§ Mr. BARNES
I desire to address the House on quite another matter than that which has occupied it for the last two hours, one with which the House is more or less already familiar, namely, the question of prices and wages, and to press upon the Government the need for making some statement of their intentions in regard to prices before we adjourn for another Recess.
I shall not say anything, and I hope no one will say anything, which will tend to weaken the forces of the country in prosecuting the War. On the contrary, I am exceedingly sorry that there has been to some extent a stoppage of work, and that thereby the Government has been prevented from getting things made which 1823 may have the effect of weakening them, and I want to see these industrial troubles composed as speedily as possible so that the whole forces of the nation may be mobilised as fully as possible for the task which lies ahead of them. But still this question of prices and the kindred question of wages seems to me to be among the most important questions which could engage our attention at the present moment. The question of prices has already been discussed in a two days' Debate, during which many enlightening speeches were made. They had the effect of stimulating public opinion, but so far next to nothing has been done by the Government to deal with this important question. I shall probably carry a growing number of Members on both sides of the House, and I feel perfectly sure a large number of people outside, when I say that the matter ought to be dealt with, and that it cannot safely be left longer where it is.
I have a few figures which put the case so far as prices are concerned in tabular form. They are quoted from the "Times" of Monday last. The prices are taken back to the year 1899. I will give a comparison of prices as between last July and last week. There are here a number of articles of daily consumption in a working class family. A family of four is taken as the unit and the commodities are just put down in such quantities as to cover the needs of that family for a week, beginning with sixteen pounds of bread and ending up with a pennyworth of blue. Totalling up the items against each particular commodity, last July the weekly needs of that family would have been covered at the then prices by 19s. 8d. The items against each commodity on the prices of last week amount to 24s. 5½d. That is probably about 20 per cent. or 25 per cent., or something like that. So that we are face to face to-day, according to this statement, with a condition of things in which workmen's wages have depreciated, even if they get the same money, by 20 per cent. to 25 per cent.
There was, at the beginning of the War, a truce called to internal dissension. Everyone felt that we had to fight the Germans and we could not afford to waste our resources by fighting one another, and consequently strikes were called off and people were stimulated to do their best, and for a very considerable time they did their best. But the essential feature of a 1824 truce is that both sides to it remain as they were, and in face of the figures I have just given, or even if those figures are exaggerated there is still plenty of margin, and in view of what we all know as to the prices of goods now as compared with six or eight months ago, the essential feature of a truce has gone; and as a result of that the workmen know that they are worse off, and they have a shrewd suspicion that those with opposing interests are a good deal better off. Bread brings 8½d. which six months ago could be sold for 6d., and coal to-day brings about 2s. a cwt. which was sold six months ago at a little more than half that price.
It was said on behalf of the Government a few months ago that wages would follow prices, and economic law was quoted in favour of that statement. I suppose if a person lives long enough wages will follow prices, but in the process of following prices unfortunately strikes occur, ill-will is bred, friction and all sorts of trouble arise, all of which have the effect of reducing the productivity of labour for the time being. Then wages can only follow prices if there is an exceptional demand for labour—that is to say, if you are now making guns or khaki or boots for the Army or Navy, inasmuch as there is now exceptional demand for their labour, they can, of course, find the law of supply and demand being tilted in their direction and they can get more wages. In that sense it is true that wages follow prices, but there are large numbers of people throughout the length and breadth of the country who have no connection with the War so far as production for war purposes is concerned. We have printers, for instance, out of work, and we have the fancy trade that makes trimming for the rich, such as dressmakers and women workers generally, whose wages at the best only cover the bare necessaries of life, and of none of these people is it true to say that wages can follow prices. To many of these people at this moment the prices which are now ranging mean less food and lower vitality, and I am afraid, in many cases probably, permanent injury to their health.
We were told that all classes had to make sacrifices. That is perfectly true, and all classes have made sacrifices. Individuals of all classes have made the greatest of all sacrifices in laying down their lives; but it is absolutely necessary, if we are going on to produce as we ought to be producing for our men in the field, that some more drastic action should be 1825 taken with a view to equalising the sacrifices. It may be asked what are we doing towards that? That is a fair enough question, and in answer I should say that we on these benches, and those with whom we are associated generally, have done all that it has been suggested we should do. The Financial Secretary to the War Office some time ago suggested that we might suspend our rules. We have nothing to do with suspending rules, but in so far as our influence could be exerted it was exerted in the way of inducing trade unions to suspend their overtime rules, and that was done. Other rules were suspended or are in process of suspension. Then it was stated by the Prime Minister that we should do something in the way of continuity of work by modification and something in the direction of elasticity of labour. There, again, we have done what we can. I heard a statement made by one of the members for Liverpool a little time ago that in certain parts of the country labour was not doing all it should do, and he said some unions were charging £5 admission fee. All I can say is that to my mind to charge a £5 fee to a union is wrong even in peace time, but to charge it now, during the War, is nothing less than a crime, and I should like to see all the unions agreeing and assisting to bring about the greatest possible mobility of labour so that labour which is not wanted in one place may be freely taken to another place and employed where it is wanted. So we have done something.
I have just come back from Glasgow, where I addressed two meetings yesterday with a view of getting the resumption of work on the part of some men there on strike, who, I am told, have been doing Government work, and whose work is badly needed. So having done that, I think we have a right to ask that the Government should do something more than they have as yet done. We are being joined by others outside. I myself was present at a conference of labour and co-operative societies a few weeks ago in the Memorial Hall—a conference of a very influential character, but mainly composed of workpeople. Delegates there came straight from workshop and factory, and they had been in daily contact with those affected by these high prices. But since then, only last Friday, a conference of a much more representative character was held in London, representing not only labour and 1826 co-operative societies, but also representing many of the largest corporations throughout the country, including, for instance, such places as Glasgow and Hull. Therefore, we are now not only voicing trade union and labour sentiment, but we are voicing the opinion and sentiment of a large number of people outside of all ranks who feel that something ought to be done by the Government.
What can be done? It was said, truly, a little while ago, that you could not have a social revolution in time of war, and that I suppose is meant to rule out anything in the nature of fundamental causes, or the examination of fundamental causes and the suggestion of fundamental remedies. I agree that we ought to look at it in a practical way, and the Leader of the Opposition made a speech the other week and made a suggestion which was remarkable as coming from him, and I am rather sorry and surprised that that speech has not attracted a good deal more attention. He gave a warning to shipowners, speaking as one with inside knowledge of the business, that a limit might be placed to the enormous profit that he thought shipowners were then making. I think that gives a cue to the Government what to do. If we are going to wait till the shipowners tell us when that limit has been reached we shall very likely wait a long time, and I would suggest to the Government that they put themselves in a position to find whether or not limit has not already been reached in regard to shipowners and coal dealers and corn dealers, and a good many other people who might be mentioned. True, they have set up a Committee to overhaul the operations of the coal dealers, but it seems to me that the timidity of the Government in these matters is the outstanding feature. They so soon weary of well doing. They took sugar first and left the staff of life to be dealt with by other people with axes to grind. They took 20 per cent. of the shipping for War purposes and left the other 80 per cent. to be used by other people with increased opportunities of making larger profits and so on.
§ Mr. BARNES
I am not going to be side-tracked into an examination of sugar. For a time the result was all right, and if it is not, those who are responsible are the Government, who ought to have done 1827 something before. I know that sugar was bought at 6d. per lb. in London and a few days later, after Government action, was sold at 3¾d. That is enough for me to show that economic law can be upset by Government action when the Government thinks fit to take that action.
The Government seem so soon to weary of well doing. They set up a Committee to deal with coal. I think the time has come—I think it has passed—when they should deal with corn. I saw a statement the other day in the "Review of Reviews" by a writer who claims to have an insight into the coal trade. He says that coal bought even now could be sold to yield a profit at 26s. per ton. He makes the further statement that there are hundreds of thousands of tons in stock in London, or procurable under contracts made last year, which could be sold at a great deal less than coal could be bought at now. If that be true—and surely it can be easily verified or otherwise—then it seems to me that the Government would be justified in saying to coal dealers. "My friends, you have been defrauding the public in charging 34s. and 35s. per ton when you could have sold the coal at a smaller price, and got a fair margin of profit at that price." I think the Government ought to go a step further and say, "Having ascertained that you have made an enormous profit which we think is an illegitimate profit, we will put a special war tax on you, and make sure that coal in future will yield a fair price." I think it naturally arises out of the suggestion made by the Leader of the Opposition in regard to the other case.
The Government may say, "We cannot regulate the price of corn at any particular time. The Government had a chance of doing so at one time. Whether they can do it now or not, I am not certain. They might overhaul the operations of corn dealers during the past six months, and if they found that they had been taking advantage of the nation's need they could also put a war tax on them in the same way as upon coal dealers, and so control the price of corn thereafter. These are the lines on which I think the Government ought to have gone before, and I venture to think that they might take some action now. I represent part of a city which has been very hard hit by the landlords. I think, having said so much with regard to landlords, I ought to say a little more, and express my pleasure 1828 and surprise that they have not raised rents a great deal more than they have done. In Glasgow rents have been considerably increased. I have had forwarded to me two batches of notices sent out by collectors to tenants. I got these in response to a suggestion of the Prime Minister that I should supply detailed information. These two batches of notices cover, I should say, a thousand tenants in Glasgow whose rents have been put up since the War began. That accounts for the strong feeling in Glasgow, when taken in connection with the high price of food as compared with the price six months ago. That has contributed to the present industrial unrest.
Finally, let me say a word in regard to the wages of Government workmen. The Government, if they thought that wages should follow prices, ought I think to show an example to other employers in that respect. They have not done it. They have, it is true, given some war bonuses to the men at Woolwich Arsenal. I believe there has been something of the same kind in regard to the dockyards. They are giving war bonuses and increasing the wages of Government workmen where the workmen are organised and in a position to force the hands of the Government. But in those cases where the people are helpless and unorganised, wages are a great deal lower than in the dockyards or at Woolwich Arsenal. Absolutely nothing has been given for these workmen during the time of the War. Everybody admits that some of these workmen have been scandalously paid for a number of years. The Government have been pressed from time to time to give advances and the workmen have been promised advances. I was induced to take a question off the Paper some time ago in respect to the lowest class, so far as pay is concerned, namely, pensioned messengers. The right hon. Gentleman, representing the Treasury told me that they were going to get a rise. I put down the question again last week, and the whole thing is in exactly the same position as it was in last November.
With regard to port watchers, I have asked questions from time to time. The Government has been taking advantage of the fact that these men have a miserable pittance of a few shillings a week for pension. I might run through the whole list of Government workmen. It is the maddening delays on the part of Government Departments in connection with these matters 1829 that go very far to produce the feeling of labour unrest and to stop industry, which, I am sure, everybody in the House deplores. I hope that the Government will do something in the first place to reassure the House in regard to prices. I hope that they are going to follow up the action they have taken in regard to coal dealers. If the statement in the "Review of Reviews" is true, or anything like true, then the greatest possible publicity should be given to the facts. I hope that the Government will go on to deal with other commodities, such as corn and other things, that might be mentioned. I hope they will give us some indication of what they propose to do. I think the seriousness of the present position requires action of some kind. We on these benches are sincerely desirous to help the Government and the nation through the tremendous task which lies in front of us. We can only do that successfully if working people are assured that by the action taken by the Government they will be fully protected, and now that they have laid by the weapon which they have wielded for their protection on former occasions.
§ Mr. ANDERSON
I wish to emphasise some of the points made by the hon. Member for the Blackfriars Division (Mr. Barnes). There is undoubtedly in many parts of the country considerable labour unsettlement at the present moment. I believe that strikes are as little desired by trade-union leaders and by workmen who are members of trade unions as they are by Members of this House. Large numbers of workpeople are asking that there shall be something like equality of sacrifice, and that there shall be fair dealing between the various sections of the community whilst this War is going on. I think there is need for sympathy and understanding, and I make bold to say that since the War broke out no section of the community has made greater sacrifices than the working people have done. They closed down hundreds of trade disputes at the beginning of the War. They have given themselves and their sons by hundreds and thousands to the Colours, and they have mitigated the rigour of their trade union rules when they thought that these would restrict the output. They have worked for six or seven hours a day for months continuously, and if there is unrest to-day it is because they wonder whether the truce is going to be all on one side. They are beginning to think that there ought to be 1830 a truce to the rise in food prices where the rise is due to the greed of a particular interest.
The difficulty is that the working people are not brought face to face with the nation. The workpeople are, in the first place, brought face to face with employers and landlords, and they think that these people do not always rise to a great height of patriotism in their dealings with working people at the present time. I do not believe that the masses of the people in this country would grudge any sacrifice in the public interest, but they do not want their sacrifices to be taken advantage of by others. Incidents have been discussed in this House which have been discussed in workshops. There is, for example, the Meyer case. That has been discussed in every workshop in the country. They think it hard that a man should be obtaining payment of large commissions from the Government for himself at this time when they are asked to make heavy sacrifices.
It is well known in regard to various matters with respect to Army supplies that things of the same nature have been happening. Take the case of leather for boots—Army boots. The price of leather has gone up 35 per cent to 50 per cent., and whereas the Government before the War bought a pair of boots at 11s. to 13s. they are now paying 18s. to £1 for the same quality. The other day a firm of Liverpool leather merchants issued a prospectus in order to attract new capital. They announced that for the twelve months up to the end of March, 1913, their profits amounted to £22,000, and up to the end of March, 1914, £26,000, while to the end of December, 1914, nine months, which included about six months of the War, the profits were £84,000. If that continues to the end of the present month—the end of the financial year—at the same ratio, the profits will have still further increased. These facts are known to the working people and there is no doubt that they are bound to have an influence on this question of unrest when sacrifices hive been asked. I may give an illustration to show that working people are not getting the lead which they might get from those who are able to afford it. In Barrow-in-Furness there is one of the largest and one of the very richest armament firms in the whole world. When the War broke out the police constable of Barrow-in-Furness, for reasons that seemed adequate to him regarding the 1831 special character of the town and the work done there, decided that the town should be proscribed both for friendly and enemy aliens. Up to a certain point that order was observed. Then Messrs. Vickers, Sons, and Maxim wanted supplementary Belgian labour inside the factory, and they asked the police constable to put aside that part of the order dealing with friendly aliens.
That was done, and Messrs. Vickers, Sons, and Maxim brought down numbers of Belgian workers, who are now at work in their shipyards. In order to get this done, and while awaiting the time when these workmen should be fixed up and lodged in private houses, they took a large house and converted it into a hostel for the temporary accommodation for the working people. Having done that, they actually sent in a bill for £550 to a local charity raised in connection with Belgian refugees and tried to recoup themselves from that fund for their outlay. The mayor of Barrow-in-Furness wrote to them that, in his view the fund for Belgian refugees did not exist in order to increase the dividends of Messrs. Vickers, Sons, and Maxim. The mayor of Barrow-in-Furness issued an appeal to householders asking them, even if they did not require to take in lodgers, to remember the special congestion due to heavy pressure of work and to undertake the inconvenience of taking lodgers into their homes. Two women, a mother and daughter, did respond to this appeal of the mayor, though they had no need to take in lodgers, and the result was that, because they took in a lodger, in the following week the landlord raised the rent by 2s. 6d. a week.
That sort of thing is talked about in workshops. It has all a very real bearing upon the question of unrest, especially while in the other direction we find a statement like the following from a trade union organiser regarding the condition of the women and girls who are employed by Messrs. Armstrong and Whitworth at their Elswick works. The girls there work twelve hours per day with one and a half hours break for meals, Sundays as well. They are working two shifts at present, and girls are working all night. They have been working three shifts, but the girls were half-dead, and they found that they had to stop it. Girls of seventeen get 8s. a week; girls of eighteen, 9s. a week; girls of nineteen, 10s. a week; and girls of twenty, 11s. a week; and in addition 1832 to this there is a bonus which seems largely to be used for the purpose of speeding up the girls. The average wage is low, and the girls have to put in work at a very high rate of speed. The bonus rate is: Sundays, 4½d. an hour; ordinary times, 3d. an hour. Some of the girls say that they have worked twenty hours at a stretch since the War broke out. Many times they have worked ninety-five hours a week since the War broke out. If the girls take a Sunday out there is deducted all the bonus which the girls earn during the week. These facts have got to be, and ought to be, honestly faced. When we get leading articles in the newspapers running down the working people, these facts should be taken fully into account and compared with the other facts which I have given in regard to firms of leather merchants and so on.
The other day I asked the Chancellor of the Exchequer if he proposed doing anything in regard to special profits made out of this War. There are certain interests that are being enriched by the War. Many employers are suffering loss as a result of the War. In Lancashire cotton employers, together with cotton employés, have suffered heavy loss as a result of the War. These special War profits are made not only out of the country as a whole, but out of the other employers as well, and it is entirely fair and equitable that a special tax should be placed upon these War profits to show that the Government does mean to impose some equality of sacrifice all round. There is no doubt at all that a large amount of the restlessness is due to the rise in food prices. When we raised this matter last in the House, the Government told us that our views were unpractical. I am afraid that the opinion of numbers of the working people will always be regarded as unpractical, to a large extent, in this House if they touch rents or dividends in any way. However that may be, if their views are unpractical, it is the practical business of the Government to put better views before the House and propose remedies to us, unless they are going to leave the whole question to the law of supply and demand, as was hinted at in various Debates. It does not seem to me that that is a very satisfactory solution of the difficulty, because if the law of supply and demand in all its rigour and nakedness is going to apply to food, then workpeople can claim that their labour also shall be subject to the law of supply and demand, and can take advantage of the law of supply and demand.
1833 Workpeople to-day are in a better position than ever they were to take advantage of the law of supply and demand for themselves if that is going to apply to the question of the price of food. I hope that neither workpeople nor employers are going to do anything of the kind. I believe that it would not be in the best interests of the country that any section shall take advantage of the country's difficulties merely to get all they can out of it. But that rule ought not to apply only to one section. It ought to apply also to farmers, shopkeepers and Army contractors, and every section who are enriching themselves at the present time. I would suggest that even the advances in wages that are taking place are not a complete solution of the difficulty—first, because the advance in wages does not apply to millions of people, many of them the very people who need it most. It is very often the most skilled and the best organised workpeople who are able to force an advance in wages, while old age pensioners, charwomen and badly organised women workers who are paid miserably low wages, are left to feel the full blast of the rise in prices. In the second place, if the Government are going to exercise no kind of control over food prices, I am afraid that very often, even when some increase in wages is given, it may be almost entirely taken back again by another turn in the wheel and another rise in the cost of living.
I read the other day in a telegram from Sydney, New South Wales, the account of a speech by the Labour Prime Minister, Mr. Holman. In an address to the Trades and Labour Council, he outlined the Government's proposal for the cheapening and the better regulation of food supplies. The Government proposed to create a market authority which would have control of the whole food supply of Sydney in connection with the Imperial military supplies. Mr. Holman said the Government would in some three weeks' time be killing sheep and shipping them direct, no middlemen being employed, and facilities would be provided for the better supply of fresh provisions and for the rapid transport of food and vegetables to the Metropolis. Mr. Hall, the State Minister of Justice, outlined a scheme for the establishment of a State bread trust for the benefit of the people, which would result in the reduction by a penny a loaf on the present price of bread. At any rate, they do not regard these schemes in Australia as being Utopian.
1834 In my opinion, every month's delay will make these problems more difficult to grapple with. While the workpeople do not want a strike, least of all at the present time, they are asking that there shall be certain standards and safeguards in regard to working-class conditions. They are looking to the Government for some form of protection against exorbitant food prices and that the Government shall in some way see to it that advantage of the sacrifices which the working people would willingly make for the nation is not I taken by employers for their own ends and not for the ends of the nation. I do believe that industrial peace can be maintained, and maintained on a just basis. I am not in favour of schemes of compulsory arbitration. I do not believe that peace can be maintained by compulsion. I believe that it is justice and right doing and fair and honest dealing all round, and not any form of compulsion, that would promote peace.
§ Sir FREDERICK CAWLEY
I wish to ask one or two questions on the subject of the new British Dyes Company, which is one of great interest to my Constituents. In the first place, I would like to know what response has been made to the appeal for funds which has been issued by the new company? I desire, also, to know what would be the position of non-subscribers to this company? The prospectus stated that priority would be given to subscribers. There are certain people in my Constituency who are not able to afford to subscribe to this company and who want to know what will be their position when the company have done what they say they intend to do, that is, buy up the different works in the country and get their supplies from the largest manufacturers in Switzerland? How are the people who have not subscribed to this company going to fare when they want to get dyes from this company? I would also like to know if the hon. Gentleman (Mr. Robertson) has heard a rumour, and, if so, is there any truth in it, to the effect that four Swiss firms who are engaged in the manufacture of aniline dyes in Switzerland held a meeting in London last week and decided not to have anything to do with the new company? I trust that the hon. Member will reply to these questions.
§ Lord CHARLES BERESFORD
The question of the rise in prices of food and coal is one of the most important questions connected with the War. Various 1835 reasons have been given for these rises. I think that the great reason is on account of the very large number of merchant ships, trawlers and yachts which have been taken up for the purposes of our Army and to do cruiser work. This is not the time to criticise a lack of cruisers, but I think it is time to show the Government that there is need of inquiry as to whether or not the Admiralty have taken too many ships. Whole fleets of vessels have been taken from certain trades, in addition to which the whole of the German mercantile fleets have been driven off the seas. This has caused a shortage of shipping which it is difficult to replace in a short time. It is these facts which have led to the rise in the price of coal. No doubt a great deal of the argument as to supply and demand is true, but I think the Government should look into the facts in order to see, knowing the shortage of shipping, on what ground certain capitalists and employers are putting up prices, and they should closely investigate as to whether the profits being received are reasonable in time of war. If their profits are too heavy, then it is very unfair to the poorer part of the population to leave prices as they are.
I have very often in this House, beginning years ago, called attention to the fact that contractors should be narrowly watched. As a rule they are honest men, but there are singular exceptions, and, so far as I know, there has never been any contractor who has made great profits, or who has supplied goods that were bad to the Army and Navy for the use of men who are risking their lives and liable to be shot at any moment, who has ever yet been brought to book. The Grand Duke Nicholas had his contractors brought before him, and addressing them said, he had not much to say to them, but, he added, "There is one thing I wish to state: If you thieve I will hang the lot of you." I do not want to go so far as that, but I do think that any contractor who is found out in supplying bad goods to the Army or Navy, and making great profits, should be made to suffer most severely. That has never been done yet. I sympathise with the hon. Member who has brought forward the question about the prices of food. What has happened? The Admiralty have taken up something like 2,600 ships of the mercantile marine—merchant vessels, yachts, and trawlers.
In regard to colliers, you must have them, and apparently they are kept three 1836 or four months with coal on board and without discharging it; they are sent to some particular place to which squadrons of destroyers can go to get coal. Therefore, this takes up more shipping than would appear to be necessary; but I do think the Admiralty have taken up too large a number of vessels, for I know that they are not used for war purposes. If we had a sufficient number of destroyers and cruisers they could patrol, as could our submarines, at a certain distance from each other, and the need of using merchant vessels, which really are not intended for such work, would not occur. But we have not a sufficient number of destroyers and cruisers, and I am not blaming the Admiralty for taking the ships; they could do nothing else in the circumstances, though they may have taken too many. The real question for consideration is the prices of food and coal, and the point we have to look at is the interest of our working population. This rise in prices is going to become worse if we do not watch it, and it is for the Government to look into it. The Government have plenty of means of knowing whether contractors are making too much profit, and they ought to begin to look into the matter in order to see that too much profit is not made, and also to ascertain whether the Admiralty cannot spare some of the ships they have taken. It is this large shortage of shipping which has run up freights and caused the rise in the prices of food, and I hope the Government will give us some assurance that it is watching this very narrowly, because, if it does not, the prices of food will go up a great deal yet. They will have to go up to a certain extent, but what I want the Government to watch is that they do not go up in a way to provide such profits as would, if unjustifiable, certainly be a hardship on the working population of this country.
§ The PARLIAMENTARY SECRETARY to the BOARD OF TRADE (Mr. J. M. Robertson)
I am very glad to be able heartily to give the Noble Lord the assurance for which he asks, that the Government are keeping watch on all matters of which he has just spoken. I need hardly say to the House that the Government has followed with the deepest anxiety the whole question of prices from the opening of the War. In fact, the whole nation has followed it with anxiety, and it would be impossible for the Government not to share in the general 1837 concern which is felt on the subject. I will try to deal with some of the points raised by my hon. Friends and by the Noble Lord in so far as they suggest some line of practical action which might have the desired effect of reducing prices, or of controlling the prices of coal and food. First of all with regard to coal prices, we are in this position: We quite recently appointed a very strong Committee—I can give the names to the House if they wish—who have been sitting for a fortnight. They have gone very fully into the whole question of coal prices, and their Report is actually in preparation at this moment.
§ Sir ARTHUR MARKHAM
The Report has nothing whatever to do with naval coal or commercial coal, but purely domestic coal.
§ Mr. ROBERTSON
The question of contracts with the Admiralty is one that every Government would look into.
§ Mr. ROBERTSON
All those points are important, but the subject with which I am dealing is that raised by my hon. Friend below the Gangway, namely, the prices of domestic coal, which have been very largely increased. The Committee has its Report actually in preparation, and I am really unable to discuss the question of what action should be taken, as the Report is not yet out. Obviously any action that may be taken would be determined by the recommendations submitted by the Committee; I really do not know what the recommendations are, and I am therefore unfortunately barred from any kind of answer on that point. I am only dealing with the general argument of my hon. Friend on the question of the proportion between the rise in wages and the rise in food prices, and also in regard to the rise in rents. I cannot, of course, discuss the particular illustrations given by the hon. Member for Attercliffe (Mr. Anderson), but I would say generally that, in so far as such statements are true, they will undoubtedly have an influence on public opinion, and I would strongly press 1838 them upon the attention of the particular film concerned. With regard to a certain class of firms, I do not profess for a moment to endorse the charge that most of them have received exorbitant profits.
§ Mr. ANDERSON
I made it perfectly clear that I advanced no general charge against employers, but I referred to selected interests.
§ Mr. ROBERTSON
I hope that the hon. Member's statement in regard to those selected interests will go forth to the public, and I am quite sure that, so far as they are considered, they will have a useful effect. I would point out, however, that in the case of some firms it should be remembered that they are doing six times the business they did before the War, and that this accounts largely for their increased profits. If they appear exorbitant, it should be recollected that they represent six times the amount of business previously done. Simply to take the total profits is not therefore, on all occasions, a fair indication as to whether they are exorbitant. As regards the possibility of undue profits being made by certain classes of firms, I can only say that I trust that the action of the Government under the latest Defence of the Realm Act may do something to reassure the workers as to their extra services and toil in the interests of the nation. Hon. Members are quite right in saying that the workers of the country are ready to make any sacrifice and undergo any toil if they can be satisfied that the nation will get the good of it, and, remembering that, I trust that the action of the Government under the last Defence of the Realm Act may have a reassuring influence in regard to them. But when it comes to the prices of food, I am bound to say that my hon. Friend is not at all clear, and the cogency of his suggestions is not at all in proportion to his eloquence. The hon. Member for Blackfriars referred to the question of rents in Scotland. I understand that it is under consideration by my right hon. Friend the Secretary for Scotland.
§ Mr. ROBERTSON
It is not an easy thing to deal with. It is a very simple thing to call upon the Government to take drastic action, and to tell the Government that the workers feel that something ought to be done. Merely to point to the action taken in Australia is of very little help to 1839 the Government, who have to deal with a problem infinitely more difficult and complex than that which was dealt with by the Australian Government. I quite agree that it looks hard to say that the law of supply and demand must operate in regard to food prices, while, on the other hand, it is taken for granted that the workers will not seek to exact their pound of flesh by striking for the highest possible wages they can get. Put in that way, the case looks fairly hard. There is a kind of action possible to the Australian Government, but there is nothing equivalent possible to the Government here in connection with the control of prices in the market. What we did do early in the War was to secure the services of gentlemen in the grocery and provision trade, who gave us their guidance as to what were, in their opinion, reasonable prices. Those lists of reasonable prices were repeatedly published, and we had reason to believe they had a useful controlling effect, and, in fact, we have had cases brought to our notice of refunds actually made to customers by traders who had charged them something over those prices. Those prices were published from time to time up to the middle of October. We had, further, the services of gentlemen of the National Federation of Meat Traders, who gave us similar advice and counsel, and there, again, the publication of the prices suggested by them as reasonable had a useful, controlling effect on the market.
If the Government had reason to suppose that, food prices are now being raised in any abnormal way there could readily be a return to the price lists of which I have spoken, but it is becoming increasingly clear that the rise in food prices, and, above all, the rise in wheat prices—bread prices—is not a matter of what used to be called engrossing by particular people. If it could be suggested for a moment that bakers or wheat dealers were holding up quantities of food for the purpose of holding up prices, then there might be a case for calling on the Government to take special action, but that is not the explanation of the rise in wheat prices. The wheat price is a world price, and it is affected by the conditions of the world's supply. We have given answers in this House showing that the prices here, sadly high as they are, especially for the poorer buyers, are not higher here than they are elsewhere, and that the prices really indicate a world 1840 price, and that as regards bread in particular, the bread price in New York is very much higher than the sadly high price here. If we had from the Argentine reassuring reports as to the harvest, and the promise of an abundant crop, that would have an instant effect on the price such as could not be in any sense hoped for in respect of any action which the Government could take. I suspect if we got highly satisfactory news as to the passage of the Dardanelles, and the prospects of a speedy passage of Russian wheat, then again we should be rewarded by an announcement of a fall in wheat prices. I can only say I do not think my hon. Friends have indicated in any practical way whatever what steps the Government could take that have not been taken.
On the general question of the possible control of the whole supply of food, which was, I think, what the argument pointed to, I would remind them of the substantial and, I may say, colossal failure of the attempts of the German Government to regulate food prices before they were driven to the desperate measure of seizing the whole food supply of the country. I have not the least belief that the colossal operations which seem to be indicated by those suggestions, such as the seizure of all the wheat in the country, and the seizure of all the imports that came in—I do not for a moment believe that you could get any good results whatever in that way, because if you announced that you were going to sell at a lower price then, as has been pointed out repeatedly from this Bench, you would simply cut off the supply of the wheat you want. You cannot get wheat in this country below the world price. If you announced that you were going to seize the supply of wheat below the world price, you limit the quantity; then there would soon be no more to seize. In regard to the very troublesome and very trying question of freights I would remind the House of what was pointed out by my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade during the discussion on this subject some weeks ago. The high freights are a phenomenon calculated to give very serious concern to everybody and to the Government in particular, but how can you remedy them. The Noble Lord (Lord Charles Beresford) and other hon. Members have suggested that the Admiralty might release more ships.
§ Mr. ROBERTSON
All interned ships are being used, except a few sailing ships, which it seems, are not worth using. All that can be done in that way has been done, and if the Admiralty see their way to release further ships so much the better. That seems to indicate broadly all that can be done. I think I informed the House of the facts with regard to the interned alien ships that are being used for the coal coasting trade. The managers of those ships who are under the regulation of the Government have been instructed always to resist the rise in freight. They have done that to the best of their ability, and obviously they could not do more. If you were to offer the whole of that supply of shipping at pre-War freights, what you would be doing would be merely making a bonus of cheap freights to the people who could avail themselves of them, while the greater mass would have to pay the ordinary market freights. That is not a practical course. The practical course is to try and resist the rise and always to keep a little below the level of the market. I am quite sure that the managers have gone as far in that direction as they could go. If hon. Members have anything further in their mind on this subject it would seem to me simply to mean that seizure of the whole mercantile marine which my right hon. Friend discussed so effectively from this place a few weeks ago. The management of the whole mercantile marine would really be a monstrous undertaking. I am not disparaging for a moment the measures that have been taken by the Australian Government at Sydney; but those are really simple and small matters in comparison with the colossal undertaking which my hon. Friends below the Gangway are really suggesting.
I think it was a little unworthy of the hon. Member for Blackfriars (Mr. Barnes) to say that the Government soon wearied in well doing. There is no kind of action the Government have taken that has been discussed in this connection that has been abandoned from any want of zeal or any lack of enterprise. The application of all the Government Departments to their duties has been unwearying and unremitting, and I suppose the phrase about wearying in well doing was used by the hon. Member merely in a Pickwickian sense. It does not in the least describe what has happened. The hon. Member for the Attercliffe Division raised the question of a War Tax. It is not for me to discuss that but for the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and he is not prepared to do so at this 1842 stage of the Session. I would point out to the hon. Member that what he suggested does not appear to be really a War Tax at all. He said that some firms were making exorbitant profits, and profits at the expense of other employers, and I understood him to suggest that the money should be taken from those people, which, would appear to be an act of confiscation. It might be perfectly just if all that is said is true, but it is not a tax. If the Chancellor of the Exchequer was not prepared to discuss even generally the question of a War Tax, still less am I prepared to discuss what does not strike me as being describable as a tax at all. A tax is not laid on a few persons, or in respect of a particular class. [An HON. MEMBER: "What about the Super-tax?"] With regard to that tax, the persons are not selected on the ground that they have made exorbitant profits, but every man above a certain income is liable for that tax, no matter how he got his income.
My hon. Friend the Member for Blackfriars raised several questions with regard to some poorer classes of Governmental employés. He will not suppose me to be making light of them when I explain that, owing to the unfortunate absence of the Secretary to the Treasury, I am unable to give him information as to what has been done. I do know, with regard to several classes of the poorly paid Government employés, a number of schemes have been under consideration. Perhaps he will take my assurance that it is an extremely difficult thing to carry out those schemes of reform with the minuteness and care which they call for at a time when the Treasury, like every other Department, is enormously pre-occupied with special necessities arising out of war emergencies. I think I have dealt, so far as I can, with the questions raised by my hon. Friend, and there remains the questions of the hon. Baronet the Member for Prestwich (Sir F. Cawley). He asked me three questions, and the first was with regard to the response that has been made to the appeal for capital for the Dye Company. I am unfortunately unable to answer.
§ Mr. ROBERTSON
Figures were indicated showing that a very large amount had been promised weeks ago. I have not got the latest figures. With regard to the case of the alleged refusal of the four Swiss firms to have anything to do with the company, again I can only say I have no information whatever. If the hon. Baronet has any information on the subject, and if he is aware that efforts have been made to induce the Swiss firms not to have anything to do with the company, I am sure we will all be grateful for the information.
§ Sir F. CAWLEY
I did not suggest that anyone tried to influence the Swiss firms. My question is whether four Swiss firms had of themselves declined to have anything to do with the company?
§ Mr. ROBERTSON
I have no figures about the matter. The right hon. Gentleman will understand that the subscriptions have been coming in.
§ Mr. ROBERTSON
I understand that you cannot tell at the moment how much has come in. With regard to the more practical point raised by the hon. Baronet, namely, as to the position of non-subscribers, I read out the wording of the phrase in the prospectus with regard to priority of supply. I understand him to ask me now what is the position of the small men who are quite unable to subscribe at all. I am afraid if there are men who are so small in the way of business that they cannot subscribe at all, it would be very difficult to do anything for them. I cannot imagine what would be the position of those men if merely left to the operation of private enterprise. I cannot conceive of any such very small traders as those contriving to get supplies for themselves. I may say we have had applications from men in a small way of dyeing who were troubled on this very point, and who put this case to us: "We are small men as regards the power to subscribe, but we use a large quantity of dyes. Are you going to supply us with dyes only on the purely pro rata principle in exact proportion to what we subscribe?" I understand that those gentlemen, who are prepared to subscribe up to their means, are quite reassured and satisfied that they will be 1844 treated in a liberal and sympathetic spirit by the company, and that pro rata will not mean the exact proportion pound for pound of what is subscribed, but that their financial position will be taken into account. They will be treated as persons who are supporting the scheme so far as they can. Their case being met to their satisfaction, it would appear to me that the case of the small man has really been very fairly dealt with. If the hon. Baronet asks what we are to do for men in such a small way of business that they cannot take any share at all, I am rather at a loss.
§ Mr. ROBERTSON
The subscriptions required and the rates at which the money has to be paid up are settled on a very liberal scale, and I do not think that the few very exceptional cases indicated by my hon. Friend would turn out to be a very great matter. In any event, the case of the small man has been considered in a way that is declared to be satisfactory by the representatives of a considerable number of such traders.
§ Sir A. MARKHAM
We have just listened to one of the most impractical speeches that it has been my lot to hear for many years. The hon. Member talked about practicable schemes, and so far as shipping goes he justified the Government obtaining high prices for freight, practically two or three times those prevailing before the War, by saying that if the Government accepted lower rates, so that people could get cheap food or coal, it would be merely making a present to the people who carried the coal.
§ Mr. ROBERTSON
The hon. Member is using a very loose expression—"lower rates." The Government does give its freights at lower rates. The expression I used was that if they were to go back to pre-War freights they would be making a bonus to certain people.
§ Sir A. MARKHAM
I think that when the hon. Member to-morrow reads what he said he will find that he justified the Government taking a rate two or three times as much as that which prevailed before the I War, because that is the rate at which I these interned steamers are being used at 1845 the present time. On that analogy any coal-owner who chooses to sell his coal below the market rate, as some have agreed to do, is merely making a present to the middleman. That is a very dangerous doctrine, to be preached, even in an academic speech from the Treasury Bench.
§ Mr. ROBERTSON
I said that the Government always gave instructions to give lower rates than the market rates.