§ Order read for resuming adjourned Debate on Question [11th February].
§ "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."—[Mr. Ferens.]
§ Question again proposed. Debate resumed.
§ Mr. TOOTILL
I beg to move to leave out from the word "Government" to the end of the Question, in order to add instead thereof the words "to prevent a continuance of this unjustifiable increase by employing the shipping and railway facilities necessary to put the required supplies on the market, by fixing maximum prices, and by acquiring control of commodities that are or may be subject to artificial costs."
It has fallen to my lot as a new Member of this House to perform the duty of moving the Amendment standing in the name of the hon. Member for the Black-friars Division (Mr. Barnes). I am led to believe that new Members of this ancient, historic and honourable House need not be overwhelmed with fear and trembling 1152 when attempting for the first time to address it. Old, experienced, and, in many respects, distinguished Members of this House have assured me that it is entirely unnecessary to be in any kind of trepidation because of the hypercritical condition of the House. The House is entitled to know why I have taken upon myself the responsibility of what I regard as the stupendous task of moving this Amendment. If I should appear in any way to assume an attitude of self-assurance, I hope that I shall be excused because of the fact that it the first time I have attempted to address the House. I listened with the keenest attention and interest to the tactful, forceful, comprehensive and, from an official standpoint, I am bound to say the complete statement of the Prime Minister on the 11th inst. I must confess that I watched with the greatest admiration his cool, collected and self-possessed manner when dealing with this very exceptional and extraordinary condition of affairs. I was particularly struck with that part of his speech in which he threw himself upon the sagacity, skill, and the ingenious resources of this House. I quite expected that the promised statement of the Prime Minister would have contained suggestions warning unpatriotic capitalists that this was not a time for amassing wealth at the expense of the suffering poor, and, further, that if their policy of grinding the poor was persisted in, in that case they must needs expect justifiable, honourable, and yet effective reprisals for circumventing and counteracting their unfortunate and extremely unpatriotic practices.
It certainly could not be considered to be altogether incompatible and inconsistent with Parliamentary usage to have followed a course of that kind. In my opinion, the full extent of Parliamentary powers should be employed at a time like the present to make the lives of the poor as comfortable, as bright, and as cheerful as circumstances will allow. It is the duty of the Government to use all the means in its power to prevent the poor from being exploited by those who are in the habit of using their wealth in a manner that is opposed to the public interest. I may tell hon. Members that that principle will always be the dominating force in all my interests in regard to this House. Is it impossible for the Government to prevent or to interfere with causes that unduly force up food prices? If—I say "if" advisably—it is impossible, if it confesses its impotence in a matter of this kind, then it 1153 only remains for us on these benches to adopt the only effective policy—that is, to request the employers throughout the country to come forward and meet the situation by an adequate advance in wages. As leaders of the workmen's organisations it was our firm intention to continue to advise our members to strictly and honourably observe the industrial truce to the end of the War. In those circumstances I think we have a right to expect the Government, when and where practicable, to make our difficulties in that direction as light and as easy as possible. We on the Labour Benches fully realise—I do not suggest it for a moment of all Members of this House—the enormous difficulties surrounding this problem. At the same time we are unwilling to accept the proposition that it is one that baffles the wisdom and resources of this House to discover a remedy for it.
We think it ought to be possible for the Government to successfully intervene in the direction of preventing excessive profit-making out of causes arising from the present condition of things. We are of opinion, also, that both shippers and merchants in the common necessaries of life have failed to realise that it is up to them to relinquish their profit-making schemes and practices—at any rate during the continuance of the War. To take a mercantile advantage of the present situation to increase profits beyond the normal condition of things is, in my opinion, to be guilty of spying and preying upon the common necessaries of the poor, and such acts of dishonour ought to be followed by adequate punishment of the offenders. The offences could be discovered by a process of investigation, authorised by the Government, under their control, and conducted by specific regulations. I am proud to say that I represent an important Lancashire Division. For twenty years I occupied the position of Labour correspondent to the Board of Trade in collecting statistics regarding food-stuffs and trade statistics generally for Bolton and surrounding areas, so that I feel very deeply concerned and interested in this matter. It is common knowledge that the Lancashire textile trade has been hardly hit in a very exceptional manner by conditions and circumstances arising out of the War, and the Lancashire mill operatives, with whom I am proud to have been associated, have borne the misfortunes of this War with commendable fortitude and composure. 1154 They have a right, therefore, to take strong exception to the domestic burdens being increased at the present time, and that, too, by what they regard, and have some ground for regarding, as the questionable practices and methods which are being adopted by the wealthy men in the trading world. The exigencies of war count for much. I do not want the House for a moment to dream that I want to moralise on this position; but if commercial transactions were conducted on the basis of doing unto others as ye would that others should do to you, the nation at large would be sounder, happier, brighter, and better in every respect. Among the numerous suggestions which have been made for dealing with this problem, those relating to the Government exercising more close and definite control of food prices are amongst the most feasible and practical. Why should it be more difficult to control food supplies than to control national finance, which has been accomplished in a successful manner by Government intervention? The life of the nation depends on the one equally as it does on the other.
If it is the desire of the Government—and we have no reason to suppose it is not—to save the country's trade and commerce from industrial dislocation, surely the time is here and now. Strikes are the very last thing that responsible labour leaders would think about, much less advocate, at a time like the present. We do, however, expect that the responsible Government of the day, just as we expect employers of labour, will show a kindly spirit of reciprocity in saving the trade of the country from unnecessary disturbance. It is a source of great satisfaction to recognise that there is a saner disposition among employers of labour generally in respect to treating their employés on more reciprocal lines of mutual and correlated interest. We claim that His Majesty's Government must use their good offices at a time like this in helping us in our pacifist efforts, and especially whilst contending with an unprecedented condition of things. Reciprocity and an interested desire and purpose associated with a freer manifestation of willingness to co-operate in overcoming acute and critical situations is all that is necessary. The country is anxiously waiting to see what the intentions of the Government are in respect of this life and death matter of the cost of living. If the people are driven to the purchase of inferior classes of food 1155 the physical depreciation and the detrimental effect upon the country generally must ultimately become extremely serious. The chain of strength of the nation is only as strong as the weakest link in the chain; so I claim that it is the duty of those in power to promote such measures as will effectually minimise or largely remove the fear of want from the minds of the people. The cost of living touches the concerns of the workman's home as nothing else can possibly do. Some of us on these Benches know what it is to use economy by having to do it on insufficient supplies, and therefore when we speak on this matter I trust the House will accept it that we speak from practical knowledge. It is an everyday truth that forces itself upon the attention of the household in every conceivable and practical direction. I would seriously urge upon the Government the desirability of moving heaven and earth, as it were, to evolve a policy which will minimise, if not put an end, to the excessive profit making arising out of results accuring from this great national emergency.
§ Mr. PROTHERO
It is fitting that a new Member should attempt to reply to another new Member, and I thoroughly agree with the hon. Member's appeal that we should consider the very real sufferings that War prices inflict upon the very poor with the kindliest and most earnest sympathy. I am sure that at all times those sufferings do claim our attention and consideration, and more particularly now than ever. In familiar phrase, the War has taught us that we are all in the same boat. It has helped men who never thought they could work together to co-operate as friends. It has made men who are fathers in every quarter of the House and in every part of the country brothers in the common anxiety with which they watch the fate of young lives dearer to them than their own, and therefore this appeal today for the sufferings of the community comes home to us in a special sense and with exceptional force as our common concern and our mutual interest, and if I differ, as I do, from the proposals of the hon. Member for fixing maximum prices it is because I think, rightly or wrongly, that such a remedy will rather intensify than remove the evils we all deplore. The hon. Member, in rather vague terms, and the hon. Member (Mr. Clynes), in more precise terms, suggested that British producers 1156 of food have been speculatively withholding produce from the market. That is a very grave charge to make in a national crisis like this against any class in the community, and I think the agricultural community ought to be grateful to hon. Members for raising the charge publicly in this House, for it is a charge that has been made repeatedly in a more or less veiled form in the newspaper Press of this country. For my own part, I am convinced that farmers as a body will, so far as their conduct is concerned, stand the test of the most searching public inquiry, and will not be found to have fallen short of the high level which has been so largely maintained by Members of the party opposite.
British farmers do not set the price of wheat. They are practically powerless in that matter. If you think of the 4 lb. loaf, for instance, and reflect that three and a quarter pounds of it are baked from foreign flour and only three-quarters of a pound from home flour, you will see at once how infinitesimally small is the influence of the British producer upon the price of wheat. The price is set by the foreign producer, and, I admit it, by speculators abroad. Although this year British farmers are profiting by that fact, for forty continuous years British consumers have gained by it, and what the British farmer has lost in those forty continuous years the British consumer has gained. Who are the foreign producers who now fix prices in this country? It is the United States of America. Owing to causes, many of which were enumerated by the Prime Minister, the United States are masters of the situation, and they know it to a nicety. They are now in the fortunate position of being universal providers, and I am afraid that they will continue to be so until the Argentine wheat reaches these parts, or until it begins to exercise a forward influence on prices. I think that there are circumstances which are encouraging even in that position. There may be, for instance, more wheat coming from India of her harvests of 1914 in view of the fact that her harvests this year are so exceptionally promising, but I think the Prime Minister said that that was a difficult and dangerous question, and I shall not rush in where the Prime Minister feared to tread.
There is another point upon which he did not touch, namely, the fact that the great Continental nations which have been buying up wheat are nations equally hit, and even more than ourselves, because, 1157 while they formerly bought their wheat from Russia, they have had to buy from America. America has been in the position of universal provider, and has been able to send up prices; but if these nations are buying only for home consumption their demand will slacken, and the speculator will find himself in a different position. Then again, the Prime Minister hinted that Russian wheat might come in at any moment. The first Russian ship that reaches these shores will send prices down with a run, but meanwhile—and this is hard for the poorer members of the community—we are at the mercy of the United States. As I understand the argument of the hon. Member for Bolton (Mr. Toothill) and the hon. Member for North-East Manchester (Mr. Clynes) what they would like to do is to take over the whole supply to bridge over that interval of six weeks. If I thought that that scheme could be followed with success, I am not sure that I would not support it in such difficult circumstances as we are placed in.
But in the first place there has been no speculative withholding of wheat by the British farmer. I will put the case against him if hon. Members will allow me in a deadlier fashion than I think they could do for themselves, and I do so because I am confident of the answer. Up to the beginning of December, 1914, when wheat prices were low and moderate, there was quite the usual quantity of homegrown wheat offered upon the market. I may say—and I believe that the hon. Baronet who represents the Board of Agriculture will support me—that there was rather more than the usual quantity. I will tell you why. Farmers were urged to thrash out their wheat directly the harvest was over and to sell a quantity of it in order to check the panic tendency of prices. I myself went down to the Corn Exchange and urged them to do it, and they responded patriotically. I believe they responded all over the country, with the result that prices were kept low and steady through September, October and November. All that time, even during the War period, wheat was offered at prices from 37s. 10d. to 40s. per quarter. But from the first ten days of December onwards prices began rapidly to rise, and very little home-grown wheat found its way on to the market. Is it surprising that gentlemen who do not understand the business of agriculture, and who write in newspapers and so on, should take that 1158 as a direct proof of what they say is the speculative withholding of wheat? Yet I venture to say with confidence that there is no evidence of such withholding, and that there is no evidence of any concerted action of farmers to keep up the price of wheat. There is no evidence that any farmer has ever bought wheat himself in order to resell it at an advanced price. Here and there there may be an individual farmer—there are cranks in every trade and profession—who may have refused to sell at an offered price, but these cases are individual, isolated and few, and I say without hesitation that British farmers would gladly have thrashed out and sold a far larger quantity of their wheat if they could, but they could not.
I say now—and I ask the hon. Baronet who represents the Board of Agriculture to contradict my statement if I do not exactly state what is the fact—that there has been no case of unreasonable withholding of wheat which would justify the price being fixed by a legal tribunal. The Board of Agriculture have inspectors in every district of this country who are keeping their eye on the facts, and sending confidential secret reports to the Board of Agriculture as to whether or not there is unreasonable withholding. There is a body of evidence which I feel sure is available to any Member in this House, and would it not be preferable to seek evidence there rather than in newspapers? I saw in a newspaper the other day a statement that there has been withholding at Braintree Market, and this remarkable sentence occurred in the article:—Farmers, it is stated, have been withholding wheat in spite of the maximum price being reached.What does "it is stated" mean? It is meant as a warning from the newspaper that this is unathenticated gossip, that they altogether repudiate responsibility for it, and that if you like to use it you must use it purely on your own responsibility. Instead of going to a newspaper which publishes that kind of evidence, I would say that you should go to the officials of the Board of Agriculture. If you do that, I have no doubt that they will tell you that the real state of things is, as I have said, that up to the first fortnight in December there was the average supply of home-grown wheat on the market. Then it stopped and prices went up, and that is the basis of the charge. But since the first ten days in December we have had almost continuous wet weather. You cannot thrash wheat in the rain. It is not 1159 merely that you have to suspend operations the moment rain comes down and re-sheet the stack you have opened. It is not merely that the operation is doubled, and the cost and time are doubled. More than that, the wheat is damaged, and if a farmer takes a damp sample of wheat into the market it is sold, not for human consumption to the miller, but sold as feeding-stuff for cattle. I know for a fact that there are hundreds of farmers in this country who know that if the tops and bottoms of stacks are wet and if the damp has penetrated in some cases right to the heart, the only thing which can save what will be an invaluable source of human food is to allow the wheat to remain in the stacks until it has been thoroughly searched through by the winds of March.
That is the simple and natural explanation of what has been represented as the speculative withholding of wheat by British farmers. That it is true is proved by the fact that the moment you have a dry week at the end of January the number of wheat samples offered on the market springs up from 10 to 60, or even 70. During the last two weeks the amount of home-grown wheat on the market has been greater by 40,000 quarters than it was in the corresponding weeks of 1914 and 1913. Further, on the evidence of 196 markets, the wheat that has been offered on the market between 1st September, 1914, and 13th February, 1915, was 400,000 quarters more than for the corresponding period of 1914, and something like 700,000 quarters more than for the same period in 1913. Therefore hon. Members will agree that the reason I have given is the simple, natural and true reason. Let me once more repeat that British producers can have very little influence on the price of wheat produced in this country, because the amount is relatively so small. Suppose you took the whole thing—what would be the effect? In the first place, it would compel farmers to thrash out their wheat, and you would be wasting what may be an invaluable source for human supply, and, remember, you would not affect the price of bread by a farthing! Suppose you fix the maximum price at which it can be sold, the effect of that would be, as I believe, to scare away the foreign seller from these shores. Supposing that in the six weeks interval you used up your homegrown wheat, you would have advertised to all the world that you had no reserve, and you would have to pay the uttermost 1160 farthing which the foreign seller chose to charge. On all those practical grounds then I am opposed to the proposal of hon. Members opposite, not from any want of sympathy but because I believe that those practical reasons are irrefutable and that we should find ourselves prejudiced by taking the course which the House is asked to adopt.
I do not feel quite sure whether hon. Members opposite accuse British farmers of holding up meat and milk. Of course, as regards milk, they cannot do it, because no farmer would hold up milk for one day. But there has no doubt been a certain rise in the price of milk. It is due, as I honestly believe, to these reasons: In the first place, London used to supply itself from the East and from the South. That supply failed, owing to the drought, by the end of last year, and we had to find supplies West and North, and these supplies have been drained. Then, again, the concentration camps, military camps and hospitals spread along our coast have created new demands and increased the demand for milk. Again, we must remember that the farmer was urged to sell all his grain and not use it on his farm for feeding-stuffs. He did so patriotically, and the result is that he is dependent upon feeding-stuffs which have gone up more than one-third in price. Therefore there is a rise in the price of milk on that account. The same result also arises because of the shortage of milkers and the very high wages that farmers have to give in the dairy districts. Then there is the very high price of cows for dairy purposes. All those causes have combined, and the farmer is better off if he does not produce milk. He has gone on doing it, I honestly believe, very often if not at a loss at the very scantiest margin of profit, because he has got to work at contract prices which do not expire until March and were fixed months ago.
As to meat, hon. Members have every reason to be grateful to the British farmer. The British farmer has put meat on the market without stint—so much so that in my opinion we are coming perilously near a time when some of our recuperative powers as a stock-feeding nation will be exhausted. There, again, there is this curious result, that the cost of production has cheapened the meat. That sounds an odd thing to say, but it has been so expensive to keep their stock that farmers had to sell it. Consequently the prices of meat have been kept low. Now I think that whether as to the withholding of 1161 wheat or milk or meat, we have no case against the British farmer. I agree with hon. Members opposite that the only thing we can aim at is a rise in wages. I think that the farmer ought to start, and, what is more, I think that he is doing it. You must not suppose that all farmers throughout the country are coining money; dairy farmers certainly are not. The small farmers who sold their wheat at a moderate price and now have to bear the tremendous price of feeding-stuffs have lost money. There are big farmers with large stocks of wheat, and in their case I am sure that the balance will come on the right side. But they are not numerous. The great majority of farmers are no better off, through the present price of wheat, if they sold the larger part of their wheat before the price began to rise. There is a great shortage of labour among men in charge of animals, and wages have been raised enormously. That shortage is acutely felt, and therefore wages rise. There is also a shortage of labour among ordinary agricultural labourers, but at the present moment that shortage is not acutely felt because this is not the time of the year when there is much work done on the farm, and also because the wet weather has suspended all agricultural operations during the last few weeks.
If we were to argue on the old grounds of political economy, and the laws of supply and demand, there would be an answer there for the farmer against raising the agricultural labourer's wages. "Why should he do it," he may well say, "when he does not want the labourers and cannot use them?" But I am glad to say that in my opinion farmers to a very large extent all over the country have recognised that there are occasions when the moral responsibilities of an employer override the hard laws of political economy. And so, if you inquire in various quarters of the country, you will find that even ordinary wages of agricultural labourers have been raised by something like 2s. per week. I quite agree that 3s. would probably reinstate the men in the position in which they were before the War, and if hon Members will go for that, there we must part company, because I do not think that that can be fairly expected from the employer. But I do think that throughout the whole of the country the wages of ordinary agricultural labourers ought to be raised by at least 2s., and are being raised at the present moment. I hope that I have stated the agricultural side of the ques- 1162 tion without offence. There is yet another argument which I should like to use against the proposal to take over the wheat in this country and to fix a price other than that of the market. At the present moment I believe that there is a great deal of wheat in sight for consumption, and there is no reason at all for any panic. But I do confess that I am nervous about the prices in 1915–16.
Just think of what is going to happen. Russia, instead of being a seller of wheat, will, in all probability, be a buyer. Austria, which used to provide its own wants, will have to buy. Belgium, Germany, and France will all be buying in very much increased quantities, and the question is—shall we, to whom it matters vitally, be able to get the 30,000,000 quarters of wheat that we want, and, if so, what price shall we have to pay for it? Therefore, it is imperatively necessary that every encouragement should be given to the British farmer to put in as much wheat as he can. If you are going to seize the wheat to-morrow on the ground that when he put it in he thought he was going to get 31s. 6d., are you also going to guarantee him the price which he is going to get to-day? If not, there is neither fairness nor logic in the proposal. But, if you do seize it, the farmer, with the shortage of labour and the conditions that exist, is not going to run any risks, and will not put in a single additional acre of wheat this spring. Against every obstacle the farmer has patriotically met the country's demand and largely increased the area of autumn wheat. But what you want is to get in as much spring wheat as you possibly can. You will not get it if you hold out any threat to the British farmer.
There is only one appeal which I should like to make to the hon. Baronet (Sir Harry Verney) who represents the Board of Agriculture. I am not leading up to any demand for pecuniary assistance; I do not think that the British farmer ought to want it. I think that it is not necessary, and I do not see why the country should be asked to give it. My appeal is that he will try to assist the British farmer in this work of spring sowing, that he will do it, in the first place, by getting out a leaflet with every possible speed, recommending the best qualities of spring wheat for spring sowing. I dare say that the suggestion has been made already and that he is working at it. I understand that he is, but I hope that the leaflet will be published before the summer. My next 1163 point is one which is connected with the shortage of labour. I can well understand the reluctance which hon. Members feel to the employment of boys. I myself for many years have been chairman of a committee under a local education authority, and I share the fears expressed that boy labour, unless it is very carefully managed, and arranged, may not be a good thing. Provided that it is carefully arranged, it may be a good thing, because after all, in these days, what woman in the household would not consider the 4s. 6d. a week from her boy, whom she now has to feed at school, a perfect godsend to the home? We ought to think twice before we cut her off from that. But the point which I am going to make with regard to labour is this: There is in our villages a number of men who are quite capable of doing a week's work on end in care of cattle. They are old age pensioners; they dare not work that week because the pension officer would be down on them and reduce their pension. What I would like to suggest is that the pension officer should have instructions, or a hint from the Board of Agriculture, that they need not look too closely at the earnings of old age pensioners employed in agriculture during the War. The last point which I desire to mention in connection with helping the farmer is this: I hope that the Board of Agriculture will set on foot, either through agricultural societies or of their own initiative, some extensive scheme for organising in each county a proper supply of motor and steam ploughs, so as to facilitate ploughing the land, and of getting into it as large a quantity of spring wheat as can be found.
§ The PARLIAMENTARY SECRETARY to the BOARD of AGRICULTURE (Sir Harry Verney)
I may inform the hon. Member that the three suggestions have already been carried out practically, and I will send him a copy of the leaflet.
§ Mr. PROTHERO
I am delighted to hear that. I hardly thought, with the vigilant advisers of the Board of Agriculture, and with the hon. Baronet's own experience of farming, that they would not have taken advantage of some of these suggestions. But it is of enormous importance especially that spring wheat should be got in, and I hope that hon. Members will bear in mind that farmers throughout this country are very timid of the action and policy of the Government, 1164 and I trust they will not think it necessary to use language condemning the conduct of the British farmers, but that they will exercise great restraint, because I feel sure that the result of any contrary practice will be very detrimental to the national supply of food.
§ Mr. W. C. ANDERSON
Part of the ground of this discussion was cleared on the first day of the Debate, so that it is not necessary for me to labour the question of the rise in the cost of living which has been debated, but it is a very serious problem. I would like to point out that even before the outbreak of war, and for many years before the outbreak of war, the workpeople of this country have had their standard of living lowered by the constant and continuous increase of the cost of living that has gone on since 1900, and their position has been worsened. I saw yesterday figures of the Board of Trade which show that in an industrial centre like Sheffield, from 1905 to 1912, retail prices rose by 11 per cent., and the average wages rose only by 5 per cent. They show that, in those years, coal prices in Sheffield, between 1905 and 1912, rose by 29 per cent., according to the Board of Trade's figures, and there have been advances since that time. I think that emphasises the position in which the workpeople now find themselves; and, in regard to food prices, and the prices of coal and other necessaries of life, I should say that since the outbreak of War the purchasing power of the sovereign has shrunk at least by five shillings, so that the poorest of the people, who have to buy in small quantities—and buying in small quanties means that they have to pay more for the things that they buy—are most affected. There has been among the workpeople and the labour circles right throughout the conutry disappointment with the speech made by the Prime Minister last week. We expected something more from the investigations that were being made. Many of the poor people were asking for more powers being taken; they were asking for bread, and the Prime Minister offered them hardly more than the law of supply and demand. They want something more than that. He told us at length that the conditions were no worse than they were during the Franco-Prussian war. That may be a point of academic interest, but it is hardly a point of practical interest for those who feel the pinch at the present time. We are not living in 1871, but in 1915.
1165 I received this morning when I came to the House a letter from people who may perhaps have read things that I have written on this question. It is from a family where the father gets 5s. a week old age pension, and where the mother has 3s. a week from the union—8s. a week going into that home, and the man asks, "I wonder how some of the Members of Parliament would like to live on 8s. a week." Where you get large numbers of people living on small wages, even on £1 a week, they cannot be expected to share the official optimism which tells them that probably things will be a great deal better in July. With regard to the law of supply and demand, I would point out that some of the principal Departments of the Government promptly set it aside when they thought it necessary. The First Lord of the Admiralty is obtaining oil at a cheaper rate than existed at the outbreak of the War, and surely that presupposes that the Admiralty were sufficiently alert to anticipate what might happen, and make provision accordingly. In regard to the transport of troops, for instance, and of food for the soldiers, the Government does not depend upon the law of supply and demand, so far as the ships are concerned. They commandeer the necessary vessels, and very rightly and properly so, in order to transport troops or to convey food to the soldiers. We say that if the Government can set aside the law of supply and demand, and commandeer vessels at certain prices, then, equally, it is their duty, so far as the workpeople are concerned, to see that food comes to them without any of the exorbitant charges of the character imposed. The Leader of the Opposition said that at a time like this we ought not to be bound by any maxim about the law of supply and demand. I accept his view as being on an entirely sound principle, and I think the right hon. Gentleman commands more sympathy for that view on our Benches than on those of his more immediate neighbourhood.
Then we have to remember also, especially to-day, the growth of rings and syndicates, and some of those monopolies before which competition and the law of supply and demand, in many cases, are going by the board. In our view, it is not scarcity which is at the root of this problem—there is no real scarcity. I remember a story of King George I., who, when visiting Hanover, stayed with a courtier at an hotel where they were charged twenty florins for a very ordinary 1166 breakfast. His Majesty said to the courtier, "Food must be very scarce here." "No, Sire," replied the courtier, "it is not food that is scarce, but Kings are." The hotel people did not have a King every day, and they sought to make the most of their opportunity. And there are instances in this country where, as we have not a war every day, advantage is being taken of the present opportunity to increase profits. I suggest that from our point of view the investigations have been and are being carried on by the Government Committee on too abstract and too theoretical grounds. The Prime Minister dismisses the rise of wheat by telling us that it is due to a diminished supply and increased demand. He dimisses the increase of freightage by telling us there was a real shortage of shipping, which enabled the shipowners to charge higher prices. I think that with a Committee of this character, which had to go into the matter, the investigations ought to have been closer, they ought to have been concerned with more practical issues, and the consumers ought to have been represented upon any such investigations, especially from the standpoint that they are bearing losses arising from the increased prices.
There are one or two points that I think this Committee might have tackled, and I believe successfully. There is the question of the price of coal to the poor people in London. They are paying 2s. a cwt. for coal—[HON. MEMBERS: "More!"]—that is 40s. a ton, and in some cases more than that. I am taking a fairly moderate figure. A good part of the coal which is coming into London is still supplied under contract at pre-war rates. That means that at the pit-head, at this moment, hard cobbles are bought at 10s. at a ton; it comes by rail to London at 6s. 7d. a ton; it is placed in the London depots, and the charges amount to 16s. 7d. a ton. The very cheapest at which the London consumer can buy that coal, even by the ton—and the poor man's wife cannot do that—is 32s. a ton. Obviously there is room for investigation on the part of the Government to find out how exactly this arises. I wish to add this further point, a most important one, and that is that the price of poor qualities of coal supplied to poor people have risen out of all proportion to the prices of the good qualities of coal supplied to the richer classes. As an illustration, Wallsend coal last winter—it is a coal of good quality—sold in London at 30s. a ton. At this moment it is being 1167 sold at 34s. a ton, an increase of 4s. Stove coal, which is of poor quality, sold last winter at 22s. a ton and this winter it is 32s. a ton—an increase of 10s. a ton for that coal compared with an increase of 4s. a ton for the coal supplied to the rich. There is no argument here about our not being able to control our market. There is no argument here that coal comes from America or from the Argentine. The commodity is right inside our own shores, and I believe that it can be controlled, and that there is not going to be any real improvement in the present state of things until the principle of public control is exercised, as it can be exercised, right from the pithead until the time the coal reaches the house of the consumer.
Take the question of freightage. Here, again, the abstract proposition is that in consequence of the shortage of ships the shipowners charge more, but the Government might have gone more closely into the matter. Compare the position of the railway companies with the position of the shipowners. The railways are to a large extent to-day under public control. Even before the outbreak of the War railway freightage was, and is now, to a large extent, controlled by the House of Commons, and the result is that since the War began the ton of coal conveyed by rail from Newcastle to London comes at a cost of freightage substantially the same now as it was when the War began. But if you take a ton of sea-borne coal from Newcastle to London, the freight when the War broke out was from 3s. to 3s. 6d. a ton, and then it rose until it was at one time 13s. 6d. a ton, and it is only 1s. below that at the present moment. In one case the Government exercised the principle of public control in order to keep down rates, and in the other they leave the freightage absolutely unfettered in private hands, and the prices have gone up enormously. It is for that principle of public control that the Labour party and the labour movement is fighting, thinking it to be a sound and wise principle. I come back once more to the question of the reasons for these prices that have been given to us. In one case we have been told that the operations of the Navy have swept all the German merchant ships from the seas. What we say in regard to that is this, that the dangerous work of the Navy, involving the lives of British sailors, ought not to be used by British shipowners to 1168 enable them to increase the freightage upon their own people, upon the men and women of their own country. So that in this way we believe, also, that the matter ought to be extended. I think to a large extent the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition agrees with us on this point, because in his speech he said this:—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.The right hon. Gentleman says he does not know whether that is good Tory doctrine. I am afraid that the party truce precludes me from offering any observations on that point. There is, however, one thing I would say to the right hon. Gentleman, and it is this, I think the second part of the doctrine is sounder than the first, and I think he will find as to the seizing of every able-bodied man that his party will be ready to adopt that rather than to adopt the principle of seizing ships.
§ Mr. ANDERSON
I am very glad of that, but the right hon. Gentleman did say that the evil would have to be much greater than it was before there was a call for intervention on those lines. I want to ask the right hon. Gentleman how much greater and how much longer are we to wait. I desire to say one or two words in reply to the hon. Gentleman who spoke last, with regard to the farmers. There are two points I wish to emphasise. It is true, perfectly true, and it will be admitted readily on these Benches that the problem of wheat is far more difficult than the problem of coal. We shall admit that readily, because the supply of wheat comes from the ends of the earth, and supply and prices are much more difficult to regulate than in a case where the commodity is inside our own shores. Nevertheless it is true that the farmer, as the result of the rise in the price of wheat all over the world, and as a result of the speculation even in America, the British farmer is getting prices for his wheat to-day that he has not got for half a century. It is true that there has been a rise in the price of wheat from 30s. or 31s., at which it stood this time last year, to practically double that at the present time. Of that there can be no doubt at all, and surely at a 1169 time like the present there is going to be no question of the farmer in spring planting every available acre with wheat and so making this country, so far as it can be made, independent of foreign and speculative supplies. Will the farmer have to be bribed to do so? Surely, in view of what is happening now, there ought to be the clearest understanding, and I believe there is, that a large part of the present trouble is due to a bad land system, and that if there were a better system of land ownership, with more regard to the food of the people and sometimes loss for the pleasures of game preserves for the rich, then there would be far less of a problem than there is at the present time with regard to wheat.
In view of those profits and of the fact that there is this very large increase going into the pockets of many of the farmers, there is, in my opinion, no case made out for the introduction of this principle of child labour. At any rate, let the farmers tell us first, if they say they cannot get adult labour, what they are prepared to pay for adult male labour, and whether they are at the present time co-operating with the Labour Exchanges. The problem is going to be a serious one, and if the hon. Gentleman who spoke last does represent the farming interest, or is connected with that interest, then I do wish to warn him that the labourers themselves will resist, and resist strongly, any attempt to introduce child labour and to impose that on the community. There is just one point in his speech that I accept very readily indeed, and that is, that if some other questions may involve delay, at least we need not delay about improving wages all round. Here again there is an opportunity for the Government. I do not believe that any sane person wants strikes, or revolts, at the present time. I believe that the condition and wages of the working people can be considerably improved without strikes, or any dislocation, and I believe that that rise is justified by the rise in the cost of living, because if anything in the nature of an industrial truce is entered into it involves a truce all round. It does not mean that the sacrifices are going to be on one side and the profits on the other. It means that there must be fair play and a fair deal. It will be increasingly difficult to maintain anything in the nature of an industrial truce if you convey to large masses of workpeople the idea that interests are doing well out of the present 1170 state of things, whilst the poor are much poorer in many respects than before. Those are the main points I wish to emphasise.
I suggest that the Government is as responsible for ordering the soldiers of industry as the soldiers of war. Everybody wants the soldier of war to be well fed and well clad; they deserve all we can give them for what they are going through at the present time. We say that the soldiers of industry are also important from the standpoint of the nation. The men on the railways and in the mines, the men and women in the factories, and at the dock gates, and so on, are also important and ought not to be left unprotected against a very dangerous form of invasion, namely, the invasion of poverty and of hunger and of distress. That is the labour view, and when hon. Members speak, as they do speak, about sacrifices on the part of the working classes, I suggest that the working classes have made, and are making, and will have to make, very great sacrifices indeed. A war like the present involves sacrifices upon all classes, and many of the well-to-do people are sacrificing that which is to many of them as dear as life itself in the lives of their strong sons, and the workpeople are also doing that, and, in addition, they have sometimes to dread hunger and distress, which makes their lives more terrible still. When this War is over I have faith that there is a great destiny and a great future before the British people. I believe, personally, that by and by the workpeople of all countries will learn some better method of settling their quarrels than that at present employed. I believe that nations in the future will compete against each other, not as to the best way in which they can kill, but as to the best way in which they can make human life the holy and sacred thing human life should be. I believe that in that struggle the British people, the British nation, will play a great part, but if it is to play a great part in that future struggle we must safeguard, by every means in our power now, the life, the health, and the strength of our children and of the generations that are to come, and we must see that they are not debased by hunger. It is from that standpoint I beg to support the Amendment.
§ The PRESIDENT of the BOARD of TRADE (Mr. Runciman)
The House has been favoured this afternoon in hearing two maiden speeches, and a speech from 1171 one of our newest Members, and I think we may well say that the additions which have been made to our numbers in the discussion of social questions have added greatly to the wealth of thought and newness of vision on which this House will have to depend in future days in solving most difficult problems. The hon. Gentleman who has just sat down, who has in eloquent and serious tones spoken of the condition of the poor and the difficulties by which they are surrounded, has to some extent covered ground which is common to us, not only in time of war, but in time of peace. The problem of poverty is not new at the present moment; it is only more intense. The hon. Gentleman, I know, has for many years devoted himself to finding a solution for those difficulties, and he has come to one conclusion, and that is that private effort and private organisation and competition, and the immense driving power of self-interest, are not sufficient for us either in times of war or in times of peace. Therefore it is nothing new to hear him say this afternoon that all our difficulties could be swept away if only the State will here and now step in and do that which has been undertaken in the past by private individuals. His complaint with regard to the investigation undertaken by the Prime Minister and his colleagues has not been made with the full knowledge of what has been going on in Government circles. Let us assure him we did not start out with the idea of proving any political economy doctrine. We were faced with grave difficulties which concerned mainly the poorest of our people, and we are not prejudiced in favour of either one doctrine or another if we could find some practical way out of all the troubles by which they are surrounded.
The hon. Gentleman has said that we have already discarded some of the laws—as we call them—of political economy. For instance, in finance we did not stick strictly to the old practice of Governments in the past which had nothing whatever to do with the financial operations of the City, and we did not leave severely on one side the banks to work out their own 1172 problems in their own way. No. And why not? Not because we wished to safeguard the dividends of the bank shareholders, and not because we were concerned in the solvency of twenty or thirty important financial individuals. We did it in order that the trade into and out of this country should be kept flowing freely to and fro. If we had not departed from the old practice of Governments, and had not set on one side some of the doctrines which many of us have held dearly in the past, it is quite certain that in that great time of stress not only would the trade probably have been stopped inwards and outwards, but we should not have received the necessary supplies on which we are now living, and those very high prices against which we now complain would have been, I venture to say, not twenty or thirty, or fifty, but even a hundred per cent. higher than they are now, but for the financial measures which were taken by the Chancellor of the Exchequer and those assisting him. There could be no more certain proof of the fact that we were not prejudiced than in the action which we took. This discussion, if it is to turn off on to mere political economy problems, and if it is to be concerned merely with the discussion as to the relative values in industrial organisation, of individualism, or socialism, will have been of no value. We have all indulged in those discussions in the past, and I have no doubt that most people have made up their minds on them long before this.
On the general question, I would only say that a war of such magnitude as the present brings every man, no matter what his views may be, into close contact with first principles. Those first principles have been tested again and again, privately and publicly, and it may be that when the War is over we may have to modify many of our methods. I say quite frankly that I do not feel so perfectly prejudiced in favour of the practices of the past that I would not depart in case of need in the future from many of the doctrines and methods to which we have been attached. But I should want to know in every case whether it was going to make 1173 things better or to make them worse; and that is the only test by which I hope the House and the country will judge what was said by the Prime Minister last week as to the view of the Government. I do not want to cover the whole ground of our discussion; that would take far too long; but I would like, in the first place, to say a word or two about the figures given by the Prime Minister last week. He dealt, as the House knows, in a manner characteristic of himself, with percentages and costs which were undoubtedly of the greatest possible value to us. But all figures based on percentages are coloured by the picture which is drawn by individual consumers in individual places. The percentages quoted by my right hon. Friend were correct. The greatest possible trouble has been taken to collate information over a very large area and to bring in every sort of district—town and country, village and large town, metropolis and province—in order that we might be able to ascertain as far as we could what was the general tendency.
§ Mr. RUNCIMAN
Certainly. My right hon. Friend pointed out the distinction between the coal markets in London and those in the provinces. He did not refer to the prices at the pithead, about which the hon. Baronet is so well-informed; but he did make mention of the provincial and the metropolitan coal prices. In such a general survey, undoubtedly the average amounts in many cases differ from the experience of individual and separate towns. It is easy in extreme cases greatly to exaggerate the rise which has taken place in many of the main articles of living—if, for instance, you go to the remoter districts and take flour as your test, or if you go into some parts of London and take coal as your test. But if you take the country as a whole, I think I shall not be exaggerating when I say that certainly half of the main commodities on which our households depend have not become materially dearer. Take, for instance, bacon. Bacon supplies a very large part of the dietary of men all over 1174 the country, rich and poor alike. The truth is that in a very large number of our provincial towns bacon is just about the same price now as it was in July last. One of my hon. Friends was good enough to obtain over the counter the actual prices charged by grocers in his own town—a provincial town on the North-East Coast. What do I find on looking through that list? Bacon is no dearer than it was; lard is exactly the same price. Lard, 7d.; bacon, 9d. by the whole side, 10d. for slices. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"]
§ Mr. JONATHAN SAMUEL
I am prepared to verify every statement upon that paper. I had the whole thing from the server, or the man who was waiting in the shop, last Monday.
§ Mr. RUNCIMAN
What has just happened shows the difficulty of obtaining a general survey as to what are the prices charged. Here are prices actually charged over the counter in my hon. Friend's constituency. They are obtained by himself, and they are challenged below the Gangway. But perhaps I might go on with the list of articles which have not increased in price. It includes coffee, cocoa, soap, salmon in tins, marrow fat peas, tinned milk, and so on. The main increases of price have occurred in other commodities. I am sure that my hon. Friends will believe me when I say that I am not trying to belittle the rise in prices. I am only trying to find out where the rise has been most marked, because even Gentlemen of firm opinions on general principles, like the hon. Member who has just spoken, will find it impossible to deal with this problem unless they ascertain what are the real facts. Far and away the most serious rise is in regard to flour. Flour has gone up in this establishment—and I take this establishment because I want to take an individual establishment where prices are not supposed to have 1175 been raised unduly—from 1s. 9d. a stone to 2s. 6d. That is in a part of the world where people are in the habit of baking their own bread.
§ Mr. RUNCIMAN
My hon. Friend knows what he is talking about. Cheaper flour has gone up from 1s. 7d. to 2s. 4d. in February, and since then it has dropped to 2s. 1d.
§ Mr. J. SAMUEL
No. I do not wish to mislead the House. I put 2s. 1d. there because I was told that on Tuesday morning flour was going to drop, but I have a telegram to-day saying that flour is 2s. 4d. a stone. It has risen from 1s. 7d. to 2s. 4d.
§ Mr. RUNCIMAN
The expert knowledge of my hon. Friend is most valuable. In any case there has been a rise from 1s. 7d. to at least 2s. 4d.—that is a rise of about 9d. Sugar (granulated) has gone up from 2d. to 3½d.; lump sugar has risen from 3d. to 4d. The cheapest qualities of tea, curiously enough, in this establishment—I give it only as one individual instance—have gone up by only 2d., in spite of the increased duty. Danish butter has gone up a penny, from 1s. 4d. to 1s. 5d.; best rice has risen from 3d. to 4d.; and ordinary rice from 2d. to 2½d. It is quite clear that the main rises in these articles of food are to be found centred round flour and similar products. [An HON. MEMBER: "Sugar!"] Sugar is on an entirely different basis; I will deal with that later. The rise in flour is far and away the most marked, and that is the main reason why my hon. Friends and hon. Members opposite who have spoken have taken so much trouble to deal with the rise in the price of wheat. It has been said over and over again in this Debate—I do not know whether it is even worth repeating, but it certainly must affect the views which hon. Members form—that the price of wheat is not made in this country; it is a world price. It has been suggested that the importers here, the corn merchants here, the millers here, and the fanners here, have been withholding their stocks from the 1176 market. There is absolutely no evidence of that. The Board of Agriculture makes a regular census of all our stocks week by week, but there has not been found in any part of the country any unnatural withholding of food supplies from the market. Of course, our stocks in this country are larger to some slight extent at the present moment than they are in times of peace. Indeed, I should shudder for our safety if they were not. One of the most serious problems we have to face is the continued supply of food, even although the traffic of our merchant vessels may be interrupted from time to time. The stocks which are held in this country are none too sufficient for the operations of milling.
There is no doubt that millers were for some little time reluctant to buy new wheat or to make fresh purchases, and for a very good reason. They frankly said, "We do not know exactly where we stand. When we have made our purchases of this new wheat, is it all going to be taken over at an arbitrary price. If so, at what price?" It may be suggested that these millers were not patriotically going on with their business; but, as one of them said to me, he was not in business for the good of his health. [An HON. MEMBER: "For the good of the country."] He was there to make a living. He was just as much in business, I may inform my hon. Friend, for the good of the country as anyone else. He is not likely to go on purchasing unless he knows that he is going to be able to sell or has some prospects of selling with a margin that will cover expenses and leave something to live on. If he is left in a state of uncertainty and does not know whether, having made a purchase at 50s. say, he will be bound to hand over his stocks at 45s., it stands to reason that the activity of his operations must be checked. The millers said perfectly frankly when they saw us—and we have been in conference with them more than once—"So long as we do not know whether our stocks are going to be taken over or not, we must go along slowly; we must buy from hand to mouth. We cannot make heavy forward purchases." The first necessity is to have the supplies coming in. Anything that tends to prevent 1177 operators from purchasing will naturally interfere with our supplies and not put matters in a better position. It is important that these men should know that their operations can be conducted safely, and that if they do not make undue profits or withhold their stocks from the market when they have bought them, they will be allowed as ordinary traders to proceed with their business. Hon. Gentlemen below the Gangway may not think that that is good doctrine, but it is very practical. Unless you are prepared to give these men, who are at the present moment in command of this great industrial organism, some assurance of security, it will be impossible for us to keep up supplies even to their present level. The first practical consideration is to know that their confidence can be maintained.
It has also been said that the figures of import values have been higher during the last few months, and indeed during the last year, than they were in the preceding year. That, of course, is partly due to the rise in prices. It is also certain that quantities are higher than they were in the preceding year. That, I think, is due to the fact that, in spite of the high values, every miller knows well that to have his mill interrupted, to have the flow of his supplies checked, will interfere with his operations, leave his machinery standing, put his men out of work, and make his contracts difficult to fulfil. Therefore you have in their minds these two contending thoughts: first of all, they want to keep their mills going regularly; secondly, they want to be sure that their operations are not going by artificial reasons to land them in a loss. The risk of the market is quite enough to prevent their going too fast. The supply of wheat during the last few months has come mainly from only a small number of markets. The closing of the Australian supplies, the lack of supplies from the Black Sea, the fact that the European consumers are buying very heavily, have all had their effect, and they have been cumulative in their effect. It was suggested by the Leader of the Opposition that we might, on the outbreak of the War, knowing, as he said, 1178 the Government must surely know, that the Dardanelles would be closed, proceed to buy on Government account large quantities of Russian grain—
§ Mr. RUNCIMAN
If he did not say that, I will take his next point; but perhaps it was that we should get Russian grain out of the Dardanelles before the vessels were closed in?
§ Mr. RUNCIMAN
Well, then, if the right hon. Gentleman meant that we should buy in the world generally large quantities of grain knowing that the Russian supply was going to be shut off, I will point out the dangers which undoubtedly flow from great Government operations of that kind. If the suggestion which was made by the Leader of the Opposition was that we should buy in the world's markets, no matter where, for Government account, a sufficient amount of grain to make sure of our supply—I think he did suggest holding in order that we might prevent prices going too high—that in itself would be liable to increase the very dangers which millers and corn importers might find hanging over their heads, and would in itself tend to their keeping down operations to a minimum rather than raising them to a maximum. The mere fact that 2,000,000 quarters were received for Government account would have made greater the dangers of the market. The Government did consider the proposal to which the right hon. Gentleman referred with the greatest possible care, and I may add we were greatly attracted towards it; but we came finally to the conclusion that under the conditions as we then found them, and now find them, it would be detrimental to our interests, and not helpful to our supplies. The way in which purchases have been made abroad has had a tendency, as I said, to cause a rise in prices. Why? To a considerable extent because the purchasers were the Governments. I know 1179 there are a large number of Gentlemen who sit below the Gangway who would like to see all these purchases made by Governments under the Government control and Government supervision. I can only say that my experience as a business man has been that Governments cannot buy half so well as private individuals. That is exactly what has happened in the United States. I venture to say that the purchases made in the United States for the account of some foreign Governments in Europe have been more expensive in every way than the purchases by private importers into this country. They have been lavish in their purchases. They have competed there, and forced prices up against us, and I think it is really a matter for congratulation rather than for the reverse that, in spite of this heavy foreign competition, our supplies at the present moment have been kept so large. The truth is, if you take the prices in Liverpool and in New York in diagrammatic form, you will find that the curves always harmonise, and that the prices in New York are leading Liverpool rather than the prices in this country leading prices in New York. That I put down very largely to the fact that not only is our market safer, but there is in that market a competition on the part of our private importers and on the part of those Governments from which we, to some extent in this country, are having to suffer.
The subject of wheat has been discussed at length, and, if I may say so, by none with a greater degree of illumination than by the hon. Member for Oxford University. I would, however, make one remark on the suggestion made by him, and it is this: That with the markets at their present high level, with the demand not likely to come down in this country, the British farmer has, I think, an inducement to grow wheat which need not be added to by any artificial means. There never was a time within this generation when more money could be made out of wheat than during the present season. Farmers who have not the courage to go in and plant wheat for itself with the local markets at 53s. to 56s. per quarter, will not be 1180 likely to go in even if you offered a bonus of 5s. per quarter. I have had a good deal of experience during the last few years and I am fairly convinced that with prices at their present high level those farmers who desire to grow wheat will not allow prejudice to stand in their way. The only one serious obstacle which many farmers have had to overcome in the bearing of their land for the growing of wheat and the harvesting of their crop is the shortage of labour. That encourages me to say that I was glad to hear the hon. Member for the Oxford University suggest an all-round rise in wages to agricultural labourers. It may be that 2s. is not enough, and that agriculture will have to get its labour in the ordinary way—by paying for it. Nothing will induce labour to flow into agricultural markets now except better conditions, better housing, and better pay. That is one reason why at other times when we were more controversial than we are to-day we laid great stress upon these three improvements in the condition of the agricultural labour. May I say a word or two about coal? In the hearing of my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Sir A. Markham) I hesitate to say anything about the price of coal at the pit-mouth. My hon. Friend knows so much more about it than most of the Members of this House that I must be careful, but I should like to point out that so far as London is concerned—and it is here, and not in any other town, so far as we can ascertain, that there has been the large proportion of rise in the price of household coal—in the North Country household coal is now being sold by private merchants and the co-operative societies at very little above the price which they were obtaining last summer. Some towns in the Midlands may also be receiving their coal supply at about the same level.
§ Mr. RUNCIMAN
Perhaps my hon. Friend will allow me—I was going to say that in other towns in the Midlands, for purely local reasons, and for purely railway reasons, the price of household coal has 1181 gone up considerably. There is no doubt that the reason why household coal has gone up so largely in price in London is due—I will not say entirely, but in large part—to the difficulties of bringing it here by rail. Coal that comes here by sea is used mainly for the gas and electricity works for great factories and companies like the Underground Railway, which raise a large amount of electric power. We, at once, realising that the rail-borne coal dominated the household market felt bound to go into the way in which the railways were dealing with rail-borne coal. We found that their facilities had been very largely diminished. I need not tell the House how many trucks are naturally held up for Governmental purposes. It is of the very first importance that the Navy should have its coal whenever and wherever it wants it. It is also true that a very large amount of rolling stock must be kept vacant waiting for the transport of troops in one direction or another, and that has certainly tended to railway congestion. Owing, however, to the efforts which have been made by the Railway Executive Committee during the last two or three weeks, the import of coal into London has been better and more like the corresponding week of last year. That, I believe, will have an immediate effect upon the prices of household coal in London. It is true, as the hon. Gentleman said, that a good deal of coal is sold in London by the hundredweight and at very high prices. I agree that that is true. Indeed, one of the difficulties that we always have in dealing with coal prices in London is that they vary so much in the various districts and according to the quantities which are purchased. I need hardly say that we cannot allow the problem to remain where it is. We are probing deeper to get at the causes, and I can say that we have been trying to bring our influence to bear upon quarters where it may tend to reduce the present high level. If necessary we shall not hesitate to act.
The pooling of railway trucks as a way out of difficulties was suggested by one hon. Member. The companies have already taken steps in that direction. They have relieved the congestion of the coal 1182 traffic and the port traffic by the transfer of trucks from one railway which had rather too many trucks at liberty to another which had rather too few for use. To that extent there has been pooling; but pooling in the sense of utterly ignoring the railways from which the railway trucks come would only lead to confusion. The railway companies have had to alter their method of dealing with their traffic to the extent I have mentioned, but they are now endeavouring to, and succeeding in assisting other companies which are working at high pressure, by sending certain traffic over lines not working at so high a pressure. Moreover, again and again traffic has been diverted on to another line or another railway system, so that there might be not the least delay. The Prime Minister last week made a reference to a fact that payment for demurrage of wagons had been experimentally suspended. What he meant by that was, no doubt, demurrage as between railway companies. It would not do to suspend the payment of demurrage by ordinary traders, otherwise we should rapidly find wagons would be used for warehouse purposes, and the shortage which we have at the present time would be accentuated. To that extent we have adopted the principle of pooling.
I do not know that there is any need for me to say anything about meat at the present time, except that whatever charge may be made against the importers with regard to the price of meat, the great rise in the price of meat cannot be fairly laid to their door. The percentages as to the increases quoted by the Prime Minister last Thursday were correct. There again though, they are, like all percentages, subject to great variation according as the price is between one shop and another, or one district and another, or as between one cut and another or the various qualities of cuts. The rise in the price of frozen, refrigerated, or chilled meat, has been to some extent explained by the necessity under which we were as to the need for the vessels employed in the trade, and used generally for the carriage of meat, now having to be taken for the purpose of conveying troops, or for other Admiralty purposes. I believe 1183 at one time we had no less than thirty-three frozen space vessels so engaged. They had all to come home from Australia at the same time. That created one of those dislocations that come about by Government interference in industrial affairs which of necessity lead to shortage of supplies and to some extent higher prices. Of these thirty-three vessels, sixteen are now in London ready to go back to Australia and will soon be sailing. Five of the vessels have been taken up by the Commonwealth Government and have been released for ordinary trade. We have added to our number by taking over five German vessels which were in Australasia, and have requisitioned them to bring cattle from Australia.
In these ways we hope to add to the amount of tonnage available, and certainly to prevent any great increase in the carriage and cost of frozen meat in this country. Before the War the rate paid for the carriage of meat from Australia to London was five-eighths of a penny per 1b. for mutton, nine-sixteenths of a penny per 1b. for beef. At the present this has been raised by the addition of a 25 per cent. surtax. We have examined the charges which were made by the great lines for this purpose, and we have come to the conclusion that, taking into account the entire dislocation of their traffic, the increased cost to which they are put, and the delays which, unfortunately, have occurred, and were bound to occur, these charges were not excessive. We found it not so easy to make arrangements for the River Plate trade, but we settled down to a uniform charge of three-fourths of a penny per lb., which is a rise from three-eighths to three-fourths of a penny per lb. I understand that one line at least is still going on carrying meat at exactly the same rate which it charged last summer. The great increase in the price of meat is due to causes described by the Prime Minister, and cannot be put down to the greatly increased cost of carriage. The hon. Gentleman who spoke on behalf of the Labour party stated that the cost of carriage being what it was, and the profits of those en- 1184 gaged in it being as high as he thought they were, the time had arrived when we should embark on State control of ships.
I should not hesitate for a moment to embark on the State control of ships if I thought it would lead to our national advantage. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition that circumstances might arise when we might have to resort to the most drastic courses. I also agree with him that to embark on these new methods at the present time would only make things ten times worse. I will tell the House why. No analogy can be drawn between the railway companies and ships. In the first place, the railways are entirely within our Islands. They are not subject to foreign competition. They are at the present moment controlled by a very small body of men, and one of the successes of the War—if one can speak of success in such a connection—has been the skill with which the general managers sitting in one room, round one table, have co-ordinated their services. That has been due to the fact, not that the Government undertook the management of the railways, but that it brought together those who controlled the railways and allowed them to go on managing them. The next characteristic of Government control over the railways has been that, although we have control over the railways, we are not managing them. We are not interfering with their rates; we are not coming between them and merchants of various kinds, wholesale or retail. We are not stepping in to decide how they shall send down their trucks to one colliery or another, or north, south, east or west. We are leaving that entirely to the management, which knows far more about these things than any of us in this House. The contrast between the control of our railways and the control of our ships may be found mainly in this: Whereas the railways are not subject to foreign competition, the ships are; whereas the railways are concerned purely with traffic within this country, shipping is international. The supplies of this country come in both foreign and British ships, and British ships 1185 are engaged in both British and foreign trade. Any attempt to control, in the sense of managing, of forcibly diverting into one trade or another, the mercantile marine of this country must of necessity mean that the Government would have to undertake to decide, and possibly show favour, whether you are to put all your ships, or the majority of your ships, into the South Atlantic or the North Atlantic, or whether you are to send them through the Canal. At the present moment, what attracts vessels through the Canal to the South or the North, is the height of freights. Now it is supposed that these freights are entirely the wicked machination of the shipowners.
I am stating a truism when I say the rates that merchants are paying at the present time are merely the measure of the needs of those merchants. If we had Government control of the whole mercantile marine of the world, and arbitrarily decided that it was all to go to South America, or a large proportion, and that there was to be less for the East, we should be favouring the merchants of South America and penalising those of the East. The only way to decide which needs the tonnage most is to find out who will pay the highest freight for the tonnage. Once you depart from that principle you may find you may have far too many ships in some parts, and far too few in others. That means a wastage of tonnage. It will mean that the supplies you ought to draw from some parts will not be coming here, and the surplusage of your ships will be wasted. The general traffic of the world will be reduced by every mistake you make by sending ships in the wrong direction, and no Government and no Committee is capable of deciding the matter. And then, when you have chosen your route, you have to decide what goods you are going to carry. Are you going to carry wheat to the exclusion of hides, iron ore to the exclusion of copper, cotton to the exclusion of wool, or are you going to carry all of them? The real trouble is that there is a shortage of tonnage, and you cannot have all; you have to leave out some.
1186 The only way to decide which are most needed on this side is to be found in the amount the merchants will pay to bring them over to this side. The only way to decide which shall be first, second, or third, is to know which will pay the highest or next highest, to get their goods carried. Again, assuming you divert the whole of your tonnage into the carriage of food, which merchants are you going to take? I have the pleasure of knowing three or four of the merchants who are engaged in the River Plate trade. They are exceptionally able, business men—not all Englishmen. Are you going to say that you will allow all the tonnage to go to the Englishmen and cut out foreign merchants? If you do it means that a very large amount of tonnage controlled by foreign merchants will not come here. Are you going to say you will only distribute your tonnage pro rata among merchants? You may find yourselves in the position of giving favours to merchants with whom you may be acquainted, or who may state their case in most glowing colours, and leave out those supplies which would be just as precious to this country. Then you must select individual cargoes.
There is only one way by which, by commandeering the whole of the mercantile marine, you can hold the balance fairly as between all routes and all merchants and all consumers, and that is that you must become not only shipowners but merchants. Indeed, you must become not only an individual merchant: you must become a super-merchant, the only merchant—the only merchant in wheat, the only merchant in hides, the only merchant in wool, the only merchant in oil. I know the hon. Gentleman who spoke last thinks that is next door to the millenium. We may argue about that on some other occasion; but I implore him not to try to bring about the millenium in the middle of a great war. I prefer tackling these questions on practical lines. One of the real difficulties under which we are at the present time is not that there are not enough ships to go round, but that we cannot turn the ships round fast enough. Ports have been choked, and some are still 1187 rather badly choked. I have got assistance from the port authorities very much the same way as the Government have obtained it from the railway companies. Committees from the port authorities are now working out some of the practical problems surrounding the question. Let me mention four or five of the difficulties they have to solve. First of all, they have to decide how they can prevent the revenue from dues being over-considered, rather than taking into account the quick handling of cargoes. That is a matter that can only be solved by those who know the traffic, and how they can induce traders to take stuff away from their quays and warehouses quickly.
The hon. Member for the Toxteth Division (Mr. Houston) referred last week to the question of sugar. It is true that a great deal of Government sugar did come together at one time. The hon. Member was quite correct in saying that no less than fourteen berths were occupied in Liverpool by sugar cargoes. We have endeavoured to reduce that, and now the total number is five, although it is true that one or two others are what is called foul berths. Those are problems which ease the traffic, which accelerate the speed with which commodities can be turned round and brought into the country. Then they are considering how our Customs regulations can be made easier. They are considering how the docks and warehouses for war stores, and for the redistribution of war stores, can best be arranged. They are looking into the question of the better co-operation between railways, ports, and shipping. These may not be heroic measures, but they lie at the root of the problem. If you can turn vessels round more quickly it will increase the amount of tonnage handled, and sooner will come the day when freights will be lower, and only by those means. We have succeeded already in reducing the congestion. Whereas in January there were about forty-six vessels waiting for berths in Liverpool, there are to-day only twenty-seven. In London the number has been reduced from forty-three to twenty-two, and although many wool 1188 ships will be arriving soon, we do not think we shall be unprepared for handling them.
I make only one comment on the solution of these problems, and that is that in all these matters we have not looked into them as doctrinaires. We have dealt with them, if I may use the well-known term, as business men. I know the Leader of the Opposition might withhold that term from some of my colleagues. I hope he will pay me the compliment of not withholding it from me. I am indebted for whatever training I had before coming to the House of Commons to a purely business experience, and I do not underestimate in any degree the advantage one can obtain from receiving the advice and assistance which have been freely given, and disinterestedly given, by large numbers of business men. Ever since the beginning of the War the Board of Trade, at all events, have been using the advice, knowledge and wisdom of business men on almost every topic we have touched—cotton, wool, steel, spelter, other metals, chemicals. We have in every case, when we have come to technical problems, called in men of business to give guidance. We have abided by their decision in so far as a Government can, although it is necessary, sometimes to hold the balance evenly between one set of business men and another.
On the much debated topic of sugar, my right hon. Friend and his Commission have had the advantage of the best expert advisers in this Island, who have sat day by day with him, and I can say on his behalf that without their advice it would have been impossible for him to deal with that problem. In the matter of retail groceries, we have been in daily consultation with large retail grocers. As regards the import of wheat, millers have been in constant consultation with us. Throughout the whole of this time we have been approaching these problems purely with the idea of easing the burden on the consumer. Coming to coal, we did not attempt to deal with the problem of pit-props without the assistance of a committee. We put pit-props into the hands of the Mining Association and the pit-prop importers, and then we gave them the advantage of 1189 one of the best persons in our Department to act as chairman to maintain the balance evenly. To make up for the shortage of pit-props we have obtained them from Canada, Newfoundland, Spain and Portugal. We have filled up to a large extent the lacunas created by the closing of the Baltic. We could not have done that without the assistance of business men and a special committee. The interned ships are under the management of ship managers and the railways have an executive committee composed of general managers. Even on dyes we have taken good care that the specialist and the specialist alone should be allowed to tender advice, and guide us along the best lines in the solution of the problem. I think that this is enough evidence of the fact that we have not neglected the business wisdom to be found in this country, and which has been given most freely in every quarter.
There is only one other subject to which I will refer. High prices would be of less importance if the remuneration of those who have fixed incomes were raised accordingly. It does not much matter to a man who earns £1 a week now, when he only earned 18s. before, if the cost of living went up 2s. If it goes up to a higher level than the measure of the increased wage, that man is suffering a hardship. It may be difficult to put down the cost of these commodities, and in some directions I say that to have low prices would be a national danger. I refer particularly in this connection to wheat. That can, however, be compensated for by higher remuneration. It has been asked, have the Government done their best? I think they have. In the dockyard and the Government works we have raised wages. The recent rise in wages on the English railways will be borne in part by the Exchequer. Wages have been raised in the armament companies; it may be they have not been raised enough, but they have gone upwards. There is one case where wages have not risen with great rapidity, and I say it with regret, and that is in the agricultural districts. Farmers are very good fellows, but they are slow 1190 movers, and I am afraid they do not realise that the shortage of labour is likely to hit them harder than other business men. I think if they raise the rate of wages to get a sufficient supply of labour on their farms they will be serving not only their own but the national interest.
§ Mr. CHAMBERLAIN
Anyone who has listened to this afternoon's Debate will agree that it has been remarkable for three speeches which have been delivered. There is the speech of the hon. Member for Oxford University (Mr. Prothero), the speech of the hon. Member for the Attercliffe Division of Sheffield (Mr. Anderson)—both being maiden speeches—and the very able speech which has just been delivered by the President of the Board of Trade. For my part, I might be well content to leave the case where the Leader of the Opposition left it, and where my hon. Friend who spoke to-day, and the representatives of the Government, have left it. I think it will be evident to anyone who follows the Debate that there is in no part of the House any disposition, at an exceptional and an extraordinary time like this time, to be bound by any old rules merely because they are old rules. It will be evident that there is a readiness to examine new methods, and to adopt them if those methods prove to be effective. There always will be, when great troubles arise, a temptation in some quarters to have recourse to heroic measures, merely because they are heroic, but it does not follow that they necessarily prove efficient. Such measures are very attractive in the abstract, but the more we study the ways of trade, and the more we study the governing factors of the present problem, the less it appears to me that the heroic measures suggested are likely to effect the object which is common to all parties in this House, and to all people in the country outside.
The hon. Member for Attercliffe, and other hon. Gentlemen both inside and outside the House, appear to have thought that they could find an analogy for the Government action which they desire in regard to food-stuffs in the action taken by the Government in the realm of finance. 1191 It is really because that argument was urged again to-day that I intervened for a moment in this Debate. What could be more natural than the course actually taken by the Government in their intervention in City affairs. The course recommended by hon. Gentlemen below the Gangway has been that the Government should commandeer supplies of food-stuffs, and should themselves retail them out at maximum prices. The Government should pursue no such course in dealing with a financial crisis such as this. They intervene not to commandeer existing resources, but to make them liquid, realisable and practicable. They do not seek to supersede any existing business or financial activity. The whole object of their intervention was to restore to existing institutions and houses an activity and a capacity for business which they had momentarily lost, and there is no such analogy to be drawn between the action taken by the Government, and that recommended by hon. Gentlemen below the Gangway, as they appear to suppose. So far from the Government fixing a maximum price in their dealings with the City, the only prices they have fixed there have been minimum prices. It is not quite certain that although the Government did their best under very difficult circumstances, and obtained, no doubt, the best advice they could before they acted, yet did not make a mistake in that case. There is, however, no guarantee whatever that the Government would not make a much greater mistake if they attempted to fix maximum prices for all commodities. It would be much more satisfactory to all of us who feel the hardship that presses upon many in the country to find some simple remedy which would sweep away the whole problem at once, and make everything smooth and easy.
We may note, and I think it is well to note, as the right hon. Gentleman did who preceded me, that the remedy which hon. Gentlemen below the Gangway are proposing is not a war remedy for them, but a revolution in society which they have advocated in times of peace, quite irrespective of war. They invite us to put 1192 aside preconceived notions in the midst of this war-like crisis. I hope we are trying to do so, but I invite them to do the same, and look at the facts as they are without regard to their pre-war notions of what an ideal state of society would be, and to ask themselves, as the President of the Board of Trade and my right hon. Friend have asked, whether we could indeed hope at this stage of the proceedings to secure a greater command of the commodities we need for the nation through Government action than by the efforts of everyone who has been accustomed through life to deal with business of this kind, and who knows that the higher the price, the greater temptation there is to pursue business with activity, energy, and enterprise. I am quite certain, if hon. Gentlemen will leave the future constitution of society until times of peace we shall be ready to discuss it. If they can look at this problem as a war problem only, as we have to look on all problems at the present time, they will see that to introduce such a revolution as they propose in the midst of this great struggle would not secure but indeed would impede the realisation of the object which they and we wish to attain. I look, therefore, not to heroic measures, but to the more modest measures that the President of the Board of Trade has given us some account of to-day. I hope the Government will continue to press forward along the lines they are now following. I think there was needless delay in some departments, notably in dealing with the interned ships, and I am not certain even now that the Government are doing all that they can in that respect.
When my right hon. Friend spoke the other day he urged the appointment of a Committee of shipowners, or ship managers, to deal with these ships, and to run them to the best advantage of the country. The President of the Board of Trade interrupted him to say that the Government had already constituted such a Committee, and added that that Committee had full power to act. I do not gather that that is exactly what has happened. I gather that certain ships interned have been released and that those particular ships have been put under the 1193 control of two firms of shipowners at Newcastle who are now managing them under general instructions from the Government. I do not find fault with that, and I have no doubt the Government have made a good choice. I have no knowledge of the shipping world, and I have no doubt their agents will do well by the ships entrusted to them; but there is a great deal more shipping interned, and cannot the Government do something with the shipping interned in other places, and is it necessary to sit with folded hands and wait until those ships eventually find their way to this country before taking any steps to see to their utilisation. I press the Government to take expert advice on this subject at once to see if they cannot use those ships—
§ Mr. RUNCIMAN
We have now taken the whole of the interned steamers in this country, and we would have taken the whole of the interned sailing vessels as well, but for the great difficult of securing the necessary number of men to man them, the shortage of seamen being one of the most serious difficulties we are faced with. In the Colonies we have taken five vessels in Australia, and we are proceeding to take others. We have taken some in India as well.
§ Mr. RUNCIMAN
Yes, we have taken a number in Egypt, but I cannot vouch for the exact figures. I think about one-half of the vessels which were prizes in Egypt have been released by the Prize Court in Egypt, and are either coming home, or are having their cargoes taken to a destination where they can be disposed of.
§ Mr. CHAMBERLAIN
I had to guide me as to what the Government is doing, only the general statement of the right hon. Gentleman and his answer to the specific question of my right hon. Friend yesterday. That left me under the impression that no such steps had been taken in regard to the ships interned in British ports abroad that apparently have been taken. All I would add is to press the Government to expedite the decisions of 1194 those Prize Courts and our own as much as they can, and to put the management of these ships into business hands, because I entirely concur with the right hon. Gentleman that the business is better managed by business men trained to it than it can be managed by a Government Department. The right hon. Gentleman made some very interesting observations about wheat. He dealt with the suggestion which my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition made to the Government in the very early days of the War, and he raised objections to my right hon. Friend's proposal which we, on this side of the House, would be the last to declare devoid of weight. After all, the matter is one where you have to balance advantage and disadvantage against each other, and the question what it is wise to do varies very much with the situation at different times. That which may have been wise at one moment may be quite unwise at another. Such action as my right hon. Friend proposed at the time he proposed it would have been wise, and we should be reaping the benefit of it now. I quite agree with the right hon. Gentleman, whether that be so or not, that such action is not advisable at this moment, and, if taken at this moment, could only aggravate the difficulty. The right hon. Gentleman, when speaking of wheat, promised that he would speak about sugar, and I am afraid he forgot that as he went on with his speech. I do not understand the policy of the Government in regard to sugar. If the Government had thought well to purchase wheat when my right hon. Friend proposed it I could understand it if, in their new zeal and pleasure in their new activity, they had extended that to sugar, but why they purchased sugar when they would not purchase wheat, and why they purchased sugar at a high price and refused to purchase wheat when they could have got it at a low price is a thing which has not yet been explained, and which I cannot myself understand.
§ Mr. CHAMBERLAIN
If the hon. Gentleman would ask his questions of the 1195 Government they would no doubt answer them, but perhaps he will allow me to pursue my argument. I say "my argument," but it is rather a series of questions which I am addressing to the Government, and I hope that we may have some reply from some other Member of the Government either on this or on another occasion, giving the explanation which the President of the Board of Trade intended to give to-day, but which was omitted from his speech. That appears to me, speaking with such knowledge as I possess at the present time, to be the single instance where action by the Government has avoidably raised the price to our home consumer, and I am not sure what the defence of the Government is. They bought the sugar, I understand, in order to provide cheap supplies and for fear of a shortage. Then, as a measure of war, they forbade the importation of sugar into this country, in order, if possible, to prevent the export of sugar from Austria and Germany. I do not know whether I am right in my understanding of such explanation as we have yet had of their action, but, if I am right, I doubt profoundly whether their policy has had the result, or could have the result, which they desired. If they draw unusual supplies from certain markets they will thereby create markets for the Austrian and German sugar which they do not allow to come in. The Austrian and German sugar will flow in to take the place of the sugar which we have withdrawn from other markets to which it would naturally have gone. I do not make these observations in any very critical spirit. They are rather in the nature of questions than criticisms at this stage, but I think we should like to have from the Government some reasonable statement and explanation of their policy throughout the whole of this question and in all its aspects.
My hon. Friend the Member for Oxford University (Mr. Prothero) spoke, and the President of the Board of Trade also spoke, of the difficulty of the farmers in regard to labour. It is quite true, I think, as the President of the Board of Trade said, that farmers are slow to move, and 1196 it ought to be pressed upon them at the present time that this is a difficulty they will have to face. Employment for men in this country, owing to the War, owing to the enormous recruitment, and owing to the demands which War makes for supplies, is extremely good. Labour is being sought in every great industrial community, and, unless they can offer greater advantages to labour than they have been able to do in past years, they cannot expect to draw the amount of labour which they now require to the country districts. I think, though none of us ought to overrate the profits which individuals may make from the high prices of the produce that they have to sell, because, as my hon. Friend so well pointed out, they are also purchasers, and what they purchase is costing them a great deal more, yet prices make it easier for the farmer to raise the inducements which he offers to labour and so to attract fresh labour to agriculture.
Let me say one other thing. An hon. Friend of mine, a Member of this House, who speaks for an agricultural community, made an observation to me the other day which struck me, though it did not surprise me. He said nothing had impressed him more since the beginning of the War than the improvement in the physique of recruits who had gone from that agricultural county with which he was most familiar and the increased capacity of the men in consequence. I wish we could bring that truth home to the farmer. There will be differences between employers and employed and between Members in this House as to what is adequate or inadequate remuneration for particular trades. It is very difficult to draw any line and to say that over that line they are sufficiently paid and under that line they are underpaid, but this I do say: The very low paid labour is never economical to whatever purpose it be applied, and, though the effect of a rise in wages in poorly paid agricultural districts cannot be immediately apparent in the increased stamina and vigour of the people and therefore immediately apparent in increased capacity for work, I am firmly convinced that higher wages in the long run will 1197 pay, because the very low wages that prevail in some places do not enable men to preserve or maintain full physical efficiency. I cannot hope that any words of mine will have any influence with agriculturists—[An HON. MEMBER: "I think they will!"]—but a speech such as that delivered by my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford University, a known and rightly respected authority among them, will carry weight. I am sure if farmers will consider not only the outgoings but the incomings, they will in present circumstances be encouraged to meet their labourers. For the rest, I only say, in conclusion, as I have already said, that though it would be much easier to advocate heroic measures, I am sure that the Government are right in attempting to work through existing channels to stimulate them to put increased facilities at their disposal, rather than to thrust themselves forward to take the place of the accustomed and ordinary ways of trade.
§ Sir A. MARKHAM
I am sorry that the Prime Minister has had to leave the House, and I take very great exception to the President of the Board of Trade speaking at the time he has spoken. A great number of Members want to speak, and there would have been ample time for him to reply to the discussion. We have now no one to reply except an Under-Secretary. The Prime Minister, in his speech in the House last Thursday, stated, on the authority of the Board of Trade, that:—Coal, as compared with last year, showed an increase of 15 per cent., and compared with the average of three years of 14 per cent."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 11th February, 1915, col. 760.]He had previously said:—I am afraid that 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."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 11th February, 1915, col. 759.]In the concluding part of his speech the right hon. Gentleman added:—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."—[OFFICIAL REPORT 11th February, 1915, col. 776.]Instead of the price of coal having risen by 15 per cent. it has risen, at a minimum, by 7 per cent., and in many cases by 100 per cent. The Prime Minister was kind enough to show me the reference on his notes which caused him, on the authority 1198 of the Board of Trade, to make this statement to the House, which I will now read:—Perhaps I may remind the House that in the case of coat 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."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 11th February, 1915, col. 767.]The Prime Minister did not tell the House, and the President of the Board of Trade did not either, that the amount of house coal brought sea-borne to London is a very insignificant quantity. The quantity, I believe, which reaches London from Northumberland and Durham, is only about 3,000 tons per month. There are immense quantities of coal brought to London from these two counties, but it consists chiefly of gas coal and manufacturing coal. But as to house coal, London, as a centre, is supplied by the Midland and Northern counties—Warwickshire, Staffordshire, Leicestershire, Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire. Will it be conceived we have a business department in the Board of Trade which comes here and, through the Prime, Minister, states that the average increase in the price of coal only amounts to 15 per cent? The right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade, in the speech he has just delivered, told us that these figures were not for London alone, but, that they represented the general prices. What was the authority on which the Board of Trade put forward that statement? On what information did they base it? I am told it is based on statements collected from newspapers showing the price of kitchen coal as advertised this time last year and comparing it with the price as advertised to-day. But advertised prices are wholly fallacious; they have nothing whatever to do in reality with the actual prices being paid.
I will tell the House what the price of coal has been and what it is to-day. It is desirable first to point out that coal is sold by the collieries on contracts which are invariably for a period of twelve months, and house coal contracts as a rule are made from 30th June—and sometimes in April—for the following twelve months. The summer price of coal paid by the merchant is a shilling a ton less than the price paid in the six winter months. What is 1199 the price that merchants have to pay to the collieries? The President of the Board of Trade has given the House a figure of 15 per cent. Contracts were made in Warwickshire last summer for house coal at 11s. per ton. The price to-day at the pit is 22s. per ton, while the rate for wagon hire amounts to from 6s. 3d. to 6s. 9d. per ton. In Staffordshire, contracts were made last summer at 11s. 6d. The price to-day for the same coal at the collieries is 21s., and the rate of wagon hire from 7s. to 7s. 8d. per ton. In Leicestershire coal was sold on contract last year at 9s. 6d. per ton, and the same coal is to-day being sold at 21s. per ton. The wagon rate there amounts to 6s. 7d. per ton. Derbyshire contracts last year for house coal were made at 10s., they are now 18s. 6d. In other cases they were 12s. and now they are 20s. In Nottinghamshire contracts last year were made at 10s. 6d. and the price to-day is 20s. The rate of wagon hire being from 6s. 9d. to 7s. 9d. per ton. In Yorkshire, contracts were made last summer at 13s. 6d., the price to-day is 20s., the rate of wagon hire being from 7s. 8d. to 8s. Did the President of the Board of Trade possess these facts, as it was his duty to do? And, if so, why did he not put them into the mouth of the Prime Minister instead of giving the right hon. Gentleman a general average statement that the price of coal has risen by 15 per cent?
Where did he get the figures from? The Board of Trade does not know anything about the coal trade, owing to what is, I think, a very improper division of labour between the Home Office and the Board of Trade in respect of the mines. Neither Department has all the information it ought to have. In the Home Office they have all the information relating to the working of the mine. On the question of price the Board of Trade do obtain quinquennial returns from the collieries; but all the other business is conducted by the Home Office, and if the Government had gone to the Chief Inspector of Mines at the Home Office he would have told them a very different tale to that which the Board of Trade puts forward. That is how it comes about that we have been told here by the Prime Minister that the average coal prices have only advanced 15 per cent.; and the President of the Board of Trade a few moments ago stated that these prices were not confined to London, but showed the 1200 average increase throughout the country, and did not apply to one place alone. The position in Wales is wholly different. There the steam coal market has not been affected in the same manner. Although I am connected with a number of steam coal collieries in Wales, I have no knowledge of house coal prices. But it is agreed, as the President of the Board of Trade stated, that prices in Northumberland and Durham have not risen. Why is that? It is because the trade of Northumberland and Durham wholly depends on Continental markets—on Sweden, Norway, Holland, Belgium, France, and Russia. These countries in normal times take, an overwhelming proportion of the output of the collieries in these two counties, but, owing to the War and to the lack of ships, Northumberland and Durham is now in the position of having a very limited market for its coal. In fact, I have been told by a Member of this House who is interested in the coal trade that he has to-day bought coal to be delivered in London from Durham at a rate, in wagons, of 10s. 5d. per ton. The price of coal charged in Durham amounts to 15s.
This being the state of affairs and coal being a necessity of life, every single argument put forward by the hon. Member for Oxford University in the brilliant speech he made to-day—every argument that he advanced with reference to prices is based on what prevails in the coal trade. I do not say that the Government should endeavour to fix the price of wheat, seeing that two-thirds of our supplies are brought from abroad and that Manitoba wheat is only 3s. 6d. per ton dearer in this country than in the American market. But here we are faced with a position in which, owing to the refusal of the Government to take certain action, the present high prices will not only continue but they will further advance, thereby causing great hardship to the consumers I have, therefore, been forced to the conclusion that it is absolutely essential that the Government should regulate the price of coal on the market. How is it to be done? I proposed to the Prime Minister a remedy for the evil—and such I consider it—which now prevails. In the first place it is absolutely impossible for the Government or anyone-else to fix minimum prices for all coal in any one district. That is impossible because the qualities of coal vary so enormously, and you would have good coal sold for bad coal and bad coal selling at the same price as good coal.
1201 My remedy is a simple one, but it is one which I think meets the case. The Government could, by proclamation under the Defence of the Realm Act, provide that no colliery owner should sell coal in any quantity at a price exceeding 1s. or 2s. per ton above that which obtained in the twelve months preceding the War. Why do I say from 1s. to 2s. per ton? The output of coal has considerably decreased, owing to the large numbers of men from the collieries who have so patriotically joined the Colours. I do not think there is any class of men who have responded so generously to the call of their country as have our miners, and, if only for the reason that their wives are left behind and have to pay the increased prices which now prevail in the coal trade, I think the Government ought to take action. I have said that the price should be 1s. or 2s. above the prices of a year ago. Why should a sum of that kind be necessary? The amount of labour at present employed in the collieries has been considerably reduced, and this fact, together with the increased cost of timber and stores, has caused the cost of the coal to rise very considerably. I do not think, with the exception perhaps of the counties of Durham and Northumberland, however, that the increase is more than 1s. per ton. But where it can be shown that the cost of coal to the colliery owner has gone up by a larger amount, the Government could provide that the increased cost might be added to the selling price.
I would deal with the coal merchants in the same manner as regards the cost of distribution. I am going to make a statement now which I know no one in the House will believe; still if any hon. Member would like to see my papers later on, I shall be happy to show them. At the present time the average price of coal that is being bought at the collieries is less than it was in February, 1914, although the price at the pit has gone up by 70 or 80 per cent. That statement seems so nonsensical and so contradictory in itself that no one will think it is true. But what is the position? At the large collieries with which I am associated, the price of coal to-day is about 2d. to 3d. per ton less than it was in January, 1914. That is due to this reason: if you have a large colliery, raising from 4,000 to 5,000 tons a day, you cannot turn it out day by day, you are bound to sell that coal to the merchant or factor or coal speculator for six or twelve months in advance. The collieries with 1202 which I am associated sell from 75 to 80 per cent. of their output forward.
Seeing that we have decreased tonnage now, owing to the large number of men who have gone to the front, we are in the position that, although we may have a limited amount of coal to put on the market, yet, if we faithfully carry out our contracts, we have no coals to supply at the higher prices. I was in a position of having coal, and I gave the coal merchants the offer of it. I did not raise the prices, because I did not think it was right, but when I found that these coal merchants, although I was allowing them to take it at lower prices than those I could have got for it on the market, were selling at the market price, and that the coal consumer was getting no advantage, I said that was not good enough, and that I must have my share of the plunder. The amount of plunder I have had has been very little. Notwithstanding all this, the normal price of coal is still less to-day than it was in February, 1914. When the Coal Conciliation Board figures are taken out—the wages fixed by them are not based on the selling price of coal—I am quite certain that hon. Members will see that the statement I have made will prove to be correct. Many of my friends connected with the coal trade say that they have no coals to sell. A man comes along, and they assume he is a merchant. The merchant has got a trade or business together, and has built it up after many years of hard work. Let us assume that the merchant has not been wise and has not bought coal on contract. He comes into the market as a buyer of coal, and he has to pay the price for it which leaves him no profit whatever. He comes into the market and says, "I must have coal." The sellers in the market ask, "What will you give." One man says he will give 16s., and another £1, and they say, "All right, take it." My friends all agree that if the Government said, "You must fix a maximum, above which coal may not be sold," then you are free from the difficulty. It is impossible to go on in the position we are in to-day unless the Government do fix a maximum, for this reason: Assuming there are many in the same position as myself, who have no desire to make a profit out of the necessities of the country at a time of crisis and national danger, and we want to do all we can to assist the country, yet it is not possible under the system which prevails in this country to act otherwise than as we do.
1203 If a colliery owner sells coal below the market price, the consumer does not get the benefit. It goes into the pocket of the merchant, the market price at the time determining the price to the consumer. The House must bear in mind that the coal merchants to-day have very largely increased costs to bear. I am told that in normal times, and I believe the statement is quite correct, the cost of distributing a ton of coal in London, including wharfage charges and all charges except establishing charges or profit, amounts to 4s. 3d. or 4s. 6d. per ton. That does not include trolley coal, which is sent round and sold by the cwt., for which the men have an extra 3s. per ton. We are then brought up against the position where the coal merchant, owing to the dislocation of the labour market, has greatly increased wages to pay, and all his foddering expenses of horses are largely increased. The merchants assure me, and I believe what they have said is true, that the cost of distributing a ton of coal in London to-day to the consumer is not less than 6s. per ton. The price, as I have already said, of coal to-day is not the price at which the merchants bought their coal last June or April. It is the price prevailing at the collieries to-day. It is the least amount necessary to meet the requirements of the population that fixes the price for the whole country. It is this small quantity which is the factor deciding the price that prevails. That creates a situation extremely difficult for the poor.
The Prime Minister said that all common-sense men are opposed to regulating prices, and an hon. Member sitting near me said it was a good, common-sense speech, and I immediately said that it was not founded on fact. The prices stated by the Prime Minister on the information supplied by the Board of Trade were incorrect. It is no use the Board of Trade coming down to us and giving prices out of a newspaper. The following day I telephoned, not in my own name, to all the coal merchants throughout London asking what were the prices of coal, and in almost every case the price was higher than the price quoted in the newspapers. The merchants naturally try to get a little back upon the coal-owners because of every shilling increase in the price of Derby Brights sent to London the colliery owner gets 6d. and the merchant gets 6d. It is the object of the merchant to keep prices down as low as possible. The 1204 Board of Trade, not knowing anything about the inner working of the organisation, was quite content to take the prices as they were.
I should like to let the House know the prices which coal fetched in London previously to the War and the prices to-day. The price of stove coal in August, 1914, was 22s. per ton, to-day it is 32s. per ton. I hope the President of the Board of Trade is noting the way in which his 15 per cent. is going. The stove coal used by the poor in August, 1914, cost 22s. per ton, to-day it is 32s. per ton. In January, 1914, it was 22s. 6d. The price of cobbles in August, 1914, was 24s. per ton, to-day it is 32s. The price of the best kitchen coal was 25s. per ton, to-day it is 32s. Derby Brights were 26s. per ton, and are now 32s. per ton. Silkstones were 27s. per ton in August, and are now 34s. There has therefore been a continuous and upward movement, pressing hardly on all sections of the community. The Prime Minister said that he was willing to consider any new facts. As the prices I have given cannot be contradicted as being the prices prevailing at the collieries, I hope he will give his careful consideration to regulating prices in an industry where we have the complete control of the production. All the coal used in this country is produced in this country. There would be no damage done to anyone in the community by controlling prices. I grant that the difficulty of getting coal from London operates. The railway companies have done their best, but there is a grave danger to London in particular.
For several years past I have viewed with alarm the position of London. London may be faced with foggy or hard weather for a week. I do not know whether it is possible to meet London's requirements owing to the enormous growth of the Metropolitan area, the folly of people only buying coal when the weather becomes hard and not getting in equal quantities throughout the year, and owing to there, being no cellars in modern houses, the workmen cannot buy coal except at times when they actually require it. When the position is accentuated, as it has been by military necessities, it has not been possible to bring coal to London. In times of fog and bad weather the people of London are entirely dependent on the stocks merchants have laid down at their wharves. If we had had a harder winter the position so far as the poor are concerned would have been very serious indeed. No one 1205 has any idea of what the position would have been if we had had a hard winter combined with the present congestion of traffic. There is another matter to which I do not refer because it is a personal matter. At the outbreak of the War I offered to supply the Government with 10,000 tons of coal a week for the use of the poor. The Socialists at once said, "You want to do that for the purposes of your own."
§ Sir A. MARKHAM
It was said by Derby agents in the presence of some of my colliers. I only give that as an illustration of the fact that everybody is judged by the financial interest he is to derive from a transaction. I only wish to put before the House the whole facts. I offered to supply this coal to the Government at 10s. a ton. The lowest price I was then receiving for coal was 10s. 9d. a ton. I undertook to supply it at 10s. a ton. The Government reduced the quantity to 3,000 tons a week. They were to work this matter through the Relief Committees. All the coal the Government applied for through distress committees was at once sent forward to them, but the amount taken is quite insignificant. Although numerous committees were formed in London for the purpose of distributing the coal, very little advantage has been taken of it. The price fixed by the Local Government Board and the merchants who, I am glad to say, were glad to co-operate, at which the coal is being delivered to-day in London is 1s. 2d. per cwt. north of the Thames.
§ Mr. CROOKS
I am very much obliged to the hon. Baronet for calling the attention of the House to the fact that I am not a member of a Distress Committee. Why I have been kept off is one of the things I do not understand.
§ 7.0. P.M.
§ Sir A. MARKHAM
If my hon. Friend had been a member of one of these Distress Committees which have been set up—and he ought to have been—the people in his district would have been able to get coal at a much lower price than that at which they are getting it now. I did not 1206 want to refer to that matter, but it is one which I receive a great many letters about. I undertook to supply the coal in bulk, and if the Government had utilised the scheme on a larger scale, that might have had the effect of keeping the price down, which was my object in moving in the matter. In point of fact, the Distress Committees in October, November, and December hardly took any coal at all. The price of coal in December was as low as it was when the War broke out, and all this increase in the price has taken place within the last month or six weeks. I am sorry to bring a personal matter before the attention of the House, but coal is a necessity of life and the Government can regulate prices, and I do not think they will have any opposition from the collieries. I think many of the coal-owners who feel that they want to do their duty to the State, and coal merchants also, and everyone connected with the trade, will co-operate with them. When trade is running in its normal channel, entirely guided and directed by supply and demand, it is impossible but that the conditions should be as they are to-day, which means a shortage of coal, and unless some action is taken prices will rise very much higher.
§ Mr. LESLIE SCOTT
I feel sympathy with the last words of the hon. Baronet. A good deal has been said about supply and demand. In a crisis like this, when the whole trade of the country is dislocated, the demand that I, for one, see most clearly is the demand of the mouths of the poor who cannot afford to buy enough to keep themselves in health, and the law of supply to meet that demand, in my view, broadly speaking, is that the Government should take such steps as will enable the demand of our poor to be met. One of the most satisfactory things to be said about this Debate is the general consensus of opinion, as expressed by the President of the Board of Trade, that we have to revise all our preconceived notions and be ready to take measures which a year ago many of us would have regarded as anathema. In this question of prices there are really two elements, one the cost of food and other necessaries of life, and the other the money with which we can afford to buy them. The discussion so far as the money needed to buy them is concerned, has necessarily turned chiefly on wages. The position of those in receipt of permanent salaries is so small as to make the cost of living a very serious 1207 question, and is one which also requires to be dealt with, but upon which to-night it is difficult to embark.
I want to recall the House to the position which most of us took up a year or two years ago in relation to the industry of agriculture—the industry which this War has brought so prominently before us: perhaps the most important industry of the country. I believe the great majority of the House will agree that a year or two years ago, broadly speaking, agricultural wages were a great deal too low. We were all impressed with the fact from the year 1900 onwards the weekly budget of the agricultural labourer has been rising, and there has been no commensurate rise in his wages. As the result of that we have proposals from the Government side, from the Labour Benches, and from these Benches for dealing with the wages of the agricultural labourers. Only a year ago I presented a Bill for the constitution of machinery which would deal with the wages of agricultural labourers. At that time it was a grave and serious problem. It may be the case that in some districts there have been, since the beginning of the War, certain rises in the wages of agricultural labourers, but I know that in my own district, where I have a cottage in the country, in Northamptonshire and North Oxfordshire, and all round there, there has been practically speaking no rise of wages, and it is a district where wages, according to these returns with which we are all familiar a year or more ago, are as low as anywhere in the country—wages of 13s. Those wages had remained stagnant while the cost of living had risen 15 per cent. to 20 per cent. Since the beginning of the War the cost of living has risen, in the same district, for the same men, with the same pittance, another 20 per cent. or 25 per cent. Two shillings in my judgment is a totally inadequate rise to meet the rise in the cost of living of men so employed. I am not, of course, proposing to suggest in detail any machinery for dealing with that. It may be that, under the circumstances, wages boards could not be erected on account of the demands on the time of everyone in connection with the War, but I say with the greatest possible importunity to the Government, do something to raise the wages of agricultural labourers in the districts where they are too low.
The scarcity of agricultural labour has been impressed upon the House by more 1208 than one speaker. I agree it is a fact that farmers need labour as they have never needed it before, and so far as wages are raised it will attract labour. I do not say for a moment that the profits of farmers have been immense, but I know in some cases they have been large this year, and I believe in many cases a rise of wages is possible. But something ought to be done on these lines, and the Government ought to deal with the problem of agricultural labour generally as a pressing and urgent problem, as I believe they are doing. The Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Agriculture is, I believe, engaged in the investigation of what can be done. I say, do it quickly. One question that has been raised in connection with that matter is the employment of child labour. I willingly concede that, in a time like this, if adult labour is not attainable the older children from the schools must be allowed to work in the field, but only upon that condition, if adult labour can be found the education of the children should not be broken off.
I put questions the other day to the President of the Board of Education, and he has undertaken to make inquiries, so far as he can, on that matter, and I urge that the Board of Agriculture should make it in co-operation with the Board of Education. Another possible suggestion which may be mentioned and left is that women should be employed more than they are to meet the shortage that there is to-day. I believe a good deal can be done on those lines. I suggest that the Board of Agriculture should at the earliest possible moment make a statement to the House on these closely connected questions, the rate of wages of agricultural labourers, the districts where they have been left without any rise, the districts where there has been some rise, a comparison of the amount of labour available in those districts, and the proposals they have to make in regard to the employment of women and children in those districts. I believe those steps are of urgent importance for the sake of the agricultural labourers themselves, who are paid too little, and for the sake of the agriculture of the country in order that the output may be increased. I hope I have satisfied the House that I have approached this question with deep sympathy for this community, who have had to pay more for the cost of living and have had no addition to their income.
1209 I now want to deal with another aspect of the question, one in which it may appear at first sight that I am trying to represent to the House the interests of the rich. I want to deal now with the effect upon the problem of increased prices in this country of the rates of freight which are being earned by shipowners. One observation seems to me to be of great importance in that context. We have all had circulars, we have all read statements in the newspapers, to the effect that the chief cause of the rise of prices is the increase in the freights which are being received by the shipowners. I do not for a moment want to dispute the proposition that rates of freight to-day are very high in most trades—not in all. But I wish to make what seems to me a point of extreme importance. Take the case of wheat. The greater proportion of the wheat that is being imported into the Kingdom, a higher proportion than usual, is coming from America. Freights from parts of America are very high, but there are other commodities coming from America in large quantities like wheat which, if it be true that freights are the dominating factor in the increase of prices, must also themselves have equally increased in price.
Wheat has approximately doubled in price. Now take a typical article which we import in great quantities in this country from the United States of America—bacon. I have here a telegram from the Liverpool Provision Trade Association stating that the price of bacon to-day in Liverpool is no greater than it was last July, and that it is £5 a ton cheaper than it was a year ago, or two years ago. That one fact is, to my mind, conclusive that the rise in freights is only one cause of the rise in the price of commodities. What are the causes of the rise in freights? I do not want to weary the House with an elaborate analysis and investigation of the causes. Broadly speaking, we all know that the increase is due to the dislocation of business arising from the War. It is due also to the necessary opposition of interests between the traders of this country, who desire to carry on their trade without interruption by the War, and the demands of the Admiralty and the War Office for shipping and railway facilities—trucks, quay space, and warehouse accommodation. All these things at the start of the War, coupled with the blocking of certain trade routes, led to the congestion of shipping at these termini, and the diversion of shipping to 1210 other places. Those are the causes which led to it, and at the present minute what may in a word be said to be the chief cause of this high rate of freights? The chief cause is the congestion at the big ports—not a big port like Cardiff, where coal is exported, but at Liverpool and London, where the big import trade of the country goes through. That is the prominent cause.
These are matters which can be verified by any Member of the House, and I suggest to any Member who is interested in this subject and who wants to investigate it, that he should write to the secretary of the Liverpool Steamship Owners' Association and ask for a copy of the report dealing with these matters. He will find in that report an analysis of the causes, and suggestions as to the remedies, which are of the highest importance. That document was prepared largely by Sir Norman Hill, a gentleman in whom most Members of the House have the greatest confidence. It is estimated by Sir Norman Hill—and I believe most shipowners will agree—that as a result of the congestion, roughly speaking, any given ship on the average takes, at this time, double the length of time on a voyage it does ordinarily. The effect of that is obvious. If you double the length of time taken on a voyage, you halve the number of ships able to carry cargoes.
It is a platitude, but it is one that should be remembered by critics, that if people want cargoes instead of ships, what you want to do is to take such steps as will enable shipowners to turn round their ships quickly. If you do so, you will ipso facto reduce the congestion at the ports and reduce freights. The reason why freights are so high is that cargo ships are tied up. I had a telegram from Liverpool as to the state of things to-day. There are twenty-seven vessels of nearly 70,000 tons burden between them which are being delayed because they have been waiting to get into berths for nearly a week. Imagine what that means! It only takes a week to cross the Atlantic. I have stated that the chief causes of the congestion at the present time, or rather the chief causes of the continuance of the congestion, are the labour difficulties which exist at the ports. This is a matter in which I believe the Labour party opposite could co-operate very effectively with the Board of Trade. If the Labour party would use all their influence with the Dockers' Union to get the men who are there at work to work a full week, 1211 and, if necessary, some overtime for a few weeks, and if the Board of Trade would take steps to bring in some extra labour temporarily from the outside with the consent of the Dockers' Union, I believe very much might be done to get cargoes disposed of and ships turned round, with the result that the natural and normal flow of commerce would be re-established.
The prime essential of the situation is to re-establish the flow of trade into and out of our ports. There are minor steps which I believe the Government will take, such as the removal of sugar to those ports. They will possibly take some steps to enforce the freeing of the quays. With a generally rising market and the prospect of prices still further improving, buyers in this country who have imported goods from abroad are not anxious to remove their goods from the quays. They prefer to keep them on the quays or in the warehouses as long as they can, in order that they may be able to realise better prices. I suggest that the Government should take some steps in this matter. Perhaps the hon. Baronet who represents the Board of Agriculture will convey my suggestion to the Board of Trade. I suggest that something should be done—it may be that legislation will be necessary—in order to impose penal rents in respect of the undue use of quay space. I can conceive, of course, that there may be cases where a trader is not himself to blame. Perhaps he cannot get carts, or the carter cannot get his carts unloaded, or it may be that the railway companies are to blame. I have ventured to make one or two practical suggestions. That is all I have to say on that subject, except this, I do make an appeal to the Labour party to use all possible influence, and bring it to bear with the greatest possible, effect, upon those responsible for the management of labour at our great ports. I believe it to be perfectly true at the present time that there are a large number of men working at our ports who, as soon as they have earned by two or three days' work, without overtime, as much as they earn on the average in normal times, are unwilling to work the rest of the week. That ought not to be at a time like this. The duty to their country upon these men is a heavy one, and I ask the Labour party to do what they can to help in that respect.
§ Mr. HOLT
I think everybody will agree in regretting the rise in the prices of the 1212 necessaries of life Everyone will agree, also, in regretting the suffering and hardship caused thereby. I believe everyone will be glad to do everything he can to prevent this state of affairs, provided he feels that his efforts do more good than harm. I think there has been a tendency to exaggerate the rise in prices and in the cost of living. I believe I am right in saying that the actual rise in the cost of living is never quite so great as appears on the face of it, because people change their diet. When one article rises and another does not there is a tendency to consume more of the article which has not risen and less of the article which has risen in price. We ought to be able to get considerable relief by means of rice, because the supply of rice is almost entirely from the British Empire and our Ally, France. The supply to Austria has entirely stopped, so that there ought to be a considerable amount of rice available for consumption in this country. Rice is an extremely nourishing and valuable form of food.
An hon. Member below the Gangway suggested that we ought to treat shipping precisely as we treat railways. The President of the Board of Trade gave good reasons to the contrary. I will suggest another. A railway company is a statutory monopoly carrying on operations on the basis of an Act of Parliament. You are therefore entitled to make special terms upon which you will use the property of a railway company. A shipping company is in a different position. It is working under the ordinary law, and has not any special privileges conferred upon it by Parliament. It should therefore be treated like any other merchant. In my experience of shipping during the War I have found that for the first two months we were doing little more than paying out-of-pocket expenses. During the early months of the War we were carrying cargo at the pre-War rates, which happened to be exceedingly low, and I can quite honestly say that, so far as my firm is concerned, I do not think they are making so much money as during the last trade boom. The House must not forget, while we are being told of high freights, that though they are bringing into the country certain classes of commodities, the export trade has been materially cut down, and even with the higher rates we are not getting very much higher rates on the export trade. It makes a considerable difference in the position of shipowners 1213 if the homeward voyage has practically to pay the whole cost of the operation instead of the cost being divided between the outward and the homeward voyage. This fact should be borne in mind by those who wish to appreciate the situation. The very high rates of freight to which allusion has been made have all taken place in trades which have been absolutely open and uncontrolled. They are among the most genuine rises which I have ever seen in my life. In no sense of the word have they been engineered. Everybody knows that many trades are regulated by conferences, rings or agreements. Those trades have got comparatively little benefit. The trades in which the great advances have been obtained are those run by tramp steamers who are here to-day and gone to-morrow; who take what they can get when things are good, and very often get nothing at all when things are bad. This is certainly a most genuine advance. Those people who are running regular lines cannot take the same advantages as people who have no special responsibility, because it is necessary for them to preserve the goodwill of the people with whom they are doing business.
I do not think that it can be contended that a rise in freights necessarily involves a rise in prices. My hon. and learned Friend, speaking from the other side, gave one instance—that of bacon. I can give even a more striking instance—that of raw cotton. Before the War the price of raw cotton was 8d. per lb. Since then freight has risen to a figure which excites my cupidity, for I am getting none of it. It has risen to about two and a half times what was previously paid during the boom, but the price of raw cotton has fallen to 5d.; so that the high freight has not in any sense prevented the fall in price of this very important raw material. The hon. Gentleman who moved the Amendment rather claimed our sympathy for the condition of the mill hands in Lancashire. He alleges that it has arisen out of the War. I think that he is mistaken on that point. From what I knew of the cotton trade, and I have a great deal to do with the export of cotton to China, the market in China was overstocked in July, before there was any idea of the War. I believe that all of us anticipated that there would be a very considerable falling off in the export of cotton goods, not because of the War, but because of ordinary market conditions. The distress which has undoubtedly taken place in the cotton 1214 trade is not one bit worse than it would have been if there had been no war at all. We have been suffering mainly from an ordinary case of over supplying the demand. Another observation which I would like to make to the House is this: It is quite clear that the reduction of the freights cannot possibly increase the total amount of goods available for consumption. The total supply could not in any circumstances be increased. So far, therefore, as the price is raised by competition among individuals in this country to get possession for themselves of available supplies, no reduction of freight, as far as I can see, would be in the least likely to alter the price so long as the amount available for consumption was less than the demand. By the by, the cargoes which are now coming in from the River Plate have not paid the high freights that have been referred to. A friend of mine, who, like the hon. Member opposite, is engaged in the River Plate trade, tells me that ships now discharging, far from having obtained freights of 75s., have obtained freights more like from 25s. to 29s. Therefore it is not the freights on the wheat that is coming into this country that are responsible for this rise.
Reference was made to the freights on meat. It was pointed out that they had not made any great advance. I should not in the least apologise for having advanced the freights on meat to the present figure or even to a higher figure if I had it in my power to do so. I have taken somewhat of an interest in this question of meat. My experience was, before the War, that the freight was so low that business, in the Australian trade, was not attractive. I certainly would not put refrigerating accommodation into a steamer unless I saw reasonable prospect of getting a better rate of freight than was being paid before the War. I do not think that the game would be worth the candle. I do not think that people ought to expect that they are going to get a substantial reduction in the cost of carriage of meat. In my opinion the cause of the high freights is a very simple one. We have not got enough ships available. A great many things have been suggested. I am very glad to know that the interned captured ships are going to be put into the market as rapidly as can be done; even here there is a consideration which it is as well to bear in mind. I think that there will be very great difficulty in 1215 obtaining enough competent officers and engineers to man any considerable addition to the mercantile marine, because the Navy, with the ships which they have taken, naturally have taken a great number of men, and I doubt if we can be so very certain of finding a sufficient number of competent men in the certificated ranks to manipulate a very large number of additional ships. I hope that I am wrong in that, but I would point it out as a warning to those who are very sanguine that they are going to get great additional accommodation. A great deal of the delay in the use of these captured interned ships, and in the removal of goods on our quays, has, I think, been caused by the somewhat long time which it has taken to get adjudication of some of the cases in the Admiralty Court. I know that at one time the position was very bad. I do not know whether it is now so or not. There is one suggestion which I think has the advantage of being both effective and cheap. If it is found on inquiry that there is a state of delay in the Admiralty Court, I would urge that there should be added to the Admiralty Court some person in a position analogous to that of the Commissioner of Assize, who relieves the judge when necessary, and that in some way the business should be split up, because the sooner we can get these adjudications made, and get the detained goods removed and put into circulation, and get the ships put into use at home, the better. If it is the case, and I believe it is, that the proceedings in the Admiralty Court in reference to prizes are very much behind, I think that the suggestion would be very effective.
§ Mr. LESLIE SCOTT
It is not that there is any deficiency in the adjudication by the judges, but that there are certain matters entirely outside the Court. If the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade would talk to the Procurator-General, it would be very useful.
§ Mr. HOLT
My hon. and learned Friend agrees with me that if the proceedings in the Prize Court are not going as fast as they should, obviously the Government should hurry up proceedings of that character. Something has been also said in this Debate about the use of transports by the Admiralty. Obviously it was necessary that the Admiralty should take a certain number of the mercantile marine to assist the Fleet during the War and to 1216 convey troops, and it was also quite obvious that if they went to the other extreme and if they took the whole lot for these purposes, they would at once accomplish the very disaster which it is the whole business of the Navy to avoid. We can only tell whether the true mean has been attained by careful investigation of individual facts and by knowing exactly what has happened. I for one am not prepared to be dogmatic on the subject, for I generally find by experience that persons whom you entrust with a particular duty have got a much better answer to criticism than the critics suppose from what they have heard. So I think it quite possible that the Admiralty may not be so much to blame as people suppose, but certainly it is a matter on which in the public interests a very close eye should be kept. In this connection may I point out a danger which I think may be threatening the country in the matter of shipping at a somewhat more distant date? Undoubtedly the requirements of the Admiralty, which it has been necessary to comply with, have almost brought to a stoppage the building of merchant vessels for private firms, a development which may raise a very difficult position, for the supply of tonnage in the future is not likely to be anything like as large as it has been in the past. I would like to suggest, if there is going to be any attempt to look into what the Admiralty have done with regard to the use of merchant shipping, that there should also be some sort of inquiry in regard to what the Admiralty have done in reference to the use of shipyards, so as to ascertain that they are not doing more than is necessary in the interests of national defence and that the shipyards are being used by the Admiralty as economically as possible.
The next thing with which I have got to deal is the proposal that the nation should take over all the mercantile shipping. As far as I understand the financial side, this would be highly beneficial to myself and would enable me to take a long holiday, a thing which has considerable recommendations; but as to whether it would be a good tiling for the nation or not, I am exceedingly doubtful. I have my own opinion naturally, being a shipowner, as to whether a general body of Government servants and good political talkers would be able to manage a large fleet of merchant ships better than persons who spend most of their lives at it. Of 1217 course that is entirely a matter of opinion. The suggestion has been made that it would be a good thing to prohibit British ships from taking part in the trade of any foreign countries, at all events until the whole of the important requirements of the people of this country had been satisfied. That seems to me a proposal which is only superficially attractive. I do not think that the people who made it can have followed it out to a logical conclusion. Suppose you told the inhabitants of the United States that they must not use British ships even if they were ready to pay the market price, what answer would you have to a proposal by them that they should proceed to use the whole of the interned German ships? I do not think that there would be any possible answer to the neutral who said, "I will buy the whole of the German shipping in my ports, if you yourself refuse to let me use British shipping for a fair price."
This view must be taken into account in looking to the future. After all a large part of the British mercantile marine in times of peace is employed in trading between countries which are now neutral. Obviously, if for your own purposes suddenly you deny to these people the use of the shipping which they have been accustomed to obtain, when peace comes round they will take every care that they are not dependent on the British mercantile marine. You may have improved your position during a few months of the War, but you will certainly strike a serious blow at the position of national trade during the years of peace which everybody hopes will shortly ensue. I think that the proposal to prevent neutrals now obtaining the use of British shipping, when they are prepared to pay the market price, is a proposal which would be most damaging to our commercial position when the War is over, and is therefore one that should be approached with very considerable hesitation and doubt.
Hon. Gentlemen have talked as if the proposition were to take over the whole mercantile marine of the country, and direct it into more desirable channels; but I am not quite certain that there are many who are really able to say where those desirable channels are. I do not profess to know, and I do not think any people really know which particular commodities are most necessary to this country at the present moment. In the last few weeks meat, ore, timber, and other commodities have been required, some of the articles 1218 obviously for the purposes of the War, but others, again, at first sight, not so obviously required for war. In one case which came before me, the article called tanning extract was required for the manufacture of leather, and there must be thousands of articles which, though not actually used for war-like purposes, it is necessary to possess because they might be used in the production of machinery for making instruments of war. We really do not know which are the most necessary, and the simplest and most certain test is that preference should be given to that article which is going to pay for the accommodation required. I do not say that a person should be allowed the accommodation because he was prepared to pay the most; that might not prove desirable; but, on the whole, I think in the majority of cases, the person who is prepared to pay the most in respect of certain articles is the person who is going to put them from the public point of view, to the best use.
Then there is the question of congestion at the docks and warehouses. The Prime Minister spoke most sanguinely on the subject, and I think others around were sanguine, but I do not myself see any real relief of congestion, however much I should like to see it. I may tell the House that if there is a fortnight's additional delay of discharge in London, my firm, so far as it is concerned, will be driven to reduce the accommodation to our customers by 10 per cent., and anyone can see for himself that, if you reduce the supply by anything like 10 per cent., you are going to put the market price up very considerably because the market price can be affected by a very small turn one way or the other. You have only to alter the demand or supply by a very trifling amount to make an enormous difference in the position of the market. You find in Liverpool that the congestion is undoubtedly due to the fact that there is a great deal less work being done at the docks. That has been going on for some time. It is not entirely due to the War. For some years past the fact has become apparent that, steadily, rather less work is being done in every yard of dock, or quay. That was the case some few years ago. That has been accentuated by the War, and has brought about this congestion. There is very great congestion in the warehouses, which undoubtedly makes a great difference, for those who have goods on the quays, do not know where to 1219 put them. I know from experience that when the authorities have tried to exercise their power to order the removal of cargo from the quay, and the person to whom the order was given replied, "Please do anything you like, and if you know where to take it to you are cleverer than I am." They could not do it. It would be very difficult, under pressure, to get goods removed, indeed you could not possibly do it if you cannot tell where to put them. Does not the fact of the congestion of the warehouses show that this country is not suffering from want of stock. If there is congestion in the warehouses it must mean that the country is well supplied with stock of all sorts and description.
Let me state what I believe to be the real cause of the rise in the cost of living, and the high prices of which peole are complaining. I believe the real cause to be simply the shortage of labour in the country. Three millions of the best men of this country have, in one form or another, joined the Army or Navy. These three million people are not available for the ordinary work of the country, and we have lost that valuable labour which we have, been in the habit of employing. The world is absolutely the poorer by reason of the loss of the output of these three million men. I would draw attention to this fact, namely, that the rise in prices has been in proportion to the number of men withdrawn from labour, and that rise has at any rate synchronised with the withdrawal of those men. More men will perhaps go to the War, and if that be so the cause of the rise in prices is likely to become worse. There is also a great loss in efficiency, because the men who have gone to the War have been, on the whole, the best men. I would like to put this suggestion to hon. Gentlemen: If you take a dock labourer at so much a day, paying the average rate, and there is a loss of efficiency, you are really paying increased wages for somewhat inferior work, and from the point of view of the consumer the effect is to put up the cost of living. We have got to strike at the cause of the increased cost of living if we can. If the cause is, as I believe it is, that there is not enough work being done, then the thing is to try and get it done.
There are several ways of doing it. I think we ought to make every effort to get hold of the refugees and set them to work, though not from the point of view of cut- 1220 ting trade union rates down—I would not do that for a moment. The policy adopted in this House after the War was rather to discourage the employment of Belgian and French refugees. I think that ought to be entirely reversed. I think it is the wrong policy. To my mind it is a policy economically unsound. Every effort should be made to put the whole of the refugees in this country to work on proper terms. Then they could be self-supporting, adding to the wealth of the community, and not being a drag upon it. I should like the same principle to be applied to the interned prisoners. There must be plenty of work that they could do, and I cannot see why these interned aliens—I mean persons domiciled in this country and not prisoners of war—cannot be set to work under proper safeguards, making certain that they did not get an opportunity of escaping and doing injury to the country.
Then, finally, I think that the ordinary wage earner in this country must be made to realise that he will have to work rather longer if prices are not still to rise. He cannot expect to work five hours and get results hitherto achieved; he has got to put in six hours instead of five. If my theory is right there is no other way out of it. There is no reason why a man's total earnings should be reduced, but to get those total earnings he will have to make some sacrifice; he will have to work longer; do some portion of the work that was done by those who have gone to the front. I do not think there is anything unreasonable in making that suggestion. Some time ago—I should like to commend this to those Gentlemen who advocate an increase of wages—I was talking to a friend of mine who is manager over a large shipbuilding yard, and he told me that with every successive increase in the rate of wages paid the amount of the work had gone down. Workmen, when they get a higher rate of wages, instead of doing more, prefer to remain in the economic position in which they were, and they take rather more holiday. My friend told me that the effect of that was that a three-berth yard had been reduced to a two-berth yard—that is, that they were able to build only two ships where three had previously been built.
The result of conduct like that sends up the cost of living. If there is to be a half-holiday every Saturday, instead of working until four o'clock, it is obvious that capital is necessarily going to waste for four or 1221 five hours every week. It is quite clear that under these circumstances the cost of living must inevitably go up. I believe that the working classes themselves, almost more than anybody else, have it in their own hands to remedy the state of affairs which they deplore, and it can only be done by making up their minds that they will work rather more efficiently than they have been in the habit of working, and work rather longer hours in order to try to replace what has been lost by reason of three millions of men having been taken out of their employment, and having gone to the War. That is what has been done in the case of the commercial clerks, who have gone to serve their country just as well as any other class in the community. I am not making any comparison, for I believe every class has done its fair share; but I would point out that the commercial clerks are working extra hours very cheerfully in order to make up for the work which used to be done by those who have gone to the War. I apologise for having taken up so much time and I am very much obliged to hon. Members for having listened to me. I dare say that something of what I have said will not find satisfaction in every quarter, but I have stated honestly and frankly what I believe to be the best thing to do, because I think that at this moment it is the duty of every man to do so.
§ 8.0 P.M.
§ Mr. ROWNTREE
The hon. Member is always frank with the House, and does not mind saying things which he knows will be unpopular; but I confess to the feeling that if there were many speeches such as the one he has made, it might be very serious for us at the present time. I think it is very difficult to overestimate the restless condition of mind of many of the workmen at the present time. I am convinced that unless the Government and unless this House is able to find some way of mitigating the effects of this very great increase in the cost of living, the results may be very serious. I think it is far better that we should recognise the fact that once the industrial truce is broken in the midst of War, and if we begin to have strikes it will be a most serious thing for the morale of this country, and we must, therefore, if we can, find some way out of getting over this difficulty. I agree that I cannot see at the present time how it can be met by the Government commandeering the wheat supply, 1222 or commandeering our merchant shipping. I think the arguments that have been advanced against that at the moment are unanswerable. But I want to be perfectly fair towards the Members of the Labour party and to say that they did advise the Government in October that it might be a wise thing to deal with the question of wheat then, and I gather they put forward that proposal with much greater confidence then than the proposal they make to-day. It is because I feel the difficulty of accepting either of those proposals that I desire to make two or three definite suggestions to the Government with regard to the question of wages. I think the question of coal is entirely different from the question of wheat, and I do hope that my right hon. Friend will go much further into this question of coal and see whether it cannot be met in the way that has been suggested this afternoon, or with some modification of that method. We shall have another opportunity of discussing the question of sugar, but I have grave doubts, like the right hon. Gentleman the Member for West Birmingham (Mr. Chamberlain), whether the action of the Government with regard to sugar has been wise. At any rate, I think it is very important that we should realise what the results of that policy means in the homes to-day.
The average consumption of sugar by every person is 1½ lbs. per week, which in a family of five means 7½ lbs. per week. The cost of that 7½ lbs. before the War was 1s. 9d., and now it is 3s. 1d., or an increase of about 1s. 4d. per week per family of five. If you will work that out you will find that it is equivalent to an Income Tax of 1s. in the £ for a man who earns a wage of 25s. per week. I wish to ask my right hon. Friend whether, as the conditions are different now that Germany and Austria have prohibited the export of sugar, he will not inquire very carefully indeed into the question again and consider whether some change in policy with regard to sugar is not now called for. We must realise what this increase means to the very poor. Our Labour Members are very moderate in this House, even my hon. Friend the Member for the Attercliffe Division of Sheffield (Mr. Anderson), whom we welcome here because of his devotion to the interests of the poor, but there are difficult and ugly symptoms outside if you probe underneath the surface. As hon. Members opposite have stated to-day, there are real reasons why men should feel 1223 aggrieved at the present time. We want to realise when we speak about food that if you take the case of a man getting 20s. or 25s. that 55 per cent. at least of the weekly expenditure of the family is spent on food. What does that mean? If you take the case of a man earning 25s. per week, before the War he spent 13s. 9d. on food and now that food costs him 2s. 9d. more, or he has to go with 20 per cent. less food. It is just the same with the man with a wage of 20s. He spent 11s. on food before the War, and now that 11s. will only purchase about 8s. 10d. worth of food. When you think about these facts, and when you remember that there are 2½ million people at the present time who are getting a wage of less than 25s., then you begin to realise the tremendous problem that we have before us. It was a problem that took hold of a great military general like the late Earl Roberts. Not long before his death, looking at the matter from the military standpoint, he wrote:—The conditions amid which millions of our people are living appear to me to make it natural that they should not care a straw under what rule they may be called upon to dwell. Recently unimpeachable evidence makes it clear that to tens of thousands of Englishmen engaged in daily toil the call to sacrifice themselves for their country would seem an insult to their reason, as the conditions amid which they live make their lives already an unending sacrifice.That was true at the time Lord Roberts wrote it, but when the same people who were then getting insufficient food in order to keep themselves and their families in a state of physical efficiency now have to pay at least 20 per cent. more for the food that they buy, then I am perfectly certain that this problem wants looking into from a military standpoint as well as from the humanitarian standpoint and from the national standpoint. When I say national, I mean rather especially from the standpoint of the general health and stamina of the people. Was there ever a time in the history of our country when it was more important that we should do everything that we can to help to rear healthy boys and girls? We all deplore the terrible losses which have taken place, but we have to make up those losses in the country, and it would be a very shortsighted policy if either the Government or this House allowed a large number of boys and girls to grow up in this country without getting sufficient food for their support. How can this problem be met? It has been met in some ways by the Government already. They are going to deal, I 1224 hope, with the question of coal, and I believe that what is needed also is to try and put into some more concrete form the appeals that have been made from the other side with regard to this question of wages. That is a thing that can be done quickly. We have not got wage boards established in all trades yet, and we cannot wait for the establishment of wage boards in all trades.
But there are, it seems to me, several ways in which the Government might at the present time very largely stimulate this thought of increased wages. The first thing is to do the thing themselves, and to recognise, as they have done partially, that they are the largest employers of labour in this country, and in all low-paid branches of labour there should at once be some special bonus given to the married men and to the women with dependants, which would do something to cover the increase in the cost of living. I know it will cost money, but I do not believe that it will be money grudged by the people of this country. Then you might do just the same with regard to the large contracts which you are handing out at the present time. If you are getting contracts filled at a low rate, and if you are getting articles and garments made by people who are getting a low wage, you have it in your hands to say that the wages for married men and for women with dependants should be increased by a special bonus, or in some other way, at once in those trades. You have it also in your power to give the same thought to municipalities. If a letter were sent out by the Local Government Board encouraging them at once to do something to raise the wages of low-paid labour, it would be done. I have seen lately one or two suggestions in rural areas for the increase of the wages of some of the low-paid labourers refused by a majority of the council. I am convinced that the Government must take this matter up earnestly, and must do what they can as quickly as possible, by encouragement and by example, to increase, the amount paid to low-paid labour.
§ It being a Quarter-past Eight of the clock, and there being Private Business set down by direction of the Chairman of Ways and Means, under Standing Order No. 8, further proceeding was postponed without Question put.