§ Motion made, and Question proposed,
§ "That a sum, not exceeding £178,549, be granted to His Majesty, to complete the sum necessary to defray the Charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1916, for the Salaries and Expenses of the Office of the Committee of Privy Council for Trade and Subordinate Departments."—[NOTE.—£200,000 has been voted on account.]
Sir H. DALZIEL
I am glad that the Government have seen their way to give us such an opportune moment for the consideration of this important Vote. The Board of Trade is in peace time a most important administrative Department; in time of war it is doubly important, and second only to the administration of the fighting Services. I think there is a good deal of disappointment outside this House that the President of the Board has not used with greater success the great powers with which he is equipped for dealing with the prices of necessary foods. The House is, of course, familiar with the fact that there has been a substantial rise since the period previous to the War, and that the value of the sovereign to-day, roughly, is 392 about fourteen shillings. The workers outside recognise that fact very materially. It is a reality to them. They are aware that any number of explanations and excuses are put forward on behalf of the Government as to why it is so, but they do not choose to inquire too closely into these explanations. They have the outstanding fact that so far as they are concerned their wages have been reduced to the extent of 6s. in the £. I wish to draw the attention of the President of the Board of Trade to the feeling which exists in regard to that matter and to ask him whether he cannot do something, and do it quickly, more than he has already done, in order that we may have a more reasonable state of things. The figures which have been published authoritatively have not been disputed. To remind the House of their extent I would like to read an official statement I have had this morning from one of the experts in the provision trade. In June, 1914, tea was 9d.; in June, 1915, 1s. Flour per sack, June, 1914, 24s. 6d. to 27s.; now 48s. to 53s. Butter, 115s. per cwt. last year; 145s. to-day. Irish butter, 110s. per cwt. last year; now 135s. Cheese (Canadian), 60s. per cwt. last year; 98s. per cwt. now. Bacon (Danish or Irish), 70s. last year; 95s. this year. Beef (Scotch), 7d. last year; 11d. this year. Beef (Argentine), 5½d. last year; 9½d. this year. Sugar, 16s. per cwt. last year; 28s. per cwt. now.
These are very striking facts, and the unfortunate aspect of them is that it is the very poorest people who have to suffer in the greatest degree. Many excuses have been given, but we cannot shut our eyes to the fact that there has been going on a great deal of gambling in the food of the people. There has been speculation for a rise in price and no adequate steps have been taken to stop it. There is the notorious case of the profits made by Spillers and Baker, of Cardiff, whose profit went up from £89,000 the year before the War, to £367,665. That is a remarkable profit to make, and it is a profit made practically entirely owing to the War. It is a curious comment on the view that these people take of the righteousness of making money out of the country's distress, that they actually engaged to pay for columns in nearly all the London papers in order to show how it was done. The chairman was careful to explain that most of it was made by stock and speculations for the future, and, as one of my hon. Friends says, by depressing the small 393 trader. It ought not to be possible in time of war for any firm to so speculate in the food of the people as to make such an enormous profit. If they do make it we should see to it that they pay their proper share of the expenses of the country. The Government have very wisely taken steps to stop this speculation in other branches of business. For the financial interests of the City they made it a rule and a necessity that people could not deal in stocks and script which they did not possess, and the result has been to check gambling to a very large extent. I wish we could do the same thing in regard to other important necessities of life. I wish they would do so, for instance, in regard to flour and other necessities of the War, such as copper, and make it that no one should sell them unless they possess them. I believe that would cut prices down to a very considerable extent. There is a notable case of a firm in Park Lane that made £31,000 out of a single cargo of wheat from the Argentine. I think it is monstrous that such a thing can take place and it ought to be attended to by the Government We want to know what the Government are going to do in order to reduce the cost of living. The cost of carriage is an important consideration. Previous to the War you could bring a ton of wheat over here for, I believe, 12s. 6d., but in February last the cost was something like 60s. or 70s. per ton. I think some explanation ought to be asked for from those concerned in regard to that matter. Take the question of sugar. I am one of those who did not agree with the action of the right hon. Gentleman in regard to that. I know it was stated that the steps which had been taken in regard to it were for the public interests, but I should like to ask the right hon. Gentleman whether there is any truth in the statement that 220,000 tons of sugar were in bonded warehouses at the beginning of the War, and that that amount of sugar was sold at a profit of £15 per ton to the Government, realising something in the neighbourhood of £3,000,000. I should like to know if the right hon. Gentleman could give us some assurance that something could be done in regard to a matter of that sort.
Another question which affects the increased cost of living is the price of coal. The right hon. Gentleman very wisely appointed a Committee to deal with this matter, and though I think he appointed 394 it much too late, certainly they have produced a very interesting report. In effect their report is that the coal proprietors and merchants are entitled to an increased profit of 3s. a ton, as the result of the War, but they are getting from 9s. to 11s. per ton increased profit. The question arises, who is getting this increased profit, and cannot something be done in the interest of the consumer? My own view is that this question of coal should have been dealt with in a much more drastic and effective fashion at the beginning of the War. I think we ought to have stopped the export of coal right away, except to our Allies abroad and those who are in sympathy with us. The hon. Member for Mansfield (Sir A. Markham) mentioned yesterday that the price of coal to the Italian Government was 17s. before the War, and that at present it is as high as 33s. or 34s. I think some explanation is required of this extraordinary increase in price. It is not the miners who are getting the money. All the increase they have got would never amount to anything like the increased price that is placed upon the coal. I certainly support the suggestion of the hon. Member for Mansfield that the old contracts should be taken previous to the War and that they ought to be given a legitimate profit on those contracts and that that ought to fix the price of coal. There is considerable feeling in the country that the Government have had too much regard for vested interests in this matter and that they ought to take this question up much more radically than has been done. I would not go so far as to say that they should take the whole control, but certainly I think we ought to go a considerable way in that direction.
I have a word to say in regard to another branch of the right hon. Gentleman's administration—that is, the Labour Exchanges; but before I come to them I should like to call his attention to a question which is closely related to the price of living in this country—I mean the export of products to neutral countries. I have often in this House drawn the right hon. Gentleman's attention to the manner in which tea and cocoa are allowed to go to neutral countries, their destination finally being Germany. I was prepared, the last time I mentioned this in the House, to show an actual invoice which placed that question entirely beyond doubt—indeed, the right hon. Gentleman himself recognised that it was
395 4.0 P.M.
so, and he stopped the exports for a time. A friend of mine who has been in hospital in Berlin for seven months since the War told me the other day that for a considerable time they were not allowed to get any tea at all. They could not get a cup of tea for over a month, but after that time there was tea for practically every meal they required, and when he asked for an explanation of that they said, "We are getting lots of tea from Holland. It is British firms that are supplying it, and the result is there is no scarcity of tea." I do not say that the whole, but a very considerable quantity of the tea and cocoa that has gone to neutral countries finds its way to the ranks of the enemy. There is also the question of potatoes, which at this moment are being allowed to go to Norway. The price of potatoes here is governed largely by the demand that is made from other countries. I have a letter from a Consul in Norway in which, writing to the Intelligence Department of the Board of Trade, he says:—The Germans are probably fretting all the potatoes they can in Norway. The more potatoes come in the more are set free for distilling spirit.So there, I think, is a nasty topic which requires the attention of the right hon. Gentleman.
The question of the export of cotton is also one that demands his attention. I do not know whether the House noticed yesterday the reply given by the right hon. Gentleman to an hon. Member on the other side. The figures are very startling. They prove what some of us have been saying all along, that the Germans have been getting cotton practically with our approval, and have been using that cotton for making ammunition, and although we are ten months late I think that it is not too late yet for the right hon. Gentleman to put a veto on the matter. The President yesterday gave returns for Sweden, Norway and Denmark for March and April last year and this year. I will give some figures for April, 1914, and April, 1915, in centals of 100 lbs. To Sweden the export of cotton in 1914 was 2,411; in April, 1915, it was 30,289. To Norway in April last year the amount was 756; this year for April it was 26,472. For Denmark last year we did not send any at all; this year it was 18,540. Netherlands last year was 4,204; this year it was 108,189. These figures are, I think, an absolute proof of the fact that Germany 396 has been getting the advantage of our export of cotton to neutral countries. Has the right hon. Gentleman any other explanation? I should be delighted to hear how he can explain this growing demand in these countries, which is so much in excess of anything that existed before the War. I am certain that he is just as anxious as any of us to see that we do not assist the enemy in that way. But there is a great deal of suspicion outside that we have been a great deal too lenient in this particular matter, and I should be glad to have an assurance of more prompt and vigorous action in regard to our exports to neutral countries.
Coming to the question of Labour Exchanges, it is probably within the knowledge of the right hon. Gentleman that a London newspaper—the "Daily Express:" a paper whose opinions I detest, but whose enterprise in this matter I must commend—made an effort to assist the Government to get a sufficient amount of labour for ammunition factories. It used its columns for that purpose, and I think it succeeded in a very few weeks in getting something like 8,000 or 10,000 men for work in factories. The right hon. Gentleman then comes down to issue a notice under the Defence of the Realm Act that this must be stopped. His explanation is that it has had the result of taking away men who are already working in factories. I am sure that that is not so, and that those are men who have not been working in factories, but are desirous of working in factories. I would ask the right hon. Gentleman not to have too much red tape in a matter of this kind. I have said from the start that the Press of this country has never been utilised as it ought to have been with regard to this War. It has never been mobilised. It has never hardly been asked for its co-operation. I think that if the right hon. Gentleman approached the leading newspapers of this country on this single question of labour, and asked them to assist in getting the particular kind of labour which the Government desire to use in ammunition factories, the Government could be assured of hundreds of thousands more than they have ever been able to obtain through the Labour Exchanges, because, undoubtedly, there is a feeling that the Labour Exchanges have not quite risen to the occasion as they might have done during the progress of the War. I would ask the right hon. Gentleman does he adhere to the statement made yesterday, that the consequence of the enterprise of this paper was that men 397 have been taken away from factories where ammunition is being made? It is an important question, not in reference to this particular newspaper, but on the general question whether advantage should be taken of the facilities offered by newspapers who are anxious to assist the Government by placing their space freely at their disposal. The right hon. Gentleman said yesterday that the Department were perfectly satisfied with the advertisement which they put in with regard to labour. From the newspaper point of view, I suppose it is better to take the advertisements and take the money. But in these days of economy I should have thought it better to take advantage of the generous offer, which is certainly much more useful for the purpose in view, because editorials on this point would appeal more to the public than would advertisements.
There is one general point as to which I would like some explanation. Why was the London tram strike allowed to go on as long as it did? The opinion outside is that it was a scandal to allow the strike to go on so long. I do not say that the right hon. Gentleman has the power to go out and insist on the strike being settled; but I say that there is no public evidence of the fact that the Board of Trade was as much alive as it ought to have been to the necessity of the strike being settled at the earliest possible moment. It was not a strike with which there was much public sympathy. I do not think that there was any at all. But I think that if the right hon. Gentleman had taken more prompt measures with regard to it—had he himself invited the labour men who had power with tramway men to confer with him, and pointed out the necessities of patriotism at that particular moment—I think that something might have been done to prevent the scandal of a fortnight's strike and the great inconvenience which resulted. I understand that the right hon. Gentleman was in communication with the parties, and I have very little doubt that, with the other matters pressing upon him, he gave as much attention to this matter as he could. But I think that it would be in the interest of this Department, as well as of the public, if he were to state exactly what the Board of Trade did in regard to this matter, and why the strike was allowed to go on as long as it was. This is important, not only with regard to that strike, but with regard to the other labour troubles that are in the offing. We are 398 threatened with the strike of hundreds of thousands of men in the cotton industry, and also among the miners of South Wales. What I would suggest is that we should not wait until these strikes take place—that we should have more foresight in the matter, and approach the parties before the actual outbreak of hostilities—because such strikes at this moment practically upset the whole industrial machinery. I come back now to the question with which I started—that is, that this unrest in the labour movement is caused largely by the increased cost of living. It is better to remove the cause than to try to settle the difficulty afterwards. I trust that in these various matters the right hon. Gentleman will be able to give me a satisfactory reply.
§ Mr. HOUSTON
I do not rise, like the previous speaker, to attack the President of the Board of Trade. I have every sympathy for him, because I think that he has been used as a scapegoat for the faults of others. For instance, the right hon. Gentleman who has just spoken has accused the President as being responsible for the present prices of food. I think that he might have directed those attacks in connection with the price of wheat and flour to the Board of Agriculture. Possibly the hon. Baronet (Sir Harry Verney), sitting behind the President of the Board of Trade, might be able to answer an attack of that nature. Then, in reference to sugar, the President of the Board of Trade is in no way responsible for that. Questions on that point ought to be addressed to the former Home Secretary, who is now Chancellor of the Exchequer. Then, again, if it is said that the shipping companies are responsible for the high prices of food, I would refer the right hon. Gentleman to the report of the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company, and to the reports of a few other shipping companies, which will show that instead of making profits they have been making losses. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"] I am stating facts which can be proved easily, and it shows very bad taste on the part of hon. Gentlemen opposite to question these facts. Doubtless many tramp shipowners have been making huge profits, but I am speaking of the lines, some of which have incurred very serious losses.
The prices of food in this country are now coming down rapidly. The price of wheat has been reduced, and the price of flour is going down. Speaking some 399 time ago in the House on the question of food, I ventured to prophesy that the price of food-stuffs would come down. I think that I have been proved to be a true prophet and that they will come down still lower. On the general question of the Board of Trade it is interesting to inquire into the composition of the Board for which the right hon. Gentleman is responsible. It consists, I think, of the President, the Parliamentary Secretary, the Permanent Secretary, the Archbishop of Canterbury, every Gentleman sitting on that Front Bench, the Privy Councillors—therefore I suppose that the right hon. Gentleman who has just spoken is responsible for these matters which he has been criticising—Mr. Speaker, who is also responsible, and such Privy Councillors as are holders of office in Ireland, and are Privy Councillors in England, and ten other gentlemen whose names I have been unable to obtain. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will tell me who they are. Of course we know perfectly well that the composition of this Board is very anachronistic and archaic, and if any of these Gentlemen, including the right hon. Gentleman opposite, who is a Member of the Board of Trade, had been receiving salaries I should have moved a reduction of the Vote by the amount of their salaries. But I have no intention of moving the reduction of the President's salary, because he has already reduced his salary by the domestic pooling arrangement into which Ministers have been pleased to enter. Personally, I do not approve of that doctrine of equality, nor do I approve of the trade-union method of only paying one rate of wages, no matter how efficient the man may be. I regret that the President of the Board of Trade has felt called upon of his own volition to reduce his own salary, and I offer him my sympathy.
No man is perfect, not even the President of the Board of Trade, and certainly no Government Department is faultless. But speaking with some experience of Government Departments, I would say that the Board of Trade is the one with which least fault is to be found. The President does not possess the brilliant pyrotechnic characteristics of one or two of his colleagues, but he is a level-headed man of business with a clear vision; and in connection with questions which have arisen in this House in connection with the supply of meat, all I have to say is that I must compliment the right hon. Gentleman on 400 his astuteness in doing what he did in this connection. Otherwise the Lord only knows what the price of meat would have been. The right hon. Gentleman, doubtless due to a capital business training, is very astute indeed. Recognising the position, he at once requisitioned the whole of the ships, with one exception, which were capable of carrying frozen and chilled meat to this country. That at once put the suppliers of meat at a disadvantage, because of their having no means of transport from the Argentine. The freezing works in that country are largely in the hands of an American meat combine, and it is very creditable to the right hon. Gentleman that he has been able to deal as successfully as he has with the acute American managers of that traffic. I should be interested to learn what terms the right hon. Gentleman made with the meat companies. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will kindly give me his attention—I should be glad to know what terms and arrangements he made with those very smart American managers. I know that in dealing with our shipping industry he made a very hard bargain indeed. He paid a rate of freight for the carriage of meat which was appreciably lower than that which shipowners could obtain for grain in the open market. I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on his successful bargain with the shipowners, and I think he will admit that the shipowners, certainly some of them, met him in a perfectly generous spirit. They did not dispute the rates he offered, but accepted them. I think the right hon. Gentleman will be sufficiently frank to admit that.
But when it comes to the question of dealing with these gentlemen supplying the nation with meat, you have there a different proposition. This combine largely consists of American companies, so far as the Argentine is concerned, and they are reaching out their tentacles to Australia. Probably the right hon. Gentleman may feel inclined to take the Committee into his confidence, and explain why in requisitioning all the refrigerator steamers employed in the Argentine, it was omitted to requisition the Nelson Line. Probably there are good and sufficient reasons, and I think that there, again, the right hon. Gentleman is showing a very astute business mind. In dealing with the Board of Trade I have only to say that so far as my own experience is concerned—I am not speaking of the Board, including the Archbishop and 401 others, I am speaking now of the President of the Board of Trade, and, without drawing any invidious distinctions, I would like also to refer to the Permanent Secretary (Sir George Barnes)—I have always found the representatives of that Department courteous. With regard to the latter gentleman, I can only say that his courtesy and straightforward methods make it a pleasure to meet him, even when he is putting Government hands into one's pocket; because, both he and the President I believe are actuated by their desire to do the best they can for the country and at the same time to act fairly. The President of the Board of Trade is sought to be treated rather like the scapegoat the Israelites sent forth into the wilderness carrying the sins of the whole community; but, on this occasion, I should rather like to hang a garland around the neck of the scapegoat. I think he is the right man in the right place, and, of all members of the Cabinet, he has the best business mind, and is best qualified for a business post such as that of President of the Board of Trade; and I am very pleased to see that in the recent shuffling of the cards he has been left where he was, and I hope he will continue where he is.
The Board very often have considerable difficulties with other Government Departments, who probably think they are superior to the Board of Trade. For instance, I raised the question this week, in the House, about the action of the Agent of the Admiralty, who requisitioned a ship which had already been requisitioned by the right hon. Gentleman, and was carrying meat. The Admiralty Agent had requisitioned her for the carriage of coal—I think one of the most stupid and most extravagant and foolish things any man who had any knowledge of shipping could have been capable of. I should not be in order in entering into the action of the Admiralty on this Vote, but when the Admiralty Vote is before us I hope to have an opportunity of dealing with a few of their actions and mistakes. So far as the right hon. Gentleman is concerned, I should say he was very pleased—it happened to be one of my steamers—that he was not called upon to dispute with the Admiralty the possession of the ship; for I dealt with the absurd requisition from this Admiralty agent in a very prompt manner, so much so, that instead of that gentleman expressing his regret for his mistake or "slip," as he called it, and apologising for it, he took upon himself 402 to read me a lecture upon the proper mode of addressing an agent of the Admiralty, complaining of my want of courtesy and all that sort of thing. However, in my reply I reminded him that courtesy sometimes must go in a case of emergency, and that if a house was on fire it would be rather stupid on the part of the firemen to apply to the owner or occupier of the house in courteous and dignified form for permission to turn on the hose. I turned the hose on that gentleman, and I think the verbal castigation he got will not be forgotten, and I hope it will be of benefit to the Admiralty and Government Departments. Government Departments are by no means faultless, nor infallible, though some of them may think they are so.
The President of the Board of Trade has a very difficult task indeed, in dealing with this question of meat, and I am sure if he had not dealt with it in the manner he did, hon. and right hon. Gentlemen would have had something to talk about in regard to the price of meat in this country. As I pointed out, by requisitioning the ships he deprived the meat combine of any means of transporting their meat. He was in a position, therefore, to dictate what price he would pay for the meat, always within reason. Of course, they would have refused to sell otherwise, and might have shut down their works, but I have no doubt they saw the power of the right hon. Gentleman's position and met him fairly; in fact, I have no doubt from my knowledge of him and the manner in which he drives a bargain, that they did meet him, and I should be very interested to learn the price he has really paid for the meat. Of course, he wants to keep the secret. If he is making a profit for the Government at the expense of others I may sympathise with him; but if he is putting money into the Government's pocket, and taking it out of the pockets of the poor, then I do not feel that sympathy with him. Will the right hon. Gentleman let us know what he is paying for that meat? I know what he is doing. He is selling meat to the French Army on exactly the same terms that he is buying it for the British Army. That I know. But I do not know quite yet what terms he has made with them for the sale of meat to the British public, and that is what we want to know. I ask the right hon. Gentleman, is he prepared to give us that information, because I shall not prosecute this matter any further if he is. He is silent. Perhaps he will make 403 his mind up by the time he stands at that box, and be quite frank with us. I hope he will. I am pleased to see, in looking at the Estimates that, notwithstanding the extra work thrown on the Board by reason of the War, they have been practising economy. On the item for salaries there is a saving of £1,491, and on the total Estimate there is a net decrease of £4,000 for the current year. Therefore, I think, that we can all agree that the Board has been practising economy without impairing efficiency; and, speaking as a business man of a business department, and having had some experience of that department for a great number of years, I can assure the House frankly that I am not flattering the right hon. Gentleman when I say that never has the Board been better controlled or managed than it is at the present time.
§ Mr. LOUGH
I take the opportunity of this Vote to ask my right hon. Friend a few questions with regard to this matter of the great rise in prices of certain commodities. After the long Debate which we had previously on this subject, I think we must all agree that it is a matter extremely difficult to deal with. As to the intervention of Parliament, I heard just lately a remark about the way in which Government intervention brought down the price of that great commodity, wheat; but I understand a discussion on that point is not in order to-day, and it is practically in the hands of the Board of Agriculture. For the same reason the subject of sugar cannot be raised in connection with this Vote, and we must take another opportunity to discuss it; for my part, I trust the opportunity will be found soon. I think the House may well recognise that during a period of war it is impossible to expect that prices can approach to anything like the normal rates. A great number of men from this country and from other countries have been withdrawn from the work of production, and they are now engaged in the work of destruction. Owing to that great fact alone, there must occur considerable scarcity and a great rise in the price of commodities. Although I wish well to every effort Parliament may make to reduce those prices, yet while the War lasts I am very doubtful that much can be done. There is one great commodity to which I wish to call the attention of my right hon. Friend opposite, and it is one the high price of which is felt very much in London—I mean coal. Something has 404 been done perhaps by the Board of Trade in regard to it, but a good deal more might be done. I think there is a good deal of disappointment throughout the country, and especially in London, that there have not been greater reductions in the price of coal.
Coal is produced in great quantities in this country, and now that exportation of it has been greatly restricted, and seeing that coal is produced not very far away from London, it seems to me that there are facilities for reducing the price of coal to a moderate basis, but the Government have not yet so far succeeded in doing so. On the first rise in the price of coal early in the year, the Government were perhaps directly responsible for the first fall. When the rise in price of coal occurred, the additional cost of freight for the transport of coal in itself almost accounted for the full rise in the price of that commodity. In deference, I think, to a great many questions put in this House, the Government placed certain ships at the disposal of this business and some reduction took place, but not, however, to any adequate extent. Now with the fine weather and smaller consumption there has been a slight reduction, but the price still remains at a very high level indeed. I hope my right hon. Friend will inquire more fully into this matter, more fully even than the Committee, both in London and amongst the colliery owners. I do not know whether there is any combine with regard to keeping up the price in London, or whether the element of free competition is entering into the distribution of coal as completely as in normal times. If not, perhaps the Board of Trade will imitate the action of the Board of Agriculture with regard to wheat. I believe the reduction in the price of wheat was secured by a great purchase of that commodity and by the prospect of a great supply being thrown on the market. I do not know whether that would be an extreme remedy to adopt in the case of coal, but if other means failed I do not know whether the Government might not consider a step in that direction would be justified. If the distributers charged too much, the Government could in that way establish a reasonable price.
Part of the rise, at all events, is accounted for by the advance made by the colliery owners. I think that is a bit unreasonable too, and that pressure ought to be brought to bear upon them in accordance with the recommendations of the 405 Committee. I listened to all the debates in connection with this question, and it is very hard to suggest anything definite that can be done. I do think if there is one subject more than another in which some effective action might be taken it is on this question of coal, which is such a simple product so largely used and over which the right hon. Gentleman has full control. I should not have intervened except to urge upon the right hon. Gentleman the necessity of doing everything he can to effect a change in the price. Coming on the autumn and winter there will be great trouble in London if something bold is not done to establish a reasonable price. The only other point to which I wish to refer is that of cotton. which I understand even less than coal, so far as the details are concerned. I must say I am puzzled about the figures quoted by the right hon. Gentleman who opened the Debate as to the great increase of the imports of cotton into certain neutral countries. The idea is that they must have got through to some extent to enemy countries. I do not understand the position which the Government have taken up. There have been some facts brought to light about copper and other articles being found in bales of cotton, the effort apparently being to smuggle them into Germany. Those instances may be taken merely as examples and give ground for the belief that a considerable trade of that character has been going on. I cannot understand why the Government have resisted so much the pressure which has been brought to bear upon them to take more drastic measures in this matter. I do not understand the question very fully, and I shall leave it in the hands of those more acquainted with the business.
§ Mr. ROWLANDS
As a member of the Committee charged with inquiring into the coal question, I am very glad that the subject has come up for consideration in the House. I think I can dispel at once two of the statements of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for West Islington (Mr. Lough). If he will look into the early part of the Report of the Committee appointed by the Board of Trade he will find that the increase in price did not take place immediately after the Government requisitioned the boats. It is as well that the impression should not get abroad that the rise in the price of coal at the latter end of last year and at the beginning of this year was the result alone of the boats being taken. There was no change whatever 406 in the freightage of coal that came by railways. In investigating this question one was brought up against some very extraordinary facts, to which I would direct attention. For instance, you had had the War going on for a considerable period before a great increase in the price of coal took place, and the War had been in progress for six months before that increase began to anything like the great extent which it afterwards reached. In September the price was 27s. and on 21st November it had only gone up to 28s., and on 12th December to 29s., while on 19th December, 7th January, and 29th January, it rose a shilling on each day, making the price on the latter date 33s. On the 17th February it rose 2s., which brought the price to 35s., which is roughly the top price which coal reached in the earlier part of this year. We want an explanation as to how it was that, notwithstanding the fact that the War had been going on for a considerable number of months, it was not until February that you suddenly got this high price. One of the reasons advanced, and I admit that to some extent there is some weight in it, was that when the price began going up there was a scare and people, very foolishly, gave larger orders than they were in the habit of giving, and which, of course, tended to send the price up. That, however, does not at all justify anything that has taken place to bring this commodity up to the price which it has reached.
What was the effect of the high price? I am sure I have the sympathy of everyone in the House when I point out that the burden of the increase of price fell very much more heavily on the poorer people than upon those who were better able to afford the price. You will find from the evidence that the increase on the poorer people, who are supplied by the trolleys, was very serious indeed, and weighed very heavily upon them. One of the most extraordinary facts disclosed by the evidence was, as a rule, the poorer people buy the best of coal; they cannot afford to have two sorts of coal, and so they are bound to have a coal which will suit all purposes. Those in a better condition of life can have one sort of coal for one use and another sort of coal for the kitchen. The price went up against the poorer classes of the community till it reached the fabulous sum of somewhere about 37s. per ton, bought by the hundredweight. As the price went 407 up one effect was that the cheaper coal immediately rose to a higher price relatively than the better class coal. Thus for months the community, and especially the poorer portion of the community, were supplied, not with the kind of coal they used to have, but with anything that was black. The whole definition of coal, as set up by the coal merchants, disappeared, and you had one generic term "coal," which was applied to anything that could be got hold of and which was then sold and distributed. I desire to point out particularly one effect on the community of this high price of coal which does not at first strike those who have not gone into the question thoroughly. With the rise in price the large consumers like the gas companies and various electric supply and municipal and other undertakings, had to pay the increase. With regard to gas companies, every shilling that goes on a ton of coal is, I believe I am right in saying, reckoned to mean a rise in the price of gas of one penny per thousand feet.
That may seem a small thing, but some years ago, as will be remembered by my older friends in politics, I had occasion to engage in a very long controversy with the principal gas company in London, and at that time I had to go into the matter very thoroughly. A penny on the thousand feet in the case of the Gas Light and Coke Company means a difference of £110,000, and in the case of the South Metropolitan Company means about £50,000. I cannot for the moment quote what the increase amounts to in the case of the Commercial Company, but roughly speaking, a penny in the thousand cubic feet means, in the case of those three companies, a difference to the consumer of £200,000. If you multiply that by 2d., 3d., or 4d., as the case may be, you will realise at once the enormous sums of money with which we are dealing. Large institutions which use gas a good deal for cooking purposes are very heavily mulcted by the increased price. The people who use the slot system do not pay on the extra thousands but they have a shorter number of feet supplied to them. Those people use gas not only for lighting but also for cooking purposes. The penalty that has been imposed on the people by the increased prices is almost incalculable. It may be said by some of my Friends that I am confining myself to the case of London. That is quite true, because it is the greater case. But the argument applies just as 408 strongly to other large towns where they have had also to pay those enormously increased prices. In the Committee we went very carefully into the necessity of the increase of price, but we failed to find that there was any cause why the price should have gone up as rapidly as it did. We know that the boats were taken by the Government. Some of the large undertakings, such as gas companies and electric supply companies, were almost out of coal, and had they not been supplied, especially in my own Constituency, there would have been no electric light. That would have meant that munition works turning out work for the Government would have been unable to go on with their work. This largely arose because the supply of coal which used to be seaborne was reduced by about one-half.
That was a very legitimate reason for the shortage, so far as that was concerned. About half of the supply was borne by the railway companies and brought into London. I must say a word for the railway companies here, for I do not always, by a very long way, champion them. They rose to the occasion, and, notwithstanding the enormous amount of extra traffic which they have had to carry for the Government, they managed to bring this large amount of coal to the South of England. We looked into the question thoroughly, and got from the witnesses, as far as we could, evidence as to the rise in prices of the various commodities they were using, such as timber and other articles of that description. After carefully examining the matter we came to the conclusion, and put it in our Report, that a margin of 3s. increase more than covered the whole of the increased cost as against the price of coal for last year. Yet we still have coal being advertised at the ridiculous summer prices which we see in the papers to-day! This question has to be dealt with, and it must be dealt with by the Board of Trade in a very drastic manner. I have in my possession letters sent by coal merchants to their customers in which they give a warning that the price of coal, instead of going down, will go up. Why should it go up? Put on anymore increase you like for the causes I have mentioned; put on any increases that may be paid to the miners—there have been none up till now—and you are still far away from anything like a justification for the increased prices which now exist.
I believe it is possible for the Board of Trade to do something very drastic in 409 connection with this question. I know my right hon. Friend will tell me that they have done several things. First of all, they tried to meet the question of the taking of the boats by using the interned steamers. I appreciate what they did in that direction, so far as it went. My great charge against the Board of Trade is that they did not meet the demand with regard to the user of the interned boats in the way they should have done. I know they will say that they gave instruction to their representative at Newcastle that he must not keep to the top freight prices. In his evidence he told us that he was generally a shilling under the freightage of other boats. What we say is that, having taken away the means of transport from the public utility bodies, they ought to have placed these boats at the disposal of the municipalities on the same terms as those on which they themselves had taken the boats. I do not think there is any justification for any other course. We have not asked, and we would not do so, that they should place the boats at the disposal of private individuals in order that they might make a large profit. When you are dealing with public utility organisation—such, for instance, as those municipalities and urban councils which supply their own electric light—you are not enabling private profit to be made; you are only putting them in such a position that the ordinary members of the community may benefit. All the gas companies, for instance, are under a sliding scale, and every penny per thousand feet increase in price means a reduction of a ¼ per cent. in their dividend. I think, therefore, the boats should have been dealt with in a much more drastic manner.
I wish to ask my right hon. Friend whether it is true—I hope it is—that owing to his action the sliding scale in connection with merchants and colliery owners is to be done away with? It is a system which cannot be justified. Suppose the price for selling at the pit mouth were fixed at, say, 10s. 6d. a ton, which it is reckoned would mean a selling price, when it reached London, of 25s. a ton. If the price went down the merchant had to stand the whole of the loss. But if the price went up the colliery owner had 6d. out of each 1s. rise and the merchant had 6d. I do not say that they did it, but one might suppose that there was an incentive to the coal owners to keep a shortage so that the coal exchange might send up the price and thereby enable them to get an 410 extra 6d. over the contract price previously agreed upon with the merchants. Another thing we found out was that coal owners were not carrying out to the full their contracts with the merchants. When prices went up they said that they could not supply the whole of the coal they had contracted to supply. It was a revelation to me to find that contracts were dealt with in that manner. I understand it is the custom for a large proportion—say two-thirds—of the coal to be contracted for; the remainder the coal owners keep as free coal, to sell according to the fluctuations of the market. They did not supply the full quantities they had contracted to supply, and they had in their hands an extra amount of free coal. Thus they were able to get the extra price, while they were not fulfilling their contracts, and, in consequence, the merchants were unable to supply their customers. I can produce the evidence of gentlemen in the coal trade outside London who were unable to get coal through their own merchants whom they had contracted with because the merchants could not get from the coal owners the amount they had contracted for at the prices arranged. The volume of evidence issued yesterday is a most interesting one. I trust that my right hon. Friend will be able to tell us that he has got rid of the sliding scale. That, at any rate, will be one good thing in connection with the recommendations of the Committee.
With regard to the export of coal, I know that some of our friends in the North of England, where they have coal that can be used only for export purposes, are very much troubled about our recommendation in favour of restraining export. I think, however, that the new Committee set up by the Board of Trade will deal with the whole question in a very efficient manner. We think, and it is no good hiding the fact, that the last of our recommendations is the strongest and most useful, namely, that the Government must take positive action on this question unless the coal owners come to heel at once. Had my right hon. Friend been upstairs in the Committee Room yesterday, when every section of the House was represented, and seen the feeling exhibited by that gathering of representative men from the municipalities and big utility societies, he would know that he was face to face with a problem which in the interests of the community must be grappled with at once. If he takes up that attitude—and he has the 411 courage to do so if he makes up his mind to it—he will find in his negotiations that the coal owners will become much more pliant. We do not ask him to nationalise the mines. That is not the sort of question to be discussed in the midst of our present difficulties. There are many other ways of dealing with the matter. There is the one so strongly recommended by the hon. Member for the Mansfield Division (Sir A. Markham) of fixing the price according to the extra cost on the prices of 1913. There are other ways if that does not succeed.
I hope the right hon. Gentleman will give us a good lead on the question, and show us that he means to deal with it. It is not a question of to-day. It is not a question of buying a summer supply in the ordinary way and keeping it for the winter. It is a much bigger question than that. You have to face next winter. Prices are already 33s., 34s., and 35s. a ton for the best coal. What are they going to be a month or two hence? You will have a very serious state of things, not only in regard to lighting, but in regard to all our great industries dependent upon this commodity. I mention gas in connection with domestic affairs. I mention gas also in connection with the thousands of little gas engines in the various small works throughout the Metropolis and the rest of the country. If coal goes up it will add materially to the cost of production in all these factories, and make the struggle for existence much more severe than it must necessarily be under war conditions. I have perhaps spoken rather warmly on the question. We investigated the matter as carefully as we could. We gave all the time necessary for the examination of the witnesses. The one thing we wished was that some of the witnesses had not forgotten to bring their figures and papers with them. If it had been a Select Committee instead of a Departmental Com-Committee, I should have asked for the proceedings to be stopped in order that witnesses might have been compelled, under the powers we should have then had, to go and fetch their papers. We wanted the most reliable facts and figures which they could put at our disposal. I sincerely trust that when my right hon. Friend replies we shall hear that this great problem is going to be grappled with. I can assure him that he will have the support of the whole House in any action he thinks it necessary to take.
§ 5.0 P.M.
§ Sir W. PEARCE
If I added to the remarks of the hon. Gentleman who has just spoken, it would be to say that it has become evident during the last few months that it is extremely difficult to get a large supply of coal at all. Anyone who was in the Committee Room upstairs yesterday and heard what was said there would come away with the idea that an adequate coal supply was really in jeopardy. I hope that when the President comes to reply he will be able to give us some assurances in this respect. We realise that the coal trade has been disturbed in many ways, for not only have a large number of miners, from patriotic motives, gone to the war, but their labour being removed there is really a shortage of labour. There is also a shortage of freight, so that it is extremely difficult to get the traffic over the railways. The problem, then, that the Board of Trade have to face is unfortunately an extremely difficult one. There is the loss of the men who were working in the pit, the fewer ships to carry the coal, and the extraordinary difficulty of getting this heavy traffic over the rails. The matter is one of extreme importance for the East End of London which some of us represent, and the state of affairs is one that may become deplorable. At the present time, with coal as it is, it is difficult to get proper stocks, and one wonders what is likely to happen in the longer nights. The statements that were made yesterday, I think, impressed most seriously the hon. Members who heard them. Representatives of the large gas companies told us that at this time of the year they were accustomed to put into stock, for their winter requirements—one gas company's representative said, 50,000 or 60,000 tons of coal a month. To-day they find it quite impossible to do little more than to keep their ordinary requirements going. It comes home to everyone that the maintenance of the supply of coal for the large industrial centres is in jeopardy. It is not only the gas companies that supply gas for lighting and cooking, but the electric companies upon which many industries depend, together with large works in the industrial centres. Unless this question is very carefully watched by the Board of Trade, I am afraid that the whole industry of the country may be greatly injured, and that the new Minister of Munitions may find that he is up against one other problem which is of a most serious character.
413 My object in rising was to try to add something to the impressive speech of the hon. Member for the Dartford Division of Kent (Mr. Rowlands), and to make quite sure that the Board of Trade—for whom I have nothing but praise for many things they have done—realises the enormous seriousness of the problem they are up against. There is another question, the rise in the cost of living, that I should like to deal with for a moment. We all deplore that—especially those who represent very poor districts. I represent one of the parts of the East End of London which is always a land of hard times. I do not think there is any more difficult district in the whole world than that in which the one and a half or couple of million people live. They always have hard times. But I want to say to-day—and I think it is right that somebody should say it—that in spite of the great rise in the cost of living the anxieties of everybody concerned with this industrial district have been greatly relieved. We all felt the anxiety when we entered into the War and wondered what would happen in such districts. So far, during this time—I feel it on my conscience to tell the House, and it is the general opinion of everybody who is concerned in these problems in the East End—that, in the main, these people are better off than they have been for many years. There is more comfort and more money; there are evidences of welfare that are lacking in other times—this to the relief of everyone concerned. I feel bound to put this ray of brightness in the situation, and to say that, in spite of all these very high prices, in spite of there still being a great deal of suffering, the extraordinary circumstance is that in this large district, taking the matter altogether, the opinion of everybody whose opinion can be respected suggests that times, instead of being worse, are much better than they were. To me it is a cause of great satisfaction and heartfelt thankfulness that the rise in prices has not resulted in a situation so entirely deplorable or with such effects as the House might imagine was likely to be the case.
§ The PRESIDENT of the BOARD of TRADE (Mr. Runciman)
As I have to leave the House for a short time for important labour topics which are demanding my attention, I hope the Committee will forgive me if I intervene thus early in the discussion. May I, first of all, deal with the subject of coal, which has been the subject of several speakers, and with the 414 statement of my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford, who served on the Departmental Committee? There has been no commodity the general rise of which has given more anxiety to the country than that of coal. The rise in the price of wheat, great as it has been, has not been a rise over which we can have much control, for the world's prices fix very largely the price that has to be paid here. Coal is in a different category. Coal is produced in this country, and the price of coal is in no way dependent, or very little dependent, upon the world's direction outside, if we take the necessary steps to prevent a leakage of our coal for foreign purposes, and it is possible to deal with the situation, if it is possible to arrive at an agreement with the merchants and coal owners, which is satisfactory to the great consumer. I had not the privilege of knowing what was stated by the representatives of the local authorities and the gas companies upstairs yesterday, but if, as it was suggested in the course of this discussion, they stated they were not able to make up that accumulation of stocks which are necessary in the summer months, I can only say that is not the general experience. The figures which have been accumulated in the Department show that steps are being taken, and successfully taken, although at greatly enhanced prices, to increase the amount of stocks which are usually accumulated in the summer for consumption during the winter months. That is a slight improvement in the right direction, and we hope it may proceed rapidly during the next two or three months.
§ Sir W. PEARCE
The statement referred to was made by the representative of the Gas Light and Coke Company, who said that they were entirely unable to make up the large stocks which they had been accustomed to do up to the present time.
§ Mr. RUNCIMAN
I have not had the opportunity of refreshing my memory on the state of the stocks of the Gas Light and Coke Company, but the figures are known to us, and the great London gas companies and the local authorities who make gas and electric light for the people of London have been able to make some progress to overtake the depletion which takes place in the winter months.
§ Mr. RUNCIMAN
It is entirely due to that fact. I am not now speaking of coal as a whole, but of coal for gas, which was the immediate subject dealt with yesterday. If we take London we get the coal problem in its most acute form. From the inquiries of the Committee it is clear that the high prices which ruled from about the beginning of October right through the winter months, have not yet declined to any appreciable extent. They were due, in the first place, to the great shortage in the supplies coming into London. The number of vessels which carried coal here was diminished to an enormous extent, for the smaller colliers engaged in the north country traffic were suitable for many Admiralty purposes, and the Admiralty would have been failing in their duty if they had not taken possession of them first of all. The interned vessels which were put into this trade were not as suitable for it; they were not as easily turned round. In point of fact the whole traffic was impeded by the precautions which had to be taken on the coast to enable those vessels and crews to travel backwards and forwards with reasonable security. Buoys were removed. Lights were put out. Many channels were covered with mine fields. Voyages which in the old days should have been completed in one-third of a fortnight, were taking as much as the whole fortnight. In many respects the available tonnage was not effectively carrying anything like as much as did the collier tonnage previous to the outbreak of the War.
When we took the whole of the interned German vessels and put them into the London coal trade, we did it with the de liberate object of helping the coal supply of London. My hon. Friend the Member for Dartford took the view that we ought to have let all these vessels at the rate of freight equivalent to the rate which was paid by the Admiralty for the commandeered colliers. If we had done that it is quite clear that we should have been giving certain coal consumers—the great companies as well as local authorities—advantages which were obviously being withheld from others. Those vessels were by no means able to supply the whole coal requirements here, and even the allocation of them was a matter of great difficulty in order to avoid giving favours to some companies and withholding them from others. I need not mention the name of these great companies which control the London supply nor that of the 416 merchants. It is well known to Members of the House that they control not only groups of merchants who sell by retail for household purposes, but that they also do a great deal of carrying for local authorities, for public utility companies—if you like to call a gas company that, though I prefer to call such a company one which is performing a public service for a private advantage—and if we had embarked on any discrimination of that kind we should undoubtedly have been giving large favours to some of these concerns and withholding them from others.
There was only one fair thing to do under the circumstances, and that was to take the market rate as being a fair indication of the price that ought to be paid, such profits as were made by these vessels going to the community as a whole. I hope they have been managed with skill. I believe they have been by the business men in the North country who undertook that duty for us. They did so not on a basis of commission, or so much per cent. on the earnings or profits, but on a lump sum commission based on the returns. Long after that had been earned they went on with their work just as enthusiastically and as zealously as though they were being paid the full percentage on every ton of coal carried.
§ Mr. RUNCIMAN
I am afraid I cannot give any definite information as to the exact amount of the profits, which go into the Exchequer, where they will accrue for the benefit of the tax-payers as a whole. I hope before the whole transaction is over that we shall far more than have paid for the whole upkeep of these vessels, the repair of them, and the restoring of them, if necessary, in much their original condition. If we have the exchange of tonnage with Germany and with Austria when the War is over, we shall have a profit of, say, a couple of hundred thousand pounds on this transaction alone, which will be very small assistance towards the expenses of the War, but at any rate there is this satisfaction, that it will be a profit, and not a loss. If we had run them on the same rates as were being paid to these same collier owners of the requisitioned boats as were running for the Admiralty we should have made a definite loss. I could not recommend the Treasury to sanction a transaction of that kind. I feel that the whole of the arrangements 417 made were most just and fair to all parties concerned. In fairness I should state that one effect of these vessels carrying was to reduce the rates of freight that were ruling lower.
The cost of the carriage has been rather expensive. It is only fair also to say that the merchants' expenses were greatly enhanced owing to the outbreak of the War. The Committee will remember that immediately the War broke out the War Office took—was bound to take—a very large number of available horses. It was represented to this House that that was a great hardship to agriculture. As a matter of fact the number of horses taken away from farms were not in excess of those which were taken from town industries. Those taken from those engaged in the carriage of coal were by no means the least important. From the outbreak of War we had a large number of offers for the carriage of such commodities as bakers' bread and similar goods. For some weeks there were owners of motor cars in the West End of London who lent us their motor cars to carry round bakers' bread because the horses had been withdrawn from that trade. What happened there happened equally in the coal trade, and for a time there was disorganisation in the retail distribution of coal. There is no doubt that other expenses were enhanced, but they were by no means sufficient to explain the enormous rise that took place in the winter months. I entered into communication with the merchants after they had furnished the Committee with particulars. They came down to the Board of Trade. There were many conferences. As a result they have now recommended that their profits shall be strictly limited. We have examined with the greatest possible care their running expenses. We have provided now that there shall not be violent fluctuations such as we saw last October, November, and December, but that the limitation of profits shall keep the price at a fairly steady level, and will certainly limit the profit which might otherwise have gone into the merchants' pockets. In fairness to them, might I say, when we had thrashed out the subject, they declared that at ordinary times they would not have been prepared to meet us as generously as they did, but, recognising the great hardship under which people were suffering in London, and not wishing to be accused of making great profits out of the War, they were prepared to make this limitation.
418 Having done that, we were thrown back on the producers of coal. The cost of production has undoubtedly gone up, partly owing to the withdrawal of a great number of miners for the War, where, by reason of the kind of warfare which is going on, they are amongst the most efficient of our men. But the mere withdrawal of something like 200,000 miners has led to a shortage of output in nearly every colliery district in the country. I am glad to say that, with the exception of about two districts, the "get" per man has actually gone up since the War, because the miners have realised that a great deal depends on their producing a larger output even with a smaller number of men. But the reduction of men does lead undoubtedly to an addition, apart altogether from wages, to the expense of getting the coal. Standing charges remain the same with a small output; roads have to be kept open and routes started just as in normal times, but the main addition to the expense of getting coal is undoubtedly owing to the rise in wages. There is no doubt the miners were fully entitled to the rise of wages they got, and I am glad to think that, taking the advice of the Prime Minister, who spent a great deal of time in dealing with this most difficult question, they agreed to abide by the decision of the arbitrators in the districts concerned.
§ Mr. RUNCIMAN
If I were a coal owner I should say 1s. 6d. per ton, but I am afraid I cannot agree with that estimate, which has been put to me by many coal owners who were bound to be on the safe side from their point of view. What it will actually amount to on the whole output I cannot say at the present moment, but there is no doubt that 1s. 6d. is a gross exaggeration. It is much nearer pence than shillings. But, whatever the increase may be, there is no doubt that was the largest cause of the increase, and I would like to point out that the increase in the cost of getting coal did not stop there. All materials went up, and the most serious was undoubtedly that of pit wood. When we were faced with a shortage of pit wood it became the duty of the Board of Trade to increase the supplies in every direction. We sent Commissioners out to Newfoundland and Canada. We got the French Government to assist the export from Bordeaux. We got assistance from Portugal, and, to 419 a certain extent, we made up the shortage which was the direct outcome of the War. Obviously, owing to the closing of the Baltic, the coal trade was bound to be short of its main supplies of pit wood, and the increased price to be paid for pit wood must ultimately, and would ultimately, come out of the consumer. I am not quite sure how far that increase has been checked. It may be that this summer we shall find our supplies of pit wood are not as great as they ought to be, and we are not relaxing our efforts in every direction. The Department of Woods and Forests, under the Board of Agriculture, are doing everything possible to stimulate the home supply.
But, when all is said and done, the present pit-head price of coal is far in excess of what the expense justifies. The coal owners are engaged in a highly speculative industry. There are some years when they make fairly large profits, some years when they make none, and some when they make losses. But I have pointed out again and again that they are not justified in looking upon this as one of the normal good years. Their getting high prices for coal depends, not on a trade boom at all, but on a state of war. It is in pressing that point that I have almost reached an agreement with the Midland coal owners, who are mainly concerned with the supply of the coal which is the subject of anxiety to consumers in London. I hope to be able to announce shortly that they have come a little nearer to our expectations—I may say a little nearer to our demands, because it must be perfectly obvious that, if we are not fairly met by agreement, Parliament will not tolerate any exploitation. I hope still that we may be able to come to an agreement. When that has been reached there will be found some means of checking those violent fluctuations which are so disturbing, not only to householders, but also to those engaged in industry. For the moment, perhaps, the Committee will excuse me from saying anything more on that topic.
I now come to the extremely difficult topic of the fluctuation in the price of food. The long Debates we had here some months ago gave the House full opportunity of expressing its view, and the Government then stated many of the steps taken towards, reducing the price or preventing further extravagant 420 rises in the price of food. I can only repeat what was said then, that, so far as the price of wheat in this country was concerned, we cannot ascertain that it was in any degree the result of speculation in this country. I cannot answer for what happened in the United States of America. The American price undoubtedly did control the world's price. We were, unfortunately, met with a great shortage in the supply of wheat from Australia; indeed, Australia became an importing and not an exporting country, and some of the wheat we might have expected to come from the Argentine was actually diverted to Australia. The high price of wheat here was the subject of great anxiety to us, and when a day is given, when there is a general demand, for the discussion of the Government's transactions in wheat, I think it will be possible for the House to understand the service which was rendered by the Department of the Board of Agriculture which was mainly concerned in this matter, and the firm who acted as the Government purchasers, to prevent our being faced with a very serious shortage. So far as wheat was concerned, not only had we the anxiety of high prices, but, what was much more serious, we were faced with anxiety as to a definite shortage in this country; and, although, no doubt, it is a serious matter for wheat to be anywhere in the region of 50s. to 60s. a quarter, it would be a still more serious matter if we had found our margin cut down to two or three weeks' supply and ourselves running the risk that the interruption of supplies across the Atlantic meant—absolute hunger and starvation to those not able to pay famine prices. We staved off all risk of that, and I think I can assure the Committee that there is no fear of our supplies being cut off or our margin being destroyed.
With regard to the great profits made by one or two firms in this country during the great rise in wheat prices, which is natural when the market is rising rapidly, I hold no brief for the firm of Spillers and Baker. Their balance-sheet shows an abnormal profit. The statements made with regard to the figures in that balance-sheet were not soothing to public opinion. I can only say they had a rising market on which to produce that balance-sheet. I hope in 1915 they will have a falling market on which to produce their balance-sheet, and that the profits they made last year will be swallowed up in the diminution of prices experienced this year.
§ Sir J. D. REES
Does the right hon. Gentleman see there has been a falling off of something like 10s. in the price of wheat, and that this firm will have an enormous reduction in their profit?
§ Mr. RUNCIMAN
I have no means of knowing what will be the experience of that firm, but I can only hope that all that is going on now will not be stopped before the new harvest comes forward, and I hope the abundant supplies of the new harvest will tend to bring prices further down, and that the opening of the Dardanelles, to which we all look forward with great certainty, will lead to Russian supplies coming forward and flooding the markets.
§ Mr. HOUSTON
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that many of those speculators who made huge profits in rising markets are now dropping their profits like leaves in autumn?
§ Mr. RUNCIMAN
Just in the same way as I did not envy them when they were making their profits, I have no pity for them now when they are making losses. What is necessary to this country is not to see an outbreak of speculation, but steady supplies conducted through normal channels at moderate profits. On both sides the subject of meat was raised. I am afraid I cannot hold out any hope that our meat supplies are going to be largely increased during the War. There is a great strain being placed on the Home meat supplies, and imported beef is mainly going to feed the French and British armies. When we discovered that not only our own demands were going to be very large, and that the hunger of the British soldier was much greater than that of the British civilian in matters of meat, we were faced with a change in French policy. The French decided that as our men fight well on meat, they would feed their men on meat also. This made an enormous demand on the frozen meat supply of the Argentine, Australia, and New Zealand. The first step we took was with regard to Australia and New Zealand. We had been closely in touch with the subject from the first, but we felt that we ought in the first instance to ask for the co-operation of the Dominion Governments. I would like to say publicly that nothing could have been more thorough-going than the action taken by the State Governments of Australia and the Dominion Government of New Zealand. Through the Colonial 422 Office we were occupied in communications with them for only a short time before they put into operation the legislative powers they possess, and within a few weeks the whole of the meat which could be exported in refrigerating steamers was, under the control of those Governments, purchased in the interests of the Empire as a whole for shipment across to this country in the tonnage we had requisitioned. The steps taken by them there are deserving of the highest praise, and the Ministers concerned worked with so much energy that we not only lost no time in getting the meat over here, but, I think, even surprised our Allies by the assiduity with which we filled their own frozen stores.
Our main supplies of beef, however, were not from Australia but the Argentine. The ownership of meat in the Argentine has been the subject of discussion in this House before now, and, as the Committee well knows, the big American companies which went by the slang term of "The Meat Trust" control a very large share of the meat exports from the River Plate. There is a certain amount of control by English companies, but they all act together, and, if we had left the British and French military authorities to the mercy of those companies, there is no saying what price they would have been able to extract out of them. The Board of Trade felt, therefore, that the first necessity was that the whole supplies of both Armies should be under a single control. The French Government were good enough to leave the whole transaction in our hands, and I am glad to say they have expressed their satisfaction at the way in which we handled it. We are now buying all the frozen meat that is required for their use as well as for our own, so that we are in no sense competitors in those markets where there are only a few producers and where we should have been entirely at their mercy. We could not make a good price with them until we had tonnage. By negotiations with British owners, covering the whole of the refrigerator space that plies from the Argentine to Europe, we requisitioned every one of their available steamers, except those belonging to one company, and I wish to say that, after long discussion, we were able to come to an agreement, satisfactory to us, without exercising the compulsory powers which we held in reserve. The hon. Gentleman below the Gangway (Mr. Houston) took a prominent 423 part in those negotiations, and he is well aware of the fact that in driving the bargain which I drove I was not thinking of my own interests, and I hope he will exculpate me from any moral guilt, because I was merely looking after the public interest. The rate of freight now paid will leave a good profit to the shipowners concerned. I am well aware that they might make more money out of the carriage of wheat than out of the carriage of meat, but, after all, those shipowners who run regularly in the Argentine trade, and are not engaged in the carriage of passengers, will not suffer materially from the bargain we have made with them. I know some of the big lines, like the Royal Mail, ended up last year with a loss, but I do not put that down to anything I did, and it must have been from some other cause. At all events, it is clear that we are getting meat carried from the Argentine and Australia at cheaper rates than are being paid for any other commodities.
§ Mr. HOUSTON
I should like the right hon. Gentleman to make it quite clear that he did not require to use the power of requisitioning to get shipowners in the Argentine trade to agree with his terms, and that, so far as I myself was concerned, I did not enter into any discussion or argument with him in regard to freight, because I was quite prepared to accept any rate from the Government. I know perfectly well, and the right hon. Gentleman does not need to tell me, that when he was driving this very hard bargain he was doing it on account of the nation, and I am quite sure that he drove a harder bargain than he would have done on his own account.
§ Mr. RUNCIMAN
I freely admit that when I was negotiating with the Argentine companies, the hon. Gentleman did not fight about these questions. The requisitioning power, which I held in reserve, was not necessarily used with the object of compelling the companies to accept our terms, although they were quite conscious of the fact that I had that power. Requisitioning had many other advantages. It enabled us to "pool" the ships, and to get them run on a regular traffic with a regular distribution of sailings, and this enabled us to send them to ports which they were not in the habit of visiting. The hon. Gentleman asked me a question with regard to one of the principal lines as to why they were left out of the requisition. My reason for 424 not requisitioning them was that after the negotiations were over I discovered that the Nelson line had a running contract with the meat companies, and therefore there was no need for us to make a bargain, because they were bound to carry the meat. Consequently, there was no need to give them the benefit of requisition rates, and so we merely asked them to go on carrying out their contract. The price of meat as it is delivered here will certainly be higher than last year. I confess I was a little nervous about these supplies falling into the hands of speculators, and I got a small committee of business men to undertake the distribution of this meat through the retail channels. I asked them, and they are complying with my request, to avoid all sales to merchants, and they sell directly to those who distribute, and the speculator, so far as these meat supplies are concerned, does not come in, and the meat will pass through channels which are not speculative. We had to ask consumers to check their appetites for meat throughout the coming summer, and unless they do so, there may be a great diminution in the amount of stock in this country. In so far as that is done, we shall meet a general demand. May I now turn to two or three other topics raised by my right hon. Friend.
§ Mr. HOUSTON
Before the right hon. Gentleman leaves that subject, I would like to know if he is willing to give any information about the terms he has made with the Meat Trust.
§ Mr. RUNCIMAN
I think it was better not to give the exact price, and I do not think it would be in the public interest to do so at the present time. I now come to the subject of cotton. I may say that there is no topic which has given us more trouble, not only at the Board of Trade, but in other Departments. The Committee is well aware that of all the commodities which come from the United States of America there is none which causes the United States more anxiety and nervousness than cotton. We have taken practically from the first, all the measures we thought were likely to be effective in checking the supply of cotton to the enemy, but in one direction after another we have found evidence to which we cannot shut our eyes, that the cotton passing into neutral countries was leaking 425 through to Germany. The opinion of the Department which is best able to advise us on this subject, was that Germany was not finding this cotton necessary for the making of her explosives, because she has already stocked herself with cotton for that purpose, but that any cotton which went to Germany might be used for that purpose, and therefore it became incumbent upon us to see that amongst the articles which we prevented passing into Germany, cotton should be included. Consequently, we have held up a large number of cotton vessels, but we have held them up on terms which are satisfactory to the vendors of cotton in America, and in this way the Foreign Office has avoided friction. The cotton has been largely sold in Lancashire, thus finding its way into the Lancashire spinning mills, and in the course of time, I hope, will go out to our customers abroad, which is a much better use of the cotton than allowing it to be made into explosives on the Continent.
Our anxiety spread not only to cotton, but also to yarn. The figures which I gave yesterday must have made it clear that we cannot go on allowing cotton yarn to be freely exported, even when it is ostentatiously going to neutrals. We have adopted many means of preventing raw cotton which goes out to neutrals passing into the hands of the enemy. We usually get a guarantee that in the case of exports to these destinations the cotton is either going to the actual spinner of the yarn or is going to be used in some way in the country to which it is consigned, and cannot be exported. I cannot quote instances of that guarantee having been broken, but I can only take the figures of the imports of cotton yarn into some of those countries, and the exports out, and those exports seem, at all events, to suggest that the cotton yarn has not all been used up there, but has been going to succour the enemy. Under these circumstances we feel bound to place cotton yarn on one of the lists which will check its exports. In the future cotton yarn will not go out to a long list of countries without a licence. In order that those licences may be quickly and promptly dealt with, the War Trade Department are setting up a Cotton Licensing Committee, somewhat similar to the Coal Licensing Committee presided over by the hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Russell Rea), about whose excellent work I should like to say a word of praise. There are no exports so quickly dealt with 426 as those which are dealt with by the Coal Export Committee, and I hope that the Cotton Licensing Committee will also do its work rapidly and well. The view we hold is that these sub-committees composed of business men engaged in that particular trade, and having intimate knowledge of it, can deal with this question far more efficiently and justly than any Government officials, however excellent they may be.
I would like to conclude by making two or three remarks on the labour questions raised by the London Tramways strike. The Board of Trade is in close touch with the parties concerned. The Chief Industrial Commissioner's Department day after day is giving information as to the demands put forward and the extent to which they were being met, or not being met. I am not prepared to discuss the merits of the case now, but there was one aspect of it which we were bound to deal with at the earliest possible moment. There are a large number of workmen who cannot get to their work at Woolwich except by tramcar, and it became necessary that we should revise the tramcar service, and we took the necessary steps to see that cars were run to and from Woolwich for the convenience of Arsenal workers. We co-operated with that object, and though at first there was some inconvenience for a short time, it was soon overcome. We cannot claim that the settlement of the strike, in so far as it was settled, was brought about by us, but I believe that the Chief Industrial Commissioner's Department did a great deal to keep up constant communication between the parties in order to avoid a complete cessation of the tramway service. That we did not take action promptly, I must deny. From the first, Sir George Ask-with and his colleagues were in touch with the leaders of the men and the representatives of the London County Council.
My last subject is that of the "Daily Express," which has done the Board of Trade the honour of devoting to it a good deal of attention during the last few days. Its attacks on the Board of Trade are based on this case. The "Daily Express" was setting up through its columns, at the expense of nobody, what was practically a Labour Bureau, and they succeeded in getting a very large number of men, through their advertisements, to say that they would be prepared to do certain works, especially those concerned with the making of aircraft. On the 29th of April, 427 I think it was, we published an Order in Council, which gives us the power to prevent an appeal being made for the transfer of labour in certain cases, and the wisdom of doing that has been challenged by questions in this House. Perhaps I may be allowed to say how necessary it was that that power should be taken by us. The munitions companies have been making enormous demands on the labour markets for skilled men. I believe they can get plenty of unskilled labour without difficulty, but the supply of skilled men has been more difficult, and they have had to be gathered from other countries, some from Belgium, Holland and Canada, where at the present moment the hon. Member for Glasgow (Mr. Barnes) is doing good service collecting engineers, fitters, and mechanics. We are drawing men from industries in this country not engaged in producing munitions of war.
We find that some of these great concerns are making machine guns, rifles, shells and the like, but no sooner do they get the men into their works than someone else comes along, offers them a little more bonus, and they attract them in other directions, with the result that this kind of ding-dong competition leaves these companies in a constant state of anxiety. In one case, out of 1,000 men the firm lost 300 within a fortnight in this way because it paid the men to move elsewhere. This is a kind of attraction of labour which is well known to the shipbuilding trade. Hon. Members of this House who know how shipbuilding labour passes to and fro are aware that there are times of great pressure in shipyards, and these methods are adopted in consequence. While this was going on in a state of war, some of our great concerns were not producing up to their contract dates. It became necessary that the canvassing for labour should be under control. That was the object of the Order in Council of 29th April. I believe that when we drew the attention of the "Daily Express" to this Order in Council they did not realise when it was published, for I notice that the "Daily Express" says that application for approval of advertisements somewhat of the nature of those they have been publishing took about two months to pass through the mill. There must be some mistake about it, because it was on the 29th April that the Order in Council was first published, and two months must 428 obviously have been an exaggeration. As a matter of fact, we have dealt with the "Daily Express" case as rapidly as we could.
Take the case of the "Daily Express." These large numbers of men were obviously far too many for the "Daily Express" staff to carefully examine and sift. The mere task of classifying applications of this kind, sending them on to employers, and then insuring that there was prompt treatment and no diminution in the necessary precautions of inquiry, could not be conducted except by a very well-organised staff especially created for the purpose. I have no means of knowing how the "Daily Express" staff is drawn and recruited, but I am sure of this fact, that it is impossible for a newspaper staff to make all the necessary and the individual inquiries for dealing with thousands of men to the same extent and on the same scale as can a Government Department. The Labour Exchanges are accused of being a slow and cumbrous means of dealing with this subject, but I should like to draw attention to the fact that some of the figures which I gave yesterday very much understate the services rendered by the Labour Exchanges. I hope the Committee will not run away with the idea that the Labour Exchanges have been inefficient, particularly during the War. I am sure when they hear these figures that they will realise what great service has been done by that labour organisation. In the last four months over 400,000 vacancies in all have been filled by the Labour Exchanges. Over 80,000 of these were in the engineering and shipbuilding trades, including 46,000 in skilled trades. Vacancies are even now being filled from the Labour Exchanges at the rate of 4,000 a day. Since the outbreak of War no less than 100,000 workpeople have been transferred through the Labour Exchanges to engagements on national work in other districts, and the total number of transfers from one district to another has been no less than 187,000. These are really very large figures, much larger than could have been dealt with by any voluntary organisation outside, and, gladly as we welcome any help we can get, it must be quite obvious to the Committee that you cannot have a great distribution and sifting of labour on that scale without elaborate machinery for examining the cases which come forward.
I am informed that a good many of the cases about which complaints are made are 429 not well founded. Take one case which the "Daily Express" gave. The Linotype Company, who needed 300 men, are said to have applied in vain to the Labour Exchanges. I only give this as an example of how criticism which cannot be well informed is likely to do an injustice to a Government service Three hundred men needed, and the company applied in vain to the Labour Exchanges! What are the facts? The only order at the Labour Exchanges of this company was for one improver. In another instance a workman, A. J. Perry, is said to have applied in vain for employment on war work. I have had the case of A. J. Perry turned up, and the House may be interested to hear that he was a painter by trade, but had no serious qualifications for war work, and he insisted on a job in which he should only do a little bit. We submitted him to two employers, and neither of them would have him.
The "Daily Express" can do good work, and we have already pointed out to them one direction in which they and the rest of the Press can help us. I am sure that my right hon. Friend will also give us his assistance in this matter, I have a draft here of a public appeal for the Engineers' War Service Official Register. If we get assistance from the Press in extending the number of men who will put their names down on this register we will have the cases sifted out, and we will do what we can to help the new Minister of Munitions to keep the labour he already has in the factories, rather than taking them out of one factory merely to plant them in another. I have the authority of my right hon. Friend the new Minister of Munitions for saying that unless the control of labour or the distribution of labour in this way remains in the hands of the Labour Exchanges they see nothing but trouble ahead of them, and it is on their behalf and not out of pride in this Department, of which I am very glad to be the President, that I ask the newspapers not to attempt on an amateur basis to do this work entirely by themselves, but to co-operate with us in an effort to make the best use of such labour as is available.
§ Mr. CHAPLIN
The Committee will generally agree that we do not often have a more interesting Debate than that which was initiated by the hon. Member for Dartford (Mr. Rowlands) and carried on by the President of the Board of Trade. Hopes were held out to us that there might be some considerable fall in 430 the price of coal, and if that is the case everybody will sincerely rejoice and some considerable satisfaction will be felt. The hon. Member for Dartford seemed to me to attribute the great increase in the price of coal more or less to the fact that coal has been withheld and not supplied by coal owners according to contract. He said that he had evidence of this, but he did not produce it.
§ Mr. ROWLANDS
The right hon. Gentleman will find the whole of these facts in the Report made by the Departmental Committee appointed by the President of the Board of Trade himself.
§ Mr. CHAPLIN
I ought to have said that nobody can lay less claim than I can or than I can pretend to have to anything in the nature of expert knowledge about coal or mines, but I know, when I have sometimes congratulated coal owners—I have a great many friends who are large coal owners—upon a rise in prices by which they ought to be making a great deal of money, that they have said, "We are not making anything more. We make contracts for a very long period of time. We have not gained anything by the increase of price. It very often happens that prices fall again long before our contracts come up for renewal." The hon. Member said something which I own that I was not able to follow, although he said that it was contained in the evidence. He said that owners would have been able in this case to fulfil their contracts, but they declined to do so. Surely there is a remedy for that if it is the case. Nothing would have been easier than to have brought an action against them to compel them to fulfil contracts which they were able to fulfil. I am bound to say that I think the President of the Board of Trade gave much better reasons. He said that coal was not in the same category as wheat, and he went on to say what were the real causes of the great shortage in coal. London is the worst case of all. What is the cause of the shortage in London? It is due to the vast number of ships taken for Admiralty purposes which formerly conveyed coal to London. That is one of the reasons. True it was, he said, that some merchants have made very considerable profits; but, on the whole, I think the Committee will agree with me, from what he told us this afternoon, that it is quite clear the merchants have behaved exceedingly well, and were quite 431 ready to meet the Government in any way in which they could be fairly asked to contribute towards a diminution in the price of coal.
Then he turned to the producers, and there again there was a reason which fully accounted for what has been a very considerable part of the shortage. An enormous number of miners have been recruited in the north of England, and, according to him, that was one of the main reasons of the great shortage. I will not enter into the question of what the gain or the loss has been to owners at different times either by the great rise or fall in price, because it is a subject on which I know nothing whatever; but I thought it only right, in view of some of the remarks which fell from the hon. Member for Dartford, just to put before the Committee what I have been told myself by many owners and producers of coal, and which seems to me to offer a somewhat fair reply to some of the criticisms which he made.
The President of the Board of Trade dealt with another question which certainly was of great interest to me, namely, the great increase in the price of food in consequence of the War. Years ago I made great efforts to procure the appointment of a Commission to inquire into our food supply in time of war. Like most other Commissions, it met with the fate which is so common in these days, when reports of Commissions upon almost any subject whatever obtain the smallest possible attention. I venture to say in defence of that Commission that a large number of its members made a report which I still believe, if it had been adopted and carefully carried out by any Government, would have gone a long way to relieve this country from any possible apprehension of a shortage of wheat, and would have done it at a cost inconceivably small, something like an addition of one-half or three-quarters per cent. on the estimates for national defence at that time. I hope the Committee will pardon me for referring to this, as I do in justification to the members of the Commission, who worked hard for a very long time at this question, and whose recommendations have never received, as far as I know, the smallest attention from any Government whatever.
I only want to say one word more, and in the absence of the President I must say it to my hon. Friend opposite (Captain Pretyman). I do it with some confidence, because I am sure that he will put my case
432 6.0 P.M.
very fairly and effectively to his chief at the head of the Department. It arises from the fact that I have been actively engaged lately in forming a committee with the object of promoting the employment of women in agriculture. Although we endeavour to work in full co-operation with the Labour Exchanges, and although I have no feeling whatever myself against the Labour Exchanges, I know, whether rightly or wrongly, that there is a prejudice against them amongst the farmers in this country, at present at all events. The great object I have had in view was to get over that prejudice, and to see whether, by forming an agricultural committee interesting themselves in the subject, visiting the districts, and sending representatives down there, we could not succeed in bringing the farmers and the women together in their own particular localities, and so enabling progress to be made in the movement. So far we have been working in selected areas. I was informed—only three days ago—by an excellent agricultural representative who was sent down into Gloucestershire that he has made the acquaintance of nearly all the farmers in the district and has set up a small office. He has already received numbers of applications for women from these farmers, and, not only that, but he has already supplied a considerable number to farmers requiring additional labour. I believe that is a thing which may be prosecuted with very considerable success in a vast number of districts in England, because there is a great shortage of labour in many parts of the county, and in some parts it is so great as to be really most serious. Only two days ago I received a letter from a great Radical proprietor in the Holderness District of Yorkshire, asking me if our association could possibly provide him with 2,000 women, and if we could send them down to that part of the world to do much of the work which was formerly done by agricultural labourers who have been recruited. I will conclude what I have to say on this subject by asking my right hon. Friend a question which arises out of something that passed in the House of Commons yesterday—out of a statement that was made by the President of the Board of Trade. The right hon. Gentleman said:—Arrangements have been made by which approved newspaper advertisements may still be inserted in such a form as to avoid the risk against which the Order was intended to provide.433 Then one of my hon. Friends sitting behind me (Mr. G. Terrell) put this question:—May I ask if newspaper advertisements for labour are therefore to be considered illegal unless they are approved by the Department over which the right hon. Gentleman presides?"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 9th June, 1915, col. 263.]That is a matter of great importance to my colleagues and myself in trying to carry out the policy in which we are engaged, because what we have to do first of all is to find out if the farmers will employ women labour and how much they will take of it. Then, having got customers, the next thing we have to do is to get the women of the locality, and the way in which we are doing that is by inserting advertisements in all the local papers stating what openings there are for women. I want my right hon. Friend to get an assurance from the President of the Board of Trade that, in what I believe to be the very beneficial work in which we are interesting ourselves at the present time, if we continue to do what we are now doing we shall not be putting ourselves within the danger of the law, and that what we are engaged in doing will not be illegal. I hope my right hon. Friend will submit our case as urgently as he can to his chief, and then I have every confidence and every hope, if we are allowed to proceed a little longer in the way we are doing at present, we may really be able to accomplish something which will be of genuine advantage and help to agriculture at the present time, having regard to the great shortage of agricultural labour in many districts.
§ The PARLIAMENTARY SECRETARY to the BOARD of TRADE (Captain Pretyman)
I may answer that point at once. The question does not really arise in connection with the right hon. Gentleman's association, which is doing admirable work, and the Board of Trade officials are working in co-operation with it.
§ Mr. ANDERSON
I think the statement of the President of the Board of Trade this afternoon marks a very distinct step forward. For a good many months we have been asking, many of us not sitting on any particular bench, that there should be a larger measure of public control over the real needs of life, and I venture to suggest that the President of the Board of Trade has this afternoon made a statement with regard to labour which endorses and emphasises everything we have asked for in this direction. When we have asked questions in regard to controlling the 434 profits of shipowners we have been told—we were told, for instance, in the "Times" newspaper—that it was absurd to interfere with the law of Supply and Demand, and that if there is a chance of making larger profits, larger profits will be made, and we are merely trying to interfere with the laws of the Medes and Persians, if we seek to set aside the law of supply and demand. But this afternoon the President of the Board of Trade told us that, in regard to labour, the demand is in excess of the supply, and because of that workpeople are being offered the bait of higher wages to go from one factory to another. In order to prevent this the Government are now placing the canvass for labour under public control. I suggest you have no right to apply a law to workpeople which you are not prepared to apply to shipowners and corn millers at the same time. If there is going to be a law in one direction it should apply exactly the same in every direction.
I am quite sure of this, that a large part of the labour unrest which we have seen has been due to the conviction that the Government was not as strong and as vigorous as it might have been in controlling food prices and the prices of coal and other commodities. So far as the miners are concerned, I have the authority of their president, Mr. Smillie, for making this statement: that if there had been anything in the direction of the effective control of coal prices at the start there would have been no wage movement among the miners at all—no demand for anything in the nature of an increased wage or a war bonus. I come now to the question of coal, which has been raised again and again in this discussion. The President of the Board of Trade admitted that the rise in prices had been enormous. The Board of Trade, we are told, is now taking action in more than one direction. I am very glad of that, but at the same time I must express my regret that that action was not taken more promptly: that it was not taken many months ago, as it might easily have been. The very point we put to the President of the Board of Trade he now repeats from the Front Bench; That point is that whereas the supply of wheat is difficult to control, because that commodity comes from all parts of the World, the supply of coal is confined to these island shores and prices could be controlled far more easily than the prices of wheat. If that is true—and it is true—the law that 435 is to be applied now might easily and profitably have been applied in the interests of the people many months ago.
The right hon. Gentleman states that profits are now going to be limited. We are very glad of that. He says it is going to be done in order that the prices may be made steady. I would say, in regard to that, it really depends upon how far you are going to allow prices to rise as to whether the steadiness is or is not going to be a good thing. It is a good thing to have steady prices, but it is not a good thing if you allow even them to be too high; therefore, action in that direction will be tested by the extent to which prices are forced down by the Board of Trade action. The President of the Board of Trade has stated that even now prices at the pit-head are far in excess of what is justified by the present War situation. It is just that part of the prices which is far in excess that we want to deal with. The right hon. Gentleman said that they were going to demand that there shall be no more exploitation. I am very glad indeed to hear the right hon. Gentleman make that announcement. The position is serious, not only in regard to householders but for many kinds of municipal enterprise, as was pointed out to a large number of Members yesterday, in regard to undertakings like those of gas and electricity. I must say, in this connection, that only this week, in Bradford, they have been obliged to raise the price of gas to consumers 5d. per thousand cubic feet. That is an enormous rise in prices, and the Bradford City Council, in coming to that decision, passed a resolution at the same time urging the State to assume the control of the output of coal during the War. I should like to read a statement from a well-informed Labour correspondent in Glasgow as to the position there in regard to the corporations. This gentleman, writing to the War Workers Emergency Committee, says:—Various committees of the Glasgow Corporation are buying for immediate need only, as if they were to place their contracts at the present prices it would mean an increased charge of £400,000 as compared with last year's prices for the same quantity and quality of coal. The gas department is now in the market for 750,000 tons, and if they are compelled to pay present prices the extra charge on this lot alone, according to the manager, would be £300,000. Because of the high prices of fuel, the cost of household gas is to be raised from 1s. 11d. to 2s. 6d. per thousand cubic feet.We have heard put forward here various causes to explain this considerable increase. It is quite true that some two 436 hundred thousand of the miners have gone to the Colours, and that has meant, I believe, a reduced output of some 13 per cent. It is also true that the price of pit wood has increased, and here I would say it would be a good thing if this War teaches the country certain economic lessons which should have been learnt long before the War came upon us. We have had reports from Afforestation Committees showing how much timber is imported into this country. The same lesson also applies to the production of wheat and other commodities in this country. If the land were put to its best and most profitable use, and I am quite sure, even if we did not all agree as to the exact methods by which it can be done, we all believe that the resources of our country should be developed to their very fullest capacity, and it would be a good thing to try and put mere party cries on one side and settle down to the question how we are going to do our best for the country and make the best of it. This question of coal prices is pressing very heavily, indeed, on the poor people in the East End of London and elsewhere. There has been an increase of from 7s. to 11s. per ton, where coal is bought by the ton, and, of course, poor people, who buy much smaller quantities, have to pay very much more than that. We shall all be glad if the President of the Board of Trade is no longer afraid of what he was apt to call "millennium proposals." Not many months ago he told us not to try to bring about the millennium in the middle of a big War, but he is now going to apply the principle that prices are to be controlled and that the output of coal is not to be forced down, which means that he himself, with a somewhat hesitating and gingerly step, is beginning to go in the direction of the millennium, if you can call it that. All we ask is that the poorest people shall not be left entirely at the mercy of coal owners and coal merchants, and that a larger measure of control should be exercised.
The hon. Gentleman who represents the West Toxteth Division of Liverpool (Mr. Houston) appeared to take a very optimistic view of food prices and of the world generally. He spent most of his time in twining garlands round the head of the President of the Board of Trade. He described a speech of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Kirkcaldy (Sir H. Dalziel) as an attack on the President of the Board of Trade. To try to put pressure or to make useful or helpful criticism 437 is surely not in the nature of an attack. If everything in that connection is to be construed merely as a personal attack, we had better close down Parliament altogether, as there would no longer be any need for the liberties of Debate. The hon. Member opposite (Mr. Houston) said that prices were coming down with a rush. So far as the prices of the commodities of life are concerned, these reduced prices have not yet reached the poorest people who need them most.
§ Mr. ANDERSON
It had not reached London yesterday. There has been no reduction in the price of meat.
§ Mr. ANDERSON
Or in the price of coal, and there will not be until the President of the Board of Trade carries out a vigorous policy in that direction. We want the President to believe that in any step he takes in that direction he will have most of the country with him, and he will do a great deal to remove the feeling on the part of the working people that there has been unfairness if he will say that the rule he is going to apply to them in the sale of their labour is going to apply also to shipowners. I do not believe that either workmen or shipowners ought to take advantage of a crisis like this. If that rule had been applied more frankly all round the idea of National Service might have been a far more real thing than it is to the mass of working people at present, because they have believed that their service was going to be used for mere profit making. The matter has to be faced in a far bigger and bolder way than that, and if the President has taken the first step in the right direction I am sure he will have the support of hon. Members from all parts of the House.
§ Sir FREDERICK BANBURY
I was very glad to hear the last words of the hon. Member who has just sat down, and I am not at all sure that in the near future we may not come to look upon him as an advocate for National Service. He is the first hon. Member, except the President 438 of the Board of Trade, who has made any allusion to the rise in miners' wages, which must at any rate be an item—I do not know whether it is 1s. 6d. or 1s. a ton—in the increased cost of coal. The hon. Member said that he was of opinion that no class, whether the working class or the employers of labour, should take advantage of the War to gain benefits for themselves. With that I wholly agree. I do not think that anyone, whether he is a coal owner, or an employer of labour, or any class you may like to mention, should take advantage of the present crisis to gain pecuniary advantage or any other kind of benefit for himself. The hon. Member said that the President of the Miners' Federation (Mr. Smillie) had told him that if the profits of the coal owners had been regulated at the commencement of the War the miners would not have made any demand on the coal owners for increased wages.
§ Mr. ANDERSON
I said that if the Government had dealt more strongly with the rise in the prices of coal and food there would have been no rise in the wages among miners.
§ Sir F. BANBURY
I did not understand the hon. Member to allude to food. I thought he only alluded to coal. May I point out to him that that principle, which I consider to be a most excellent principle, has not been observed by the working classes? I will give him an instance. The Government at the very outset took control of the railways, and they not only regulated the profits of the railways, but said that they were not to make anything more than they did make in the first half of 1913 before the War. They took over the whole of the railways, and any increased profit there has been—there has been a considerable increased profit—has gone to the taxpayers. Notwithstanding that fact, almost the first thing that occurred was a demand on behalf of the railway employés for a war bonus. At any rate, with regard to the railway men, they did not carry out the idea to which, according to the hon. Gentleman, Mr. Smillie has at the last moment been converted. If the hon. Gentleman, who I believe is a prominent member of the Labour party, will inculcate that idea among the working classes and the railway men, he will be doing a great service to the country.
§ Mr. WHITEHOUSE
May I ask the hon. Baronet whether the demand by the 439 railway men for a war bonus was not due to the increased cost of living, including food?
§ Sir F. BANBURY
I do not know to what it was due. I was only remarking that the hon. Member had said that Mr. Smillie had made a statement that if the Government had regulated the price of coal and there had been no increase of profit to the coal owners, the miners would never have asked for an increase in wages. I would ask the hon. Member opposite (Mr. Whitehouse) are the labouring class to be the only class which is not to sacrifice itself or to be placed in disadvantageous circumstances owing to the War? Every class that I know has made great sacrifices for the War. They all have to pay the increased prices, while many of them are not getting increased earnings—in fact, some of their businesses have almost disappeared, their investments have decreased in value, and their income has largely diminished. Why should the working class, who are getting greater opportunities of obtaining work than ever before, get, in addition, a war bonus in order to put them into the position they were in before the War? They must suffer like everybody else, and to my mind the idea of a war bonus is absolutely repugnant.
§ Mr. E. JONES
I am sorry the President is not in his place, because there are one or two things I wish to say in reference to the speech he has delivered. Before I come to a criticism that cannot be very pleasant, may I say that nobody realises more than I do the excellent service the President, as a personality, has rendered to the country in this great crisis? The only difficulty is that the Board of Trade is overloaded. The one thing the War has brought out, perhaps more prominently than any other, is that the functions of the Board of Trade should be divided under different heads. There has been some discussion here about Spillers and Bakers. I am going to tell the Committee one thing to which publicity should be given. I have failed to make it public earlier. It was not wise to make it public at the time when it occurred. We should put it upon record, inasmuch as the President seemed to suggest, and he was supported very much by the cheers and approval of an hon. Member opposite, that there was more or less a palliative, if not a justification, for Spillers and Bakers' profits on the rising market in 440 view of the fact that they were likely to incur large losses on the falling market. I want to call attention to one of the ways by which Spillers and Bakers did make their profits. I went to the Department several times during the first fortnight of the War with particulars and facts relating to Spillers and Bakers, but I failed to get the Board of Trade to do anything at all. Therefore I have to modify the encomiums that have been lavished here this afternoon upon the activities of the Board.
There is no doubt about it that the Board of Trade was beaten by the millers in the first week of the War. The Board were not quick enough, prompt enough, or strong enough. May I give one instance? I cannot go into the whole of the proceedings of Spillers and Bakers, as I have not all the documents with me this afternoon which I took to the Board of Trade. The Committee will see one item which suggests the manner by which this firm was allowed to deal with the country in the most critical period, the first two or three weeks of the War. In the South Wales mining districts, which are covered mainly by Spillers and Bakers, the small tradesmen and grocers have always had with Spillers and Bakers a monthly credit. That has gone on to my personal knowledge for the last twenty-five or thirty years. There has been a regular monthly credit and even an extension of that. Every small shopkeeper and grocer responsible for supplying flour to the working miners out of which they made their bread, was running more or less before the War broke out on a monthly credit system with Spillers and Bakers. Then came the first week of the War. Then, I confess, having imbibed too much of the doctrines of Mr. Norman Angell and others, I thought the whole world was coming to an end. A great financial stringency existed. What did Spillers and Bakers do? During the critical period, when things seemed to come to a dead stop, they sent a circular round to all these traders stating that they would not give them a pound of flour unless they paid spot cash for it. That disorganised the whole business. The effect was that these small traders, running as they were accustomed to run on a monthly credit system, were unable to get flour. They were not in a position to find the money suddenly to buy flour at the greatly rising price at the time. Although I put these 441 facts before the Board of Trade and tried to get them to take action, they could do nothing. They were in the hands of the millers, and nothing in the world was done. That was one of the ways in which Spillers and Bakers earned the profits over its operations during this War.
Again, I must impress upon the Board the necessity for more courageous action in connection with pit wood. According to the President's speech this afternoon one would think that the question of timber and pit wood has been only a minor item in the increased cost of production and the price of coal. I can assure the Committee that that is not so. The prices of coal in this country are largely determined by the prices obtaining in South Wales. The pit wood crisis in the mines in South Wales in particular has been an extraordinary one, and remains so, and unless the Board of Trade can do something really heroic and on a big scale, we are going to meet difficulties that will be insuperable. It is very remarkable how the coal owners got over their difficulties. They got over them very largely by going round and purchasing any bit of a wood which was to be found anywhere on the hill-sides. They were very fortunate in many parts of South Wales in keeping down the speculative prices of the timber that came from Bordeaux and other places, with the assistance of the Board of Trade, but this is the difficulty: Although the coal owners were very successful in buying the standing timber at an exceedingly cheap price, practically the normal price, in great quantities in the West, the price became absolutely prohibitive because of the difficulties that the railways put in the way of shifting them. The Board of Trade has no conception of the difficulty that the coal owners in South Wales have had to get the railway companies to afford any facilities whatsoever for shifting a log of timber to the works, and the prices which have been charged, just shunting prices alone, for simply shunting a truck from one line to another have been extortionate and ridiculous, and I press upon the Board of Trade to go into the question again and see whether, with the help of the hon. Baronet (Sir F. Banbury) or other members of the railway executive, something cannot really be done. I can assure the hon. Baronet that if he wants cheap coal for the engines of his railways he had better try and carry the timber a little more cheaply and quickly to the collieries, or he will cry in vain for the coming winter.
442 There is another point. The President of the Board of Trade has had to handle already, in the course of the War, several disputes in regard to wages. I have no doubt he has observed, as hon. Members have observed, reports of the approach of another very serious crisis in the coal industry of South Wales. I am going to press upon the Board of Trade with all the emphasis I can to begin to look around at once. Negotiations have already been broken off between the coal owners and the men's representatives, and it is for the Board of Trade to come in. I deplore very much the readiness with which the uninformed Press here in London at a time like this take hold of the thing and suggest that this is an illustration of the rapacity of the miners and the working men, and that it is an outrage for them at a time like this to be talking about new agreements and precipitating a crisis. It is only fair to the miners of South Wales to make it perfectly clear to the House and to these newspapers that they are doing no service in taking up an attitude of that kind, because one could, if there were time and this were the occasion, give reasons which would absolutely convince hon. Members in every part of the House that what has happened has nothing in the world to do with rapacity or lack of patriotism on the part of the miners. In South Wales there has been a system of payment that started when the coal industry began. It has been built up in the most haphazard way, and it has got so complicated that it constantly creates difficulties in the locality, and steadily for years now the miners' representatives have been quietly and constitutionally and in a legitimate way trying to get some kind of intelligibility and order out of the chaos that reigns there in regard to the method of paying wages in the separate pits.
For the last two years it has been clear that when the agreement came to an end, as everyone knew it would, on 30th June of this year, the miners would insist on having some revision of their agreement. It is mainly a matter of administration. It is not mainly a matter of wages at all. It is a matter of reorganisation. The hon. Baronet (Sir A. Markham), who is interested in the South Wales coal trade as well as in other parts of the Kingdom, has expressed himself most eloquently as to this method of payment. There is not a single coal owner in any other coal-field in the Kingdom who will say a single word in favour of the system that prevails there. 443 Any business man who has anything to do with coal mines would condemn the whole thing as a ridiculous anachronism and would say that the arrangement ought to be altered in the interests of peace and fairness between miners and miners in different pits and in different localities. I have said enough to indicate that there is there a difficulty of the supremest kind. I do not wish in any way to belittle the arguments of the coal owners. They say if you begin to touch this complicated old structure that has grown up in South Wales you will get into hopeless tangles and disputes and difficulties, and, indeed, coal owners have a good deal of detailed evidence to produce in favour of the practical hopelessness of the task of getting a new agreement. But a new agreement has to be had, and I can assure the Board of Trade now that if they think to settle it by simply waving the flag and telling the miners that they have to put it off till the end of the War they will reap disaster, and I press upon them, because this is the sort of matter that they could aid in if they brought the ability that they have in the Department to bear upon these difficulties, they might be able between the two parties to construct now, in good time, before there is a rupture, a basis for new negotiations, and perhaps set the thing going away in peace and harmony.
In view of the complexion that has been given to it in the London Press to-day, I feel I must say that the miners of South Wales will see to it that the ships are not without the coal that they want. They are shrewd enough and they are keen enough. There have already been crises since the War began, but I do not believe it can be pointed out by the Admiralty or anyone that the supply of coal from the South Wales mines was jeopardised. No working men in this country have responded to recruiting more readily and more handsomely than the miners there. As a matter of fact, the War Office has found it almost impossible to keep them? in the pits. Young men have been going and trying to enlist by saying they were shop assistants and all sorts of things like that in response to the appeals which have been made. But, although that is so, you can depend upon it that they know their business. They are as astute bargainers and managers of their concern as anyone, and they will insist that something shall be done before the mines are again flooded 444 at the end of the War with the thousands who will come back and fit themselves into a new possible scheme of wages, and, although there will be crises and a good deal will depend upon the firmness, the tact, and the promptness with which the Board of Trade will act, I think I can say on behalf of the miners in South Wales that until something has happened people need not taunt them with any lack of patriotism, and whatever happens the public can take it for granted that they will look after the interests of the nation, while making it consistent with their rightful claims and their hazardous and not in the circumstances exceedingly remunerative employment.
§ Sir CLIFFORD CORY
A reference was made a little while ago to the price of coal. In fairness to South Wales I ought to tell the Committee something as regards the prices which obtain there. The hon. Member (Mr. E. Jones) referred to the increased demands of the miners with regard to the new agreement which they wish to bring into force at the end of their notice, which they have given, to terminate the existing agreement. He says they do not desire any increase of wages.
§ Sir C. CORY
I thought my hon. Friend went further than that, but I may tell him that their demands would mean an enormous increase of wages. First of all, they want to raise the standard by 50 per cent. and then raise the minimum from 35 per cent. above the present standard to 10 per cent. above the proposed new standard, or to 60 per cent. above the present standard. There are other points which make the increase enormous. A Member of the Labour party referred to the enormously increased price that the gas companies were asked to pay for coal supplies. It was stated by Lord Joicey at the deputation of coal owners to the President of the Board of Trade that the gas companies were deserving of no commiseration whatever. South Wales does not supply gas companies, so this question does not affect them; but so far as other districts were concerned it was stated that the gas companies made contracts for some 300,000 or 400,000 tons before the War broke out with German coal owners with the object of reducing the price of the English coal owners. When the War broke out they could not get delivery, but they then could have contracted 445 for English coal at below the prices which existed before the War. But in their wisdom they apparently thought the probabilities were that the War would be over soon and they could get supplies at very much less cost, and they neglected to make contracts until prices went up very much higher, and then they came along, by which time the coal owners had sold practically the whole of their outputs and they had not the coal to sell. Why people who have taken the risk of buying these coals on contract, and had to take delivery whether the prices went up or down, should give them the coal at a very much reduced price than they could get for it, I am at a loss to understand. In their wisdom they elected not to buy, and then they whine and complain because they cannot buy except at a high price. It may be very hard on the gas consumer, and he has a right to complain of the gas producer for his bad judgment.
So far as South Wales is concerned, it is well known to people who know anything about the trade that the bulk, something like three-fourths to seven-eighths, of the output is sold on yearly contract, and the contracts are made in the fall of the year for the ensuing year. The bulk of the 1914 contracts were made at 17s. to 18s. a ton f. o. b. Cardiff, but the amount of free coal left over was very small, and the Admiralty practically commandeered the bulk of the coal in South Wales and practically awarded their own price, and the price they gave up to the end of February this year was shillings a ton less than the market price reigning before the War broke out; so I do not think anyone can accuse the Welsh coal owners of having exploited the position in order to make great profits out of the country during this time of stress and trouble. The contracts entered into for this year were made at 18s. or 19s., a shilling a ton more than for 1914. You may say they made their contracts too low, but in South Wales we are bound to make contracts so that we can keep our collieries going from day to day. If the collieries stop it means that you have great expense in timbering and clearing away falls, and one thing and another. Therefore it pays you better to take a low price to keep things going than to risk a better price and have the collieries standing idle a few days now and again. Under the contracts the bulk of the coal has been sold at from 18s. to 19s. Some of 446 that coal, in fact a very large proportion of it, has been taken by the Admiralty at a somewhat higher price, but still a very moderate price—about 8s. or 10s. a ton less than we could get from the foreigner. The increased cost in the production of coal in South Wales has gone up enormously. All stores have gone up about 100 per cent. A war bonus has been granted to the men of 17½ per cent. above the standard, and from 15 to 20 per cent. of the men have joined the Colours. The latter fact has been responsible for reducing the output of coal enormously, and, of course, the standing charges are necessarily higher, because they are spread over a lesser quantity of coal than if we had those 20 per cent. more men working the coal. The hon. Gentleman (Mr. Edgar Jones) has said that the men have enlisted in great numbers. That is perfectly true; they have shown a splendid example in South Wales in the way they have responded to the call of their country by enlisting, and I think the coal owners, too, are deserving of some credit, because, against their own interests, they have offered inducements to the men to enlist. Nearly all the companies there promised to pay sums of money to the dependent relatives of the men. Wives are receiving 10s. a week and 1s. per week is being allowed to each child. That makes a very onerous burden on the companies there.
§ Mr. E. JONES
I am sorry I did not mention that fact. I had intended doing so, but somehow or other I forgot it. The hon. Baronet is quite right, and I thoroughly endorse what he has said.
§ Sir C. CORY
I am very much obliged to the hon. Member, and I am sure he would have alluded to the point had he not forgotten it. Supposing you limit the price in South Wales, or prohibit shipments of coal from South Wales, you are not going to help London, Liverpool, or other parts of England in regard to prices, because if you stop the shipment from South Wales you will not be able to get the coal away from there. For instance, it is the practice in South Wales for the colliery proprietors to own their own wagons. They have sufficient wagons to take the coal from the collieries down to the ports at a distance averaging twenty miles. These wagons make one, two, or three journeys a day. If you had to send them to London, Liverpool, and other places, these wagons would be away about three weeks or longer. The result would 447 be that the collieries would be closed. Moreover, the class of coal in South Wales would not be suitable for the householder or for gas or other purposes. Therefore, if you limit the price in South Wales, you will simply limit the price which the foreigner would be paying, and thereby making a present of money to the foreigner. There is very little free coal which we can ship to the foreigner, because the Admiralty take most of it. My right hon. Friend (Mr. Russell Rea) and the Committee over which he presides are concerned with a scheme for prohibiting the shipment of coal, which I think is a great catastrophe. Apart from our own interests, I think it is a catastrophe for this country, because we find American coals are pouring into Brazil, the Plate, Argentine, and Uruguay, and the consequence is that the Americans are getting the business. Anyone who is in business knows that if you have a customer on your books for years and if you lose him it is very difficult to get him back. If it is really necessary to prohibit these shipments, there is not a coal owner in South Wales but will accept the position for the sake of his country; but if it is not necessary then we are entering upon a most disastrous course, because once the American coal owners get into this market we shall find it very difficult to get it back again.
It must be remembered that our cheap food depends upon outward freights. Cheap freights from the Plate home depend upon cheap freights outward. If you are to send ships out in ballast to the Plate instead of loading them with coal, or if they go in ballast to America and there load coal for the Plate, then, you will have to pay much higher prices for the wheat home to this country. I cannot see what would be gained by prohibiting shipment to foreign countries. You will not be able to make coal any cheaper in England by doing that; on the other hand, the collieries probably will be stopped. My right hon. Friend (Mr. Russell Rea) says that if there is only a certain amount of free coal now, and if the price is so much and we prohibit shipment, there will be ever so much more free coal and the price will go down. I do not see who is going to benefit by that. If the English shipowners want bunker coal at Cardiff they can afford to pay for it, because freights are certainly high. The British Admiralty are getting all the coal they require and our Allies are getting all 448 the coal that they want. With regard to Italy they do not want South Wales coal for the present. It was offered to them and they said they did not want it at present. The average price for South Wales coal by ascertained audits shows that the figure is a very moderate one indeed. Whatever may be the case in regard to other parts of this country—I do not speak for them because I do not understand their position—I can say that so far as South Wales is concerned the prices are moderate. So far as anthracite coal is concerned, a large number of collieries are working at a loss. The anthracite price has not gone up, and therefore if people want cheap house coal they had better use anthracite coal from South Wales. It would be a good thing for South Wales if they do so, and it would do a great deal to abate the smoke nuisance in London. If people would use an anthracite stove they would find it cleanly and, as I have said, it would be a very good thing for London in remedying the smoke nuisance.
§ Mr. OUTHWAITE
I wish to impress upon the President of the Board of Trade the difficulties and grievances under which the Constituency I represent is suffering. I refer to the Potteries. Hon. Members will know that in the production of earthenware and china the cost of coal is a very important matter. Just before I came here to-day I received a letter from one of the manufacturers in the Potteries asking me to use every endeavour to put before the President the present position there. The President told us that following upon the increase in miners' wages there had been an increase in the cost of coal, and he said that some colliery proprietors had stated that that increase in wages could be covered by an increase of 1s. 6d. per ton. The right hon. Gentleman declared that in his opinion this was a most extravagant estimate of the increase that would be due to the increased wages. I will read a letter which has been sent by a colliery proprietor at Stoke-on-Trent, who is one of the local combine, to my informant, who is a manufacturer. The letter says:We beg to inform you that the price of all quantities and sizes of manufacturing fuel will be advanced 4s. a ton throughout the district on and after Wednesday next, the 26th inst.That is to say, that when the recent increase in the miners' wages took place, instead of putting on what the President of the Board of Trade has described as an extravagant increase of 1s. 6d. per ton, 449 these colliery proprietors in this district have put up the price of coal to the still more extravagant figure of 4s. per ton increase. My informant says in his letter:Further, please note carefully that the North Wales colliery proprietors are paying exactly the same advance under the same Lord Coleridge's award, and you will see from the newspaper cutting I enclose that the North Wales coal owners are content with an advance of 2s. 5d. on coal and 1s. 8d. on slack. Observe the great difference between 1s. 8d. and 4s., which latter the Staffordshire potter must endure for the production of his ware, and this in addition to prices already extravagant for what is, literally, dust.At the outbreak of the War the President of the Board of Trade urged manufacturers to endeavour to keep production going in order to maintain the employment of labour. There is probably no district where it is more difficult for that to be done than in the Potteries, and there is probably no district where the manufacturers have made more businesslike or more strenuous endeavours to keep their work going, or where manufacturers and workers alike suffer more than in the Potteries at the present time. They have continued the production by working three days a week instead of discharging hands. It is grossly unfair to a district of that sort that you should allow colliery proprietors to make these extravagant charges and so hinder industry. I trust the President of the Board of Trade will carry out the suggestion he made, or the threat he made, to take steps for the limitation of these charges, and that he will work on the lines suggested by the hon. Member for Mansfield (Sir A. Markham), that we should have prices fixed on the basis of the prices that ruled this time last year. I trust the President will do this, not only in the interests of householders, but in the interests of manufacture.
§ Sir J. D. REES
The hon. Baronet (Sir Clifford Cory) dealt with the speech of the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydvil (Mr. Edgar Jones) and I need not reply to it; but I would point out that neither the hon. Baronet nor the hon. Member said anything about the Eight Hours Act and the strong feeling held by many people that the suspension at least of that Act is really more needed at the present time to meet this difficult crisis than any other palliatives that could possibly be supplied. I do not know whether the hon. Member said it was the intention of the miners to strike—
§ Sir J. D. REES
I am glad. At any rate, I hope that the suspension at least 450 of that most disastrous Act will be considered by the Government in the present crisis. I am well aware that things have reached such a pass that even the suspension of that Act would not really meet all the difficulties, because, while wages are so high, there is really no need for men to work every day as hard as they could. I wish that the Government could adopt some such step as that suggested by the hon. Member for St. George's, Hanover Square (Sir A. Henderson), who is a man of great and wide business experience, whereby payment in notes which could be redeemed at the end of the War could be made for some portion of the present high rate of pay. I do not pretend to have any qualifications to discuss that subject, but I wish something could be done on those lines. The President of the Board of Trade stated that cotton yarn is now to be placed upon the absolute contraband list. Why only cotton yarn? If I understand the case aright, it is not only cotton yarn that is useful for the making of explosives, but cotton in other forms.
§ Sir J. D. REES
Not sufficiently, as I gather from the reply given to me by the Noble Lord the Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs (Lord Robert Cecil) the day before yesterday. I do not think it is. I stated my reasons for that opinion, and I will not state them again now, but I would ask the Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade (Captain Pretyman) if he will look into that point. The other day it appeared that cotton was being exported under false declarations from the United States to neutral countries and that matter is of the very utmost importance.
In regard to Messrs. Spillers and Bakers I did not mean when I interrupted the President of the Board of Trade to claim any particular knowledge of the affairs of that firm, but only to point out that if the very high profits which they made are not fairly made and are to go to the taxpayer as was suggested by an hon. Member, then it would only be fair that the losses of the same firm which must have happened when the price of wheat had gone down by 10s. in one week, should equally be met from the taxpayers' pocket. You cannot have it both ways. If they are not allowed to make profits they must be indemnified for losses they make, and in this way the whole of the business would be thrown upon the taxpayer.
§ Mr. E. JONES
Does the hon. Member say that they should be compensated for loss of profit on a falling market?
§ 7.0 P.M.
§ Sir J. D. REES
The hon. Gentleman must be aware that firms in that position make forward contracts, and are liable to immense losses. The possibility of the opening of the Dardanelles has been referred to, but without that there has been a fall of 10s. a week, and that knocks out altogether the case against this firm. May I ask if anything has been done to assist firms in this country who are owed business debts by Germans? Suppose, as a concrete case, that a lace firm which has a branch in Chemnitz has its stock there confiscated by the German officials in Saxony and has large debts owing to it from Germans. I do not know what steps should be taken by the manufacturers in the case which I have put in order to ensure that they will receive the fullest possible consideration at the end of the War. Should they lay the matter before the Public Trustee? I am in some doubt about it. I am perfectly well aware that the Government cannot perhaps deal satisfactorily with this matter now, and I have considerable reluctance to ask that anything should be done at the end of the War, because all we have to do now is to bring about the end of the War by defeating the enemy. Nevertheless these questions are greatly exercising British manufacturers, and if the hon. Gentleman does not think the matter of sufficient importance to occupy the time of the House then I should be glad if he would let me know privately what steps should be taken by manufacturers in circumstances such as I have described.
Can the President of the Board of Trade say anything more on the subject of a firm, about which I put a question, who make chimneys, and who, although the whole of their capital, with the most trifling exception, is held by Germans, nevertheless carry on their business in this country, competing with British firms who carry on the same business? There seems to be something utterly wrong about this. Though the right hon. Gentleman seemed to think that it was all right when answering me, it is a significant circumstance that one of the greatest lawyers in this country, Lord Justice Buckley, has expressed the opinion that though the letter of the law may be with the Government in this matter the spirit is contravened when these companies, which are practically altogether German companies, are able to carry on 452 business here. It is true that in this case an inspector was put in, but still the business was being carried on and this firm was competing with British firms. We are far too lenient in all these matters. We do not exercise sufficiently the powers which we have under the Trading with the Enemy Act, though I am not sure that those powers are sufficient to deal with a case like this. But firms like this should not be allowed to compete with British firms in existing circumstances, and I do urge my hon. Friend to bring this matter before the President of the Board of Trade and to let me know the result.
§ Mr. GOLDSTONE
We have understood that this is a time of truce, and yet we have the hon. Member for East Nottingham actually suggesting to the House the abrogation of the eight hours day for which the miners fought so long.
§ Mr. GOLDSTONE
Which they do not detest. The hon. Member speaks of this "disastrous" Act which tends to show the spirit in which he makes the suggestion of its abrogation even during the period of the War. Let me tell him that for a man to stay eight hours in a coal mine would appear to me to be quite sufficient for one day, and to set aside now this very valuable piece of legislation would be to raise feelings of intense hostility in a class of men who have contributed probably more than any other among the artisan classes to the Army which is new fighting so magnificently. And when we find him suggesting what method should be adopted by the working classes in the disposal of their wages—the hon. Member shakes his head; did I misunderstand him when he stated that a certain part of the wages of working men should be kept from them and notes of acknowledgment given and their compulsory savings handed to them at the end of the War?
§ Sir J. D. REES
It was not my suggestion. I referred to the suggestion made by the hon. Baronet the Member for St. George's, Hanover Square.
§ Mr. GOLDSTONE
I understand from the hon. Member that he endorses that opinion: or is it that he does not endorse it? I am very glad to know that he dissociates himself from that suggestion.
§ Mr. GOLDSTONE
Then the hon. Member contributes nothing to the Debate 453 either positively or negatively. The working classes will resent the proposal just as much as the owners of profits or the takers of profits would resent any decision as to how the profits should be disposed of. Just as much as Cabinet Ministers, the Prime Minister for example, would resent very strongly any suggestion even that this House should dictate to them how their salaries should be spent, the working classes take the same view of any attempt to interfere with them as to the disposal of their savings or their earnings, and they will resist to the utmost any compulsory abstraction from their earnings, even though these deductions be rated at a percentage and the whole thing be given to them with interest at the end of the War. The hon. Baronet the Member for the City of London is always interesting, and certainly he has the courage of his convictions. He is brutally frank when he gets on this question of wages of the working classes, but he is pleasantly frank in his brutality. The hon. Baronet suggested that in war time the working classes must suffer like everybody else. That is exactly what they are doing, and for my part I am not prepared to pick them out and to say that they alone are making sacrifices.
The aristocracy are making sacrifices no less than the working classes; sacrifices are being made all round, but in the case of the low-paid wage earner the sacrifice is the sacrifice of his all. In the matter of the man who is well-to-do the sacrifice may be between champagne and bitter beer. It may be between running his motor car 10,000 miles and 2,000 miles. That is not the case with the working classes. The working classes realise, and the same is probably true of other classes, that when there is a rise in prices you have in effect a reduction of wages. It has been admitted that the purchasing price of the sovereign has been reduced from 20s. to 14s. Will the hon. Baronet consider the case of the porters on his own railway at a wage of 25s. a week? When there is this reduction in the purchasing power of the sovereign the man in the employment of his company, and of similar companies, who has a wage of 25s. a week, is now in effect receiving something in the region of 19s So the sacrifice through the War in the case of such men is the sacrifice as between a very modest standard of living and a standard which is now below even workhouse conditions, and when a war bonus is asked for it is 454 asked for to bring the standard of living up as nearly as possible to that enjoyed previous to the War. The War bonus will not amount to 6s. per sovereign, so that the sacrifice in the case of these working-class families in receipt of low wages is a very real sacrifice. In their case it is not a question of the limitation of certain luxuries so much as the cutting down of the necessaries of life. It is the kind of thing which is being brought home very strongly to the working-class homes that I know.
Therefore, when these men ask for a War bonus it is not because they are not prepared to sacrifice, but they have seen that the railway companies—and I am speaking now especially of railway men—have received from the Government a guarantee of pre-War profits, and while the railway companies will not have their profits diminished the railwaymen see that by the operation of certain combinations and of causes which ought to be brought under control, and as the President of the Board of Trade knows can be brought under control, causes which are in no way due to faults of theirs, prices have so increased that they have suffered a very considerable reduction in their wages by this inflation of prices. So I hope it will not be suggested that they are not making sacrifices. They are making very real sacrifices. It is brought home to them, too, for example, in the case of the engine driver. Very many engine drivers on the North-Eastern Railway Company, as I know, earn two guineas a week without the overtime. These men have been ready to volunteer and have been refused permission, in many cases, because their services were required for transport in this country. But these men see the separation allowances given to the wives and families of their colleagues who have gone do not maintain the family at the same standard of living as they enjoyed previous to the War breaking out. These men who are not allowed to go, though they are willing to go, see the standard of living of these people who are in receipt of separation allowances still further depressed because of the inflation of prices, and their feelings find expression, because they have no other opportunity, in a demand for more wages. It is not primarily, believe me, from a selfish idea, but it is the only means of expressing their desire of getting a return in their cases because others have used the opportunity to take advantage of the national extremity and exact great profits where 455 they ought not to have been allowed to do so. The railway men would not have moved, in my opinion, had the Board of Trade in the earlier stages kept in hand such firms as Spillers and those people who are exploiting the opportunity to put up the price of flour, coal, and other things.
If there had been action taken which would have kept prices at such a level that previous standards of living could have been maintained, in my view neither the miners nor the railway men would have brought the pressure which they have brought to bear to secure such increase as will bring them somewhere nearer though not entirely up to the standard of living which they previously enjoyed. While on this point, I may, I hope, be allowed to say that, from information which has reached me, the amount of the bonus given to miners in Lancashire would be represented in prices by the addition of 9d. to the cost of a ton of coal, and that these extraordinary rises in the price of coal are not due to the bonus which has been given, but due to manipulations of the market, combined with arrangements which have had the effect of inflating the price of coal. So far as Northumberland and Durham are concerned, you will find in a number of the collieries, in regard to the pit-head price, that many contracts, not yet exhausted, are still in the region of 11s. 6d. per ton. Because so much of the trade is export trade, the collieries have not been able to work full time. The possibility of exporting coal from north-eastern ports to Hamburg and to Baltic ports has been cut off, and therefore the collieries have not been working full time, and they have been in the position that the contracts at 11s. 6d. have been delayed. So far as some of the colliery owners of Northumberland and Durham are concerned, they are not reaping that great advantage which has been obtained by some of those who have been in a position to charge full retail prices and so make enormous profits.
§ Sir F. BANBURY
The hon. Gentleman will remember that a number of the professional classes have lost a considerable amount of their income—many of them the whole of their income. Take an architect, for instance; he is doing nothing. Many professional men have practically lost the whole of their income, and they do not get any bonus.
§ Mr. GOLDSTONE
I agree that in these matters there is some truth in what the hon. Baronet says. It is true that a number of the professional classes have suffered severely, but in their case many of them are in the possession of reserves which the working classes do not possess.
§ Mr. GOLDSTONE
I would like to know how a man, with a family, can be thrifty on 25s. or 30s. a week, especially when he has to pay rent of a house in which he can live, if he desires to bring his family up in a reasonable manner. My point was not to say that the sacrifices made by the professional classes in consequence of the war are small; it is not so. I do not want to say that of any class; I do not believe it is true of any, with the exception of a small number of persons indicated by Lord St. Davids in another place yesterday. The point I was endeavouring to make was rather one in defence of the working classes, and not one of aspersion on any other class. Rather, I want to show why these bonuses have had to be asked for. The point I am making is that the rise in prices, which could have been delayed, and possibly prevented altogether, have imposed the necessity upon the men—if they were to maintain their families at something like, though not altogether like, the original standard—to ask for a small bonus, which I acknowledge with gratitude has, in the main, been accorded.
§ Colonel YATE
I wish to ask the representative of the Board of Trade a question as to pit wood, of which we have heard a good deal this afternoon. The right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade gave a list of the various countries with which he had been endeavouring to make arrangements for the supply of pit wood; and the question which I wish to put to the Parliamentary Secretary of the Board, who I am so glad to see sitting on the Treasury Bench, is whether he can tell us why it is we are so dependent on these foreign countries for our supply of pit wood. Is there anything special in pit wood that it cannot be produced in this country? Or, if it can be produced, and if it is produced in this country, is it that the high rate of freight on railways prevents its use? Is it the want of cheap water carriage, either by sea in present circumstances, or cheap inland water carriage, like canals, or what is it that makes the 457 price of home-produced pit wood so prohibitive? We have been told that the price as gone up by some 100 per cent. If the hon. Gentleman can tell us how that is, I must say that we shall be very much obliged to him.
§ Mr. DAVID MASON
I think we are all indebted to the hon. Member (Sir H. Dalziel) for having raised this interesting Debate. He has certainly elicited much of value from the speeches which have been delivered on this most important question of the increased cost of living, as we must feel that he has done a most valuable service this afternoon. When we know that there may be a great industrial strike in Lancashire, when we know that the question of the increased cost of living enters into every field of industry in every part of the country, I think we can measure the importance of this Debate as to what action ought to be taken. There has been no attack upon the Board of Trade, and what criticisms there have been were intended to be helpful in any action the Department may think fit to take to relieve and make less severe the burden from which the community, and especially the working classes, are now suffering throughout the country. I am glad to see the Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade in his place, and congratulate him upon his appointment. As I said, the desire has been shown to be helpful to the Board of Trade. My right hon. Friend crystalised the whole question by pointing out that a sovereign to-day is only equal to a purchasing power of 14s. My hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Pratt) stated that the average increase of wages recently given works out at something like 3s. a week, so that it will be seen, as was pointed out by an hon. Member on the Labour Bench below me, that the war bonus, in addition to the wages of the working classes, by no means anything like meets the hardship from which they are suffering through the increased cost of living.
The point to which I desire to call the attention of the House has reference to what I think to be one of the most contributing causes to the increased cost of living. Of course, there is no one single cause; still, I think something might be done to alleviate the conditions caused by these high prices of commodities. I believe the Government can do something to relieve the burden by avoiding the continuous issue by the Treasury of these 458 currency notes. The vast addition to paper money undoubtedly affects the price of commodities, and if the right hon. Gentleman, the President of the Board of Trade, can bring that point of view before his colleagues in the Cabinet, and particularly before the new Chancellor of the Exchequer, I think he will be able to do something, and the Government will be able to do something of a practical nature to relieve the position. Let me quote a few authorities to show how the continuous issue of paper money by the Government is bound to have an effect upon the price of commodities, and therefore the cost of living.
§ The CHAIRMAN
That would not be in order on the present occasion. The hon. Member should bring that subject forward when the Chancellor of the Exchequer is here. We are now discussing the Board of Trade Vote.
§ Mr. MASON
I bow to your ruling, Sir. I thought in view of the Debate turning so much on the increased cost of living, I might offer some suggestion to alleviate the hardship which results. Of course, as you have said, Sir, it is no concern of the Board of Trade, and I must therefore defer what I have to say to a further opportunity, trusting that the remarks I have already made may merit the consideration of the new Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade.
§ Captain PRETYMAN
I am quite sure that everyone at the Board of Trade will appreciate very much the spirit in which their work has been dealt with by everyone who has taken part in the Debate. My right hon. Friend, the President of the Department, much regrets that he has been able to be present during only two hours of the Debate, but hon. Members will easily understand that he has other business which calls for his attention, and which is so urgent that he could not remain here longer. I know that he will have the sympathy of every hon. Member, and no further apology is necessary. I have been at the Board of Trade only a very few days, but I can assure the House that the expression of goodwill and approval in regard to the work of the officials of the Board of Trade is well merited, so far as my observation has gone. They have had a very heavy burden thrown upon them by the fact that, in a crisis of this kind for very obvious reasons everybody, in the case of difficulties between capital and labour, and 459 between the consumer and the producer—which they are in a position in a time of peace to settle between themselves easily—now requires arbitration, because it is the wish of all concerned to get those difficulties settled as soon as possible in the national interest. Therefore they look to the Board of Trade to decide and to facilitate their work by arbitrating, the parties being of one mind in seeking to arrive at an early and satisfactory conclusion in the national interest. That is the object of all who are concerned in those questions which arise between parties.
A great deal has naturally been said about the rise in the price of food and the cost of living, but I think that everybody who referred to the subject had one thing at the back of his mind at any rate—a feeling of thankfulness that the cost of living, high though it is, and anxious as we all are to reduce it, is nothing compared with what our anticipations of it were when the War broke out. I think we have really cause to congratulate ourselves in the first instance that the situation is as good as it is, and that the Government has been able to keep the rise of prices, which are inconvenient, but which are not disastrous even at their present limit. It is perfectly true that it is possible that steps can be taken and must be taken to keep those prices down, because, as has been pointed out, the effect of high prices is really only severely felt by those whose incomes are at the vanishing point. Those are the people who are affected by high prices and reduced consumption. When you come to look at the reduction of consumption in figures on a piece of paper it does not look very much.
But you have to look beyond that; you have to see at what point that reduction has taken place. If you find that it is due, not to a general reduction of consumption, but an enforced reduction for people who are unable to afford to buy the articles, then it is obvious that a very great injury is done to those people. Therefore I think everybody will realise that they will do what they can to keep prices down. But I think we may also recognise that this House has done a great deal in another direction to reduce that bad effect of the high cost of living, and that is in taking care that the dependants of all those who are at the front should receive such grants and allowances as will enable them, notwithstanding the high cost of living, to 460 live practically at the same standard as that which they had before the breadwinners went to risk their lives at the front. That is the direction in which this House has done a great deal. When you are doing something to reduce poverty you are really dealing with the same problem as you are dealing with in trying to reduce the high cost of living.
My right hon. Friend the President of the Board has dealt with the question of coal very fully. I think almost every hon. Member who has spoken since has said something about it. That is not really to be wondered at, because the price of coal enters into the daily life of every individual in this country. There is not a single hon Member of this House whose constituents are not vitally affected by the matter of the price of coal. As usual when prices are high, everybody concerned tells us that he regrets the high prices, but that he and those with whom he is associated are not responsible, but that it is somebody else. The coal owners will not admit that they are responsible and the coal merchants will not admit that they are responsible. I do not think that anybody at this time of national crisis, and certainly nobody representing any class in this House, will come to this House and say that those whom they represent are not desirous of making sacrifices in the War, and if they can be shown a reasonable arrangement by which prices can be kept down without their being absolutely penalised, then I do not believe there is any class in this country that is not prepared to agree to such an arrangement. If there is any such class, and if coal owners or coal merchants or anybody else are not prepared to agree to a reasonable arrangement by which prices may be kept down without they or their class being penalised, then I say it is necessary that the powers of the State should be exercised, where they can possibly be exercised, in order to keep prices down. I think everybody will agree with that, and after what the President of the Board of Trade said, I do not think I need add anything more on the subject.
The hon. Member for Melton (Colonel Yate) referred to the supply of pit wood. I can speak from personal knowledge on one aspect of that question, because I know that those who own wood suitable for pit wood in various parts of England have desired to meet the demand, and at the same time to obtain something more 461 than the starvation prices which have hitherto been obtainable for English-grown timber, by offering that pit wood to coal owners. The Board of Trade and the Board of Agriculture have done their best to bring the two parties into touch with one another, but the chief difficulty is transport by rail. One hon. Member who spoke said that the railway rates were prohibitive. I do not think that that is because the railways desired to make great profit out of timber. My hon. Friend knows that the railways really are congested at present. I believe the figures in this question are that out of 4,500,000 tons of pit wood annually used in this country, about 750,000 tons only have come from this country, and nearly all of that from somewhere in the neighbourhood of the collieries. No timber has been carried very long distances by rail, and practically all comes by sea. If you now transfer that supply, the oversea supply to an inland supply, you have to provide an immense amount of additional transport both in the form of railway trucks and extra trains, and in the present condition of the railways one of the greatest of national problems is how to carry on at one and the same time the ordinary trade of the country—passenger traffic of the country, and the immense requirements of the War Office, and all the additional inland trade due to the difficulties of obtaining tonnage for sea transport.
Therefore I believe that the real difficulty is a difficulty of transport by rail. I do not at present quite see how that is to be got over except to a limited extent. Something has been done. Railway rates have been reduced to a certain point. I for one should certainly say that if you could find the railways to carry more supplies of pit wood to the collieries, the rates should be reduced to a point, this being a national matter. It is not, however, so much a question of rates as it is one of capacity to carry the traffic. The Board of Trade have interested themselves very much in this question. Mr. Rew, who has special charge over this Department of the Board of Trade, has been over to France and has been negotiating for increased facilities. The French Government have gone so far as to withdraw men who were actually at the front in the French Army, and who were timber cutters in the South of France, in order to allow those men to go back to their districts to fell pit wood 462 to come to this country. Therefore I think that, so far as is possible, everything has been done in that connection.
§ Captain PRETYMAN
It might be possible to do so if the timber were adjacent to the canal, but if the timber had to be carried twenty or thirty miles by rail to the canal, I am afraid there would be no economy in doing so. That is a question of detail as to each particular case. My hon. Friend (Sir J. D. Rees) asked about two firms which were referred to at Question Time. I can only tell him that there appear to be two firms. One firm is a German firm, and the other with a very similar name states that it is a purely English firm with solely English capital. They are two different companies. The matter may be open to further investigation. But supposing any firm with German capital is working in this country, as my hon. Friend knows, there has already been an Act passed by which that company comes under national control, and under that Act a great deal has already been done. There are certain stages in national supervision. Where a firm is suspect of not only having been under German control, but of being in German hands at present, that firm is put under what is called a controller. That controller manages the whole business, but that system so far has only been applied to six companies and three firms, making a total of nine. Where the conditions are more favourable supervisors are appointed. Those supervisors do not take over the absolute management of the business, but they have very considerable control over it and complete access to the books and management. Supervisors have been appointed in the case of 209 companies and 59 firms—268 in all. There is a third class where it is only a question of there being a certain proportion of German capital, but where it is necessary to watch very carefully the transactions of the firms concerned. In those cases an inspector is appointed with full powers of access to all the business, and that action has been taken in 593 instances, of which 459 are companies and 134 firms. That number is being added to either on general grounds or on any reports received from private sources. My hon. Friend will therefore see that where there was German control before the War, that control 463 is not now being exercised in any case, and certainly not in any case within our knowledge.
As to the question of debts owing by foreign firms, that is a matter for the Treasury. A Committee has been appointed, and I may tell my hon. Friend that the Board of Trade Committee has met those kind of cases as a rule by financing British creditors in case of need. He asked what would happen at the end of the War. I only make this suggestion. My hon. Friend no doubt knows that all German property in this country, whether in the shape of shares of dividends or any form of property, is now invested in the Public Trustee, who controls it all. I suppose when we come to the end of the War there will be some negotiations and arrangements for the transfer of property. Then as our Public Trustee in this country will control the whole of the German property in this country, I can only suppose that some arrangement will be made by which creditors here will receive proper consideration from Germany before the money which belongs to Germans is released from the custody of the Public Trustee. I cannot say, naturally, nor can any other man say, what is going to happen at the end of the War, but we are in a position to suggest that if Germans expect to be fairly treated by us they must treat English property fairly in return. I think those are really all the points which have been raised with which I can properly deal. I will take care that my right hon. Friend hears of all the points that have been raised during the Debate. I can assure hon. Members that the Board of Trade, and everybody at the Board of Trade, do most thoroughly realise the responsible position in which they are at this time, and certainly, so far as my experience goes, everyone there is sparing neither time nor brains nor trouble in carrying out what, after all, must be carried out at the Board of Trade, and cannot be carried out here. The House of Commons is the place where most excellent suggestions can be made, and where difficulties can be pointed out, such as those which arise between capital and labour, and as to prices, and differences between consumer and producer, and so on. But those questions cannot be settled here. They require careful detailed attention, such, for instance, as Sir George Askwith applies to all labour questions, and such as other officials of the Board of 464 Trade give to masses of detail in other matters. In doing all that I believe that they desire most fully and in every particular to carry out the spirit of the instructions which are given to them from this House, and, of course, they expect only to be judged by the success of the efforts which they make in this time of crisis.
§ Sir WALTER ESSEX
I heard the hon. Gentleman referring to the question of railways. I can tell him that the feeling amongst the trading classes of this country is that the transference of the railways to the Government has not been productive of or quite realised the public conveniences which ought to have attended such a transfer. For instance, I should like to have heard from the right hon. Gentleman that there have been a greater extension of certain arrangements and a greater clearness of organisation with regard to goods traffic in through rates. Traders feel that the Board of Trade and the authority controlling these aggregated railways since the outbreak of War are not laying down a system such as they had hoped might result as a by-product out of the War, whereby in future some scheme might have been evolved which would produce some system of co-ordination of all the railways or the nationalisation of all the railways within the small compass of our native land. I had hoped that some reference might be made to that. I did not hear, nor have I heard from time to time, any stress laid upon the advisory position which, in a great national crisis like the present, the Board of Trade might fairly be expected to take up. I believe that a large number of our industries are still ignorant of much of the pressure that is being increasingly exerted by the great international disturbance of markets and foreign products. I think that they would have welcomed a larger measure of advice which might have been given by the Board of Trade in regard to certain products and certain methods of distribution as well as of production, which, had it come from the Board of Trade, which possesses their respect and confidence, would have been peculiarly helpful and valuable. These questions we have left singularly alone. We have taken too few opportunities to organise trade, industrial, and domestic matters in this country on such lines as would have been helpful, stimulated interest in our national position, and enabled us to carry more easily 465 both the burdens we already know we have to carry, and those which I do not doubt the future has in store for us.
§ Question put, and agreed to.