HC Deb 04 March 1918 vol 103 cc1789-96

Resolution reported, 4. "That a sum, not exceeding £2,085, be granted to His Majesty, to defray the Charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1918, for the Salaries and Expenses of the Overseas Trade Department.'' Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House doth agree with the Committee in the said Resolution.


I see that there is a footnote to this Vote which says that a Parliamentary Secretary will be appointed by the Board of Trade and the Secretary for Foreign Affairs jointly, and will discharge the functions both of Parliamentary Secretary to the Board and Parliamentary Under-Secretary to the Secretary of State. My hon. Friend will be responsible to two masters who may, perhaps, not see eye to eye on certain given problems, and therefore the duties of his office from the very beginning will be extremely difficult. Speaking from memory, I cannot recall any Parliamentary Secretary having been appointed in this House who was responsible to two totally different Departments. There may be good reasons, and I can conceive some myself, why this should be done, but, on the face of it, it requires some little justification. I am glad to see that the Financial Secretary to the Treasury has come in, and I would ask him whether his attention has been drawn to the fact, and whether, in view of the discussion which we have had just now, which is not an isolated discussion in this House, but which goes to show that many Members think that a particular person ought to receive a higher salary whenever he asks for it, the Treasury are prepared to say, if my hon. Friend points out, later on, that he is doing two men's work, that they will not give him two salaries for doing two men's work, because the spirit of the times is such that whenever anybody does a little more work than perhaps he is actually bound to do, immediately he says that he ought to receive more money? That is, perhaps, a lesser point, but the original point which I made still remains, that it is very difficult for my hon. Friend to carry on his Department, if he is subject to two masters who are almost certain not to see eye to eye, and I think that we should have a little explanation as to this.


I am not so much concerned about the hon. Gentleman who is in charge of this Department not receiving an increase of salary, as that will be well attended to by the hon. Gentleman on his left. I rise for the purpose of asking one or two questions in a general sense. This Department seems to have come into existence not with any degree of publicity, and those who are interested in the matter have a feeling that this is the creation of the Associated Chambers of Commerce and the British Federation of Industries—the creation of this new Department—and there is an idea that these are representative practically of what you may call kings of industries, which have very little concern with the small classes of business, which may not come within the purview of these two great organisations. Several questions have been asked the hon. Gentleman as to the matter of representation on this new body, as to who selected this body, the Committee over which you preside; how they came to be selected, and how the selection is of so narrow a character? Several questions have been asked as to making it more representative than it is by the introduction of representatives of a commercial class, say, of commercial travellers.

The commercial traveller, as I have him in my mind, is a man who knows very largely the art of salesmanship. In the great organisation of commercial travellers there are men who know the markets of the world. They are workmen, they have sold goods, they know the people, they are regarded by great commercial houses as confidential servants, and they occupy the high position of standing between the manufacturer and the purchaser, and it seems, to those who have been interested in this subject for many years, a very great mistake that this class of men, who know the ground, who could give the hon. Gentleman information as to the class of goods to be bought and the adaptation of English ideas to the necessities of foreign markets, should not be represented in any organisation that is set up. The Government themselves, and the heads of great Departments, and the leaders of great organisations, are represented, but those who come in midway seem to be rather the sport of circumstances and are very seldom included in an organisation of the kind. I ask whether the time has not arrived when a class like this should be represented on a body which has been created for the purpose of trade overseas? I have no reason to complain of the hon. Gentleman's replies. They are exactly the kind of replies I would expect from him—suave and soothing—but they are not business. They do not bring any result. What the ordinary commercial travellers of the country are asking is that they should be represented on a concern of this kind. They have interests as well as the great bodies that are always included. For instance, large numbers of these men are entrusted with commissions from the great houses of the country, and they travel these various markets and, representative as they are, they are given no voice in this matter. The hon. Gentleman's reply is, "There is no room. It would make the Committee too large." The hon. Gentleman does not think that it is really an answer that will satisfy anybody, that the addition of a representative is going to make this Committee of such unmanageable proportion. What we are asking is that this large organisation of representative people representing large firms, when we come to a subject to which they pay such great attention should be given representation.

This organisation has been discussed for a long time. There have been resolutions passed by commercial travellers' conferences for the last fifteen or twenty years, calling for the establishment of such an organisation, and now when it comes into existence the commercial travellers are not asked to send any representative. Suppose that a commercial traveller has to take a tour of the British Empire, he finds that under present arrangements that tour would cost, in fines or licences, apart from the ordinary travelling expenses, no less than £110 or £120; and it seems to me, in reference to this matter, that a Committee of this kind should consider whether the carrying of British goods into various parts of the world is to be helped or hindered. I would ask the hon. Gentleman whether it is not possible to give some answer to the satisfaction of this very large and important class which is so concerned with the interest and welfare of the country. It would relieve the mind of those for whom I speak if it were known that this Committee would not merely be under the manipulation of large industries, with their great powers of organisation, that enable them to command large attention in foreign markets. "Without putting it in any way offensively, perhaps I may be permitted to point out that in a case where the Government is spending money upon a special organisation of this character, there is ground for urging that a representation of the class of commercial men to whom I have referred should be included. I would further point out that the time has gone by for allowing organisations of this description to be passed without calling attention to a question of the kind which I now submit. It may be replied that other organisations will also require to be represented, but I would point out that other organisations are already represented, and the interest in behalf of which I speak has strong grounds for being included. I hope that I may not have to press this matter any further, for it would be a matter of great satisfaction to the commercial travellers of this country, who represent very large organisations and industries, if they were represented on this Committee in some form or other.

Sir A. D. STEEL-MAITLAND (Undersecretary of State, Department of Overseas Trade)

As regards the point raised by the right hon. Baronet (Sir F. Banbury) the answer is fairly clear, although no doubt the experiment is without precedent. It is quite true that there are two offices, or rather the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs and the President of the Board of Trade jointly appoint the Parliamentary Under -Secretary, who is to have charge of this new Department. I do not think there is any likelihood of conflict, which perhaps the right hon. Member apprehends, because the two Departments are so separate that their responsibility would not in fact be in conflict, even though it is represented by one person who undertakes the functions of the two sides. Responsibility can be allocated as between the two. so that there is not likely to be conflict between either the Secretary for Foreign Affairs or the President of the Board of Trade. There is one other consideration: No doubt, in most circumstances, if a person serves two masters, he is likely not to be faithful to both, or not to be able to give satisfaction to both, so that there would be doubt as to whether his services would be satisfactory. But in this case the two masters are themselves members of a Government, and under a Cabinet which can reconcile differences between them, should there ever come to be a matter of dispute, which I think is unlikely, but if there should be, there are means of settling the difficulty which ought to prove efficacious. All I can say is that as the result of five months' work in this Department no occasion of difficulty has yet arisen which could not be solved comparatively simply, and I really have not seen any inconvenience in the working of this Department up to the present.


Supposing the Foreign Office wishes to dismiss a Consul because he does his work badly, and the Board of Trade wishes to keep him because he does his work well, what is to happen?


That is precisely the type of case which might have arisen under former circumstances, when there was really nobody to hold the balance, and that is one of the reasons for the formation of this new Department, namely, to establish a body that can judge of the performance of political work and commercial work, and ascertain on which side the balance goes down. In regard to the first point raised by the hon. Member for Houghton-le-Spring (Mr. Wing), he complained that there had not been sufficient publicity given to the formation of this Department. I would point out that publicity was given to its formation, and that a White Paper was issued and placed at the disposal of every Member of this House, while it was also sold to the public outside. If anyone wished to see what was going on there was full opportunity of doing so. As regards the case he put as to commercial travellers, I am not able to concede his request. Doubtless, the hon. Member will say that I am merely answering with my usual suavity, if my reply does not come up to his expectation. But I can candidly say that I cannot grant his request. At the same time, however, my wish is to take full advantage of the knowledge which commercial travellers and other classes engaged in commerce may possess, and may be willing to put at our disposal. The hon. Member ridiculed the idea that only one additional representative on a committee could make any difference; but I would point out to him that every Member of this House who has anything to do with the appointment of Committees has come up against precisely the same difficulty as that which the hon. Member now represents. Hon. Members know very well that no one wants a committee which would merely be a body to register decrees; what is wanted is a small committee which would be of utility, one of manageable size and dimensions; but if you add one more member on the ground that it can make very little or no difference—and of course the hon. Gentleman would wish that one member to represent the Commercial Travellers' Association—there would immediately be a communication from the chartered accountants saying that they had a claim to representation on the Committee, or from the Institute of Civil Engineers, or the Institute of Mechanical Engineers, or the composite civil engineers and mechanical engineers, asking that one more member shall be added, as it would make no more difference.

The same might happen in regard to electrical engineers, or even the Stock Exchange, because many questions arising on the Stock Exchange may conceivably come within the scope of our deliberations. The only thing I can say, therefore, is, that if I were to consent to the addition of one member as now requested, the result would be such as I have described. I would point out to the hon. Member, however, that this Committee is quite a small Advisory Committee. The hon. Member spoke of it as being narrow in its character, and he talked about great bodies and industries being represented upon it. The hon. Gentleman cannot know that it is narrow in character, because no publication of its composition has yet been brought out. The hon. Member when he spoke of great bodies being represented instanced the Chambers of Commerce, but he knows very well that if he were to go to the Chambers of Commerce and say that they merely represented large industries, they would be the first to deny the charge. The hon. Gentleman knows that as well as I do. A little later in his observations the hon. Member said that we should take advantage of the knowledge of commercial travellers representing large firms. The truth is that while we cannot give representation to that class, we should be glad of their genuinely valuable knowledge. A com- mercial traveller came to me the other day, whose particular line of country was in South America, and we had a most interesting conversation, in which he showed that he had a great deal of valuable knowledge that would be useful to us. I considered, however, that this gentleman, though possibly not too old, might be disinclined to start a new line, and I had the further impression that he would be earning far more in his present position than any salary we would be able to offer him, but I can quite imagine that with his information he might prove an uncommonly valuable officer in the Department. I think the hon. Member will agree that the reasons I have given are sufficient to justify my refusal to add to the number of the Committee. What we want is a small Committee, which will act in an advisory capacity; at the same time, we are quite open to receive advice from those who represent different associations and interests, and I hope, therefore, with that assurance, the hon. Member will accept the reply which I have given him.


I merely wish to express my conviction that those of us who have studied this question at all must have seen the absolute necessity of such an organisation as my hon. Friend has set up, and I desire to congratulate him on the work he has achieved and to offer him my best wishes. He cannot see his way to add a representation of the foreign commercial travellers, but, having heard the reasons which he has put forward for his not doing so, I hope that the hon. Member who has brought the question forward will be content with the assurance which the representative of the new Department has given, namely, that the representative of the commercial travellers will always have access to the Committee, that their representations will be attended to, and that the knowledge which they undoubtedly possess as to the difficulties of certain markets with which they are directly confronted from time to time in the course of their duties will be considered so far as possible, and their representations met. With that assurance, which I understand my hon. Friend gives, I think the hon. Member above the Gangway might very well be content.

Question put, and agreed to.