§ Mr. SHERWELL
Before this House gives a Second Reading to the Bill there is one matter of vital importance to one of the largest textile industries in the country to which I have risen to refer, and a matter which, also, incidentally intimately concerns the privileges and prerogatives of this House. Those who have studied the provisions of the various Consolidated Fund Bills, and the Votes of Credit on which they have been founded, during the last two and a half years, will have noticed that the most notable feature about those Votes has been the extension and the expansion of the objects to which the moneys voted by Parliament are proposed to be devoted. We have long ago passed outside and beyond those objects of national expenditure which was ordinarily conceived of as being war expenditure. The national expenditure has extended the range of actual expenditure, in the course of the last eighteen months particularly, into new and, in some respects, dangerous directions. In Vote after Vote the collectivist energies of the Executive have been expanded, and commodity after commodity has been seized and controlled in the alleged interest of some vital necessity or emergency of the War. The Executive—I do not of course refer to the present Government, but the Executive, through its predecessor, began with sugar, they went on to the control of wheat, to the monopolised control of timber, to the monopolised control of steel, to the monopolised control of leather, and now more recently they have extended it to the monopolised central control of the whole supply of raw wool. It is to this last application of the simple monoply principle to which I wish to direct the attention of the House.
In reference to Government monopoly as a whole, it will be within the recollection of the House that the Executive began last year by monopolising the British clip. They commandeered that clip on the conditions of which I will only say that they have left a rankling discontent and sense of grievance in the hearts of every farmer of Great Britain. But still more recently the Government have extended their commandeering principles by seizing the whole of the clip of Australasian wool, including both the New Zealand clip and the clip of the Australian Commonwealth. 832 There has been one curious feature about these various experiments in State collectivism—they have all been done, I believe, without the slightest consultation with this House or with Parliament. In reference to this latest experiment in State collectivism, the whole scheme of the War Office and the Army Council has never been so much as intimated to this House, has never been expounded to this House, nor have we ever had the smallest explanation of the proposals of the Government. I presume the Government has authority; I presume that the Army Council has already satisfied itself that it is acting within the terms of its powers of commandeering this Australasian clip at a figure below the market value; but I would at least suggest to my hon. Friend this query: Has he consulted the Law Officers of the Crown as to whether there is any provision under any of the Defence of the Realm Acts which allows the Government to commandeer the whole of our available product in the shape of raw material at a price below the market price of the commodity at the time when they make a seizure? I only suggest that to my hon. Friend. I am not a legal expert, but I understand on competent authority that there is a doubt as to the competency of the Army Council to take this particular action—so far as the Army Council's action in commandeering the whole Australasian wool clip is concerned.
I have no quarrel or indictment to make. I do not indict the Executive, because they have by direct negotiations with New Zealand and Australia purchased the whole of the available wool clip. The Government, or the Army Council in particular, were faced with a danger, or a supposed risk or danger, of a shortage in the supply of raw wool. I do not, either, indict the Army Council for the terms on which they have to purchase the Australasian clip. Those terms, I understand, are these, that the growers shall be compensated on the basis of 1913–14 prices, plus an increase of 55 per cent., plus an additional sum of five-eighths of a penny to cover delivery f.o.b. The net result of that deal is that wool which in 1913–14 cost us 10d. per lb. will, under the new deal of the Government, cost the Government 1s. 4⅛d. a pound. Then if you allow for the fact that the freight must average at least 3d. or 3½d. per lb., there is room for questioning whether the deal as a whole is as sound as the Government imagines. The point 833 I want to emphasise particularly is this, that, in commandeering the whole avail able supply of this raw material, the Government have instituted, through the Army Contracts Department, a wholly new departure. They have commandeered not merely the supplies of stocks of wool, but they are also attempting now—indeed, they are actually doing it—the complete control of the distribution of the raw material. They are doing this by setting up a new sub-department of the War Office. They have taken premises in Tothill Street, where there is the nucleus of another small army of officials and clerks. They have commandeered, under what powers I do not know, the Victoria Hotel in Bradford; they have also com-deered large warehouse premises in Bradford. This is a wholly new departure.
In the case of wheat, in the case of sugar, in the case of steel, and in the cases of leather and timber, the Government, in commandeering the supply, allowed the distribution of those commodities to take place through the ordinary distributing agencies of the trade. In this case they go out of their way, as it seems to me, to superimpose upon themselves the very difficult and intricate responsibility of controlling the distribution of the raw material, as well as of commandeering the whole supply. They have cast on one side the whole elaborate distributing agencies and machinery of the wool industry in the interests of the new Army Control Department in Tothill Street and in Bradford. I confess that it passes my comprehension why the Army Council should have saddled themselves with this new and wholly unnecessary duty, and this very heavy responsibility. My hon. Friend will readily admit that the ordinary officials of the War Office are not competent, by their experience or knowledge, or by the duties which they have been called upon hitherto to discharge, to control intricate business arrangements of so extraordinarily difficult a business as that of the wool industry. The War Office, I understand, is not advertising for new work; we all know that it is preoccupied with the most gigantic task which has ever occupied the War Department of this country, and yet it has leisure to take upon itself the responsibility of a new experiment which is wholly unnecessary in the very interests of the Government itself.
834 Now what are the grounds, and the only grounds, upon which this drastic executive action of the Army Council has so far been justified? The only justification I have seen offered, so far, is a twofold one. It is said, and said very properly, that it was absolutely necessary for the Army Council to safeguard the supply of so essential a raw material as wool in order to ensure our ability to supply the needs of our own Army and those of our Allies. It is said also that it was necessary to protect the interest of the taxpayers by controlling the prices of this raw material. I do not quarrel for one moment with those grounds of defence. That is not my indictment against the Government. I admit that in the urgent conditions of the day it is absolutely essential that the War Office should be secured of its supply of wool. I also admit the desirableness and legitimacy of the Army Council trying to protect the pockets of the taxpayer by putting some restriction on prices. But I may remind my hon. Friend incidentally that the great inflation in the prices of wool and of wool products which has taken place in the last two or three years is not predominantly or to any material extent due to the aggrandisement of the trade or of the manufacturers. It is due to the perfectly abnormal conditions of demand, transport, and labour. I cannot acquit the War Office—I am not speaking here of my hon. Friend, as this was done before his time—I cannot acquit the War Office of all responsibility for the great inflation in the prices of wool since the War began.
Let me give an illustration of what happened in the early days of the War, when there was a widespread fear of unemployment. I was authorised by the leading manufacturers of Huddersfield and in the Colne Valley—the most important woollen districts in the country—I was authorised by the Chamber of Commerce and by the Manufacturers' Association to go to the War Office with an offer that, in order to keep their mills going and to support their thousands of workers, they would undertake Government contracts for khaki at the mere cost price. They did not, in making that offer, claim that they were committing themselves to any exceptional fervour of patriotism; it was a straightforward offer for the sole purpose of keeping their machinery going and their hands in regular employment during the War. I went to the War Office and saw the then Director of Army Contracts. He is not 835 the gentleman who now holds that very important position. I explained to him the offer I was empowered to make. What was his reply? He told me curtly that if my friends, as he called them, cared to put their offer in writing their names should be indexed, and, in the remote contingency of the Government needing to expand their list of contractors, their applications might be entertained. I asked him whether he really believed that the existing list of Army contractors, the dimensions of which I knew—and firms, I knew, had been working under pressure day and night and on Sundays for weeks past—was sufficient to meet the abnormal demands of the Army? I put it to him, "Do you really mean to suggest to me that your limited list of Army contractors will be adequate to meet the enormous and unprecedented demands of the New Army?" Only the day before this House had passed a Vote for, I think, an additional 500,000 men. The only reply I could get was, "So far, as I believe, our existing lists of contractors will be adequate for all our purposes and needs, but if, in the remote contingency, more should be required, we may entertain the offer of your friends." That was the end of that offer. By the good offices of my right hon. Friend the late President of the Board of Trade, arrangements were made, with the knowledge and sympathy of the present Prime Minister, for a wider distribution of Army clothing contracts. But that is one of the ways in which the Army Council from the beginning has inflated prices against itself.
Let me give another illustration of the sort of thing that has affected the inflation in the prices of wool. There happened to be a time when the Army Council called for additional tenders for khaki cloth. It was in 1915. The tenders were sent in. They were retained for a fortnight and then were accepted, and how? By the launch of telegrams in the early hours of Sunday morning—between Saturday midnight and Sunday morning. The result was that when the manufacturers got the acceptance of the tender and went on the following Monday morning to market for the supply of raw material, they found that wool, cloths, and yarns, had risen in price because the news of the acceptance of the tenders had leaked out, as it was bound to do, owing to the absurd action of the War Office in sending out the telegrams in the middle of the night. It is 836 only fair to the manufacturers engaged in the industry to say that, whatever may have been the ease in the first year of the War, during the last year at least they have been fulfiling loyally all the demands of the War Office on a reduced and very slender margin of profit.
My point is this: Both objects of the Army Council, perfectly commendable objects, the securing an adequate supply of raw material and protecting the taxpayers' pocket, could have been met simply and completely by utilising the existing distributing agencies of the trade, which would have been quite glad and willing to work on Government contracts. What are the absolutely inevitable effects of this, as I conceive, mad project of an overtaxed Department which you unnecessarily created—a new Department headed by amateurs—for the regulation of the distribution of wool? In order to create this new sub-department of the Army Council, and it is merely a sub-department of the War Office, you start by putting completely out of commission hundreds of firms, large and important firms, who, through the Colonial Wool Merchants' Association, through the Colonial Buyers' Association, and through the Brokers' Association, have during the last 100 years built up the magnificent supremacy of the Port of London as the centre of the world's wool market. They have stimulated and developed the extension of great docks. Their action has led to the erection of vast warehouses. They have secured to the whole of the manufacturers engaged in the textile industry of the country an absolutely sure and certain supply of raw material. And what is their reward? They are to be put out of commission because the Government were anxious to borrow their staffs, but were unwilling to use them as a responsible agency at however small a margin of commission in the interests of efficiency and in the interests of economy itself. All this great work has not been done lightly by the Wool Merchants' Association and by the Brokers' Association. I am old enough to remember it has been done in the face of long and very skilful competition. I remember a time, years ago, when, the new Antwerp docks were created, when very definite bids were made to divert supplies of wool from London to Antwerp. I know attempts were made to divert the trade from London to Hamburg and Bremen, and I remember still more-recently the skilful and active attempts of 837 our friends across the Atlantic to secure the transference of the world's market in wool from London to the harbour of the City of Boston.
I ask the hon. Gentleman not to underestimate the serious injury and damage to a great and important trade which must result from this arbitrary end, as I believe, unnecessary action, of the Army Council. You are certain to ruin not merely hundreds of small firms, but you will put out of commission large firms also. I know a large firm that prior to the outbreak of War—at the time of the outbreak—had ninety-four employés, fifty four of whom were of military age, and of the fifty-four, forty-four are now serving at the front. The heads of that firm undertook when these men went to keep their places, open for them and to look after their families and dependants at home. What is their reward? You close down their business by refusing to use their services on any terms, and you make it impossible for them to keep their promise to their employés, who are serving at the front. That is a consequence that ought not lightly to be undertaken by a great and busy Army Department.
That is not the only thing. Can the hon. Gentleman assure this House that this novel experiment of the Government in undertaking the distribution of this raw commodity will succeed? Does he think it can succeed by attempting to replace men who have spent their lives in training for this complicated trade—does he think that you can replace all these agencies by a stroke of the pen, creating an ad hoc new sub-department in Tothill Street or in Bradford. The thing is inconceivable. The hon. Gentleman has, in connection with this new scheme, one or two admirable men intimately acquainted with the trade. But the heads of the Department, the real controllers, are men who, however admirable their qualifications and abilities, are absolute total strangers to the details of this trade. I shall be told that the Government have set up an expert Advisory Committee. I have no quarrel concerning that Committee, but I will ask the hon. Gentleman this: Does that Advisory Committee meet? How often has it met since it was appointed? I understand that that important Advisory Committee consisting of some of the leading men in the woollen trade of the country has not been formally called together since it was first nominated. There was one scratch meeting held 838 many weeks ago, convened by telephone, but it could only be attended by those members who happened to be in town at the moment. The only use the Army Council has put that Advisory Committee to is this: It is using it as a sort of panel from which to appoint certain sub-committees. But these sub-committees have no power or authority so far as I can see; they are casually called together by telephone, but they are not taken into the secrets of the real controllers who direct all these important matters. Let me give an illustration of that. One important sub-committee, members of which are well-known trade experts, considered the other day the question as to whether the residue of the raw wool—that is to say, the surplus remaining over after all the Government needs were met, should be treated as free wool and sold on the London Wool Exchange in the ordinary way. That sub-committee decided to treat it as free wool, and the following morning another sub-committee in Bradford wholly unconnected with this sub-committee in London, also considered the question, and the Bradford sub-committee decided that the surplus wool should not be treated as free wool, and that is the sort of chaos that obtains.
There is only one other point I wish to make, and that is this. Not content with monopolising the sources of supply, and with monopolising the control of the distribution of wool, the Government are now extending their action to absolute control of the export of finished woollen and worsted goods. They have appointed a Committee, the chairman of which, I believe, is an hon. Member of this House, which Committee or its chairman can go any day to any manufacturer in the land and say: "How many pieces are you making?" and the manufacturer gives the number. This chairman, by whose authority no one knows, can say to that manufacturer, who has spent his life in the trade: "Reserve those pieces for export, and when you have completed the job, see that they go to the United States of America or to South America," or to any other country that the chairman of this Committee appointed by no one knows whom, may decide on the spur of the moment. I do not know whether the Army Council or the Army Contracts Department has attempted on any occasion to consult the great manufacturers in the cloth trade as to the practicability of that. It purports to be decided on the ground 839 that it may benefit exchange by directing the ultimate destination of finished goods, but however commendable the scheme itself may be, I am satisfied if they put that scheme in its present crude form before any competent manufacturer or Chamber of Commerce engaged in the trade, they would be told at once that the whole scheme was bad and absolutely impracticable.
I have practically finished, but I want to conclude with a word of warning to the Government. I hold that this Government is running great and quite unnecessary risks in several important directions. It is entering, apparently light-heartedly, upon constant novel experiments which are setting trade after trade against the National Executive of this land. It is not that the manufacturers and the traders are unpatriotic. The Army Council knows perfectly well, and has had full proof, of their great and unlimited patriotism. It is not that the discontent represents the lack of patriotism on the part of these great traders, but it is that the great traders and manufacturers of the country are getting tired of being bullied and harried and threatened and coerced in all sorts of directions by amateur bureaucrats. This Government, like its predecessor, came into power to find everywhere a fine and splendid national spirit. I put it to the heads of the Government that they do not abuse that spirit, and by abusing it destroy it.
§ Mr. THEODORE TAYLOR
I am very reluctant indeed to get up and speak on a subject about which I know at least as much as anybody in the House, and perhaps it is for that reason, and having been urged by so many leading members of the trade to put the case for the trade in this House, that I speak to-day, though very reluctant under present circumstances to criticise any Government Department in any direction whatever. But I feel that in making known the conditions which at present prevail in the woollen and worsted trades I am only doing my duty. Although there are hundreds of different kinds of wool in this country—there are at least 300 different classes of British wool and many hundreds of different classes of foreign and colonial wool—yet for Government purposes and for purposes of convenience we may group them under three heads. First there is merino, or botany wool as we call it in the trade, which is produced mostly 840 in Australia, also in South Africa, in South America, in smaller quantities in New Zealand, and not much anywhere else. This wool does not concern the Government for the most part, because the goods that the Government chiefly order are made of the other two classes of wool. The second and most important class for Government purposes is what is known as cross-bred wool, that is, halfway between fine and coarse. It is from this cross-bred wool, grown in different countries—mainly in New Zealand and South America, and to some extent in this country—it is from this intermediate quality that the overcoats, tunics, trousers, and puttees of the soldiers are chiefly made, and it is this quality of wool, therefore, which concerns the Government most. Of the coarser types of wool, coming largely from India, Persia, and Asia generally, the blankets and rugs so largely used in the Army are made, so that the Government really is not much concerned with the finest types of wool, but it is, as an indirect buyer of wool for cloths and rugs and blankets, largely concerned with the price of the coarser types of wool.
Of course, in addition to the Government use of wool, even in war-time, there is a very large use of these three classes of wool, and particularly the finer, for civilian purposes. In ordinary times the whole Government consumption of wool does not play a very large part in fixing the price of wool in the market. It was only after the War began, when the demand for Government cloth was very great, that the Government demand for cloths made of cross-bred and coarse wool began to affect the price, as it undoubtedly did, and continues to do very largely. The Army Contracts Department—I ought to say, after prices had risen from 50 per cent, to 80 per cent.— reviewing the situation, came to the conclusion that under the system of free competition for wool, prices would rise further, and not only so. I am speaking with a good deal of sympathy for the Army Contracts Department, and knowing perhaps more than most Members know of their difficulties, and with a full knowledge of the figures which is not possessed by many hon. Members of this House, when I say that they were almost forced to consider measures for preventing a further advance in price, and not only during the War, but after the War. They were almost compelled to consider 841 it as part of the duty of the British Government—I do not say of the Army Contracts Department in particular, because I think this is not one of their functions—but to consider the question of safeguarding the supplies of wool for after the War. I am not going to argue, therefore, that their view was wrong, that wool would not have risen further if they had not interfered, but I cannot help saying this, that some of the greatest authorities in the wool trade have told me personally that if the Government had not interfered at all, they believe that the present price of wool would be no higher than at the time when they did interfere. I give that for what it is worth. It is the opinion of very competent judges; but, of course, it is entirely problematical, and as it is only based on considerations that very few of us can measure, I would, for my argument, agree with the Government that they were bound to take into consideration, as they did last spring, the possible supplies of wool.
At all events last May, I think it was, the Army Contracts Department purchased the whole of the 1916 British wool at values to be fixed by Government valuers at prices 35 per cent, above the immediate pre-War price. This, of course, involved setting up a new Government Department with a large and expensive staff to do the work of buying, collecting, and selling British wool, which beforetime had found employment for a great number of small merchants up and down the country—the wholesale merchants, of course, centring in Yorkshire—in the neighbourhood of Bradford—who were carrying on this business, as I believe, thriftily and at not a great expense to the country. I am myself only a wool buyer, not a merchant at all, and it is to my interest as a manufacturer that the purchase and distribution of wool should be done as economically as possible. I think we are all of one mind that it is to the general interest that wool should be distributed as cheaply as possible, and I say, speaking as a manufacturer, that it is my deliberate conviction, for what my opinion may be worth, that under the other system of distribution by private merchants the wool was distributed more efficiently, certainly much more expeditiously and more economically, than is possible under any Government scheme however well 842 managed. The course of things since May last has certainly justified this belief.
When all allowance is made for the inevitable difficulties of starting a new Department, it must be admitted, in fact it is recognised throughout the trade, that there have been innumerable difficulties placed in the way of business men, dealers, and consumers of wool. To begin with, there is the taking away of the living of a large number of small business men throughout the country, and the substitution for them of Civil servants. It is true that the Department has engaged several most efficient members of the wool distributing industry. I take it that their opinion cannot be given openly if it is averse to the carrying on of their own work, and I am not here going to say what it is, though I happen to know something about it.
At all events there is one thing we are entitled to ask the Government to answer from that bench opposite. Let me say that in this matter, as in every other matter, the hon. Gentleman (Mr. Forster) has behaved with the utmost courtesy to everybody concerned. I for one can honestly say I do not want a better man with whom to deal. But we are entitled to ask and to receive, at all events, a formal answer to a question which was put to him a few weeks ago by a large wool trade deputation that saw him.
The House of Commons and the country are entitled to be told officially whether this scheme is intended to be permanent or not. Is there any intention whatever of continuing it after the War? If so, for bow long? The only safe line for the Government so overburdened with work, for any Government during such a great War as this, must be to meddle as little as possible with private business, and when it is necessary to interfere only to do so with full knowledge and approbation of some authoritative and duly constituted technical advisers. Having been in the woollen trade as a manufacturer now for about half a century, and having intimate knowledge of it, I venture to say that there is no trade in the world that is more highly technical and the different items of which differ from each other so much as the wool trade. I know something about cotton. It can be more easily classified than wool. People talk about wool. They give it a name. They say it is of such weight and of such quality. Why, the 843 different flocks in the same district differ from each other in value; it depends upon the breed and upon the condition.
As my hon. Friend beside me reminds me, there is a vast difference in the different parts of the same fleece. Perhaps I ought to have told the House that, but I rather assumed that the House would know. Anybody who knows anything whatever about wool knows that there is no more highly technical business than the business of dealing in the purchase and sale of the different qualities of wool. We have, however, fortunately for us, in this country a body of highly-trained technical experts who are competent to deal with this matter, and who have dealt with it, as I have said, on the whole, very well. Let me make myself clear. There is an Advisory Committee—there are really two Advisory Committees. There is the British Wool Advisory Committee appointed last spring, about the time the Government bought the British clip. There is also the Australasian Wool Advisory Committee, set up when the Government bought the Australian and New Zealand wool, about last November. My hon. Friend has asked how often this Committee—I suppose he means the latter—has met. T would like to ask the hon. Gentleman opposite how often both of these Committees have met? Have they even appointed their own sub-committees? Have those sub-committees reported to the parent committees—if I may call them so? These are pertinent and are not impertinent questions. I want to know what is really the value of these so-called Advisory Committees. If they have not chosen their own sub-committees, and if these sub-committees have not reported to the parent committee in each case, why is it? If it be the case with each of these Advisory Committees—I do not say it is, and the hon. Gentleman will tell us—but if it be the case that this latter committee, the Australian Committee, upon which are some of the most competent judges and the greatest authorities in the trade, I only ask whether their meeting is a reality or whether indeed their existence is a reality at all? If the opinion which prevails largely in the woollen and worsted trades, that these committees are shadowy bodies without real power, is founded on fact, it is time, in the interests of the Government 844 itself and in the interests of the good administration of this great wool industry, that these questions should be answered, that doubts should be cleared up!
Let us remember what the Government have done. Take British wool. I am not acre to speak for the fanner, but I believe that if one-tenth of what I hear is true there is reason for the grave dissatisfaction evinced on the part of the farmers in different parts of the country that they are being unequally treated. I will not, however, go into that because I am not competent to do so. I will confine myself to what I understand best. Let us face the case and ask, What really is being done? The Government as regards the British wool has created a huge monoply, or, as the Americans phrase it, they have made "a corner in wool." A large part of British wool is unsuitable for Government use at all. Very disastrous and wasteful attempts have been made and are being made to force worsted spinners to use wool for purposes for which it is not at all adapted. For example, there are what we call twenty-fours, a common count—I am trying to make it clear to the non-technical mind. The smaller the number we use about a count means a thicker yarn—that is to say, twenty-fours is twice the thickness of forty-eights, and so on. The coarser counts have coarser qualities of wool. For finer counts you must have finer qualities of wool. I am stating what I know to be the fact when I say that, owing to mismanagement—good intentioned no doubt—but owing to the inevitable result of non-technical control, recently and at present, spinners in Bradford are being asked to spin wool which is not fit to be spun more than twofold sixteens—to twofold twenty-fours, which is the great count for our own khaki and for the Russian khaki. There is great waste of material going on. The workpeople are being asked to do this. One knows it is difficult to get the workpeople to do some of these difficult things, and it is putting them about a good deal, the workpeople as well as their employers. In other words, unpractical things are being attempted. I heard only on Monday of another case that to a practical man would look very bad. We know the Government have commandeered the wool and have large assortments of Australian wool. I heard the other day of a buyer who is spinning twofold sixties, taking the wool at the Government price, of course, by arrangement with the Government, which ought to have been sold 845 fora much finer purpose, and spun up to what we call twofold nineties. There is only a limited quantity of this finer wool, and it is against the public interest for this fine wool to be taken for coarser purposes. It is one of the results of the present state of things.
What about the prices at which this Government monopoly wool is being sold? In what I say I will draw a very sharp distinction between the wool that is going to be used for the Government only and the rest of the wool which it is very proper to use for civilian purposes. I will say this: that it is lightly within the competence of the Government to sell wool to the manufacturer expressly for making into Government cloth at any price they like, either high or low, if they give a corresponding price for the article. That is to say, if the Government sell wool at a lower than market price they have a perfect right to ask that they should have an equivalent amount of cloth below the market price. If they choose to ask a high price, of course they must pay a price in proportion. In what I am about to say I will refer chiefly, not to the wool which is used by the Government for Government purposes, which we are all of us agreed to be the first consideration—we all say that without any doubt whatever—the whole trade agrees that Government purposes must come first. In the trade all are willing for that. But there is a lot of wool that is used for other purposes. There is such a thing as the export trade. I will have a word to say about that in a moment, and there is the civilian trade at home. People cannot go naked, and they cannot wear nothing but cotton in weather like that which we have been having. There should be wool for the home trade as well as for export.
There are many kinds of wool which the Government do not require. What price then will the wool be for civilian purposes? Who fixes these prices? That is an important question. Here you have the raw material of the home trade, and, under the Defence of the Realm Act, you have the Government with the power controlling the supply that is to say, controlling whether those who use it can go on at all with their business. It is very important that the user of wool should have a fair show, that there should be no favouritism between one buyer and another or between one trade and another. Who fixes the prices? I want to ask this question, it is a very, very plain, ques- 846 tion: Is it or is it not the case that on the same day the Government wool department have sold wool at one price to one man and at a less price to another man, in neither case for Government use? I want to press that question home, and I desire a clear answer to it.
Let the House remember that this may be an illustration of the enormous power possessed by the Government under the Defence of the Realm Act. I have used some of the Government wool myself for both Government and civilian purposes. I know of what I am speaking. I am sorry to have to use my own business as an illustration, but the House knows me well, and knows that I do not come here to curry favour or further my own interests. I am not talking here for myself or on behalf of the trade only, but on behalf of the country which should come first. The price of the wool that we have to use is varied. But I have been told by some of the largest users in the trade that on the same day similar users for similar purposes in the civilian trade have bought, one man at one price and another at another. I maintain that in a Government article like this, which is a monopoly, the users of Government wool have a right to expect that the prices should be alike. What is the only security for this? Absolute publicity! Would it be believed—I am speaking of British wool in connection with which I am most experienced—that since the Government have had control of the wool, that auctioneers in Bradford—I will give names if necessary—who have been accustomed to sell wool for dealers by auction have been told by the Government that they are not to publish the prices for which they sell the Government wool. I think that is an absurdity. What is the real object and the reason for it? Why this policy of concealment? Is it dreamt for a moment that the producers of this wool, the farmers, will not get to know at all; that they will not have anybody going to the auction sales to get the prices for them? I maintain that instead of allaying any feeling of soreness that there may be on the part of the farmers that the Government is making a great profit out of the matter the opposite result will be produced, and they will feel sorer than need be. I maintain that the user of British wool has a right to a published statement as to what is the price of wool at that particular time. I know of some of the very big concerns in the 847 country—railway companies and the like— where the directors know nothing about the accounts until the day comes for the declaration of the dividend. The accounts are then all brought before them, and the moment the dividend is declared it is telegraphed all over the country and to the Stock Exchange. Why? To prevent the men with inside knowledge taking unfair advantage of the situation. I do not believe in the policy of the concealment of prices at all. I am sure the House will agree, especially in relation to this arrangement of a monopoly in buying and selling, there should be no favouritism. The position in the trade is becoming almost intolerable. What is the Government controlling? The Government is controlling railways, steamships, labour, mines, and it has been said already—I do not know to what extent it is contemplated, but I am aware that some control is contemplated by the Department—of customers. What liberty has a manufacturer left? Remember I am speaking about an article not necessary for Government War purposes, but of civilian trade. What liberty has a man left in his trade? His labour, his raw material, his customers, are under Government control. Some people who do not believe in liberty—I presume there are none in this House—may think that that is a good thing, but I do not. There are two great motives which prevent the dissatisfaction, the almost rebellion in the trade breaking out, and shall I tell the House what those motives are? In the first place, there is the patriotic desire not to hamper the Government in any way—a very widespread and, I believe, universal feeling; and, in the second place, let me say in this free and open forum of the House of Commons that there are a great many people, wealthy as well as poor, who are holding their tongues about this because they are afraid. They dare not defy the Government. I do not think they have any reason to apprehend any unfair treatment by members of the staff. There have been mistakes, but I do not want to talk about them. But how does it work out? Without any intention whatever to be unfair, it cannot work out fairly if prices are not the same to everybody.
This situation would be bad enough if that bureaucracy were advised by a committee of experts having the confidence of the whole woollen trade. That is bad 848 enough, and I will tell you why it is bad enough. I put this to myself: Those who are in authority were good enough to ask me to serve on the British Wool Committee. I declined because I am a user of this British wool. H I had been on that Committee I should have had prior knowledge over my competitors of wool prices. Supposing the price of wool had been discussed by the Committee, and there had been five one way and five another, and I was intending to buy British wool, and I doubted in my own mind whether the price should be advanced or not, how could I prevent myself having some interest to vote against an advance until I had bought my wool? They say you ought to have technical men not in the trade. That is a difficult thing to get. I am disposed to agree with the Government in appointing the best Committee they can, but I do ask the Government to get to know the real opinion of this Committee, and be guided by it. If they are, we shall not have the mistakes we have had. The scheme is conceived by officials of the Army Contracts Department—able, patriotic men who know as little about the wool trade as the wool trade knows about them, but, with the best intentions in the world, the most outrageous injustice has been done to individuals.
There is one thing the trade feels very keenly, and that is the insinuation that it is not patriotic to say anything against a scheme conceived in a Government Department. It is not fair play for a Government Department to set up a particular scheme and then say, "If you are patriotic you will fall in with it." We in the trade, who are outside the Advisory Committees, have confidence in the leading men in our trade, and I beg the hon. Member opposite to make these Committees real, to consult them and to be guided by them. If he takes that course, I believe those difficulties will disappear. As regards the purchase of British wool, my own view is it was not necessary, because the wool was here already. We had only to continue the policy of embargo to prevent it going out of the country. But for the sake of argument, if it was necessary, then I emphasise this point—that practical men should be in control. As this concerns the very existence and carrying on of the oldest textile trade in the country, I think the matter ought to be ventilated here.
I have said little about the Australian and New Zealand wools. Although the 849 New Zealand wools are largely used for Government purposes, the Australian wools are very little used for Government purposes. If they had bought the new Zealand wool, all right, but I believe it was totally unnecessary to buy the Australian clip. When they bought the New Zealand and Australian wool they gave an increase of 55 per cent, over pre-War prices. I understand that the profits are to be shared with the Australian and New Zealand Governments. The Government reason for purchasing the Australian clip could not have been that it was for Government use. It must have been another reason. My hon. Friend will recognise that I am trying to put his case fairly as well as that of the wool trade. I am going to say here that there is a case for safeguarding the supplies both during the War and for a short period after the War, at all events against any being taken away by large neutrals who desire to use British Empire wool. In the matter of Merino wool, the British Empire does produce more than it can consume. If an arrangement could have been made with Australia—I do not say it could—it would certainly have been better for the Government not to buy it at all. But assuming that there was a case for purchase, at all events, now that we have purchased, I think it will be the very greatest mistake not to allow the Merino wool to take its usual course and to be sold at the sales. There is an open market, and it is a true market price, and I defy any committee in the world to fix a price equal to what is produced by what is called the "higgling" of the market. If it had gone to a higher price the Government would have got the profit, and divided it with Australia and New Zealand. I think that as regards such Australian wool as is used even for Government purposes, the Government would have been well advised to let the ordinary trade methods take their course. They would have been recouped in the price they got for the wool, and if they had had to give more for Army purposes they would have got it back.
But there seems to have been a preference on the part of the Government to get everything into their own hands. I say let the wool be sold as usual. Well, it is being sold to some extent, but there was wool withdrawn from the sale yesterday, and I am told the valuation put upon some of the finer wool was so high that it was evidently intended not to sell at all, because the price put on wool suitable for 850 spinning for 60's, I am told by practical spinners, was so high that if they made them into tops they could not realise cost price on the very high price the Government had fixed. So the Government did not mean to sell it. Safeguarding supplies is all very well, but let us do it as far as we can by the old policy of putting on embargoes. That can be done, and should be done, and I will support the Government in doing it, but I do object to an unnecessary extension of the powers and action of the Government. I am not one of those who think that Governments-do things more cheaply, more exactly, more expeditiously than other people— quite the other way about. Let the Government secure the wool first for their own purposes, and even if it is left to the market prices they will get the money back; but beyond the necessary extent to which the Government should go in protecting us I say they do wrong when, undertaking a vast and unnecessary expense, and I believe a waste of money and of material and a large staff. There is great injustice to many smaller firms, to whose business connection an irreparable injury is being done, and we do not know what is inflicted on them. Then, again, the fact that members of the Advisory Committee know what is going on gives others a very unfair advantage, if they choose to exercise it, of seeing what their competitors are doing. Tops are a very large trade in Bradford. Smaller men, who perhaps have worked up a connection in some special article, have to give a return, not only of persons to whom they have sold their tops, but the names of the customers. Very many of them have asked me to speak as to what a very great injustice that is.
I want to warn the Government of the absolute impossibility of knowing from a manufacturer or spinner the ultimate purpose of the wool he buys from the Government and of saying whether for export or home trade. When a man has a Government order he can just use it for that order, but the greater number of manufacturers, both worsted and woollen in the West Hiding and in Scotland, do not know when they buy the wool from the Government to what market it ultimately will go. Take the case of the man who buys wool to make tops. He sells those tops to a spinner who spins them into yarn and sells his yarn to a manufacturer. I am a manufacturer. I know a manufacturer is utterly unable to tell 851 where his customer is going to send his goods. When a man is asked whether the wool is for home trade or export he may say it is partly for one and partly for the other. I want to warn the hon. Gentleman that if he endeavours to control the export trade by saying to a man, "We will give you wool at such a price and on such conditions for export, and on such conditions for home trade," speaking broadly for the wool trade, I say it is only encouraging dishonesty and lying. I say it is impossible for the average woollen manufacturer to say in the ordinary course of trade where his articles are going. I have heard in the country—perhaps I can hardly believe it possible, but one believes almost anything now—that the Government will deliberately sell it at two prices, and at a much higher price for home than for export trade. If it could be divided into watertight compartments it would be all right, but any practical man will tell you it is utterly impossible. My strong advice to the Government is to get the real opinions of their Advisory Committee of practical men and follow their advice. That is my first word, my second word, and my last word.
§ Sir W. PRIESTLEY
I do not want to go over the ground already covered, but I want to look at this from one or two different points of view. I do not know another case in this country where a trade has been taken over by the Government where the men in that trade have not been considered and been given an opportunity of continuing their work and also earning a little. But in this trade, especially in the home-grown wool trade, it has been taken over by the Government, and a great many honourable men in this country have been left high and dry, and they do not know where to make their living. That is a very cruel thing to do at a time like this. You must also remember that after the War is over they have not got a chance of getting that business back again. I do not think this matter has been properly considered by the Government. This trade of ours seems to have been taken over without the slightest consideration as to what is to become of those who are engaged in it. Bradford is the centre of this great trade, and we have done it for a hundred years. We have exported these goods to all parts of the world. We have mills, machinery, and warehouses large enough and capable of doing a great trade, but to those acting 852 for the Government all our ideas are puny and small, and they practically say that we do not understand our trade. The first thing that the Special Committee appointed by the Government does is to commandeer our supplies. I want to know what authority you have to commandeer our trade. Look at the question of rates, the people displaced, and the number of people who come from all parts of the world to purchase our goods. Our biggest hotel is being used—what for? To supply the ambition of some particular Committee which has been set up by the Government. That is not practical business. We are as patriotic there as anybody can be, but when we see things managed like this we lose heart and we say to ourselves, "If this is the way one thing is to be done, have we confidence in the way other things are being done," and we go home many a time almost heartbroken, wondering what will happen next on account of our experience of certain things which have been done.
There are two points I want to put. This country of ours has been built up through the export of its goods to all parts of the world. It has not been a small trade, and we are not a small country in that respect, and through having to export to all parts of the world we have had to make our arrangements with respect to the purchase of our raw material, and we have had to put material into our looms and machines in tremendous quantities in order to work economically. What is the Government saying to us to-day? "Stop your home trade; build up your export trade." I say that you cannot separate the two because you cannot work your business economically without the home trade. I have to buy material in such great quantities as to run my machinery economically and export my goods to all parts of Europe as well as the home trade. They tell me I must separate my trade, but it is childish to talk like that because you cannot do it. They say, "You are going to buy so much material; how much is going into the home market and how much into the foreign market?" I say, "I cannot possibly tell you, and no man can tell you." Then another thing. You have first of all to make for the War Office and then for foreign countries, and then you can make for the home market. Do these gentlemen realise that there is a great quantity of machinery in my own town that cannot turn out goods for the 853 War Office because the machinery is not suitable. Are they aware that there are a great many people in our trade who cannot turn their hands suddenly to this work owing to the kind of machinery which is necessary for the goods for the War Office? They do not seem to realise this. Are they also aware that some of our machinery is simply adapted for foreign and some for the home trade. When I put these things before them they say, "Stop all your trade except your export trade and trade for the War Office." I ask, "What is going to be the position of the community in my city in six months' time? Are you going to turn them out of work, because I tell you your policy is leading to that."
You cannot turn out machinery exactly as you want it. We have built up a world's trade. What are we faced with? We are faced with a lot of unemployment. We practical men are trying to look ahead, as has been rightly said, with respect to wool, and you commandeer the lot, but you cannot use the lot, and you can only use certain grades and qualities. You have not left the other free to us to employ our workpeople and our machinery, and you do not seem to consider that. I want to say to the War Office that no great industry can do business from hand to mouth. He is a poor sort of business man who does not look ahead. My city, from the wool point of view, has to look six months ahead, and if we do not do that we cannot keep our machinery going You are preventing us from looking six months ahead. There is not a single spinner in my town to-day who dare quote you a price for future delivery, because he does not know what the conditions are going to be. I cannot buy yarn six months ahead, and therefore I cannot continue my business, and I am an example of the whole lot. Workpeople come to me and say, "Why do you allow the War Office to do this sort of thing?" I am warning the War Office to be very careful to have long views, especially when dealing with raw material, and they ought to know that with the greatest manipulation of raw material—and our markets are more extended than any nation in the world—you must have no small views. Your policy must be to get all you are justified in having for Army purposes, and we will back you up, but when you have done that conduct your policy in the way this country has been built up with perfect freedom, leaving all the remains of raw material to go to the 854 home trade. I honestly think, as a practical business man, that we are drifting and drifting into foolish expense, and not trusting those that now make great big organisations and works, not appreciating what has been done in the past, making such hard bound rules that when you go into the War Department and ask for a thing to be done they receive you in the most gentlemanly way, and say, "My dear fellow, leave this entirely alone; we will carry it through for you."
§ Mr. ELLIS DAVIES
I want to call the attention of the House to the position of farmers engaged in the wool trade. With regard to the basis fixed, I have not heard any farmer object to the price, but there has been considerable dissatisfaction with regard to the way it has been valued. I communicated with the Financial Secretary to the War Office on this question, and I was treated with the utmost courtesy. We called attention to this question in July last, but the arrangements which were then made have proved entirely unsatisfactory. I understand now that farmer's wool is taken and is not valued in their presence, it is not valued in bulk and not paid for on delivery, with the result that it is practically impossible to compare the price and secure the price the farmer is entitled to on a basis of 35 per cent, addition to the price of 1914. The farmer's complaint is that he has no protection. I called attention some months ago to the fact that the farmer's wool is not valued in the presence of anybody authorised by him, and consequently he has no assurance that the sums which he receives are those due to him. On a complaint being made by a farmer, he was told that the wool was greasy and unwashed. I wish to draw attention to the fact that the same explanation is given in every county throughout the Principality. In every case the same explanation has been offered.
I do not understand why the farmers of the Principality should be so foolish as not to wash the sheep. I submit that if an inquiry were held, the hon. Gentleman would find that the undervaluation was not due to the condition of the wool. I will give two eases. I take two farmers on adjoining farms, with sheep grazing on the same land. The wool was washed on the same day, sheared on the same day, but one of these farmers received 9¼d. per lb. and the other 855 1s. per lb., and those two farmers were in exactly the same position. In the case of two brothers, with the same class of sheep and under the same conditions, with wool prepared for the market at the same time by the same men, one of these brothers was paid 10¼d. and the other 5d. Obviously 10¼d. was too high, or else 5d. was too low. On the basis of 1914 the price of classed wool should be 10½d., and consequently the minimum price should be 1s. 1¼d., whilst in the cases I have just given, 9¼d. was paid in one case and 1s. in the other, and 10¼d. and 5d. in the other cases. The farmer complains that he has not been paid the price promised by the Government. I have here the figures of the case of a large farmer, who in 1914 was paid 1s. 1d. and this year he was paid only 10¼d. He is a man with several hundred sheep, and he has suffered a very large loss indeed. I will call attention to another case where three farmers had their sheep sheared on the same day. The fleeces were put together, but ultimately they were distributed in different places and sold to different buyers. The result was that one farmer got 11½d., another 1s. 1¼d., and the third man 1s. 0½d.
I do not think that I need tell the hon. Member that there is very grave dissatisfaction amongst the farmers. They were led to believe that they were going to get 10¾d., plus 35 per cent., and I know of no instance where any farmer raised any objection to the standard then fixed by the Government. They do, however, complain that their produce is not valued in their presence or by any person over whom they have any control. In the case of the smaller farmers, the amount in dispute does not justify an appeal to these Committees which have been appointed by the right hon. Gentleman. I appeal to the Government, in making preparations for the coming season, to provide for the farmers' wool being taken at a reasonable time of the year. It is perfectly well known, for instance, that in large portions of the country the sheep are sheared at the end of June and in early July, and the money is always used for the payment of the rent. The result last year was that the wool was not taken in July, and not even in October. In some cases, I believe, it has not been taken yet. The permanent charges of the farmer—rent, rates, and incidental expenses—have, however, to be met, and I would ask the right 856 hon. Gentleman whether he cannot arrange that those who take the wool over from the farmers this year should take it at the usual time. The farmers in the past have been accustomed to deal with certain dealers. Why cannot those dealers be employed in the future? They know the men and they know the quality of the wool. They know all about the farmer and his position. I suggest also that the wool should be valued on delivery. That was always one of the conditions upon which it was sold. The farmer took it to a central place, and it was weighed and valued and paid for on delivery. I see no reason, when the Government has taken it over, why it should not be valued in future in the same way, and I hope the right hon. Gentleman, when he comes to deal with this matter, will be in a position to give some assurance to the farmers which will not only allay their anxiety, but also remove their suspicion that at the present time they are not receiving fair play from the representatives of the Government.
§ The FINANCIAL SECRETARY to the WAR OFFICE (Mr. Forster)
Before I come to the general criticism which has been directed against the policy of the Government perhaps I may be allowed to say a word or two in answer to the points which have been made by my hon. Friend who has just sat down. The points he has mentioned are perhaps incidental to an organisation which, as I have said on previous occasions, have to be brought into being quickly, manned, as my hon. Friend (Mr. Sherwell), who opened the Debate this afternoon, said, to a large extent by men who had had no previous experience of the business. Under those circumstances, it is not surprising if mistakes had been made or that there should have been individual cases of hardship. I think, however, that I may bring some comfort to the mind of my hon. Friend when I tell him that we have recently been engaged in reviewing the situation with a view to preparing for the taking over of the coming clip of the present year. The questions which he has brought to my notice have been under consideration at a meeting of the Advisory Committee today, and I hope, as the outcome of their deliberations, that we shall be able to grease the wheel, so to speak, and to avoid preventable hardship in individual cases.
§ Mr. FORSTER
In cases where there is any dispute as to the price which has been received, I think far the best way would be to submit the matter to the County Advisory Committee, on which there are representatives of the farmers, and to let the matter be thrashed out there. After all, it is a question of fact, and I really think the people who are in the locality are the best judges. That is the system which has been followed in cases where there has been any dispute, and I think I am right in saying that in every case the decision of the Committee, what-ever the decision may have been, has been unanimous. It was a decision given by all the representatives of the various interests who were concerned. That shows, when it comes to a question of fact, that a reliable, and I am quite sure a just, judgment is arrived at. My hon. Friend who began the Debate this afternoon, spoke, as he always does, with great moderation, but he had some very pointed things to say about the organisation of the Department and its activities in connection with the commandeering of various produce. I think, however, he used a wrong term when he spoke about our having commandeered the Colonial clip. We did not commandeer it; we bought it from the Colonial Governments, who acted as our agents in the matter. I do not like commandeering things. It is entirely foreign to my political convictions, and to everything in which I have been brought up to believe. But I am afraid necessity knows no law, and I want to make it quite clear that I am resolute to stick at nothing which I am convinced is essential for the purpose of winning the War. I am quite sure my hon. Friend will agree if it is essential. Was it necessary to commandeer the wool, and, if so, was the method of distribution that we adopted also necessary? I hope I may be able to convince the House that both those courses were necessary. My hon. Friend the Member for Bradford (Sir W. Priestley) asked the War Department to take a long view. It is just because we have had to take a long view that we have found these drastic, and to all of us disagreeable, steps necessary.
I doubt if anyone outside the actual wool business has any conception of the quantity of wool that we require for military purposes. I doubt very much whether he has the slightest idea that wool is one of the prime necessities for troops in every part of the world 858 fighting for the Allied cause. We are the great wool-producing Empire in the world, and unless we bring to the assistance of our Allies a large portion of the wool that we are able to produce their soldiers will have to go short, and the Allied cause will suffer in consequence. We therefore require for military purposes practically the whole of the cross-bred wool that the British Empire can produce. I think that so far we are agreed. The question has been asked whether it was necessary that we should acquire the merino wool from Australia. As my hon. Friend has pointed out, merino wool is not used largely, although it is to a considerable extent used, in the manufacture of clothing for military requirements, and, indeed, it may have to be used a great deal more. Was it necessary to acquire it? Yes, I think it was necessary, for this reason: There has been, in addition to the enormous demand for military requirements, a very heavy shrinkage in the total of the world's production, and in order to safeguard our supplies we had to make sure of being able to lay our hands upon the wool, and to bring that wool into use as soon as we could. Supposing we had done nothing, and the Australian clip was still in Australia? We went very carefully into the question with the representatives of the Dominion Governments and with the Admiralty to see how that wool was to come over and what freight was to be charged upon it. We went into it closely in all its bearings, and we came to the conclusion that the surest way of getting the wool from Australia into this country was to buy it and make it Government property and bring it over at the cheapest rates the Admiralty could provide. It was a very heavy responsibility that we had to take in doing it, but it was considered not only by the War Office, but also by the Government, and it was decided that it should be done.
I hope that the supply of wool is going to be continuous. I hope that the wool will come forward from Australia and from the Dominions to this country in a continuous and steady stream, but I am afraid that the stream will be thinner than usual. We cannot count upon that abundance of supply to which the country has been accustomed in all times. Having acquired the wool and having made such arrangements as we were able to make as to its transport, what was the best way of distributing it and getting it into the hands of the manufacturers when it arrived? I 859 have had a very interesting discussion with a very representative deputation who came to lay their views before me with regard to this matter, and the view they urged very strongly, and the view which both my hon. Friends have urged very strongly, was that we should leave the matter to the ordinary business channels rather than create a special organisation to carry it out. Of course, the usual way of distributing the Colonial clip is by means of the London auction sales. I was obliged to point out to the deputation that the circumstances under which the ordinary London wool auction sales are held are different from those of to-day. In the ordinary event the ships come to London and the wool is unloaded into warehouses at the docks. If I remember rightly, it is placed on view in the warehouses, but whether the auction sales actually take place in the warehouses or not I am not sure. That, however, is immaterial. The important point is that the wool in normal times comes to London and is unloaded in London. The auction sales take place in London, and the transaction goes through in that way. We have got to face this fact that a large proportion of the wool cannot be landed in London at all. Owing to submarine difficulties, and matters of that kind, the people who have to manage this wool business, although a Government Department, cannot say where the ship will come to port. That is a matter in which the Admiralty must have leave to give directions. The Admiralty say, "A certain ship on its way will go to Liverpool. We will see it gets to Liverpool as far as we can, but circumstances prevent it going to London." Already I think since the beginning of the year four ships with wool have been reported at Liverpool instead of coming to London. Is it a businesslike proceeding, I asked the deputation who urged this upon me, to unload the wool at Liverpool, bring it up to London, hold an auction in London, and then send the wool back to Yorkshire to be combed? What I suggested to the deputation was that I did not want to interfere with these auctions any more than I could help.
§ Mr. FORSTER
That is a point I was going to make. I invited the deputation to see if arrangements could not be made for having these auctions in Liverpool 860 without bringing the wool to London. What has happened in the case of those four wool ships at Liverpool? The railways will not bring it to London in order to carry it back to Yorkshire. The railways insist upon carrying it from the port of debarkation to the place where it is going to be used. I think that in these days of great difficulty in railway traffic the whole of the hon. Gentlemen concerned will agree that that is a reasonable and necessary step to take. I was anxious not to interfere unduly or any further than I could help with the ordinary play of supply and demand of these auctions, but there is one reservation I must make, and that is wool required for military purposes we must send straight into the hands of the manufacturers. As far as we can we are all agreed about this. I speak for the whole Department. We wish that the wool which is required for the civilian trade shall be sold in the usual way by auction. I should like to give the assurance that my hon. Friend asked for while he was speaking, and that is that this is a war measure simply and solely. We have no ulterior motive in setting up this organisation—no ulterior motive whatever. I quite understand the anxiety of those who build up great businesses by their ability, industry, and so forth, to have an assurance of that kind, and that assurance I freely give. I have been anxious up to now to point out that our first consideration in carrying out the bringing into being of this organisation, and acquiring both the British and Colonial clip, was to secure the wool, and for military purposes as the first consideration. The question of limiting the price, immensely important as it is, considering the gigantic quantities of wool involved, came second. My hon. Friend says it is the opinion of those who are well qualified to judge that the price would not have risen even if we had not taken the action that we took in commandeering the wool. I suppose we all can form our own opinion as to that, but at any rate we had reason to think that there were signs that the price of wool would rise to such an extent as to impose a very serious burden on the taxpayer.
We ought to have this power for another purpose. We want to get wool into use at once. We do not want people to hold up stocks; we want to get wool into the hands of the manufacturers as quickly as possible, and also to get the wool into use in the direction where we 861 most need it. We are all agreed about the military use; at least, I think the House is unanimous that we must have the right of saying that cross-bred wool must be used for military purposes. Then the question is ought we, can we say that the second best use to which wool can be put is in the manufacture of commodities for export? The question of manufacture for export is one of enormous importance. It is of great importance to assist our Allies in meeting the problem of exchange; and many other suggestions will spring to mind without development on my part. What I am anxious to arrive at is this: We must have a certain amount of manufacture for our own purposes, but it we can arrange it, and if we cannot arrange it it cannot be done and it will not be done, but if we can arrange it, it is desirable from the broad point of view that we should develop the export business as largely as possible. My hon. Friends who have spoken say that it is really impossible, and that the business of the manufacturer does not allow that to be done. We are not going to force manufacturers by bureaucratic action. I want the House to realise that in this matter, although the heads of the Contract Department may not be wool men, practically the whole of the staff who are really running the business consist of wool men.
§ Mr. SHERWELL
Not the chairman of the Committee, who has to work the question of the control of exports.
§ Mr. FORSTER
If he is not a wool man he is a very well-known business man. I am not sure that it is not desirable to have someone other than a wool man who has to weigh problems in which there may be different interests in the same industry.
§ Mr. FORSTER
Let me make the point I was endeavouring to make. A question of that kind is not going to be settled by people who have no business experience. Naturally it could not be settled without close consultation with the Board of Trade, but if it can be arranged, and shown to be practicable, then I say that in my judgment it is right that we should do everything in our power to stimulate export business even at the sacrifice of some part of our home trade. I think I cannot carry that further. It obviously can be arranged in some cases, and where 862 it can be arranged I say it ought to be arranged. Where it would be foolish to do it I hope it will not be done.
§ Mr. TAYLOR
Is it proposed at all to arrange it by differential prices for the same article at the same time?
§ Mr. FORSTER
It might be done in that way, and I think the hon. Member said if it could be done it would be quite well worthy of consideration.
§ Mr. TAYLOR
It would be impossible fairly to do it that way. It is only a premium on lying and deception.
§ Mr. FORSTER
I will consider it. It could, of course, be done by refusing the wool, which I should be very reluctant to do. Still, if it can be shown to be practicable, I think we ought to do it somehow or another. I think I have dealt with the broad aspects of the question. I desire to say a word with reference to what fell from my hon. Friend in regard to the staff who have charge of the business. He says that this is a new department, and that the officials, of course, have no experience, and cannot be expected to manage intricate business problems of this kind, and that this new department which was created is largely manned by amateurs. I only want to say that we have secured the assistance and co-operation of a large number of men who hold leading positions in the woollen and worsted industry, and I am greatly indebted to them for the way in which they have placed their services at my disposal. I am only sorry that the hon. Member opposite was unable to join the Advisory Committee which we formed last year. He spoke to me about it at the time, and gave me reasons for thinking it better not to do so. I am sorry he could not join that Committee, as I am sure his advice would have been of great value. We have got the assistance of those gentlemen. I think both hon. Members wished to know whether the Committees which have been set up really did anything, or whether they were window-dressing.
§ 6.0 p.m.
§ Mr. FORSTER
With regard to the British trade, there is an Advisory Committee. There are then the district committees, sub-committees, which have the 863 executive functions. The Advisory Committee for Great Britain has met on a good many occasions, and as I said in reply to my hon. Friend, it has been sitting to-day for about five hours settling various problems. With regard to the advisory panel, not a committee, with regard to the taking over of the Colonial clip, there are a number of names with which I think my hon. Friend is familiar. That is not a committee, and is not called together, and will not be called together unless some situation of special difficulty should arise. That is a panel from which are drawn the four Committees who advise on the special features of the business. Those Committees consist in every case of not more than four individuals, because in these cases you want quick action. If you want quick action you must have small Committees, and it is not the slightest use having large Committees. I want the House to realise that nothing but necessity would have driven us to take the drastic steps we have been taking; but in taking them we are making the fullest use of the best business brains that we can obtain. I recognise that whatever we do we are bound to cause a certain amount of hardship in individual cases. We are anxious to avoid doing permanent injury to the trade as far as we can. I should like, in conclusion, to express my thanks to the hundreds of business men who have been good enough to come forward to assist us, and to express my acknowledgment of the forbearance and loyalty with which the trade in general has consented to what I know they dislike.
§ Mr. TAYLOR
May I ask the hon. Gentleman a question which he has not answered? May we have a published price list? May we have an assurance that the price of the wool sold to different people in the same trade will be the same price, and not a different price?
§ Mr. FORSTER
Yes. When I say "Yes" I cannot think why there should be any difficulty about it. I understand that my hon. Friend was mistaken in thinking that the wool is sold to different people at different prices.
§ Mr. FORSTER
No. If my hon. Friend will give me the particular transaction 864 he has in mind, I will look into it. If it is typical, I will see if we cannot do something in the matter.
§ Sir F. BANBURY
Everybody in the House will agree that if it is necessary to commandeer wool for military purposes it must be done. Whether or not it is necessary to commandeer it in order to start an export trade is quite another matter altogether. I do not pretend to have gone into the question very closely, but I do not think it is advisable, however necessary it may be to preserve the exchanges, for the Government to commandeer wool and, under that cover, to start themselves in a business, which I understand is exactly what is being done at this moment. Assuming that it is necessary that wool should be taken for military purposes, the question that next arises is what the price should be. I admit that in regard to the last clip there was a great deal of confusion and the farmers were put to a great deal of unnecessary trouble. I do not think that could have been avoided, because the Government were just starting it. I do not think that will occur again—at any rate I trust not. There is a considerable feeling among farmers and many other people, who think that if the Government take their wool they should be given a fair price. What is being done at the present time? The Government have taken the wool under the market price and have resold it at the market price, thus making a profit out of the farmers. It may be said that that is in the interest of the nation. It is in the interests of a certain portion of the nation, but the effect of it—this is what I want to emphasise to the House—is to put an additional tax upon one class. The farmer is being taxed in an exceptional way in order to benefit the remaining classes. That ought not to be done. I hope that the Government will consider that point and endeavour to meet it, because I am quite certain that if they did so the farmers would not feel the grievance which they feel, and justly feel, very much at the present moment.
There is a feeling certainly in my own mind, which, I believe, is shared by a large number of people in the country, namely, of distrust at the great and ever-increasing creation of new officials and 865 new Departments. I do not blame the officials—it is natural that when once they are created they should desire to increase their powers and to have more subordinates under them, and, with this power of commandeering, which I admit must be given in a time of crisis like this, they are apt to use it in an arbitrary manner. That is a very serious danger to which the House of Commons ought to devote serious consideration. If one looks into the hostory of countries which suffer from officialism one is always met by the fact that when, as usually happens, the finances of the country begin to go out and it is desired to cut down the officials, the opposition is so great that it is impossible to do it. Therefore I am very sorry for this enormous growth, which has not stopped since we have had a new Government, but which, if anything, has increased. I should like to ask one question in regard to this matter. The Food Controller has told us that we are not to feed wheat to chickens or grain to pheasants, and that certain allowances are to be made. Was it necessary to have a ducal mansion, with most of the houses on the other side of Grosvenor Street, and a large staff in order to do that? He might have done it with one secretary or even without a secretary. If it is asked where was he to get the information upon which to base the allowance he has announced, I would point out that he could have obtained it from the Board of Trade. That information was already in the possession of a Government Department. He might have secured it by sending round to the Board of Trade all the information which up to the present time, so far as the ordinary public is concerned, he has acquired without having this enormous ducal mansion or most of the houses on the other side of the street, which, by the way, when I walked down Grosvenor Street the other day had no blinds and were lit with any quantity of electric lights. That, I believe, is contravening the Regulations in regard to the Zeppelin danger. I happen to have read the remarks of an hon. Gentleman presiding over one of the tribunals who said that what was wanted was not the commandeering of hotels or ducal mansions, but a little more common sense. With that remark I thoroughly agree. I rose chiefly to ask my hon. Friend, because it is really a burning question with the farmers, whether he could not contrive that they should receive a price which more nearly 866 approaches the market price, and that they should not be singled out by the method now adopted for special taxation. I hope the House of Commons and the Government will consider very carefully the advisability of diminishing instead of increasing the numerous Departments which have been brought into existence lately.