try it. At all events, my experience is the reverse. It is easier to succeed in the House of Commons than in business. This introduction, which the House has received very kindly, is meant to point a moral. Take those interned ships. The way I would have dealt with them if I had the power would be to select one good shipowner as chairman and one or two others to help him, and have said to them: You are to have absolute power to deal with these ships as you think right, you can deal with them as if they were your own steamers, keeping in view that the object of the Government is not to make profit, but to have the ships employed in such a way as to keep freights at a normal level and get food to this country. I think that is the right way to deal with it. But where the Prime Minister 791 perhaps does not agree with me—at all events, he has not put it in practice—is this: Business men are not fond of going on committees with half-a-dozen permanent officials and an occasional Under-Secretary to talk about things; but give them power to do things, and you will find that they will do them, and do them faithfully and well. I would suggest to the right hon. Gentleman whether they might not adopt this plan, and practically hand this matter over to business men to treat it on business lines.
§ The PRESIDENT of the BOARD of TRADE (Mr. Runciman)
That is exactly what we have done.
§ Mr. BONAR LAW
It is very reasonable. I know perfectly well that months ago I thought that plan ought to be adopted, and I am very glad it is now being adopted. Turning to another branch in which the same thing might be done, the right hon. Gentleman pointed to a number of ships employed by the Admiralty. He told us that they were one-fifth of our total tonnage. That is amazing. It seems an extraordinary proportion. It is difficult to say what I think about that without seeming to attack the First Lord of the Admiralty. I am doing nothing of the kind. I can assure the Prime Minister that I have heard from I cannot tell how many sources, friends of my own connected with the shipping trade, of ships that are lying idle for weeks and months. I will give the right hon. Gentleman two examples, from friends of mine who are shipowners, of two different ships. I could give the names, but I am not sure that my friends would like me to do so, because they might think that the Admiralty would not be so fond of them in making contracts in the future. One ship was sent to the North to coal our Fleet. She discharged all her coal cargo except 400 tons. She was then sent to Liverpool. My friend said he did not know what it was to do, 792 but he supposed it was to discharge the coal. She lay there for a while, but did not discharge the coal. She then went to Cardiff, and loaded another cargo of coal, with the 400 tons still in her. Anyone with any idea at all of the way business is done will realise what that means. The other case is going on at this moment. A big ship has been lying up in the North for more than a month; 200 tons only have been taken out of her, and my friend, who wrote only this week, said that he had no idea how much longer she would be kept idle. He used these words—I would not quote them if I did not think there was some justification for them:—It all turns on the simple position that many of the men who are trying to handle things do not know what they are doing, and it seems an awful shame to throw the country's money away as it is being done. Freights amongst us are still booming, to which, of course, I could have no objection; but there is very little satisfaction in making money out of the present difficulty when one thinks of the incapacity which is the cause of it.I was very glad to hear from the Prime Minister that a Committee had been formed quite recently. I understood that it was a committee of business men to co-operate with the Admiralty in this matter. That is the only way. Shipowning or the running of ships is a trade which requires experience, just as much as the Bar or any other profession. No Government official, even if he were the greatest genius who ever lived, without the experience, could possibly deal with a problem like this. I am perfectly certain that if they will not only get proper competent business men to help them, but leave the direction largely in their hands, say to them what they want and where they want it, a very large percentage of the tonnage now requisitioned by the Admiralty will be set free for the ordinary service of the country.
The third cause of the high rates of freight is the congestion in the ports. What the right hon. Gentleman said about that is highly satisfactory, and much better than I expected. I am sure that hon. Gentlemen like the Member for North-East Manchester (Mr. Clynes) do not realise what this congestion means in adding to the rates of freight. I was told of a ship kept in Liverpool for over a 793 month waiting for a berth. She was carryover 10,000 tons. That delay would have this result: The profit that a shipowner would make on that voyage, with a freight twice as high as in normal times, would be less than the profit he would make in ordinary times if there were no such delay. Therefore nothing can be more important than to free the congestion at the ports. I see that the Government have appointed a Committee to go into it, and apparently it has had some result. Here, again, I would venture to say that it is not merely a question for the Port Authorities. The Government ought to have to advise them men who are actually engaged in the business, who can go to these ports, find where the shoe pinches, and point out what to do to relieve the congestion. I am afraid I have spoken on a very uninteresting subject, but it seems to me important. I do not want the House to be under a misapprehension which I once noticed in a criticism of a Radical paper, which said that I posed as a great business man. I never did anything of the kind. Judged by the only report which tells—that is the amount of money you make out of it—I was a very small one. But I do understand and appreciate the business way of doing things, and I am quite sure that more ought to be done in that way. If what I have said induces the Prime Minister himself to take an interest in this point of view, and try to get more of this kind of talent used in the service of the country, it will be a great advantage.
I am sorry to say that, like the Prime Minister, I have no drastic remedy to propose. But I will say this: I know a little about the profits of ships when they are well managed, and in spite of the drawbacks which I have pointed out—the delays and the much higher cost of running—I have not the smallest doubt that well-managed ships to-day are making simply enormous profits, and that those profits come from the very cause for which the people of this country are making sacrifices in every direction and even giving their lives. The hon. Gentleman was good enough to say that he would act in the same way. So should I. We are not going to get one shipowner to say "I 794 will take 10s." when the current rate is 20s.; it is impossible. But I say that if the remedies which the Government are trying to carry out are not successful, there is certainly some limit to the profit which can be got in this way. British-owned ships are under British control, and we have just as much right—I do not know whether this is good Tory doctrine or not—to seize this part of the national organisation as I believe we have, if the necessity arises, to seize every able-bodied man in the country. From that point of view I am not in disagreement with the hon. Gentleman opposite. But I do say that no such case has arisen yet, and that until the evil becomes much greater than it is any attempt to exercise control in that way would be found perfectly futile. It would be very difficult in any case. But I repeat that there is a limit to the profit which we can allow to be made out of this War, and, if that limit is reached, I would be at one with those who say that the House of Commons ought to step in.
§ Mr. LOUGH
The right hon. Gentleman said that he had made an uninteresting speech. If that is the sort of speech he makes when he thinks he is talking in an uninteresting way, I can only hope that he will always make that kind of speech. The right hon. Gentleman also said that he had been criticised by Radical newspapers. I would suggest that he should not worry about such things at all. We are all accustomed to it, and it should not disturb our equanimity. This Debate is one of extraordinary interest, and we must look carefully at the suggestions which have been thrown out, especially by the right hon. Gentleman opposite. As we are working now, I think that the Leader of the Opposition, next to the Prime Minister, is the most influential man in the House, and the Government very rightly pays great attention to what he says. He suggested that the Government should at one time have bought up a large quantity of wheat. I would say with regard to that, that if they were at any future time to do so—I do not say that at one time it might not have been done—I hope they will note what the right hon. Gentleman had to admit a minute afterwards with regard to the commodity which the Government did buy up, namely, sugar. The right hon. Gentleman does not entirely approve, of course, with interfering with 795 regard to sugar. Well, the matter can easily be adjusted. If any buying takes place by the Government it should only be for one purpose, and that is to lower the price. They ought not to take complete control of the great commodities as they have done in regard to sugar—I am afraid with rather disastrous results so far as prices are concerned. I therefore wish to offer the suggestion that if we do anything of the sort it should be done only when the price is low, and it should be done not to take complete control of a commodity, but to bring down the price. We have listened to a very interesting speech from the hon. Gentleman the Member for North-East Manchester (Mr. Clynes). I am sure the whole House will, as no doubt the right hon. Gentleman, agree in feeling the deepest sympathy at the pathetic picture the hon. Member drew of people suffering throughout the country from the high prices—people with small fixed incomes. I am quite sure that if as a result of this Debate any suggestion is made which will mitigate the sufferings of these people it will secure the unanimous support of the House. The hon. Member was not able to make any very practical suggestion. He seemed to think that somebody in this country was holding up supplies. On that point I desire to call the attention of hon. Members below the Gangway to one great fact—there is no country in the world so well situated in regard to protection against holding up supplies as this country is.
Will the hon. Member consider the Wholesale Co-operative Society, that great distributive organisation which not only is a distributor but a producer, and which has now ten thousand branches throughout the country. That organisation is one of the most powerful instruments that can exist in any land for keeping prices down to their lowest minimum. It not only distributes, but it produces everything as cheaply as it can. It has creameries in Ireland, tea gardens in India and Ceylon, and I believe it has gardens that produce currants and raisins in the East. It is a producer wherever it can be. It distributes everything at the lowest margin of profit, and it is managed entirely by working people. Not only then does this society do so well by all its friends, but it establishes the prices for everybody else. How can a small grocer in any place get a higher price than will be paid at the co-operative stores? Everybody has got to compete with this mighty organisation, 796 which keeps everything at a fair level so far as distribution is concerned. I was glad that the hon. Member admitted that. The only case he gave us was the case of a working baker, who was getting too large a price for the bread he was distributing. Altogether my hon. Friend made a most fair and reasonable speech, and I think the only feeling the House would have in regard to it is that he did not make any sort of useful suggestion, and it is suggestions of value that we should like to have offered. I have just one suggestion to make. I am in a great difficulty with regard to it. It is the suggestion that the right hon. Gentleman made with so much authority.
§ Mr. LOUGH
I will put it in one minute. I am obliged to my right hon. Friend for the honour of listening to me. There are three great forces in this country with which we shall be able to bring the War to a conclusion. The first is the Navy, the second the Army, and the third is the business resources of the nation. That is practically what the right hon. Gentleman said. No use has been made by the Government, if I may say so with great respect, of the vast business resources of the country. I do not want to say that I have patented this idea, but I did in this House, on 23rd November, mention it to my right hon. Friend. I asked the Government to acquaint themselves with the conditions of the great trades before suddenly interfering with them, and I asked the Prime Minister whether he could not see his way to appoint a committee of business men who had full knowledge with regard to these articles, and whose opinions might be taken before any further prohibition—we called it that then—was decided upon with regard to the export of such articles from this country. What was the reply to that by the then President of the Board of Trade?I am afraid we cannot take the advice of my right hon. friend the Member for West Islington. It will not be possible for us to call into consultation, before we take action, those gentlemen interested in the business."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 23rd November, 1914. col. 845, Vol. LXVIII.].There is only one sphere in which business men have been utilised since the War started, and that is by that able Member of the Government and great statesman, the Chancellor of the Exchequer. What is the reason our finance has got on so well? Because before he did anything, the right hon. Gentleman called the great 797 bankers together, and he has kept them together. He has utilised all their special knowledge. He did not say, like my right hon. Friend, "We will not have the opinions of gentlemen interested in the business." No, he knew, however much any business man, or indeed any citizen of this country, is interested in his own affairs, he is interested still more, Mr. Speaker, in bringing this great contest in which we are involved to a successful conclusion. I do not like to pursue the argument of the right hon. Gentleman, who put it so much better, but why on earth were ships of certain lines taken without consulting the trades, ships which were in the habit of bringing cargoes by those lines? We can see the great interference which takes place with business when you do not consult those interested in those businesses. I do not think this House realises at all what a violent change has been made in what I will call the business institutions of this country—perhaps inevitably made by the War. I have put down a notice on the Paper to which I was going to ask the attention of the Government, though I was not going to move it. It is as follows:That this House appeals to the Government to avoid frequent changes of policy in the restriction or prohibition of exports and imports, especially of important commodities of foreign and Colonial production, as being calculated to injure legitimate bnsiness, restrict the supply, and raise the prices of food.I do not know whether the House notices the extraordinary situation in regard to exports and imports that has arisen since the War commenced? In August imports and exports were affected in about the same way by the War. During the six months that have passed our imports have entirely recovered. It is a most remarkable story. In August the diminution in our imports, as compared with the previous year, was £14,000,000; in September it was 16.3 millions; in October the diminution was 20 millions; in November 12 millions; in December 3 millions; while in January the imports of this country, notwithstanding the state of war, were as great as they were a year ago. That is the state of the import trade which has recovered. There is a most marvellous situation! I believe the country has displayed a strength in regard to its business position which is perfectly astonishing to everybody who studies it. What about the exports? Our exports in the first month of the War were diminished by £23.6 millions; in the next month by 17 millions; in the next by 20 millions; in the next by 22 millions; and in the last month by 22.5 millions. Those figures show that the trade of this country has received a great blow with regard to 798 exports, though at present imports are going on quite as well, if not better, than could have been expected when we remember the state of war in which the country is involved.
§ Mr. LOUGH
My hon. Friend asks me to mention one or two articles, but I do not wish to go into too great detail. The diminution has taken place in everything. Practically the old Free Trade policy of the country, which the Government were long the stoutest defenders of, looks like being swept away. There are three sets of prohibitions—prohibition first to all the world, then prohibition to any part of the world except our own Colonies. It is very hard to draw the line. I do not, for instance, see why we should draw any line between Argentine and our own Colonies. The third prohibition is to European countries. The prohibitions cover about 250 great articles of consumption. They were suddenly and abruptly made without any notice whatever. I do think that the Government in many of these cases have not carefully studied the matter, or have not had any definite policy in their minds when they have taken action. One wishes to speak of those matters of business that one understands, and I should like to call the attention of the House to the policy pursued by the Government to the great article of tea. It is as important an article as anything else. [HON MEMBERS: "No, no!"] Yes, just as important as sugar. On 5th August the export of tea was prohibited. On 10th the export of green tea was permitted. On the 17th the export of packets was permitted. On the 22nd the export of everything was permitted. On 16th November the export of tea was prohibited. On 4th January the export of all tea was allowed. Here are six changes in six months! How can that have done any good? How can that express any policy on the part of the Government? I do not want to go into details, but the only effect of these changes of policy was rather to harden the price by interfering with the trade here. I do think that before these changes were started, and given effect to, the Government ought to have thought out its policy. I believe my right hon. Friend or the Government did not take into consultation the business men, who could have given them important facts with regard to the business, with which possibly they were unfamiliar.
799 Take the case of sugar, a trade of which I know nothing technically, but which I have studied very much in respect to its bearings in this House. I have taken a great interest in the political and economic side of it for many years. What policy did the Government pursue with regard to sugar? In August they went in and bought sugar, largely to reduce the price of sugar. In October they issued a prohibition against the importation of sugar, and now they are holding up sugar, with the effect of greatly increasing its price. I do not want to put this argumentatively. I have no desire other than to assist my right hon. Friend with suggestions. I know what the difficulties of the situation are. But, then, these matters are very large matters. I do think they ought to get a little consideration from the Government. The mistake that my right hon. Friend or the Government made with regard to sugar was that they did not think out their policy. At present they are prohibiting the import, and the manufacturers are grumbling very much and saying they ought to get their sugar much cheaper, and the Government holds up a huge stock in this country. I want to suggest to the Government, if they have a huge stock of sugar, that they should sell it, and so cheapen the price. The object of all this interference is to cheapen the price of this great commodity. If they have that idea I would say sell it—do not hold it up—and so bring down the price. If they make a mistake the country will have to bear the burden of that mistake. The Government would not open the ports when those interested in the trade impressed that course upon them. I believe there was a great meeting in the City of London about a month ago. I had not an opportunity of attending it, because I am not related to the business, but I believe that those who were present—great authorities on the trade—were unanimously of opinion that the true policy would be to abolish the restriction on the importation of sugar, and let anyone get it anywhere they could, so that the price might be brought down.
§ Mr. LOUGH
What is the object the Government are trying to pursue by the prohibition of the import of sugar? My right hon. Friend said it is to prevent our getting German sugar. That is a legitimate object. We do not buy anything from Germany or sell anything to Ger- 800 many, and I am far from recommending any course which would break that golden rule which we must observe, and to enforce which we must assist the Government by every means in our power. But if the Government can buy sugar from some country which does not receive German sugar, why should not the manufacturers or great importers buy it in the same way?
§ Mr. LOUGH
The Government itself has no security. Why should it be safe for the Government to buy sugar from Mauritius and not others? How is it in the interests of the Government to interfere with the price of sugar? They interfered to reduce the price. Why should not this trade be freed altogether? We are all Free Traders here, and any restrictions that can be removed from commerce it would be wise to remove. I am one of those who think that we have got an important victory to achieve over Germany with regard to our commerce as well as in the destruction of the spirit of militarism. Germany stole a great deal of her best trade from us. The Government is recognising that in the steps it is taking in regard to aniline dyes. Now Germany is shut off, and all the neutral countries are looking to us for supplies to take the place of Germany. The question then arises whether, if you sell anything to them, it will not reach Germany. I think the Government ought to take the most stringent steps in regard to that matter, and it is a thing the Government alone can do. The private trader cannot take them. Neutral countries have only to observe honestly the undertaking they are asked to give to us, namely, that they will only use goods for their own purpose, or sell them to allied Powers, and not allow them to get into enemy territory. We ought not to put restrictions on business, but we ought to make every effort in our power to better it.
I was going to allude to one or two more details with regard to sugar, but I do not think it will be quite relevant to this Debate. I would, therefore, ask my right hon. Friend whether he could not give the House an opportunity of discussing the sugar question. We cannot go into it here in this Debate, I think. Last Session the Home Secretary promised that the Royal Commission would issue a Report. Now mark! Whenever a Royal Commission is 801 supposed to issue a Report, action is deferred until the Report is issued. But this is a case in which action is taken first, and then we have the Report of the Royal Commission. It reminds one of "Alice in Wonderland"; first you pass sentence, and afterwards hold the trial. If the Royal Commission has any Report to issue—I do not believe it has—but if it has, let us have a day for discussion, and then, perhaps, we might arrive at some solution which would be in the interests of the country.
I recognise the spirit in which the right hon. Gentleman made his speech. I do think the difficulties are great, and prices might not be reduced so much as hon. Members expect. If they are not reduced we have to take another method, and see that wages are raised, so that people in difficult circumstances can meet these high prices. A strong plea has been put forward on behalf of railwaymen and those who volunteered in such large numbers for the front, that they should not be allowed to suffer by the prices of commodities. My belief is that the solution will be found rather in assisting those who are in poor circumstances to bear the extra burden rather than by any sudden reduction. I would therefore like to suggest that before further changes are made in business throughout the country, those who are interested should be, as far as possible, consulted, and that changes should be adapted to the condition of the trade at the time that the changes are made. A change is made suddenly and abruptly and we are told it is a military necessity. On 8th January we were told it was a military necessity to prohibit the export of cocoa bean, but on the 29th it was withdrawn. How could it have been a military necessity to prohibit the export on the 8th January if it could be withdrawn on the 29th? The prohibition with regard to the bean, which is a most valuable article of food, was withdrawn, and the prohibition of what is practically a by-product was maintained. I cannot see the principle, and I do think that, if the Government consulted business men familiar with these things, it would be much better. I heard the same thing about wool, and that there was a general prohibition. I understand wool is like tea in this respect. One kind of wool cannot be made for clothing and might be exported to America. There should be no unnecessary interference with the trade of the country, which is going on splendidly considering the circumstances. The spirit of the people is high and they are determined to win a way for them- 802 selves out of the difficult position in which they are placed. I therefore ask the Government to utilise all the business resources as well as all the military resources of the country.
§ Mr. HOUSTON
I think the House and the country at large must be deeply indebted to the Prime Minister for his clear and lucid exposition of the present state of affairs. He dealt with figures at some length, and, although I had provided myself with them, I will not weary the House. The Prime Minister has clearly shown that we have had previously in times of peace prices as high, if not higher, than they are at the present moment. He did not refer to 1898, I think it was, when there was a corner in wheat in America, when prices, I think, were higher than now, and freights were practically nominal. The Press and some speakers have been indulging in what I might describe as a campaign of calumny against the shipowner. They have not hesitated to describe shipowners as rapacious rascals, greedy pigs, and that sort of thing; in fact, they have exhausted the language of vituperation upon the poor shipowner. It would be as unfair to describe lawyers, from the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of Exchequer down to the humblest member of the Bar, as dishonest rascals, fattening upon the misfortunes of their fellow men, because, perchance, some pettifogging member of the profession had been guilty of dishonesty. The Prime Minister has exploded the charges made in connection with one article of food, but, possibly, I may know a little more of the details than even the Prime Minister. This attack upon shipowners must, I think, have been instigated and engineered by interested parties. I have a halfpenny paper here with an article which I will not weary the House by reading, but will merely mention one or two items. They say that the freight for meat before the War was a halfpenny a pound; now it is about 1¼d. The Prime Minister mentioned the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company and said the increase there was not more than five-sixteenths. The right hon. Gentleman might have informed the House that the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company, under a war clause in their meat agreement, have the right of cancelling in time of war. The increased prices they have received, I am informed direct from the chairman of the company, are in some cases not more than one-eighth and in other cases up to five- 803 sixteenths of a penny. The Prime Minister is probably not aware that a large line of refrigerator steamers had no war clause, and therefore they are carrying now at the pre-War rate without increase, although they have had to bear all the increased charges for war insurance. Take my own experience. After the War began I fixed my refrigerator freight at a halfpenny per pound, which this paper mentions as the pre-War rate, and yet I am described as a rapacious rascal and a greedy pig. I think it is disgraceful that the Press should be used to inflame and incite public opinion on perfectly groundless and erroneous statements, and I am very glad indeed and feel very grateful to the Prime Minister for dealing with the subject as he has.
Referring to what I was saying about charging a halfpenny freight for meat, I may be described possibly as a philanthropist in not asking for any increase. But you can hardly describe me by the epithets of the newspaper. Shipowners are divided into two classes, the liner owner and the tramp owner, and they are quite distinct. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition mentioned that some shipowners were making enormous profits. I have a very shrewd idea to what he referred. They are Glasgow-owned tramps, and undoubtedly those tramps have been making very substantial profits. But take the case of other tramp owners. I know of one who, during October, fixed four of his steamers from the Argentine on open charter at 16s. per ton. The charterer of one of these boats has re-let that boat at 65s., and made £14,000 profit. It is the freight speculator, and not the owner, who has made that profit. The shipowners have had to fix their boats up for long periods on time journeys at 3s. and 3s. 6d. per ton on the dead weight, and at the present time those ships are worth 13s. 6d. or 14s. per ton. Take the liner owners. The liner owner is not in the fortunate position of the tramp owner, because the latter is a free lance and can do as he likes, and he goes where he can get the best rates. On the other hand, a liner owner is confined to running between fixed ports, and he has to sail at fixed dates in normal times, whether his ships are full or empty, and to protect himself against the encroachments of the tramp owner in times of bad trade he is compelled to make contracts a long time ahead. His passenger trade has been destroyed by reason of the War, and the 804 outward commerce of this country to the Argentine has been greatly reduced. Many steamers are leaving for the Argentine practically empty, whereas prior to the financial crisis in the Argentine a ship would be taking out perhaps 10,000 tons of cargo, reduced now to 2,000 or 3,000 tons, while in many instances, ships are leaving with nothing. I think that accounts for the increased freights from the Argentine. It is not the shipowners who have put up the freights. It is true that they have accepted freights offered them at double or treble rates. At the present moment the freights on wheat have nothing whatever to do with the price of wheat from the Argentine, because the first parcel of wheat from the Argentine left on the 28th of January.
§ Mr. WILLIAM THORNE
Is the hon. Member aware that the freight from the Argentine which was 10s. 6d. is now 80s.?
§ Mr. HOUSTON
Those freights have now dropped to 65s. May I point out how this works out. Whenever freights rise to a very high abnormal price in any part of the world, ships are at once attracted from all parts of the world, and it is a fact that at the present time many ships are going with ballast from China and Japan to the Argentine, in order to secure these rates. The effect of this competition is that the rates fall, and I have no hesitation in saying that my belief is that before a very short time, probably within the next two or three months, we shall see freights very much lower and the price of wheat very much lower. The Prime Minister was quite right in his view that during the last few months we have been entirely depending upon the United States for our supplies of wheat. As the right hon. Gentleman pointed out the Dardanelles had been closed, and this has prevented wheat being shipped from Russia and Roumania. The Prime Minister, however, did not point out that the St Lawrence had been closed, and that will be opened in April. The right hon. Gentleman told us about the complete failure of the wheat crop in Australia, but he forgot to mention a complete failure in New Zealand, and as a matter of fact, both those countries are now buying wheat in the Argentine for their own purposes. When the St. Lawrence is open, when the new season shippings in India comes forward, and when we get supplies from the Argentine and the United States, I venture to think that we shall see freights very much lower and the price of food will be lower.
805 When hon. Members opposite say that freights have put up the prices, they are entirely mistaken. The Prime Minister pointed out that the price of American wheat has increased by 24s., but the freights have only increased by 3s. 6d. It is purely a question of supply and demand, and you cannot get over that law. The Leader of the Opposition suggested that the Government should take possession of the ships in the same way that they have done the transport. The right hon. Gentleman opposite (Mr. Lough) has dealt with the Government excursion into sugar, and he has not described that as a success. I venture to say that if the Government had taken over the ships, their venture would not have been a success. If we want to come back to the real protection against the high price of food during famine or war, we should adopt the same process as Joseph did in Egypt, and have national granaries, purchase grain from the farmers at a fixed price, buying from abroad if necessary, and with such a reserve as that in the country you have only to open the sluices of those granaries and you would keep down the price of wheat.
May I point out that the British farmer is not paying any of these freights, and I am not aware that there has been any great increase in the wages paid to agricultural labourers, whereas the shipowners have had increased payments all round. The shipowner is saddled with very heavy expenses. He has to pay at the present time as much as 55s. for bunker coal in Buenos Ayres, but the Argentine Government have prohibited British steamers taking more coal in the Argentine than their permanent bunkers will hold, and they have to call at another port for coal on their way home. Now what have the Government done in this matter? I think they have done a very clever business transaction in regard to shipping. They take 80 per cent. of the risk, but the shipowner has to pay at the rate of £8 8s. per annum—that is £2 2s. for the three months upon rates which are the same to him. The Government, however, put a limit upon the value of the steamer and they say that you cannot insure for more than £75,000 on any one steamer. Take a steamer worth £150,000. The owner has to run the risk of losing the difference if that ship is sunk by a cruiser or a mine. Now the shipowner has to pay very high premiums, whereas at the beginning of the War he was paying from 10 to 12 per cent. in insurance upon the full value of 806 his ship. Under these circumstances it is absurd to talk of the enormous profits of shipowners.
The only fair way of assessing the profits of the shipping business is to make a comparison over a period of years. During the last twenty years I very much question whether the whole capital invested in shipping, probably amounting to over £200,000,000, has paid 2 per cent. interest. I know that at times shipping makes big profits, but at other times big losses are incurred. I think some of these Gentlemen who are now professing to be shipping experts would be better employed giving their attention to their own profession than taking the freights prior to the War and comparing them with the freights at the present time from the Argentine. They seem to forget that last year the Argentine wheat crop was an absolute failure, and the Argentine imported wheat from the United States for their own purposes. Under these circumstances many of the liners had to take cargo at the price of ballast, and the rates went down as low as 7s. a ton. That was due to the complete failure of the wheat crop. Hon. Members ought really to compare freights from the Argentine in 1912, when they had a big harvest, with the present time. In 1912, freights from the Argentine reached as high as 37s. 6d., or about half of what they are now. In this connection I want to point out that it is absolute folly to talk of shipping rings or combinations in connection with the carriage of such bulk cargoes as grain, cotton, or coal, or anything of that kind. A ring never did exist in such articles, and I do not believe it ever will exist, because it cannot. To accomplish this you would have to get combinations between the tramp owners, which you never will get. In 1914, when trade was so bad for the tramp owners that they were laying up their ships, they could not get a combination even then, and I am sure you will never get a combination between the liner owners and the tramp owners, because they look upon each other more or less with an eye of armed neutrality. The liner owner has, at times, to make use of the tramp because he has found many of his ships requisitioned or, shall I say, commandeered by the Admiralty. He has had his ships taken off his line and he has had to substitute in some cases tramp tonnage, and has had to pay a much higher rate than he is receiving from the Admiralty.
807 7.0 P.M.
I do not care to introduce personal matters, but I do not mind telling the House that at the present time I am saddled with contracts and I have had to charter in large quantities at the rate of 60s. for which I am receiving only 25s. and 30s. Therefore shipping is not all profit. The tramp owners have, in some instances, made profits, but in many cases they are actually making losses. The shipowner who has fixed his boat on time prior to the War at 3s. 2d. and 3s. 6d. has now to pay war risk premiums, and that leaves him with an actual loss upon his running expenses. I think those who are now attacking the shipowners are barking up the wrong tree, and I think they would do well to turn their attention in other directions. With regard to the suggestion made by the hon. Member for North-East Manchester (Mr. Clynes), and I think also by the Leader of the Opposition, that the Government should commandeer the ships for carrying food-stuffs, that sounds very simple, but what ships are you going to commandeer? Are you going to seize the liners? Do hon. Members realise that the liners are filled up with contracts not only with this country but with other countries? It is suggested that the liner owners should treat those contracts as scraps of paper with the same consequences as Germany is now experiencing? If so, they could commandeer a tramp chartered to an American, but what would the American charterer have to say to that? He would have many things to say. Hon. Gentlemen will be well advised to leave matters to work themselves out, because I can assure them that instead of prices increasing they will decrease. You could commandeer the supplies of grain actually in this country—the farmers' and the merchants' grain—and you could sell it at any price the Government liked; but it would immediately prevent one ton coming into this country. Other countries are keener buyers than we are, and they will pay higher freights than we pay. I think the British owner is entitled to some credit for his patriotism in coming to home ports instead of yielding to the temptation to go for the very high freights paid by neutral countries. He has not done that. He has preferred to come to his home ports. It would be a most dangerous experiment to interfere, and to commandeer the supplies of food in this country, and sell them at Government prices, for it 808 would at once divert the flow of wheat from this country to other countries who are keener buyers than we are. Italy is buying enormously, Greece is buying, and all the neutral countries are buying. The supplies from America are fortunately good, though not, I think, as abundant as they are believed to be, and the Argentine crop promises good.
The reason freights from the Argentine made this very big jump during December and January was because the wheat crop was very uncertain owing to the weather. A good portion of the Argentine at the present time is under water by reason of abnormal rains which have ever been experienced there before at this time of the year. There were great doubts about the success of the wheat harvest in the Argentine, and every one held their hands. Then, as soon as the harvest was assured, everybody rushed in, one bidding against the other. It is all a question of supply and demand. When cargo is plentiful shippers and merchants are competing for ships, and when cargo is scarce shipowners are competing against each other for freights. The whole thing will therefore work out its own cure. The congestion at the ports adds very largely indeed to the increase in freights. I had one ship which occupied forty-four days in discharging a cargo of rice which ought to have been discharged inside of six days. [HON. MEMBERS: "Where?"] At Liverpool.
§ Mr. HOUSTON
We could not get a berth. At one time there were forty-six ocean steamers waiting for berths. We have had our berths crowded and blocked up and unworkable. I do not want to criticise the Government, because they have been dealing with an abnormal state of affairs, and people must really realise that everything was subservient to the demands of the War Office. War Office claims are paramount and imperative, and it is ridiculous for people to complain. I am not complaining. I have suffered severely from delays, but I am not complaining because I realise that the War is the first consideration. But sugar is blocking up fourteen berths in Liverpool, and they will block them up for some considerable time. The Government would have acted more wisely if they had spread their purchases over a longer period or had arranged for backward shipments. 809 There are fourteen berths in Liverpool occupied with sugar, which in ordinary circumstances ought to have been taken away to warehouses.
§ Mr. RUNCIMAN
I think the hon. Gentleman is mistaken. At one time there was sugar at eleven berths, but I have just been through on the telephone to the Mersey Dock and Harbour Authorities, and they told me that five berths were now occupied.
§ Mr. HOUSTON
Some little time ago there were, from reliable information supplied to me, fourteen berths blocked. They may be clear now. Take my own berth, for instance. I had a matter of 700 tons of prize cargo lumbering my own berth in Liverpool for six months. I say nothing about that. It was a great inconvenience and a loss to me. It prevented my proper operations over my own quay, but it was a question of legal delay—Prize Courts, and one thing and another. That cargo which originally had been intended for Germany has now, I believe, found its way to France. The Government were perfectly entitled to do it, but at the outbreak of War they immediately seized Southampton, with the result that all the big liners which had been at Southampton came to Liverpool. I do not know that we wanted them or that we welcomed them, but under the circumstances we had to submit. It has been said that a great number of Liverpool dock labourers, and I am proud to say a great many of my own Constituents, have joined the Army. There is a certain scarcity of labour there. Carts, motors, and horses have been commandeered by the War Office. The Transport Department have occupied a number of berths in Liverpool, but there again we must all give way to the necessities of the War, though these things are causing congestion. It was only the best labourers who volunteered. I mean the best in feelings of patriotism, energy, and youth, and those who remain, well, they are not all teetotalers, and I do not know that they are all very keen and anxious to work. You have slackers amongst all classes. Do hon. Gentlemen understand that even in the ranks of dock labourers there is an aristocracy of labour. They are divided into two classes—the shipmen and the quaymen or porters. The shipmen, up to the present, have had 5s. per day, and the quay porters 4s. 6d. a day. Naturally there is a shortage of quay porters, and you cannot discharge your ship, even if you have a 810 couple of hundred on board as stevedores, unless you have the quay porters to take the cargo away. The shipowners suggested 5s. a day all round. The shipmen said, "If you do that we shall want a rise." Then you have to give the shipmen a rise, and, when they get it, the porters say, "We must have a rise." Where are you going to end?
§ Mr. HOUSTON
There is something more in it than the question of supply and demand. Another growing evil is that men find they can make a great deal of money by working on Saturday and Sunday. A dock labourer in Liverpool, working from seven o'clock on Saturday morning until 11.30 on Saturday night and on the Sunday for the same period, can earn £2 4s. 6d., and he does not work the rest of the week. Time and time again I have been telephoned, "We want twenty gangs"—that is, 400 men—and we have got two. That is the sort of thing that is going on. If you are going to commandeer the ships, well, commandeer the labour too, and get the men to work. Hon. Members below the Gangway know perfectly well that I have always been a friend of labour. The fact that I have represented my Constituency, purely a working-class constituency, for twenty years proves that. I am not complaining; I am only defending the shipowners. There is a shortage of labour in Glasgow. The trade unions say: "We are quite willing to increase our members, but before they are admitted they must pay £5 entrance fee." Where is a dock labourer going to get £5 entrance fee?
§ Mr. HOUSTON
It has been confirmed. It is no use arguing like that. I understand trade unions thoroughly. The object of the trade union is to limit the membership, and therefore to get the best rate of wages and the best hours they can. I do not blame them for it, but you cannot dispute it. I have worked with trade unions say: "We are quite willing to in-dispute with them was when they broke faith with me. Mr. James Sexton, who is an honoured member of the Labour Federation, will tell you the result. They did not beat me; I beat them, and Mr. Sexton and the union and I are the best of friends. It is no use hon. Gentlemen inter- 811 rupting about trade unions and wages, because I know something about that matter. There is also congestion on the railways. There the question of labour again arises. You cannot eat your cake and have it. If men have volunteered for the War—all credit due to them—you have not got them for the work. I say it is incumbent upon the men who remain to exert themselves and work full time in carrying on the trade of the country, just as it is upon our soldiers at the front to do their best. It behoves every one of us to do the best we can. I do not think anyone will accuse me of living in luxury or idleness or of skulking. I work about eighteen hours a day if the time I spend in this House is included. I am not attempting to criticise any particular class, the Government or anybody else, but writers in the Press and ill-advised and ill-informed speakers are looking about for somebody to blame—the Government, the shipowners, the workmen and others. I suggest to the President of the Board of Trade that the best thing he can do—he is doing it to a certain extent—is to call together those who know most about these things, namely, the business men. He has done that so far as the dock authorities are concerned, but they are not the right people. They are all right, so far as they go, but take the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board; they are delighted probably with this state of affairs, in view of the rates and dues they are carning, but, except to a very small extent, they do not employ labour. There are the railway companies and the shipowners. Is the right hon. Gentleman going to place the shipowner on the Committee? I am not anxious to go on. I have other things to do, but I think it is necessary to have a shipowner on it.
We are all anxious to help the Government, so far as we can, to prosecute this War to a successful conclusion. We have been asked by the Chancellor of the Exchequer to carry on "business as usual," and we have been endeavouring to do it under difficult and trying circumstances. I do not propose to criticise the action of the Government now; I shall have a great deal to say later on about the Transport Department of the Admiralty and the War Office, but this is a time to help the Government. It is impossible, and indeed absurd, to expect a Department, such as the Transport Department of the Admiralty, to undertake this suggested work. 812 Hon. Members do not understand how that Department is constituted. It is ridiculous to expect it to take over 1,500 steamers of the kind described and work them as a shipowner works his business. How would the officials in charge of the Department be paid? I pay my manager a Cabinet Minister's salary, and he is well worthy of it—indeed, I propose to increase it. If you want the brains of the country you must pay for them. But you do not pay the officials of the Transport Department of the Admiralty such salaries as would ensure your having a man who is capable of running in an emergency, without any previous experience, the whole gigantic business of such a transport service. Some of the officials are naval officers. I have a great admiration and affection for naval officers. If you put a transport official in charge at Southampton or Liverpool, he is bound to be an autocrat; he will not have had much experience of these commercial matters, and the result will be extravagance and the wasting of money. The amount of money now being wasted is enormous, but this is not the time for criticism.
I hope I have explained that there is no such thing possible as a combination between shipowners to keep up freights on food-stuffs, or cotton, or other bulky cargoes. I grant it there are conferences of shipowners in this and other countries, but they are mostly in connection with manufactured articles. They regulate freights, and sometimes sailings, and very often the merchant is only too glad to have the protection of such a conference with fixed freights and sailings, and without any element of speculation. The one object of such a conference is to put the small shipper on equal terms with the big shipper. The big shipper gets no preference over the small one. But when it comes to dealing with full cargoes of corn, cotton, coal, ore, or jute, there cannot possibly be any combination; there never has been one, and I should say there never will be one. I hope I have removed this very erroneous impression with regard to the freights charged by shipowners. There is one hon. Member on this side of the House who has been posing as a shipping expert. He is a lawyer, and I should have thought he would have been sufficiently conversant with the laws of evidence to look into his statements and figures before he put them forward. If he would go to a real shipping expert, he would discover that his figures are very much mistaken, more particularly when he speaks about 813 the receipts of the shipowner. On behalf of the shipowners I thank the Prime Minister for his clear and lucid statement, which I think will do much to dispel a very gravely mistaken idea with regard to the patriotism of the shipowners of this country.
I welcome this opportunity of a frank and free discussion on the floor of the House of a very urgent and important matter, vital to the welfare of the industrial classes of the country, vital to all in every respect, but especially to the industrial classes—those who, in such an excess of loyalty, with great spontaneity, have given of their flesh and blood, and of their treasure also, to defend and uphold the interest of their King and country. In the north of England we have, in this respect, borne our full share. The mover of the resolution told us that there was no evidence of abnormal distress. That may be so, but, nevertheless, there is a great deal of distress. It is inarticulate, it does not show itself, it is kept as much as possible from the public gaze, but it is there; and if you enter the homes of those who have sent their sons and husbands to the front, and deprived themselves gratuitously of the breadwinner, if you enter their homes and obtain their confidence, as I have done in many cases, you will find there is very sad and very serious distress. I know that there are various agencies by means of which we are endeavouring to do all we can to mitigate that distress until the breadwinner returns, as it is hoped he will do, but, I am sorry to say, the end is not yet in sight.
I did not understand my hon. Friend the Member for North East Manchester (Mr. Clynes) to move his resolution. It was my only regret in seeing this question raised that we should have to discuss two distinct resolutions, and I hope we shall not be compelled to signify, by a division, our preference for either of them. I trust we shall follow to-night the practice which has obtained ever since this unfortunate war began, and allow the resolution or motion to be negatived without any division. As far as I am personally concerned I prefer the resolution that stands in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for North East Manchester. Some people, of course, tell you it rather smacks of Socialism. I have got past the day when I am terrified by any "ism;" no "ism" has any terrors for me; the older I become the less do "isms" seem to affect me.
814 My wish is always to look at the strict merits of the case. Whatever is necessary in a crisis such as that through which we are passing, I feel sure as the Prime Minister told us this afternoon, the Government will be disposed to do it in order to provide for the comfort of our people.
My chief object in rising was to refer to the large increase in the price of coal. I have no doubt most hon. Members have noticed the extravagant statements which have been made from time to time by the Press of this country and repeated by speakers on public platforms. Allegations have been made against the miners and their employers to the effect that an understanding had been arrived at between them with a view to increased prices in order to enhance wages and increase the profits of the colliery owners. How little that is the case I think I shall be able to show in a very few words, especially so far as my own Constituency is concerned. We, probably, on the North-East coast have suffered more than any other mining community in the United Kingdom. You have stopped our shipping. Eighty per cent. of our sales are shipped to ports on the Continent, and, practically, for the first two or three months of the War the miners in the county of Northumberland were only doing one or two days' work per week. At the present time, when prices are so high, and people are suffering very considerably in consequence, our miners in Northumberland are not working full time. You talk about commandeering labour. We wish you would come to Northumberland and commandeer the labour of the miners there, giving them full employment; it would rejoice them largely. But as an indication that there is no collusion between the miners in the North of England and their employers, let me say that, instead of prices going up as the Prime Minister clearly showed this afternoon, they are actually going down.
The wages of miners in Northumberland are based on the principle of a sliding scale: as prices go up they benefit, as prices go down they suffer, and during the last two quarters the ascertainment has shown a reduction in the price and the wages of the Northumberland miners have in consequence been twice reduced. The other day I noticed that the price quoted for Northumberland best steam coal at the port of Blythe was 13s. 3d. and 13s. 6d. per ton. In the Tyne the same prices prevailed, but on the following day Tyne main coal 815 was quoted in London and was being sold there at the rate of 1s. 11d. per cwt., or 88s. 4d. per ton. It is well that the poor people of London who are suffering from such excessive charges should know these facts, and not be led to believe, as they have been led to believe by newspaper articles and by speeches of gentlemen on the platform—who, I presume, knew no better, or drew their inspiration from articles they had seen in newspapers—that it is the miner or his employer who is responsible for the increased charges they are paying for their coal. I do not know where the responsibility lies. The railway companies and the shipowners, as we have just heard, and also the merchants here in London, all declare that they are not responsible. Who gets it? The money is paid. After the coal leaves the hands of the producer it goes into the hands of the distributor. There are only three principal distributors who handle coal. One is the railway company, the second is the shipowner, and the third is the merchant in London. It is they who are dividing amongst themselves the increased profit or the increased price.
I dare say that hon. Members have received, as I have received, appeals from certain newspaper proprietors, asking if we would be willing to vote for a suspension of the Eight Hours Act, and suggesting that it is the Eight Hours Act that has led to a restriction of output, which is responsible to a large extent for this increase of price. There are many Members in the House who know very well the part I took with respect to the Eight Hours Act. I opposed it in its application to my own Constituency in the firm belief that its imposition would be injurious to them—not that I was opposed to the principle itself, for from the very first I supported the general principle, but the economic conditions of the county of Northumberland were so different from those of other districts that I satisfied myself that the imposing of that Act upon us would be an injury. For a long time my Constituents agreed with me, until other counsels prevailed among them, and they changed their minds My opposition naturally fell through, but, nevertheless, my prediction came true, and I regret to have to say so. The repeal or suspension of that Act now would be attended with equal hardship, therefore I should not be at all willing to vote for its suspension in the hope that it would tend ultimately to 816 reduce the price of coal to the poor consumers in London and elsewhere. I have risen simply to make my protest against the assumption that there is any collusion on the part of the miner and the employer with a view to raising prices and to increase the profits and enhance wages. I hope that hon. Members will once and for all be disabused of that idea, but at the same time I hope that the Prime Minister will not be deterred by anything that may be alleged against any new departure on the ground that it is novel or that it tends to Socialism, or anything of that nature. We are in a national crisis, and whatever can be done, even though it be novel and a new experiment, ought to be done, and I believe will be done, to improve the social condition of our people.
§ Mr. EVELYN CECIL
The right hon. Gentleman who has just sat down referred in his closing sentence in eloquent terms to the duty of us all, without distinction of party or any other distinction in this national crisis, to face the situation. We are all most grateful to the Prime Minister for the very lucid and interesting statement he made this afternoon dealing with the whole situation. The Debate has gone to show that it would be very rash to attribute the high prices, which no doubt exist in some cases, to any particular cause. The question is far too complicated to say that this rise in prices is due to any particular cause. My attitude would rather be that owing to the utterly abnormal War situation there has been a rise in prices, and that better conditions of transport will tend to alleviate the strain. By those who know the facts, I believe two or three admissions will be universally made. In the first place, it is true to say that the food that is imported is very nearly adequate to keep the prices down at the present moment. Another fact which will be widely admitted is that the high prices are not due to the holding up of Home food supplies. There are high prices, as the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Fenwick) has just pointed out, in respect of coal, and he has stated on behalf of the miners that there is no collusion in putting up those prices. I am quite willing to accept his statement. He has suggested that the high prices in regard to coal are largely or partially due to the delay in delivery, caused by congestion on the railways.
I am familiar with railway working, and I should like to make a few statements as regards that aspect of the situation. In the first place, the congestion in respect 817 of coal on the railways is to be admitted. Up to a certain degree I do not think it can possibly be denied, but, looking at the question as a whole, I should like to disabuse any of those who think otherwise that this is a matter of passengers as well as of goods. There is no question of passengers at all; the question is entirely one of goods. I should also like to say, from my own personal knowledge, that it is not food supplies that are being congested, though it may be a question of other goods, such as coal or wool. Food supplies are being pressed on with the utmost speed, and special instructions are given that no delay should be incurred in respect of them, and I fancy that those instructions are being carried out as well as they possibly can be. Why, then, should we say there is congestion? In the first place, as the Prime Minister has also pointed out, there is a shortage of labour. Many of the employés have enlisted, and we cannot get at a moment's notice, and indeed sometimes at all, the particular kind of trade or skilled workman who is specially suited for the job. While there is a shortage of labour, I should like to add that there is no shortage of trucks. There is a notion abroad that there is not a sufficient number of trucks available. It is not so much a question of trucks not being available as the difficulty of getting the trucks to the particular places where they are required. That is the only sense in which you can say there is a shortage of trucks; at any rate, I do not believe there is in any other respect.
Of course, there is an inevitable congestion at certain points, where large movements of troops or of goods take place, or where junctions, normally employed with much less traffic, are suddenly flooded with traffic of this emergency character. I have been to look at some of these points myself, and can say that every expedition is being used, and that where it is possible other lines or other sidings are being used to set aside empty trains that you cannot pass along as speedily as you would wish-Sometimes it entails working a single line, when one of the lines is positively blocked by trains in that condition, but I do not believe that these congestions are permanent. With care and attention it will be possible to lessen them, even in existing circumstances, and instructions may well be given to secure that. Emergency sidings can also be put down by the War Office, in fact, it has been suggested this afternoon that it is intended they 818 should be. Enormous loads from time to time which are suddenly placed on the railways are another cause of congestion. Emergency orders, such as the Prime Minister has instanced this afternoon, come for an exceptional number of military trains at a particular moment. That means inevitably, for the moment, some kind of congestion. At other points there is a delay in unloading. That is not entirely due to the railway companies. Sometimes it is due to the lack of labour at the port or place of unloading; sometimes it is due to other causes. Sometimes it is due to congestion arising from the delay in leaving Continental ports. All that reacts here and has to be dealt with as circumstances offer. I notice that in a manifesto issued by the General Federation of Trade Unions, there occurs the sentence:—It is apparently more profitable to charge demurrage than to expedite unloading by increasing the local facilities and supply of labour.I do not quite understand what is meant by charging demurrage. Incurring demurrage is probably intended. I can only say on behalf of the railway companies, that they are the last persons who would willingly lend themselves to their trucks becoming warehouses, or to their lines becoming stabling yards. If I could make any more definite statement than that I would willingly give it, but I hope that it fully covers the circumstances. Another cause of congestion, which is one of importance, is the removal of traffic from certain ports, in consequence of the War, to certain other ports. The Prime Minister has spoken of London and Liverpool, more particularly as being ports to which traffic has been diverted, and from what has been said throughout the Debate I think it is fair to say that there is really scarcely room in these ports sometimes to deal with the traffic that comes. Then I am led to ask why not distribute it among other ports, and scatter it abroad more freely. The Prime Minister has referred to a number of other ports by name, and therefore I think there is no harm in my mentioning them also. He mentioned Hull, Newcastle, Leith, I think he mentioned Dundee, and he certainly mentioned Glasgow and Cardiff. Why cannot traffic be more evenly distributed between all these ports? I would seriously suggest to the Government that one of the ways of lessening the congestion, and therefore improving the supplies of coal or of any other necessaries which are congested would be to organise, so far as it 819 is within their control, that traffic should not be only taken to one or two ports which seem to be enormously congested, but to some of these other ports which are not congested which the Prime Minister has mentined. It is almost hopeless, in places such as London, where in normal times supplies have come both by land and by sea in large amounts, to expect that it can take the whole when many of the inlets towards it from other places, either by land or by sea, are occupied or blocked.
I should like also to refer to what has been said about the Admiralty employing one-fifth of our whole tonnage. I am not sure, but it has struck me that the Admiralty is probably employing more ships than it really needs. I may be wrong in making the criticism, but certainly the tonnage it is employing is very large, and if it is employing more than it really needs it is surely a wasteful expenditure of public money, because I do not see the advantage of sending four or five ships on an errand which could be equally well carried out by one. The expenses must be greater, and if it is possible to use fewer ships it would be an advantage in the public interest.
I have heard it suggested, by way of dealing with this railway congestion, that it might be worth while, in order to set it right, to shut down traffic for some days, or even a week. This would be a very drastic remedy, and one which should only be employed in the very last resort. Factories would be blocked up, everything would be brought to a standstill, and intense inconvenience would result. It would be far better and more efficacious to endeavour first to regulate and subdivide the transport of non-perishables, fitting it in with the perishable and urgent traffic whenever opportunity offers. As a further remedy I would distribute the ships and the traffic on railways, as I have recommended, among all available ports, some of which at present are not sufficiently used, and if the Admiralty, as a third I remedy, can see their way to set free more ships than they do at present, I feel certain it would also conduce towards meeting the complaints which have been made this afternoon. In any case, all of us ought to view these matters from an absolutely national point of view. We ought to try to pull together and set them right, no matter what class and what interest may be concerned, and we should give our whole-hearted support to the Government to endeavour to carry out the best remedy.
§ Mr. WARDLE
I rise for the purpose, first of all, of responding to the invitation which was thrown out by my right hon. Friend (Mr. Fenwick). He asked us not to move the Resolution which is down on the Paper in order that he might not be forced to make a decision in regard to coming to a vote upon it. If, on behalf of those for whom I speak, we take that course to-day, it is not because we have not a preference for the Resolution which we have put down, but because we feel that we have no desire to show any division amongst Members of this House. We feel that we should have preferred that the Debate which is taking place on this most important and absorbing subject should have taken place upon the Motion which we have put down. We feel somehow or other that we have been deprived of an opportunity which we ought to have had, because the Motion has been on the Paper for many days, and in response to my right hon. Friend the leader of the Labour party this day was originally set apart for this discussion. We therefore feel that we are entitled to make a protest against the substitution of the Motion which is now before the House in place of new paragraph we ourselves put down, but we do not feel that we can, under existing circumstances, move that Resolution, and certainly we do not desire to divide the House upon it. But I am entitled to say, on behalf of my friends, that the terms of this Resolution and the ideas embodied in it are our contribution to what we think a solution of the pressing evils from which the country suffers, and we feel that this question is so important that we hope to-day will not be the only day given to the discussion. The subject cannot be exhausted to-day, and another day ought to be given for a full and frank discussion of this problem. I do not know whether it is intended that the Debate shall close tonight, but if not we put forward a plea for a second day's discussion.
§ Mr. WARDLE
As far as we are concerned I should hope that the Debate may go on for another day. I know that the state of the House at present does not seem to indicate that there is any great enthusiasm for this subject, but we all know what it is due to. The food question is very urgent. We are not the only party, 821 and I understand that the Irish party are anxious that the Debate shall go on for another day. They show it by their presence. Undoubtedly this is the question which is agitating the country at present. I do not believe that anything we may say in this House will have any effect in Germany, nor do I think that we are either going to paint, or are entitled to paint, in lurid or tragic colours the condition of the War at present, but the situation is this, that this question of prices and excessive prices affects most those who are least able to bear them. It comes upon women and children and those with small wages, and they are the people who feel the effect more than anyone else. The amount of suffering is certainly great, and if this House and the Government can by any action do something to solve this problem they are compelled in the interests of the nation, and especially of these poorer people, to take action at once. I have listened practically to most of the Debate, and it comes to this: Prices go up, but no one reaps any benefit and there is no one to blame. The shipowner does not get any improvement, or if he does it is very small and it is forced on him. He cannot help taking it. The railway companies are in no way to blame. The farmer is in no way to blame. It is all the Government, and they suggest that they can do little, and so we are in a vicious circle in which it is the poor who are suffering.
Allusion has already been made to the fact that the Government have taken exceedingly drastic action in certain directions. It has brought relief to bankers and stockbrokers and others in the City. I am not saying they ought not to have taken the action. I am not saying it was not in the public interest that they took it. I am not saying that the general public did not benefit from the fact that credit was not allowed to break down. The action was taken to relieve the situation with regard to the bankers and the stockbrokers. With regard to shipping, it was taken for insurance purposes. With regard to the question of the dyers they have taken exceedingly drastic action, and they have commandeered part of the railways, and they have in some directions attempted in the early days of the War to fix prices. This House must realise that it is very difficult to persuade a poor woman or a poor man whose wages are low, and who is suffering from these increased prices, that when the Government take action to protect the great shipping interests and 822 the great banking and broking interests of the country, they cannot also take some action which will have for its object the interests of these poorer classes. That is how it strikes them, and it is very difficult to argue with them. I do not know from my own point of view whether we are not entitled to say to the Government, "You who are so keen and have proved yourselves so keen and so able to protect the interests which you have already protected should take some steps when it comes to the case of the poorest of the poor, and you should not be debarred from taking these steps by any preferences or prejudices of the past, or any ideal doctrines as to what you should do in order to protect the life of the poor." That is partly our view.
With regard to the facts, I am sure it will be acknowledged that we have had from the Prime Minister a most lucid and exhaustive statement of the whole problem in many respects. We cannot, of course, go into detail on every item. In some respects we agree with much that has been said, but in other respects we are bound to differ from the conclusions which will arise. For instance, for my part, I do not believe that much of this congestion is due, either on the railways or elsewhere, to the shortage of labour. The hon. Member opposite has referred to the question of the docks at Liverpool. He was kind enough to mention the name of my friend, Mr. Sexton. I have had handed to me by Mr. Sexton, who is somewhere in the precincts of the House, a document which is practically a contradiction of the hon. Member's statement in regard to the shortage of labour at Liverpool. It is perfectly well known to us that both in London and Liverpool there are at the dock gates men waiting to be taken on whilst it is said that there is a shortage of labour. The shortage of labour is of an artificial character. There may be too few men at some places, while there are too many at other dock gates, and if a little rearrangement were attempted at this time to do away with casual labour at the docks, and if labour was properly organised when there is a possibility of its being done in an effective manner, we do not think that there would be a shortage of labour at the docks referred to. We quite agree in some respects and to some extent you may not get the same quality of labour as you would have got before the War, but we believe, so far as we can understand, that 823 sufficient labour is to be had to meet the demand at this moment in connection with the docks.
Reference has been made to the fact that 72,000 railway men have already enlisted for the War. I believe that many more would have enlisted but that an embargo has been placed on their enlistment by the Government and the railway companies. But surely all has not been done in regard to the organisation of the railways that might have been done. There is a disposition at this moment to think that there shall be no attempt to interchange any more than is necessary, and that the manager of one railway must go on the old lines, so that when the War is over it may not be at all difficult to go back to the old conditions. [An HON. MEMBER indicated dissent.] My hon. Friend shakes his head, but there is not the slightest doubt that on the main trunk railways running out of London they are mainly running on the old lines, sending so many passenger trains from London to Glasgow, Liverpool and Manchester, when there might be a diversion to some of these routes of through goods traffic and fewer passenger trains run. I am quite convinced that with a little organisation a great deal more might be done than has been done on the railways up to the present moment. After all, I think all these things are merely tinkering with this great problem. It seems to me that there are only two ways of dealing with the question. One is to leave things alone, which is no way at all, in the hope that the prophecies freely made that matters will be better in the course of two or three months will be realised. The other is to raise wages, and I am of opinion that in that direction certainly something will have to be done, for if prices are to go up, and if the truce which was called at the beginning of the War is to continue, it must continue, on the condition that workmen are not to be asked to make too much sacrifice owing to the War while seeing other people getting rich, as they think, at an enormous rate. That does not touch the whole problem. Other things being equal, I would prefer prices low if wages were lower, for when you come to the stoppage of wages, and especially the wages of women, who do not earn so much, and who are left to depend on separation allowances and things of that character, you will find that high prices hit them enormously.
824 In a crisis like this, so far as a certain number of men are concerned, the necessary remedy must be some increase of wages. It is a question apparently between the Leader of the Opposition and the Government as to when is the proper time. Is it now, or is it later on? Undoubtedly there have been worse times in this country than now, but that is no reason why at the present time we should suffer the evils which our forefathers had perforce to suffer. I hope there is sufficient intelligence in our people to say that, if there is a remedy, and if that remedy is Government interference, they will not suffer as their forefathers suffered. I hope they will say that the remedy should be put into operation. If the Government had interfered when their attention was first called to wheat prices in October, they could then have fixed a price or taken over the supplies at a price which would have prevented the present crisis. If they are going to say now, "We did not foresee what was going to happen, and we did not take action," well and good, but surely they are not allowing us to be driven into the position of Germany, on the contention that this is not the time when they should take action. I quite agree that this is a difficult and delicate situation. According to the figures which the Government themselves have published, there has come into this country as much wheat and as much flour during 1914 and part of 1915, as came in 1913. There is no artificial want, and apparently there are sufficient supplies to meet the necessary market demand. I cannot understand, therefore, why, under these circumstances, the poor should be called upon to suffer as they are suffering, and it is in their interest that we ask the Government to give us more time for the discussion of this matter. We ask them not to close the door to the suggestions we have put forward with the view of remedying the present state of affairs.
§ Sir RICHARD COOPER
I am so closely in agreement with the general trend of the argument of the hon. Member for Stockport (Mr. Wardle) that I need not follow up his speech at all. The hon. Member concluded his speech by raising the question as to what was the time when the Government ought to have taken action and whether they are going to do anything now or in the immediate future. In listening to this Debate it has struck me as extraordinary that every Member who has spoken on the subject appears to 825 assume that food prices have now reached the top, and that nothing is going to prevent them going down. The Prime Minister explained quite clearly to the House that that was his general belief, so far as it was reasonably possible to say what would happen in the immediate future. I sincerely trust that the right hon. Gentleman is correct, but for my own part I anticipate that prices will go in the other direction instead of coming down during the next four or five months. The first point I wish to make is this: At the beginning of the War there were many of us who, as reasonably as we then could in the circumstances, attempted to impress upon the Government the urgency of watching this problem, and we were assured by several Members of the Government—I am not going to read quotations from their statements—that they did realise the importance of it, and that nothing would stand in the way of taking action if there was any reasonable danger in the immediate future. I felt, and I think we all felt, that we had got to be content, because the last thing we wanted to do in those early days was to unduly harrass the Government when they had so much else to apply their time and energies to. We do not wish to create any position which might turn out a sort of scare among the people of the country. I do say that the promises the Government made at the time have not been fulfilled by the facts. They did know, without any question, of the danger there was in front of them and the danger which we are now debating so seriously in this House, and which is exercising the minds of the people, especially of the working classes, more than any other problem. The Prime Minister in his speech to-day said:—The rise of the price of food is below what any one would have contemplated after six months of such a great war.He expected something worse, and if he anticipated something worse, why do not the Government do something to anticipate what may come three or four months hence. A Royal Commission was appointed some years ago to consider the problem of food supplies in time of war. I will just read one short passage from what they say in conclusion—That such a rise must be expected is inevitable in such a war, in spite of any protection to our food supply that the Navy could afford, and that, under the terms of the reference to this commission, it is necessary in addition to the maintenance of a strong Fleet, that measures should be taken by which such supplies could be better secured, and violent fluctuations avoided.826 Then the Government did anticipate the position in which we are to-day, and they took no action. And I do suggest that, having failed so far, they ought to have been more particularly careful not to be lulled to sleep in the belief that we had got to top prices and that there was no danger of prices going higher, but that they ought to look at it from a very much broader point of view, and assume that higher prices may come about, and then consider what the position in this country might be. The Prime Minister referred also, and emphatically, to the diminution in the available supply of wheat, and emphasised his reference by the words,a very serious contraction.In my opinion that is not true. The Prime Minister, naturally, would have much more reliable information than any of the ordinary Members of this House can have. But I do venture to think that he has been misinformed on that particular point, because let us look a little broadly at the general supply of wheat. It is perfectly true that the Russian supply is stopped by the Dardanelles being closed, but in the past we have only imported about 7 per cent. of our wheat supply from Russia, and that modest 7 per cent. I venture to suggest is more than counterbalanced by the bulk of the crops that are in India and the Argentine Republic. Those crops not only will be found, I think, to counteract the 7 per cent. of Russian wheat, but will go very near to covering, if they do not absolutely cover, the shortage which there is in Australia and New Zealand. But that is concerning the future—next month and two or three months afterwards. What is the position to-day? We are dealing with the high price of wheat at the present moment. Last year the importation of wheat into this country was only 2 per cent. less than that of the previous year. That is not such a very serious shortage. No one can say that this enormous increase in the prices has arisen almost entirely from that shortage. We are invited by the Government to make any suggestion we can. I confess, and I think that we are all in the same condition, that we are up against a pressing and immediate thing, and that it is excessively hard for any man whatever his qualifications may be to suggest something practical and something reasonable. But I cannot help being driven to the belief that the Government ought to take more drastic steps than they seem likely to take from what has been said for the 827 purpose of preventing prices from going any higher than they are to-day.
Had they, at the beginning of the War, set quietly to work to buy wheat they would have bought under 40s. They would by their action have prevented the existing state of affairs. I state without fear of contradiction that had they bought 5,000,000 or 10,000,000 cwts. of wheat last September or October there could not have been the price of 60s., which is approximately the price at the present moment. They took action of that nature with regard to sugar, and the people of the country are asking the question, "Why have the Government spent such enormous sums of money purchasing sugar in order to keep prices moderate and insure our supply, while they have not touched the question of wheat for making our bread, and to-day when wheat is 50 per cent. dearer they do not show any sign of moving in the matter?" If it is right in the case of sugar, to take such action, why is it not right in the case of wheat? At any rate when looking broadly at this problem, there are four points upon which we have to concentrate. The first is the available supply of wheat to which I have referred. The second is freights. The third is distribution, which I do not think I need enter into to-night, and the fourth is speculation. I will deal briefly with the two points—freights and speculation. All we know about freights is, that compared with what generally have ruled freights to-day are exorbitant. I listened with great interest to my hon. Friend the Member for the Toxteth Division of Liverpool (Mr. Houston). I am sure that he spoke in all sincereity, and with a knowledge of his subject, but he, at any rate. I am driven to believe, is an unfortunate person in the shipping trade. As far as one can get information, a number of people in shipping to-day are coining money. I am told by them quietly at any rate, that some of them are. It may not be that the vast majority are, but at any rate it is very hard for a working man or for anyone who is in commercial business to understand why a 20s. freight from the Argentine to England can be profitable in time of peace, while to-day in existing circumstances from 70s. to 75s. is asked for, and we are told by an expert that it leaves practically no profit for the poor unfortunate shipper.
I do not know whether it is the ship owner, or the shipper, or the commission 828 agent, or the dock companies, or who it is. All I do know is that freights are exorbitant, and some step ought to be taken by the Government to take care that they do not go higher, and to bring them down lower. I hope that the Prime Minister may have anticipated that by the means which he has described. I am sure that the country would be grateful to the Government for doing it. It is a step in the right direction to get as many boats as possible on to the sea. Whether that is going to meet this point I am personally very doubtful. I think that the Government should not have any hesitation, if necessary, in doing what they did with the railways, without any murmur being raised—that is, take control. They can take control of British shipping to-morrow if they choose. It is a big task. I can point to considerable difficulties in the way of doing it, but it can be done if the Government wish. They can assure their income to the shipping company as they did to the railway companies. Let them assure them, say, a dividend of 5 per cent., even where the companies do not make more than 4 per cent. That would be a great deal cheaper than leaving things in the disastrous condition which exists at present. Not only are the people paying exorbitant rates through their food, but commercial men are paying exorbitant rates for merchandise sent out of the country, and as taxpayers we are paying this large cost which the Government have rightly imposed for the purpose of making insurance easy. Anyone who will take the trouble to calculate this matter will see that the whole problem has directly or indirectly to do with the British Government having absolute command of the whole of the sea, which it possesses, except in the case of the Baltic and the Black Sea, and will find that there is a very great burden on the people which never could have been dreamt of by anyone who attempted to forecast the present position.
There is only one other point, and it has reference to speculators. The pressure that I personally attempted to bring to bear, as others did some years ago, upon the Government with regard to speculation in food supplies, which ought to have been dealt with by the Government before now. Anyone who is connected with the food supplies from South America and North America—and the Government could find out easily if they do not know—knows that practically the whole of our food supplies are rigged by speculators, and I allude 829 more particularly to Chicago. I will not go into the details of that now, because it would not serve the immediate purpose of this Debate, but it will have to be dealt with in the near future. It is becoming worse and worse for these islands, but, for the immediate present, if we accept the views of the Prime Minister himself and other speakers, then, at any rate, the freight problem is only a small portion of this increase of price, and we have to come to the conclusion that the only reason that can be found is the rigging of the market for wheat and other food supplies. If that is true, and it ought not to be very difficult to find out if it is true, there is only one way of stopping it, and that is by holding stocks in the hands of a disinterested party. If the Government in last October or September had bought some five or ten million hundredweights, just as it did in the case of sugar at the beginning of the War, I do not believe that it would have been possible for prices to be rigged up to 60s. a quarter as it is at the present time, because as long as the Government held a fairly large quantity they could have sat on the market at any moment, and those who had speculated on high prices, as they have been doing, would have run the serious risk of having a large quantity put on the market, and their whole speculation would have been brought to nought. So far as my contribution to this Debate is concerned, it is in the direction, without hesitation or fear, of taking pretty drastic action. It may be that the view which I hold is considered to be absolutely futile and absurd; I hope it may prove to be so; but still, when you think of the dangers in front of this country, and when you think of the possibility even yet of our being put into an awkward position and supplies not coming into the country, I think the Government would be justified in taking drastic action with regard to freights and getting stuff into this country, at the same time taking care that speculators in Chicago and elsewhere shall not succeed in putting the price of food here any higher than it is at the present time.
§ Sir JOSEPH WALTON
This is a question than which none possibly can be of greater importance, the question of how we can best shape our policy to keep down the cost of the necessaries of life in this the greatest crisis in the history of our country. I never listened to speeches with deeper interest than I have to-day to those which have been delivered in this 830 House. We had from the Prime Minister one of the clearest and ablest statements, evidencing how much investigation the Government have given to the various questions affecting the cost of the food of the people. We listened again to one of the ablest speeches I have heard delivered in this House from my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Manchester (Mr. Clynes); and, again, we had from the Leader of the Opposition a statesmanlike speech of a non-party character; and we must have, irrespective of party, the deepest satisfaction in realising, in the dreadful and trying position in which we stand as a nation, that to-day we know no party, but that the men of all parties are standing shoulder to shoulder, anxious that the wisest policy may be adopted for safeguarding the food of the people of this country and rendering its cost as low as it possibly can be made under the circumstances. A great many questions have been raised. I quite agree with the hon. Gentleman who last spoke, that if possible the rigging of the market in wheat or other food products should, if possible, be checked and counteracted by even drastic action on the part of the Government of this country. I am very deeply concerned in keeping the cost of food products low, because from the district which I have the honour to represent in Parliament, thousands of coal-miners, who have joined the Colours, and who at the time were working for higher wages than they had ever made in their lives, earning £3 a week, volunteered to serve their King and country, leaving wife and family behind with separation allowances arranged through the Government. That very fact alone places us under the greatest responsibility to leave no stone unturned to keep the cost of the necessaries of life low, so that the enormously reduced incomes of thousands of homes in this country, where the bread-winners leaving big wages have gone to fight for King and country, and to see, also, that the sacrifice and hardship in those homes is reduced to the very minimum.
At the same time the question really was ably dealt with by my right hon. Friend the Member for the Wansbeck Division of Northumberland. I am myself a small coalowner in the county of Northumberland, and I can bear out what my right hon. Friend has stated to the House. There is no coal shortage. It is not shortage of coal which has raised 831 prices. In Northumberland, in the first few weeks after the War began, the miners did not average more than two days a week, and the collieries of Northumberland are not working more than three or four days a week now, while many in the county of Durham are not working full time. With regard to the price of coal in London, all I have got to say to the Government is that if they will find us transport from Northumberland to London, people of the Metropolis shall have cheap coal. The Government can do it in two ways, either they can give us one of the interned ships to load with coal, or, as they have assumed control of the railways, why not send us a train of waggons to fill with coal to bring through to London? I venture to say that there is no reason why good coal from Northumberland and Durham should not be delivered in London at a cost not exceeding £1 per ton at present. We should be only too delighted to have the pits working full time. It is perfectly true that an enormous number of coal miners have joined the Colours; 30,000 pitmen from the county of Durham are to-day either fighting at the front or in training to do so in defence of the just cause for which we are contending. In Yorkshire 20,000 more miners have gone, but notwithstanding that fact there is no shortage of coal. I do trust that my hon. Friend who represents the Government at present on the Front Bench (Sir Harry Verney) will convey to the President of the Board of Trade the suggestion I make, that it would be a great boon to the people of London if he would give them cheap coal, either by supplying the ships in which to load it or bringing it through by rail. That is indeed, I think, a practical suggestion.
I can only say with regard to the coal trade, that I do not believe there is a single colliery in Northumberland which, since the War began, has not lost money. That is strangely at variance with the general idea that the coal people are reaping a rich harvest out of the War. It is perfectly true that in South Wales the story is very different, but in Northumberland we exported 80 per cent. of our produce to Russia, Germany, and the Continent. All that trade is stopped, and it is one of the misfortunes of the situation that the War is affecting so differently different trades and industries and even different localities in the same trade. In 832 the interests of the men in Northumberland, and not only of the dependants of those who have gone to fight, but as well of those who are only working in Northumberland three or four days a week, I trust the Government will not hesitate to adopt the most drastic, well-considered methods to keep down the prices of the necessary supplies. I have been busy myself calling upon wholesale provision dealers and many retail traders to ascertain their prices of the various commodities. I venture also to suggest to the Government that they should make an appeal to the patriotism of the wholesale import provision merchants that they should seek to make no special profits out of the great calamity of the War, but should co-operate with the Government in endeavouring to keep the prices as low as possible. Many retail traders have told me, "We are sorry to raise our prices, but we cannot avoid it, because the juices are raised on us by the wholesale people from whom we buy." I do not believe in too drastically interfering with the normal course of trade, but I do believe that an appeal to the patriotism of the wholesale provision people, as well as to the patriotism of the retailers, as to the necessity of keeping the cost of living in this country as low as possible, would be responded to in a generous and patriotic spirit. I hope that a note will also be made of that suggestion by my hon. Friend, and which I put forward for the consideration of the Government. I hope, too, that this most interesting discussion will continue another night: it is such a refreshing and new experience to have the Prime Minister of the day inviting men in all parts of the House to make suggestions to help forward the cause that we all have equally at heart, namely, getting through this crisis with the minimum of sacrifice and hardship to the poorest in the country.
This is one perhaps of the most vital questions, apart from matters directly connected with the War, which could be discussed by this House. Representing, as I do, perhaps the largest industrial constituency in the Kingdom (Oldham), with a population of nearly a quarter of a million working people, I felt it my duty, when in December I saw the prices of food going up, to investigate the causes. Though I found, of course, as the Prime Minister stated, that it is useless to try and control the foreign merchants who sell our food, yet such a large part of the rise in prices of food is due 833 to the ship freights, and those ship freights being nearly all freights of British shipowners, I felt that there at least something could be done. I feel that I am justified in that in the words which have fallen to-day, not merely from the Prime Minister, but also more strongly still from the Leader of the Opposition. The speech of the Prime Minister was to my mind not a satisfactory one at all. I think when the country comes to read it, they will see that all that is being done by the Government to remedy the present state of things is that plenty of examples have been given of worse times, but very little has been suggested or is going to be done in the way of practical arrangements to reduce the price of food. The Prime Minister says he will deal with measures for improving the distribution of food, and will deal with delays at the docks and congestion on the railways and shortage of ships and so on.
That would be extremely useful and, no doubt, would have some effect, but what I want to know is this: The freights from the Argentine, which in ordinary times should be about 15s. are now about 75s. or 80s., owing, we are told, to the expensive conditions under which the shipping trade is now conducted, and will the shipowners, if the conditions at the docks are improved and if the railways are running freely, take off the extra 40s. or 45s.? The shipowners, or most of them, now say that the rise of freights is due practically to the extra expense and delays at the docks. I think we will find that when the time comes when those delays are remedied, that they will not assess them at 45s. a ton, but will say that the extra expense amounted to about 5s. per ton, and that they will only take off that amount. The Prime Minister told us a good deal about shipping and about the ships which have been put out of competition by the War, including those of Germany and Austria-Hungary, making 14 per cent. of the world's shipping, and he told us about the number of ships which were taken by the Government for the purpose of transport and conveying food to the troops. Not a single word did he say with regard to freights, except one, that is not fully set out in the Liverpool Steamship Owners' Association's report, whose secretary, Sir Norman Hill, knows as much about shipping as anybody in this country. The Prime Minister was quite right to take his figures; but it does not do to go only to 834 one side. The Prime Minister has forgotten that, although there is a shortage of ships in the world, there is also a considerable shortage of commerce, so that at the present time there are quite enough ships to carry the whole commerce of the world. The same applies to the British Isles. There are plenty of British ships to carry all the commerce of Great Britain. What we are suffering from is not want of ships, but want of available ships for England. Our ships at the present time, to use a colloquial expression, have been "collared" by the foreigner.
We have been told, in order to gloss over the enormous freights which are being charged to England, of the extraordinary greater freights that are being paid by foreign countries. Those freights are attracting the whole of our British ships for carrying grain, food-stuffs and goods from the new world to Italy, Greece, and other foreign countries, and I believe that a very large part of those supplies gets into Germany and Austria. Those who are in the trade say that they have very strong suspicion about it. That is why they get these enormous freights. I happened to write a letter to the public Press some time ago, with the result that one of the American newspapers reported it in full in its issue of the 26th January, and the editor sent me a copy of the paper. It is pointed out that freights from America to Europe have gone up 900 per cent. No wonder the British shipowner is anxious to carry goods at such a price. They have only gone up 650 per cent. from the Argentine to England, so he prefers to carry at 900 per cent. increase for a foreigner to carrying at 650 per cent. increase for Great Britain. From New York to Liverpool the increase is 500 per cent.; from New York to Rotterdam, 900 per cent.; and cotton from New York to Bremen 1,100 per cent. The writer says that ocean rates are still rising, and are limited only by the greed of the steamship owners on the one hand, and by what the traffic will stand on the other—that is, what the people over here will pay. The House sees the position. There is no shortage of ships, and no shortage of food, but there is a shortage of available ships for this country. British steamship owners own 60 per cent.—it used to be 50 per cent., but the number of vessels has been reduced—of the ocean-going steamships of the world. Therefore there is no reason why we should not have wheat brought to this country at reasonable freights. But while 835 foreign countries—Italy, Greece, and others—are paying these enormous freights, British ships are attracted to those countries, and this country is left out in the cold.
That is the situation in which we are at the present moment. But that was not touched on by the Prime Minister. If he had known of it, I think he would have touched upon it. He did mention one fact—the enormous congestion of Steamships at Genoa. He said that while we think it it a terrible thing to have fourteen ships waiting in the Thames, or forty at Liverpool, at Genoa they have 130. If that is the case, it is a great proof of the truth of what I have been saying—that British ships are carrying food to the foreigner instead of bringing it to this country: therefore, there is a shortage of shipping: therefore, freights are high. A shipowner, writing to one of the shipping papers early in January, told us that we were menaced with a very great danger—the danger of being bought out by the foreigners, who would offer high freights for our ships to carry goods. Mr. Philip Runciman, who, I believe, is largely interested in one of the largest shipping firms in London, plainly points out in a letter to the "Morning Post," on the 13th January, that Italy and Greece are buying as hard as they can, and he says that they have nearly exhausted—I hardly think that can be true—the wheat crop of America. The result will be that when these countries, which are paying such enormous rates, have bought up nearly the whole of the available crops of the United States, the price of wheat in this country will go still higher. Hon. Members will see what a serious situation it is. There is very little wheat coming at present from Argentina. Their season is just beginning. The season for shipping ought to have begun three or four weeks ago, so that we have all the shipment from Argentina to expect. The freights of this shipment are enormous. They have gone up from 10s. 6d. in July to 75s. last Saturday. I am told that since then they have been 80s.
It is immaterial whether the figure is 75s. or 80s. For the purposes of my argument 75s. is sufficient. Every- 836 body must admit that they are exorbitant and enormous unless they are justified. On 6th February a correspondent in the "Morning Post" set out, in a special article on the subject, how merchants in Argentina have ceased to charter ships because they are losing patience with the continual rise in freights—75s. is too much for them. The shipowners are doomed to disappointment, because they expected to get 80s. That is the state of affairs in Argentina at the moment, when the crop is just beginning to come over, and when Mr. Philip Runciman says that the American crop is being exhausted by foreign countries. What is going to be the limit in the rise of these freights? An American gentleman says that the only limit is the greed of steamship owners, on the one hand, and what this country will stand on the other. This shortage of ships is a state of things which has been brought about by the shipowners themselves—a shortage I mean as regards carrying to England.
It is cool, calculated, and frigid shortage. I gave the House the figures—900 per cent. on the one hand and 650 on the other. Everyone will admit that 650 per cent. is a good remuneration; yet 900 per cent. has its charms! How has this all come about? The shipowners have been placed in a privileged position by the circumstances of the War and the action of the Government. The Navy has protected them and has swept away all competition from the sea. They can carry their cargoes freely on every sea. The Government from the very first insured them so that the dêbâcle that threatened them at the commencement of the War has been averted. Almost from the first, they were able to sail their ships because of the Government's system of insurance. The hon. Member for the Toxteth Division of Liverpool talked about the enormous insurance, which was heavy at first, but he forgot to remind the House that now it is only one guinea per cent.
Yes, and if you go to an underwriter you can get much the same insurance for 15s. There is a competition between the Government and the underwriters. The Government did more. We know the great effort made by the Chancellor of the Exchequer to restore international credit. That was done as much on behalf of the shipowners as it was on 837 behalf of the other trades, commerce, and industries of the country. All this has been done for the shipowners. When they came into the business the Kingdom and the Empire were providel for them. They could never have made their profits without it. Yet these same steamships have been used in preference to carry goods—
§ Mr. HOUSTON
I really must protest against the inferences of the hon. Gentleman. I said in my speech that British shipowners deserved some credit for taking lower freights, and not sailing to foreign parts, though the temptation to do so was very great.
I should have said at the outset—and that will remove a wrong impression from my hon. Friend—that there are two classes of shipowners: there are the good shipowners—and there are plenty of them—who have placed their ships at the disposal of the Government.
No; they have been cheerfully and willingly placed by the majority of the shipowners at the disposal of the Government.
§ Mr. HOUSTON
I am sorry to interrupt my hon. Friend, but really he is speaking without knowledge. The ships have been commandeered, and on some occasions the owners have asked the Admiralty to release certain of their ships that did not seem to be needed for the moment.
§ 9.0 P.M.
Patriotic shipowners, I am entitled to say—for it is my opinion—and I have investigated the subject, and I believe I am perfectly right in what I say—patriotic shipowners have cheerfully and willingly given a proportion of their ships. Sometimes they have been asked too much, and have asked for a proportion to be released. It has been publicly stated in the "Times" that the rates fixed by the Government for steamers commandeered were within one-third of that which they could have got otherwise. These rates have been cheerfully and willingly accepted by the shipowners, though not to be compared with what they could have got in the open markets. Yet they return a fair and good profit for the capital invested. The shipowners were content to accept them. That is from the "Times." My hon. Friend can turn up the columns in the "Times" and verify the quotation for himself, though if he wants it very much I will 838 look it up for him myself. What I would ask is this: The right hon. Gentleman said that the powers of the Government were limited. I do not think they are. May I make one suggestion: If all the shipowners—some of them are quite ready to do it—would offer to carry goods to England in preference to carrying them to foreign countries, whenever England required the goods, it would be a step in the right direction. A Department of the Board of Trade might be formed, and before any shipowner accepted a charter from a foreigner to carry goods to a foreign country he might apply to the Board of Trade for permission. The Board of Trade would tell him whether or not there was any shortage of ships. In case there was a shortage, the shipowner would decline the foreign offer and engage his vessel to carry goods to this country. My suggestion does not prevent the shipowner making as much money as he reasonably can. The whole point is that he should serve his own country first, and take care that his own country is supplied with food, raw materials, and other necessities of life. I think it is a matter which could be arranged. It is a practical, simple matter. It is the equivalent, on the part of the shipowners, to the ordinary person placing his income at the disposal of his country during this great War.
All British ships should be at the disposal of the British Government, and all contracts made with foreigners ought to be subject to the necessities and interests of the nation, the ships being requisition-able by the English Government at any time. What I ask is that England, who has done so much for the shipowners, should count. We are good friends with Italy. We hope we shall be Allies of Italy. Most of us have a great affection for Italy and the Italians. Most of us, in our early youth, have had more or less association with Greece. We should let these friendly countries know how we stand. After the proviso I have put in, our ships could work for these countries as much as they like, and on the best terms they can get. They must settle their own differences with shipowners, though I consider some of these terms are very exorbitant; but, as regards our country, I say they ought to carry to England first. Of course, there will always be a minority amongst shipowners, as amongst other people, who will stand out. Compulsion of some kind is necessary. The sort of compulsion I suggest is 839 a very small and simple one, but I believe, very efficacious. These shipowners are entirely indifferent to the general public welfare, entirely indifferent to their moral responsibility, and the worst of them are the ones who cry out most, who have been writing to the newspapers. There was a writer whose letter was published in the "Morning Post" and the "Shipping Gazette," and whose name was at the bottom of the letter. [HON. MEMBERS: "Name!"] I do not like to tell the House. At all events, what does he say?Profits, forsooth! Why should we not take advantage of our present opportunities to make as much money as we can? War is but a temporary incident in the life of a nation.[HON. MEMBERS: "Name!"] I do not think it is fair to give the name, but if you look in the columns of the "Shipping Gazette" for January, you will see it. I do not like to bring names before the House, when I have said rather a severe thing. Another shipowner writes threatening the Government if they dare interfere with ships. He says:—They have been able to collar the railways, but they shan't collar our ships. We will boycott the United Kingdom, and will carry goods for foreigners.Knowing all the time, as he well did, that they would get a very much higher freight from the foreigner than from this country. My hon. Friend referred to a writer of a letter to a newspaper. I suppose he referred to me. He used very strong language against the newspaper.
I am so glad, but, at all events, the most exaggerated language I used in the whole of my letters was the word "unwarranted," and then, when I was criticised for it, I called them monstrous, and I think the House is satisfied they are, because I think they have been so called by the Prime Minister himself. The hon. Member for the Toxteth Division questioned the price I put in my letter when I started the controversy on the 2nd January in the "Morning Post." I mentioned 12s. 6d. The hon. Member is quite right; it was less: it was 10s. 6d.
It was not a fair price to take, said my hon. Friend. He said the real freight was about half of that now, and I think he said 37s. 6d.
The hon. Member mentioned that a fair figure for comparison would have been 37s. 6d. It is a very curious thing, but in a paper called "Syren and Shipping," published on 10th December, the editor, or, I think, one of the important writers on it, was asking for subscriptions for our soldiers and sailors for tobacco, cigarettes, and so on, and appealing to shipowners to contribute out of the large profits they were earning. He said:—Now that they are getting the heart-gladdening freight of 30s. from Argentina, they will be in a position to contribute very liberally.Thirty shillings was a very handsome freight on the 10th December, and was putting enormous profits into the pockets of shipowners. And on that date, may I remind the House, all the drawbacks which shipowners at the present time are suffering, and which they say justify them in sending up freights, namely, the delays at docks, congestion of railways, etc., were just as bad as now. The working expense of a ship—wages, coal, bunkering, and so on—were as expensive as now.
§ Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER (Mr. Whitley)
The hon. Member ought not to make an interruption without reason. If of sufficient importance he is justified in asking leave to interrupt.
§ Mr. HOUSTON
I am very much obliged to you, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, for your kind suggestion. I do not wish to interrupt too much, but when the hon. Member is making statements which are absolutely inaccurate it is very difficult to sit here and allow them to go unchallenged.
I am putting my side of the case. The hon. Gentleman had a very long innings earlier in the evening, and he made a great many statements not supported by any proof whatever. This is one of them. I am giving you a statement now which is quite capable of being thoroughly investigated. It is that the difficulties are no greater now than they were on 10th December and, as far as I can find out, the amount that the ship- 841 owners have to pay for insurance is just half what it was in December. Yet the 30s. of 10th December has jumped up in February to 75s. I want to know, and the House and the Government ought to know, what justifies this jump from the "heart-gladdening" freight of 30s. on 10th December to 75s. on 6th February? The importance of this matter lies in the future. The Argentine crop is coming along. We want that crop badly, and there is no end to which these freights may not go unless something is done, and I ask the Government to consider the suggestion I have made with regard to permission being required for British ships to charter for foreigners, when this country is short of ships, and needs them. Then my hon. Friend says the figures he has seen in the Press are not accurate. As far as my figures are concerned, may I say they are obtained from persons interested in shipping in London and Liverpool and who know all about shipping—gentlemen to whose names my hon. Friend would pay the greatest respect. With regard to the freightage of raw cotton, they come to me direct from Mr. Roxburgh, President of the Liverpool Cotton Association.
My hon. Friend said you must take twenty years for the period over which a shipowner has to provide his profits, and that during twenty years the shipowners have only made 2 per cent. That may have occurred in some cases; it is not general throughout the trade. Only a few days ago the Peninsula and Oriental Steam Navigation Company paid a dividend of 10 per cent. and a bonus of 5 per cent.—that is to say, 15 per cent. on their deferred shares, not for anything done during the War, but for the period ending September, 1914, and that dividend was the same as they paid in 1913, when they also put £200,000 in reserve. That does not look like 2 per cent. over twenty years. There are some shipowners who are crying out now and making the most noise in the Press who are not noted for their business, but who mismanage it. I notice when I look at the report of the P. and O. Company, they say that the year 1913 was one of the most prosperous years in the annals of the shipping world, whereas some of the shipowners who write to the Press are saying, "Why should we not make up all the losses we have incurred, because we have not had a good year for a long time, and now that we have a war, let us take advantage of it." The three years 1910–13 were excellent years, and probably my hon. Friend did not make 842 losses, but the bad shipowners did make losses, and no doubt they were men who had not the proper amount of capital and entered into transactions which were more or less in the nature of speculation. My hon. Friend tries to excuse the shipowners on the ground that they do not themselves always get these high freights, but I know that a great many of them do. When a speculator gets a ship at 16s., lets it at 60s., and in war-time pockets the difference in the freight, that man is a villain.
§ The CHAIRMAN
It seems to me that the character of the shipowner is rather far away from this subject.
I was led into making this remark by the speech which my hon. Friend made. I wish now to deal with the question whether the rise in prices is due to freight or not. I have here the official prices at Rosario for wheat. Taking the price of wheat on the 15th July—before the War—and the 15th January—after the War—the increase in the price of wheat paid to the merchant in Rosario is 9s. 5d. per quarter, whereas the increase the shipper got was 11s. 8d. Taking maize at Rosario for the some period, there was no increase in price of the article, but an increase of 11s. 8d. in the freight. On the 15th July the price of maize was 20s. a quarter, and on the 15th January it had not risen at all, but the freight had risen by 11s. 8d., and that had put up the price. In the case of oats at Rosario for the same period, the price of oats increased by 4s. 8d. per quarter, and the increase in the freight was 7s. 4d. As regards the Argentine freights, they are greater than the increase of the price which the merchant charges at Rosario. When you come to the proportion of the freight to the cost of the cargo whereas on the 15th of July it formed seven per cent. of the cargo, of wheat on the 15th of January it was thirty-four per cent. In regard to maize at Rosario on the 15th of July it was 9 per cent. and on the 15th of January it was 70 per cent. of the cost of the article. This must increase the price when it comes to this country and it increases the price of bread. Even the merchant at Chicago puts up his price when he sees that the merchant in the Argentine has put up his price and the freighter has put up his. One acts upon the other. This question is a very serious one, and I hope that the Government will take some concerted action on the lines I have indicated to deal with the situation when we are faced with a shortage of available ships 843 for carrying goods to this country, and there are plenty of British ships carrying goods for foreign countries.
§ Mr. WILES
I am sure when the people of this country study the Prime Minister's speech their great anxiety about the price of food will be very largely stayed. I feel sure that the hopeful view which he gave to the House will give great satisfaction to the country, especially as he believes that the ordinary law of supply and demand will operate in the ordinary way, and will not need any special legislation. We have been told to-night by my right hon. Friend (Mr. Lough) that tea is the most important thing to discuss. I rather take the view of the Prime Minister that the most important thing is the cost of wheat, after the freightage is paid to this country. In the earlier part of the War, in August, Germany, France and Austria and other countries took action with reference to wheat, and practically took over the supplies of wheat coming into this country, but our Government, although thoroughly alive I believe to the position, thought it well not to purchase wheat themselves, because they thought that the supplies would come in in the usual way, and that their capture of prize cargoes and the sale of diverted cargoes would keep food in this country at the normal price. Instead of doing what they did in the case of sugar they left wheat to take care of itself. That went on very happily until nearly Christmastime and the rises were not very great. But about Christmas a considerable rise took place.
It is reported, I believe on fairly good authority, that the prices which were very much inflated in America, were largely owing to purchases made by German-Americans in the option markets of Chicago and New York. Whether they were inspired by the German Government or not I cannot say, but anyhow the rise took place. About that time the daily Press began a very strong campaign, saying that food was being cornered; that syndicates were buying up wheat; that farmers were holding back wheat, and that the Government must take some immediate action. I happen to know from my own knowledge and my connection with this business that a great deal of nervousness was shown on the part of the millers and buyers of wheat, and few purchases were made because they thought action would be taken by the Government. For the moment the rise in 844 the price of wheat was stayed, but before many days were, over foreign Governments, especially the Italian Government, the Government of Greece, and the Government of Spain stepped in. Nearly the whole of this time they had been bidding against one another, and prices rose very high in consequence. I am afraid the flow of wheat into this country has been rather stopped by this sudden ceasing of buying by millers and merchants in the ordinary way, and I rather think that any anxiety which the Government has must be with regard to the near future, say, during February, March, and April. I am anxious to try and see what can be done to prevent the food supply decreasing and prices being inflated, but I cannot help agreeing with the last speaker that the person who will pay the most for it is the person who will get the wheat. The neutral countries of Europe have been buying against us. We have not thought fit to give the price, and I am afraid when our millers come to buy they will have to pay rather high prices for immediate shipments.
I would like to give the House some figures which have been prepared by people who are thoroughly cognisant of the supply of wheat all over the world. I will, first of all, give the estimated normal requirements of Europe and of Great Britain till we get the next general harvest of the world at the end of August. It is estimated that we require about 550,000 quarters of wheat every week, while Continental countries are also importing at about the same rate, but they will need rather more than we do. Their requirements are estimated at 600,000 quarters per week. This will make 31,000,000 quarters of wheat for food supply in Great Britain and in the importing countries of Europe during the next twenty-five weeks, bringing us up to the next harvest. Those, roughly, are the requirements. I want to tell the House the countries which will supply us with this wheat. Our principal source of supply up till now has been the United States, and the American Government have a great system of statistics for their wheat crops, which are generally found to be pretty reliable, and they show, with the crop which they have grown this year, an estimated exportable surplus of about 36,000,000 quarters. That may be looked upon as a moderate and, as I think, a certain amount to come to this country. Then we look to Canada, which also has an exportable surplus. Canada and the 845 United States together have something like 43,000,000 quarters to export, of which 28,000,000 quarters have already been exported. That means Canada probably has 15,000,000 quarters available to the end of this season. Then we have great hopes of getting a large quantity of wheat from the Argentine, where the Government also have an official estimate of what their surplus is likely to be, and it is estimated by them that they will have 14,000,000 quarters to export during the present season. Possibly owing to the very high prices of wheat they may scrape up a little more, because it must be remembered that when the price of wheat is so tempting an exporting country will always rake up her last fragment of wheat to export. The only other country from which we have large supplies to come is India, and the general opinion is that in India there will be a record crop. There, again, the price will no doubt be very attractive, and it is hoped that 5,000,000 quarters may be shipped before the end of July.
We have got those three countries to look to for our food supply until our own harvest is gathered next August, and if we add the balance which it is possible may come from those three countries together, the United States and Canada with 15,000,000 quarters, the Argentine with 10,000,000 quarters, and India with 5,000,000 quarters, we get, roughly, 30,000,000 quarters. This figure shows a slight deficit on the figure I mentioned, but with the balance which we have on passage at the present time there ought to be more than is required. I believe the Prime Minister is quite justified in the hopeful view which he put forward, that when we get through the next two months the supply will come along in a normal manner, and we have, in this Debate, to see what hope there is of getting prices considerably lower. We have heard to-night of the woes of the shipowner. We have heard what a dreadful thing it is to be a shipowner, and how they have suffered in the past from very low freights! We know that at the present time they are not suffering from low freights. We know that they are getting the highest freights which I believe have ever been known. We have also heard to-night, for the first time, the percentage of boats which have been taken by His Majesty's Government for the use of the Admiralty, and we are told that 20 per cent. of the British mercantile fleet is being used for the needs of 846 our Navy. That leaves 80 per cent. of our mercantile service to come into the market for the balance of trade which is to be done. We have lost German and Austrian competition, which is something like 74 per cent. of the whole world, and we have now 20 per cent. at the Admiralty, so that it leaves us with 70 per cert. to carry the ordinary trade of the rest of the whole world.
It is rather a happy position to be in if you are a shipowner and can go into the market to charter your vessels, and do not happen to have any taken by the Government, and it seems to me that the man who does not happen to have his ships taken by the Government is much better off than the man who does have them taken, and the method I am going to propose to deal with this difficulty would avoid the terrible necessity of having to select whose ships shall be taken and whose ships shall be left. I suggest that all the ships which are registered at the Board of Trade should be taken over by His Majesty's Government at the prices the Government now pay for those which are let on time charter. That means all the ships over a certain tonnage—I mean large ocean-going vessels—shall be taken over by the Board of Trade or whatever department may be responsible, at a flat rate which will pay a handsome profit to the shipowner. Then I suggest that those ships which are not required by the Government shall be re-let. You can still employ the same ship brokers, and the owners shall re-charter the ships not required by the British Government at the highest freights they can get in the market, and the balance of freight they get over the flat rate shall be paid into the State Exchequer. That would do away with the outcry about the very high profits of shipowners through the 20 per cent. taken by Government and the loss of German competition which gives them an opportunity of squeezing a very high rate out of the British public.
I make these suggestions to the Government because we have had no proposal from them for dealing with this question, and I know that many advantages would accrue from it. I dare say there would be some disadvantages, but the result would be that the State would get control of the mercantile fleet and it would be able to select what ships it liked. It would not be acting fairly to one man and unfairly to another. All vessels would be taken over at a flat rate, and in effect the British mercantile fleet would be in much the same position in 847 regard to certainty of profits as the large railway companies are to-day. I understand that the Government have guaranteed the railways their dividends. The shipowner will get more. He will get the high rate at which the time-charter will be settled when the Government take over his vessel, and then it will make a large profit for the State. I understand that the State has made a very handsome profit out of the war risk insurance which it so wisely started, and I believe that, as one result of the Government dealing with it so quickly, the price of wheat was prevented going up, therefore the smart way in which the Government dealt with it prevented a panic in wheat directly the War began, and I think another large profit might be made by the State out of the balance of the high freights. This is one of the ways in which we might reduce the cost of food. Perhaps it is too late for the Government to go into the wheat market. It has often been discussed whether or not it should go and buy wheat. It might have done it with great advantage in August, when wheat was cheap, but it is easy to be wise now the market has gone up and to say that an earlier date was the proper time to purchase. But it may be taken for granted it is too late now for the Government to go into the market and buy wheat.
A good deal has been said to-day about the various causes which have helped to put up freights which are justified, and I hold strongly the shipowner is justified in getting somewhat higher freights than before, because of the great delays that have occurred in the docks. Those engaged in business in London are aware of the extraordinary congestion there is in the London docks, and I am not at all sure that the authorities in London are not somewhat to blame for that congestion. I do not know what communications have taken place between the Government, the Board of Trade, and the Port of London Authority, but I think a closer working together, better arrangements, and the better organisation of ships going into the docks might have been carried out with Government assistance much better than it has been during this time of congestion. I know there have been great difficulties. There has been a great shortage of railway trucks in the docks, and I was glad to hear the Prime Minister say to-day that individual railway companies are no longer to say a particular truck shall not go here or there, 848 but that all the trucks are to be pooled into one common truck fund, so that there shall not be these great delays in the docks in future. Another thing which has caused congestion is that the War Office made a bridge of barges across the river. It was necessary no doubt, but they took a very large number of lighters away from the River Thames, and the consequence was a shortage of barges. Complaint is made on the river of the way in which they used the barges as warehouses, as has been made by the shipowners in regard to the way in which vessels with half-cargoes have been sent half way round the British Isles. The War Office have used barges as warehouses, and men inexperienced in dealing with traffic in the river or on the railway have been ordering them about. I do not think they have been organised in the best possible way, and I hope that now we seem to be settled down to a state of War these matters will be dealt with by obtaining the advice and help of business men who are always ready to come forward and assist the Government in a patriotic and unselfish manner. The Debate today has shown that there is a more hopeful view for the future, and if only we can get through the next few months without a further rise, I believe that with the suggestions thrown out in the course of this discussion, before we get well into the spring the flow of food will be coming along in the usual way, and we may look for lower prices by next harvest instead of the greater increase which is feared in some quarters.
§ Mr. HEWINS
I would not have intervened in this Debate but for the fact that the Prime Minister devoted a large portion of his speech to the subject matter of the Resolution which my hon. Friend (Mr. Evelyn Cecil) and I have on the Paper, and I should not like the Debate to conclude without expressing my acknowledgment of the handsome manner in which the right hon. Gentleman dealt with it. Of course, as everybody knows, whether a Committee does any good or not depends on the Committee itself and on the way in which it goes to work. But my hon. Friend and I thought, looking at the present rise in the price of food and necessaries of life, that, at any rate, a very obvious and practical suggestion, which the Government could accept, was to deal with the question which is raised in the Resolution. I am quite sure that if the great organising capacities which our ship- 849 owners and directors and railway managers possess were brought to bear on the problem they would certainly be able to relieve a great deal of the congestion and remove many of the causes which at present tend to raise the price of food and other necessaries. I accept therefore the assurance of the Prime Minister. I shall watch the Government's course of action very carefully. I shall expect to see some results, and, perhaps, on a later occasion, we may have an opportunity of reviewing the success or failure of the measures taken by the Government. With regard to the Prime Minister's general discussion of the course of prices and what we may call the statistics of the situation, I should like to say that the Prime Minister is too apt to talk about natural causes. I thought the expression "natural causes," in the sense in which he used it, was banished from the discussion of philosophy in the twentieth century. At any rate, what we call, or what used to be called "natural causes," have not had very much to do with the comparatively happy situation in which we find ourselves at the present time.
The Prime Minister pointed out that while prices had risen to an inconvenient extent, they had not risen to the extent which was anticipated by those who had given expert considerations on the subject. Why is that? "Natural causes," says the Prime Minister. I do not know that there was any reason why we should have experienced that comparatively happy concurrence of events at the beginning of the War which prevented some of the worst consequences of it. No steps we took, no steps which a rational man could have reckoned upon, were taken in this country, and I should have thought that some other description than "natural causes" was the proper description to give to events which had saved the British Empire from a very great disaster. It is always a matter of consolation, especially to economists, to compare the prices at the present time with those of a past time. If you have an inconvenient situation at the present moment, happily our economic history is so long and continuous that you can always find something that is worse than what you have to deal with at the present time. Of course the rise in prices since the War began is in no way comparable with that which has taken place in similar emergencies in former times. In reality that is not very much consolation to the men and women who have to pay 850 the increased prices. I suggest that in modern times a comparatively small percentage of increase in price carries with it a far greater inconvenience than was the case years ago. I know that the Prime Minister did not mean to underrate at all the gravity of the situation with which we may have to deal, but the course he took in giving us the consolation of general averages did rather tend to minimise the situation with which we have to deal now, which, as the hon. Gentleman below the Gangway pointed out, is an extremely serious one for the poorer classes of the community. In making an economic comparison with the present time it is not justifiable to take such a long period as he took. The state of affairs forty or fifty years ago during the Crimean War has nothing to do with the present generation. They look at the present experience and the problem they have to face, and they know that the rise in price is very considerable.
If I may permit myself to say so, of course I accept the Prime Minister's general statistics about the rise in prices. I was glad to hear, if my hon. Friend beside me (Mr. Denniss) will also permit me to say so, that the Prime Minister took the view that freights were a contributory but not the dominant or even an important factor in the rise of prices. The facts my hon. Friend gave about Argentina are discounted a great deal when you take into consideration that the supplies of wheat are drawn not from one market, but from a wide world market. You cannot state the question by taking the Argentine alone; you have to take the world markets into consideration. Of course, freights enter into the general question. They are one of the factors which determine the general conditions of supply. If you take the figures relating to the Argentine, America, and our own country, and take into consideration the fact that we are really dealing with one great world market, you see there is no case for the view that freights are a dominant factor in the situation. I thought the Prime Minister took a rather too rough and ready view of the relations between what he called the law of supply and demand in relation to the present situation. He enumerated a great many causes, all of which we admit come into the question when considering the conditions of supply and demand. In regard to wheat in particular the considerations with regard to the future, as my right hon. Friend the Leader of the 851 Opposition pointed out, play a very important part. You have got the actual conditions at the moment, you have the visible anticipations of the next few months, and you have the estimates you have formed about the productivity of the harvest which is coming on. Of course we have not that third class of cause at the present time, but we have the other two in considering the present price of wheat.
I feel that the Prime Minister did not attach quite sufficient weight, in considering the causes of the present rise in price, to the apprehensions which do exist about what we may call the relations between demand and supply in the future. It is a very important consideration, which is weighing with a great many responsible people all through the world. I did not put any reference to that subject in the Resolution which I put upon the Paper, because I honestly do not think it is desirable in the national interests at the present moment to consider all the factors which bear upon that very important topic, but I do suggest that a consideration of the figures shows, and that a consideration of our past experience shows, that neither the Government nor ourselves should be too ready to trust what the Prime Minister calls the "natural causes" to get us out of the difficulty in which we stand. All the great nations of the world, and particularly the great nations with which we are at war, have been characterised by the sagacity and forethought they have taken over the future. I suggest, as my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition suggested, that one of the greatest things we can bring to play to prevent some of those difficulties we all wish to avoid would be any step which tended to increase the supplies which were taken into consideration by the speculators on the wheat market in fixing the level of prices. I do not wish to develop the subject, for the simple reason that I do not think it is our national interest that we should at the present moment, in public debate in the House of Commons, go carefully into all the particular factors which deal with the prices of wheat. I merely say that I hope the Government will not rely too much on natural causes, but will take warning by what has taken place in other countries, and that they will exercise forethought, sagacity, and statesmanship in trying to devise a practical way of getting over the difficulties with which we are confronted.
852 Some people say the Government are well disposed to do that. I cannot think that for a moment. I cannot think that any mere pedantic consideration would stand in the way of the adoption of measures. I have absolutely no prejudices whatever hi a matter of this kind, and I would adopt any measure likely to succeed in warding off difficulties with which we may be faced. Some of the experts who have considered this question of prices did not anticipate such a rise as has taken place since the War began. I think the anticipation of a rise of prices after the War has been very widely held, but the present rise has come somewhat as a surprise to the Gentlemen who have considered this topic. I would have the House note that the whole of the Prime Minister's more sanguine and optimistic view of the case depended upon the validity of one particular sentence that he uttered. If that sentence is not correct, the whole superstructure of his argument falls to the ground. That was that after June, or thereabouts, the view that we should be able to take would be the satisfactory view which the Prime Minister expressed this afternoon. I only wish to say in addition to that, do not leave that to natural causes. Do not go to sleep and suppose you will wake up in June with that happy prospect before you. Remember that every other country in the world except our own, in circumstances of great gravity has had to take foresight and consideration and act as practical Statesmen. I should like to express my confidence, after giving that warning, that if this country does use the great and unexampled resources it has at its command, there is not the slightest anxiety or fear, but there is some anxiety if, for any reason, we refrained from taking proper steps. I can only express my great appreciation of the weighty statement made by the Prime Minister, and of his great courtesy in the way in which he dealt with the subjects we brought before him in our Resolution, and express the hope that, notwithstanding the slight warning I have given, everything will turn out as satisfactorily as he desires.
§ 10.0 P.M.
§ Mr. DAVID MASON
The hon. Member rather piqued our curiosity as to what action he would suggest the Government ought to take. He evidently was on the brink of suggesting some action, but I am unable to offer any criticism or observation on his proposals, whatever they were. I therefore pass from his remarks to the speeches of the Prime Minister and the 853 Leader of the Opposition. The Prime Minister gave us a very interesting survey of most of the causes which have led to this rise in prices. I have listened to most of the speeches which have been delivered, and I think I may state that the underlying problem in all those speeches was, what is the particular cause which has brought about this rather extraordinary rise of prices. Most of the speakers, and the Prime Minister himself, referred to the War, of course, as perhaps the principal cause by withdrawing large masses of men from tilling the soil and from industry. Then a great deal of attention is being given to freights and to transport. The Prime Minister's conclusion was that the rise in wheat was due to a shortage of supply. I think it has been demonstrated by other speakers that there is not a shortage of supply, and we well know that the United States this year has had a record crop of wheat. It is quite true that we have not got a crop from Australia, but Australia has never played any very great part in the supply of wheat to this country. It is quite true that we have not had Russia, and also, so far, we have not had much from Argentina, but the Leader of the Opposition very aptly pointed out that with regard to the question of freights and the shortage of ships, he had proof to show that actually ships were being laid up, so that although we know that there has been a great rise in freight, as there has been a rise in most commodities, as far as I have been able to follow, the difficulty has been to arrive at what particular cause it is that has brought this about, and we are, so to speak, still groping after this principle or underlying cause.
Some reference has been made to speculation, and no doubt syndicates and large capitalists affect the price of commodities, but I think they take advantage of conditions; they do not create conditions. I have given a considerable amount of study to this subject, and I offer this suggestion to the Government. I think there is one cause which has not so far been referred to, and which has had perhaps more influence than any other contributing cause in bringing about this abnormal rise in prices. We know, of course, that, all things being equal, there is still some other cause which affects prices outside, as it were, the law of supply and demand, and that is the state of your currency. Since the War commenced, anyone who 854 chooses to give any attention to this subject will find that there has been an abnormal increase in the supply of currency by belligerents and by other countries. The figures are astounding. We find, for example, that in Great Britain alone, on 14th January a year ago, the Bank of England notes outstanding were £28,500,000. On 14th January of this year they had increased to £35,000,000, and, in addition, we know there was that abnormal issue of Treasury notes amounting also to £35,829,696, giving a total of paper money outstanding of something like £71,000,000, as against £28,000,000 a year ago. That, I think, is a most extraordinary and a most significant fact. Surely it must be apparent that, if all things are equal, to give to a country an increase of something like £43,000,000 of paper money something must happen. Of course, you will depreciate the currency, and therefore prices must rise. If you depreciate your currency, commodities must command a greater amount of currency, and therefore prices must rise.
If we turn to Germany we find that a year ago her currency was £115,000,000. In January last she had increased her paper money to £239,000,000—an increase of £124,000,000. It staggers one if you take the trouble to look into these figures and see the enormous difference in the amount of paper money circulating in Germany, in our own country, and in other belligerent States. It is very difficult to get particulars for France, because the Bank of France has now stopped publishing statements. There was a statement published on 10th December last which showed that the Bank of France issued £176,000,000 on a metal base, or 4,500,000,000 francs. The note issue, formerly 5,800,000,000 expanded to nearly ten thousand millions. That demonstrates surely that something very abnormal has happened since the War commenced and if you have this increase in the currency, and the currency as a result is depreciated, it must follow that prices will rise. If you have an abnormal supply of wheat, perhaps more in proportion than the excess of your currency, then possibly you might not have the same proportionate rise in that or the same proportionate rise in timber, iron, steel and other commodities. I hope I have sufficiently proved that this is certainly one cause, if not the most important cause of this abnormal rise in prices.
855 This applies not only to belligerent countries. If we turn to the United States of America we find that there, on 9th January this year the emergency circulation outstanding is reported by the controller of currency as amounting to 126,039,000 dollars. Then I think that in recent years there has been a new Act of a very important and far-reaching character passed by the United States Government with reference to their currency. I think it is well worthy of the attention of those interested in prices. It has already had considerable effect on values in America and other parts of the world. This Act provides for groups of banks throughout the country under a federal reserve board. These banks have power under the new Act of obtaining United States notes, which can be issued against commercial bills. These are not bank notes, but United States notes, and it is very important to bear that in mind, because while bank notes may ebb and flow according to the demand, as it were—according to their credit expanding or contracting—there is very little likelihood of Government notes contracting to the same extent, and that is why there is great danger in any Government, our own included, issuing Government notes. There is not the same law affecting them as the notes of a bank, because if there was any feeling of lack of security, and if the note is a banknote, then people naturally present the note at the bank for repayment. But no one is likely to doubt the credit of the British Government or the United States Government. Hence the danger of Government paper being pumped into the currency of a country. We shall probably have a statement from the Chancellor of the Exchequer as to a financial transaction put through with the Russian Government. There was a credit established recently and advanced by the American bankers to the Russian Government of something like £25,000,000. This advance was made on short term drafts, and these may again be discounted by the reserves banks and they may obtain Government currency against this obligation, and that goes to increase the paper money to which I have referred.
I think I have dwelt sufficiently on that to show, more particularly with regard to ourselves, Germany, and France, what an enormous increase there has been in this paper money. In fact, in France one instance has been brought to my notice 856 which shows the straits the country districts there are put to for obtaining this accommodation, and it is interesting to us to know, because when talking of prices our own prices are not only governed by conditions here, but by conditions all over the world. Even if you have Germany making excessive issues of paper, as she is doing now, we may rejoice in it from one point of view, because we think that it indicates a state of collapse; but as she is dealing with neutrals with whom we have financial relations, anything that affects them affects the value of commodities we buy from them. I believe that these currencies are having their effect and will continue to have their effect on prices. While I agree with a great deal the Prime Minister said, I cannot follow him, unless something very extraordinary happens before June in the case of an increased supply of wheat or other commodities, that there will be a fall in prices. I do not think he is justified in what he said so long as this abnormal inflation continues to affect prices. It may be asked what are the remedies for this state of affairs? Is there no way in which we can relieve the present situation caused by this abnormal amount of paper? There are only two so far as I can see. The first is to pursue the War with the utmost vigour, so as to bring it to an honourable conclusion as soon as possible. The other is to practice economy in every department of Government administration and redeem this outstanding paper as quickly as we can. I have already shown that according to the "London Gazette" there are some £30,000,000 odd outstanding at the present time, and I therefore suggest that if we wish to produce any considerable effect that is one method by which we might relieve this position which is forcing up the prices of so many commodities.
There is another remedy which might be worth the consideration of the Government. It has reference to the recent Treasury Regulations, the object of which was to what is called husband our resources here in London. What are our resources? What are the resources of the London Money Market? Our resources consist in vast investments of capital in all parts of the world. If we have great investments of capital in India, the Argentine, China, Canada, and so forth, is it wise suddenly to button up our pocket and say, "We will refuse to finance any longer those great investments which we have already made in all these various parts of the world"?
857 While one can understand the disposition to practice economy and not indulge in wild speculation, yet a certain amount of elasticity might be advisable with regard to these regulations. The other day an operation with regard to the Argentine which might have come to this country went to the United States. That is another point worth considering—that the operations going past our market may not always be taken up by other markets, and that we may lose by the depreciation of these very investments which are really our resources. The vast resources of our great insurance companies are not entirely held in this country. They consist of investments in many parts of the world. Therefore it seems to me that a certain amount of elasticity is wise in not carrying out these regulations in the drastic manner which at first was outlined by the Treasury. Even with regard to the rise in the prices of food it might be thought wise to allow certain operations to be carried out with regard to railways in the Argentine. There have already been great investments of capital there, and, if it were thought advisable that certain of these railways should continue to be financed by the bankers here in London, that would also help to increase the supply of wheat here in London by opening up an increased wheat area and increasing the supply of wheat, to which the Prime Minister has referred as being short. These are the only remedies of which I can think. The Prime Minister has invited suggestions from Members of the House. I submit those suggestions to him, and in conclusion wish to emphasise the belief that the abnormal situation through which we are at present passing, largely as a consequence of the War, with its inflation of prices, is due in a large measure to the cause to which I have referred, namely, the excessive inflation of our currency by those emissions of note issues both here and also by the other belligerents, and in other countries.
§ Mr. JAMES MASON
I have not sufficient knowledge of the subject to follow intelligently the hon. Gentleman who has just sat down in his argument with regard to the connection between high prices and the issue of paper currency. I am prepared to admit that some increase in the amount of gold in the world can be shown to affect prices in general. I confess I cannot follow him with regard to how some of the issues of paper money based ob our gold can affect price in the 858 way described. I confess that I am ignorant of the subject, and he will forgive me if I do not pursue him throughout his argument. In the very interesting and instructive speech of the Prima Minister this afternoon, I was rather surprised that he seemed to attribute less importance to the question of freight and transport as an item among the factors on which price is made up than I should have thought necessary to attribute to it. The Prime Minister dealt with the price of wheat, and he took as an instance of the small importance of freight the case of wheat coming from New York, and showed that cost of freight—I forget what the proportion was to the whole—was at any rate a smaller proportion than the price of the wheat. But he went on to say that in the case of wheat from the Argentine the increase in the period since the war began was made up to a greater extent by the freight than by the increased price of wheat in the Argentine, but that so far, owing to the delay in the shipment of that crop, that did not enter very largely into the question of price. We cannot, however, get away from the fact that, as regards the Argentine crop, which it is anticipated is now coming on more immediately for shipment, the question of freight does enter to a very large extent as a factor in making up the increased price.
It has been mentioned several times this evening that the increase of price to the producer in the Argentine on wheat during the period from the 15th of July last year to the 15th of January this year was only 9s. 3d., while the increase due to freight has amounted to something like 14s. or 15s. The printed figures show the freight on the 15th of January was 65s., which would be equal to 13s. 11d. per quarter, but since the 15th of January the freight has certainly increased by 10s., if not 12s., a ton. My hon. Friend who spoke last on this side of the House rather objected to the term national causes, but I think that we need not quarrel if we say the world-causes and national causes—that is to say, there are political causes affecting the prices of the necessaries of life which are caused by world movements which we cannot control. I do not, for one, suggest that we could control the prices which producers of wheat in foreign countries charge us for that wheat, because we have the competition of other countries who come into the market against us. But there are causes which 859 depend on ourselves, and among those is the question of freight, because we own such a large proportion of the present shipping of the world that the question of freight is more or less a national cause, more or less a cause dependent on this country, and one in which possibly we can interfere. I know that it has been suggested by certain people, that the Government can interfere in a very drastic way by fixing prices. I must say that I think that anything in the way of fixing prices would be simply a disastrous course to follow. It is perfectly obvious that an attempt to fix a maximum price might land you in the position of not getting the article at all, if the person who holds the article can find a better buyer than yourself. In attempting to fix the price I am not sure that any attempt of the Government to buy up the commodity is not almost as dangerous. Of course it is not so dangerous, but I do think the suggestion which was put forward by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition this evening that the Government might at the outbreak of War have bought up large quantities of wheat, was an extremely dangerous suggestion. In my opinion at that time, when public opinion was very nervous, and when people were anticipating all sorts of rises in price, and other evils, I think if the Government suddenly began to buy wheat on a large scale it would have precipitated a rise in price then which, at any rate, was postponed for some considerable period.
There are other people who have a great belief in Government control and a sort of general idea that if the Government would take control over these things they could do very much as they liked. No doubt in the case of the Government taking control of the railways, as they have done since the War, the success has been very remarkable—that is to say, that the railway system of this country has been worked wonderfully well, and I should say better than it could have been worked if all the railways had been left to go on in their ordinary competitive way. But it must be borne in mind that although the Government has taken control of the railways it has not prevented a very considerable amount of congestion at certain points and at certain times. There has been very serious congestion on the railways, and the fact that they were in the hands of the Government did not prevent that congestion and could not possibly 860 prevent it. We know now that there are certain railways in the country which are periodically employed in moving large quantities of troops and supplies, and not only does the particular railway concerned have its traffic upset but it frequently creates congestion on other railways because they cannot pass on their usual traffic from themselves to that railway, and the congestion is thrown back perhaps on one, two, three or four other different systems. Therefore, I do not think we can anticipate that the mere control of the Government of the question of shipping transport would lead to no such congestion, or would, at any rate, abolish entirely any congestion which now occurs. But I do believe that the factor of freight, especially in the case of articles like wheat, enters more largely than any other factor in the present case, and I think it is very necessary to see how far, without going into drastic attempts to say what freight shall be charged and the rest of it; or without adopting the also very drastic suggestion which was made by an hon. Gentleman opposite that the Government should commandeer the whole of the ships in the British mercantile marine, without going to such distances as that, I think it is worth considering what can be done to reduce the cost of freight as a whole.
The rise in the price of freight is, of course, a perfectly natural one. As we were told to-day by the Prime Minister, something like 14 per cent. of the total shipping of the world has been taken off the sea, and another 10 per cent. has been taken up for Government service—that is to say, there has been a total reduction in the mercantile marine of the world of something like one quarter. It is perfectly obvious that if the whole of the carrying business of the world is thrown on to the other three-quarters of the shipping hitherto employed, it must naturally increase the price. But I think that the shortage of ships for the work has been considerably aggravated by the congestion at the ports. The Prime Minister has pointed out that in many cases the congestion is less serious than it was, and he stated that in one or two foreign ports it was extremely bad. Would it not be possible for us to relieve that congestion in foreign ports in the direction of setting free a certain number of the ships now going to those ports, but which are obviously wasted in that particular business? Because, after all, it is the delay of these ships and the fact that they are lying at 861 the ports waiting two, three, or four weeks to be discharged, which is causing half of the shortage of which we complain.
The Leader of the Opposition mentioned the case of a ship which was lying at Liverpool for a month, and he pointed out that the effect of that was that the owner of the ship, in spite of the high freights, got less profit in that one voyage in consequence of the delay than he would otherwise have got in two voyages. It seems to me that there is a more serious effect, and that is that the ship, during the month it was lying there, could, if it had been discharged in the proper time, have made another voyage and brought another cargo, so that double the amount of goods would have been brought into the country. I ask whether it would be possible for the Government to do anything to relieve this waste, as I would call it, of shipping which is now going to some of these foreign ports? I think that almost the whole of the shipping which goes to Havre and Rouen is from this country; I do not know, but I imagine that it is practically the whole. A large amount of that shipping is on behalf of the French Government, but a good deal of it is chartered by private individuals or firms in this country. The net result is that there is a constant stream of ships blocking up the whole river. I believe that on a particular date within the last fortnight there were something like ninety ships there. That means that these ships are suffering a demurrage of anything from a week to a fortnight, and the outcome of the whole position is that there are at least three times as many ships going to Havre and Rouen as the facilities of the quay can deal with. The whole transport to these ports could be equally well effected with probably one-third the number of ships now going there, and the other two-thirds would be set free for other purposes. It seems to me that ships are being sent to certain ports beyond the capacity of the ports, and that arises from the fact that the chartering of the ships is in too many hands. I suggest that it might be possible, by agreement, to arrange with the French Government that the chartering of these ships to a particular port should be co-ordinated and be in the hands of a single authority, and that only that number of ships should be employed in a particular trade that the capacity of the port could be allowed to be discharged. The rest of the shipping would be set free to trade to other ports, 862 where it is wanted. There are a great many trades in the country which are almost stopped for want of any shipping at all. Amongst the trades are many articles which it is to the interest of the Government—as I know—to get into this country—articles such as pyrites, in which I am interested, and which are essential to the welfare of the country. These must be brought into the country. There is any amount of it to be got, and the whole thing is "held up" simply by lack of shipping. I quoted the ports I did because it seemed to me that if a certain number of ships could be spared for these trades, then other trades could be carried, and the amount of the actual transport from Havre, Rouen, and so forth might be exactly the same as now, while the remainder of the shipping could be employed as I have suggested.
Mr. DUNDAS WHITE
This question of prices that we are discussing to-night is one of the most important that we can discuss. It is one that the country has been looking forward to being fairly and freely discussed upon the floor of this House. For myself I would express my personal indebtedness to the Prime Minister for the way he traced the causes of these evils of which we are now complaining. To my mind, anyone, or at least most, who follows the analysis that he gave will be as convinced as I am that the question of freights, as he said, "important as it is, is a contributory rather than a dominating cause of the present situation." That seems, indeed, to be particularly the case with wheat when we consider how enormous the rise in the price of that has been. If I remember correctly the figures he gave us the rise as compared with a year ago has been about 72 per cent., or, if we take the average of the previous three years, has been something like 66 per cent. If one works out the figures one sees that no rise in freights which can have taken place is in any way comparable to that. Therefore, important as the question of freights is, it seems but a contributory cause, and the main cause seems rather to be that shortage in a double ratio—on the one hand a very considerable shortage in the supply and on the other hand a very considerable increase in the demand. The right hon. Gentleman traced how that had been due to a stoppage of Russian wheat, to delay in the Argentine harvest, and to several other matters, including the shortage in vessels to carry 863 the grain; and this in itself, of course, had been one of the great causes of the rise in freights. The hon. Member for Walsall (Sir R. Cooper) made an observation which, I think, may be reflected in the minds of various people in the country—namely, that while the shortage was not very serious, the increase of price had been enormous, and it may seem at first sight, that the increase of price is so great that it will not be mainly accounted for by the shortage. This, however, seems one of the cases in which it becomes to be important to remember the well-recognised principle—it has been recognised for centuries—that a comparatively small shortage in the supply will cause a comparatively large increase in the price. I think that was first stated by Charles Davenant, who was a Member of this House about the end of the seventeenth century, and I would like to read the phrase he used in an essay he wrote, because it really puts the matter in a nutshell. He was speaking with reference to the shortness of the harvest in affecting the price of wheat in this country. He says that:—Tis observed, that but one-tenth defect in the harvest may raise the price three-tenths,and then he goes on to say:—We take it that a defect in the harvest may raise the price of corn in the following proportions:One-tenth raises the price three-tenths.Two-tenths raises the price eight-tenths.and so on in rapidly increasing ratio, until, he says, a defect of five-tenths will raise the price forty-five tenths. So that, he says, when corn rises to treble the common rate, it may be presumed that we want a third of the common produce. This principle has been called Gregory King's Law, though it should perhaps be called Davenant's Law. The converse of that is true—namely, that a comparatively small increase in the supply will cause a comparatively large reduction in the price, and that is one of the things with which we may look forward as adding hope to what the Prime Minister has said, when we consider that, in the course of a few months there will be these very considerable additions to our supply both of wheat itself and also the ships which carry it. In fact, when you consider that they will affect the various causes which the Prime Minister traced, that seems to me to hold out still better hope that we may before very long see a substantial fall in those prices which press so heavily, particularly against the poor. The Prime Minister invited suggestions on 864 the subject, and I observe that several Members who have spoken urged him to take heroic measures and drastic action. What those measures should be was not made so clear, apart from the drastic action that was to be taken. I have very considerable distrust of what are called drastic methods, because they often produce results of a class which have never been expected. Something has been said about natural causes, and that things will right themselves. We want to use natural causes as much as possible, because artificial interferences are often fraught with great danger. The suggestion has been made that there should be a maximum price. That, instead of removing the difficulty, would aggravate it, because if the price was not as high as shippers could get elsewhere, the grain would not come here, and prices here would go up and not down, and there would be a greater shortage, notwithstanding any artificial attempt to regulate it. The Prime Minister had said that such experience had been disastrous in Germany. If that had been the case there how much more disastrous would it be in this country where we were so largely dependent upon the free inflow of food supply from overseas.
Reference has been made to certain figures supplied to me yesterday by the Board of Trade, particularly to the amount of grain which had been imported into this country during the second six months of last year, that is during the period when the War was in progress. It was very remarkable to find that during those six months of 1914 more wheat had actually been imported into this country than in the corresponding six months of the previous year. It has been asked why should prices go up. For myself I asked my question merely as regards the quantity of wheat and not having any bearing on prices. The price here does not merely depend upon the import, but is mainly governed by the prices throughout the world. The importance of these figures is that they show that while our ports are open and there is a free inflow, then even though the price may rise we may still get the same quantity as we got before, and even more. That is itself one of the strongest arguments which we could have for not fixing a maximum price or doing anything than can possibly interfere with the free inflow of the supply. It has been suggested that as the Government have been so successful in buying up sugar they should have done the same thing in regard 865 to wheat. The conditions of the two commodities are entirely different, as I could easily show if I were to go into details. I am quite of the same opinion as the hon. Member who spoke last, that if the Government had gone into the market to buy up large stores then they would have found that the Government entering the market in competition with other dealers would have sent prices up, and the effect would have been to raise prices which we want to lower. There could be no more dangerous thing than for the Government to enter the market like that, because it would at once produce panic prices. It has been argued that as the Government have taken control of the railways, so they ought to take control of the ships. Various suggestions have been made in this direction, as if the chartering of British ships was a thing that might be done in these Islands. The material difference is that our railways are here and cannot get away from these Islands, whereas the ships can get away, and many of them are away. I am strongly of the opinion that if the Government were to take up shipping generally the remedy would be worse than the disease. I was very interested in the suggestion of my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry (Mr. D. Mason) that the main cause of the very high prices was the increased amount of paper money which had been put into circulation in this and other countries. I am not convinced of the accuracy of that view. He spoke, indeed, of paper money having been pumped into circulation, but that implies pressure, and so far as this country is concerned there has been no pressure whatever. The paper money has been taken up freely, it circulates at par, and it has not been circulated under pressure at all.
§ Mr. D. MASON
The term "pumped" may have suggested that to my hon. Friend, but I would rather he dealt with my arguments than impute motives to me in my remarks.
Mr. DUNDAS WHITE
I should certainly have said, when the Government was referred to as "pumping" money into circulation, that it suggested pressure or that it had forced that money into circulation. Of course, I accept the explanation of my hon. Friend, but it certainly conveyed that meaning to my mind. My hon. Friend speaks as if the paper itself were money. The paper, of course, is only a promise to pay a certain amount of gold, 866 and, while paper currency circulates freely, prices are quoted on that gold basis. My hon. Friend seems to have overlooked that fact.
Mr. DUNDAS WHITE
Perhaps my hon. Friend will allow me to proceed. I did not interrupt him. I entirely agree, if paper were forced into circulation against people's will, and people had to accept it instead of gold, and it became a depreciated currency, that then the prices which were quoted in the paper would be artificially inflated. That is not the case. It does not circulate as a depreciated currency. It circulates at par. When these facts are borne in mind it seems to me that the suggested explanation of my hon. Friend loses a great deal of its force. One thing in particular for which we have to thank the Prime Minister is the manner in which he led the way in turning to the causes of the present increase, and I vento hope that in the future Debate there may be a greater analysis of these causes, for one is convinced that only by knowing the causes can we deal with the results. Various suggestions made in the Press and by various people outside this House are rather based on the idea of having some patent remedy for the evil under which we suffer, instead of recognising that it is due to broad economic causes, and will only cease when those causes are removed. Above all, I venture to hope that there will be no drastic, hasty, or ill-considered action in this matter, because it goes to the very root of the well-being of the people, and it would, indeed, be a serious thing if this House were to take any step which would aggravate these evils instead of relieving them. That is a risk that we in this House certainly ought to avoid.
§ Mr. BARNES
I beg to move, "That the Debate be now adjourned."
The last speaker has made an interesting and, if I may say so, a somewhat critical speech, and I think it would be very unbecoming of anyone to start criticising it to-night. We have had a long and interesting Debate opened by the Prime Minister in that masterly analysis of the facts, and I rise rather to make a suggestion to the Government. I base the suggestion on the opening sentences of the speech to which we have just listened. The hon. Member said that this question was one of the most important that we I could deal with at the present time, and if 867 we were confined to dealing with domestic questions he might have said it is the most important. A good deal may be said on it when we have had a chance to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest the speeches made to-night by the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition, and other Members. I make an appeal to the Government to give us a second day in order that we may explore this field more fully.
§ Mr. RUNCIMAN
In accepting the Motion it may be convenient to say we shall be glad if we can resume the discussion next week, and our proposal is to set Wednesday apart for it.
§ Question, "That the Debate be now adjourned," put, and agreed to.
§ Debate to be resumed upon Wednesday next (17th February).
§ The remaining Orders were read, and postponed.