HC Deb 01 July 1918 vol 107 cc1368-71
1. Brigadier-General CROFT

asked the President of the Board of Trade (1) whether he has any official information, showing that stores of raw materials and foodstuffs in this country at one time belonged to Germans or Austrians; and, if so, what steps he proposes to take to requisition and use such commodities for urgent national need, with a view to freeing tonnage; (2) say how much cotton, cotton piece goods, wool, woollen piece goods, jute, hemp, leather, hides, rubber, coffee, and tea are held and stored on neutral account in the United Kingdom; whether he has official information showing that these goods are held on enemy account; and in how many instances has the ownership of these goods been transferred since July, 1914?


asked the President of the Board of Trade if he is taking steps to prevent raw materials being held in this or neutral countries for account of enemy countries after the War?

The PRESIDENT of the BOARD of TRADE (Sir A. Stanley)

It will be convenient to take these three questions together, and I shall be glad to take the opportunity of explaining briefly the situation. The question of the possible danger to national interests of the storage of goods in this country held directly or indirectly on enemy account has been constantly present to the Board of Trade, and any available evidence of such storage has been carefully scrutinised. As regards goods held directly on enemy account, the matter is comparatively simple. Such goods are required by the Trading with the Enemy Amendment Acts, 1914 and 1916, to be reported to the Public Trustee, and Orders may be issued by which goods so reported, or the proceeds of their sale, are vested in the Public Trustee. I am taking steps to have statistics compiled of the quantities of the goods (specified in the second question) which have been reported to the Public Trustee. In the case of food supplies and tobacco vesting orders have already been made, and I will consider, in consultation with the Public Trustee, the extension to other commodities of a similar procedure.

With reference to the storage of materials or goods on neutral account, the matter is much more complicated. The ownership of goods is continually changing; and in the case of many classes of commodities when stored in a public warehouse, transfer of ownership is effected very simply by the transfer of a warehouse certificate or similar document, so that it is a matter of great difficulty to trace the actual ownership of such goods at a given moment, and any information obtained will quickly become obsolete unless returns are required at frequent intervals or an obligation is imposed upon traders to report all dealings in and holdings of goods on foreign account. It has not so far seemed necessary or desirable to impose upon traders so serious a burden, and the Board of Trade have directed their attention mainly to the total quantities and whereabouts of the stocks, rather than to their ownership at any given time. I rely on the powers which I am seeking under the Imports and Exports (Temporary Control) Bill to enable the Board of Trade effectively to control the export of any class of goods, whether held on foreign account or not, to undesirable destinations.

I have, however, been looking carefully into the question of the information at present available as to the total stocks of essential goods and materials. In many cases, including moat of the classes of goods specified in the second question of the hon. and gallant Member for Christchurch, a large measure of control is already exercised, and in these cases stocks are watched with care, and so far as is considered necessary such stocks can be and are requisitioned to meet the national necessities. I have, however, come to the conclusion that as regards a number of articles further steps should be taken to extend and improve the information available as to stocks. I am now considering the precise steps to be taken for the purpose. I doubt, however, whether it will be expedient to give publicity to the particulars when obtained.


Are we to take it that His Majesty's Government recognises that under the conditions of war which prevail it is necessary to take special steps on the conclusion of war to preserve the raw materials of this country first for Britain and her Allies before allowing them to go to neutral or foreign countries?


As I said in my reply, the Imports and Exports (Temporary Control) Bill will deal with that. A full opportunity will be given when that Bill is debated.

General CROFT

Has not the right hon. Gentleman's Department been informed that no less than forty-one firms in Holland have changed their German names to Dutch?


I have no knowledge of that myself.


Why is it unnecessary and undesirable to impose restrictions on the traders of this country to prevent them juggling with stocks in the interests of the enemy?


I think those who have a knowledge of this particular business will understand my reply.


The people of the country do not.