- (1) The expenses of any local committees required to be established by local authorities under this Act shall be defrayed by the local
1719 authorities out of such find or rate, and in such manner, as may be directed by the Board of Trade; and any expenses of the Board of Trade under this Act to an amount not exceeding seventy-five thousand pounds, shall, subject to the approval of the Treasury, be paid out of moneys provided by Parliament.
- (2)Such expenses may in either case include such payment to the chairmen and members of committees and tribunals, in respect of their travelling expenses and loss of time, as appears to the Board reasonable and is approved by the Treasury.
- (3)Any fines imposed at the instance of a local committee under this Act shall be applied in aid of the fund or rate out of which the expenses of the committee are required to be paid under this Act, and any other fines imposed under this Act shall be paid into the Exchequer.
§ Sir A. GEDDES
I beg to move, in Subsection (1), to leave out the words "required to be."
This Amendment is merely to clear up some debris. In the course of the Amendment of the Bill this morning we made certain Amendments with regard to the appointment of tribunals, and the words "required to be" are now redundant.
§ Mr. SPEAKER
The Amendment of the hon. Member would not be in order because it relieves the local authorities from defraying expenses, which would mean that the expenses must fall upon the national Exchequer. We cannot make that alteration on the Report stage.
§ Amendment agreed to.
§ Further Amendment made: In Sub-section (3), after the word "committee"["local committee"], insert the words "established by a local authority."—[Sir A. Geddes.]
§ Mr. SPEAKER
The Amendment standing in the name of the hon. Member for Reigate (Brigadier-General Cockerill) to substitute "exorbitant prices" for "profiteering" is not in order.
§ Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be bow read the third time."
§ Mr. HOLMES
I think that the Rouse will generally agree that private Members have done something to improve this Bill during its passage through the House. As the President of the Board of Trade said a few minutes ago, the House has cleared away some of the debris and has put in some good 1720 matter. It was a bad Bill to begin with; it is a bad Bill still, and nothing that the House could do, either in Committee or the Report stage, could make it a good Bill. This is all the result of legislation in a hurry. The Government felt that something must be done. They had delayed and delayed, and they were within a fortnight of the Recess, when Members would be going to their constituencies, and they would meet there people, particularly women, full of resentment against the Government which has obviously been developing all over the country. Something had to be done so that Members of the Coalition party should have something to say when they met their constituents, and so this Bill to check profiteering was introduced. Its terms, when it was introduced, simply constituted a bluff on the public. The only thing that it is really likely to do is to make people afraid—wholesalers, merchants, manufacturers and retailers — that under the provisions of the Bill they may be prosecuted and imprisoned, and in that wav, a sort of negative way, it probably will do some good, but it is hardly to the dignity of the Government or the House that an Act of Parliament should be drawn in such a wav that its real effect is not of a positive kind, but is only of a negative kind, in that it prevents people from doing certain things.
The Select Committee was set up over a fortnight ago by the House. After its first meeting it was torpedoed, or apparently torpedoed, by the President of the Board of Trade. He came before the Committee and told them he was going to bring in this Bill, and he explained the Bill to the Committee. It proved to be different on many points when we saw the Bill. The right hon. Gentleman had changed his mind meanwhile. That was evidence that it was legislation in a panic. He told the Committee it was quite an honest effort and that the Committee would be of no further use. The Committee were appointed, not toy the Government, but by the House, and the Committee have unanimously decided to-day -I am sure the Chairman will not mind my saying this —to disregard this Bill altogether, and simply to act upon their terms of reference from the House, and to go on with that inquiry as if nothing had happened in the meantime.
§ Sir R. ADKINS
I desire to say a word or two on a point which arose in Committee and which you, Sir, ruled out of 1721 order on the Report stage, when it was raised by the hon. Member for Wolver-hampton (Mr. Thorne). That is the question as to where the expenses of the Ministry under this Act are to come from in the case of a local committee. I wish to point out that, while it is undoubtedly right in my judgment that local committees should be brought into existence, or at any rate it may well be the case that they ought to be brought into existence, it is very undesirable to have what you have in this Bill—local committees which can be appointed by the Board of Trade, in which ease, I presume, their expenses will be defrayed from the taxes, or local committees ordered to be appointed by local authorities, in which case their expenses will be defrayed from the rates or from such local funds as the Board of Trade may decide. That appears to me to be a bad method of legislating. If you are to have local committees for the discharge of national work of this kind, I think the argument is very strong that their expenses should be national expenses and not local, but to have an alternative where the Ministry can appoint a local committee direct, or can order a local authority to appoint, and when in the one alternative the expenses come from one source, and in the other come from another, is to bring into the consideration and the carrying out of this Bill matters which ought not to be brought in, and is to put both the Minister and the locality in this curious position, that the Minister will be tempted to say, "Let the local authorities do this, and if it is not done directly by me or those whom I appoint, any deficiencies in execution will not refer to my department, but will go on to the shoulders of others." If he does that, the local authorities are forced to make a charge on the rates. On the other hand, if he appoints a committee himself, that committee must not have costs falling on the rates at all. I respectfully suggest that if the right hon. Gentleman wants the Act to work smoothly, as he does, he should not order or direct any local authority to appoint committees, or else there will be, undoubtedly, a sense of injustice. Let him appoint the committees himself, after consultation with local authorities if he thinks well. I do not think that enough trouble is always taken in our discussion's to get clear principles laid down and applied between the sources of local expenditure and expenditure for national purposes.
1722 I wish the Bill well. I think it has elements of good in it. Its imperfections are obvious, but I am confident it will do some good. I hope it will do a great deal of good. Much will depend on the way it is carried out, and the responsibility for that will be, and ought to be, with the Government. I am glad to hear from my hon. Friend who spoke last that the Committee upstairs are going on with their useful work. I do not believe for a moment that the right hon. Gentleman's interposition was any intentional attack on their self esteem or on the work they are doing. The question of profiteering is far wider than those aspects raised in this Bill, and we cannot afford to praetermit for a week any inquiries which may help to deal with so widespread and great an evil. I hope my right hon. Friend will get his Bill, and that having got it he will make the very best use of it.
§ Lieut.-Colonel ARCHER-SHEE
I for one opposed this Bill from the beginning. I think I agree very largely with the remark which fell from the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Holmes) when he described the Bill as a bluff upon the public—that is to say, I consider that this Bill is one which does not really, and will not really, cure the evil which everybody knows to exist, tout that on the contrary it will induce a tremendous amount of friction and bad temper throughout the country, and will utterly fail to produce the result it is intended to produce. Generally speaking I think it is a thoroughly bad Bill. The main fault of it is that it is impossible actually to define what is profiteering. Upon that the working of the whole Bill will hinge. How is one going to prosecute people in very humble circumstances for selling articles at a large increase on the price at which they bought them, when they are people without capital and without resources, who live from hand to mouth and from day to day, while at the same time we find it quite reasonable that a company which has made large profits on very small beginnings should still continue to make those profits? I cannot see how that position can logically be disentangled. Take the case of a man who sells black pills for black people. They cost one farthing a dozen boxes to make, and he sells them for 1s. l½d. a box. That is not supposed to be a criminal offence, yet you are going to prosecute the man 1723 who sells a cabbage for 3d. or 4d. more than he paid for it. Take the case of a woman at the seaside who charges a lodger as much for a bathroom for a month as the whole rent of her house for one year. Is that profiteering? There is no end to the ramifications and the maze of difficulties to which this Bill is going to lead.
I am one of those who do not believe that to make a profit is a crime. I believe that as long as profit is not usury, it is no sort of a crime, and the difficulty of discovering when it is usury will make this Bill quite useless. We are suffering now from exactly the same things that happened after the Napoleonic wars—high prices. I have looked up in Mulhall the facts as to what happened 100 years ago. Taking the basic figure as 100, he shows that agricultural products rose after the conclusion of peace to 170, manufactures to 135, and the general level of prices was 52 per cent. more after Waterloo than it had been twenty years before. Twenty years later those figures had dropped again in the case of agriculture to the basic figure of one hundred, manufactures to sixty-nine, and the general fall in the level of prices to eighty-eight, or 12 per cent. loss than twenty years before the war. History is only repeating itself. We are going through the same cycle of high prices. As soon as our trade is reestablished and this inflation of paper money is corrected, as 3oon as our ships are built to carry our material and trade is booming, all this agitation about profiteering and high prices will subside, because the people will be getting high wages and everybody will be trying to make a profit for himself.
I think that this Bill is only one which has been brought in to make the people believe that the Government are really going to correct the evil of high prices. They are attempting an impossibility, and when the people find that they have been fooled the Government will find that the wrath of the people will descend upon them. We all know the quotation about fooling the people all the time, and so on. As regards the English people we might add that it is a very dangerous thing to fool them at any time. I consider this Bill is a deceptive Bill and that it will very soon be shown to be deceptive. As regards municipal trading, under this Bill it is 1724 made legal, and yet in his opening speech the right hon. Gentleman said that the State must not be allowed to go in for State trading. That is purely communism in my opinion, and as I was sent here by my constituents to oppose Communism and Bolshevism I have the strongest reason for voting against this Bill-High prices can, I believe, be cured by the simple method which me right hon. Gentleman and the Government have rejected, by once more stiffening up the food control and the control of other necessaries until we get back to a more normal position. That has been the policy which has been adopted in the past. Diocletian, about A.D. 300, issued a fixed price list for the whole of the Roman Empire. Again, I will give one or two quotations from Mulhall. Diocletian fixed the price of boots at 8s. 4d. per pair, baef 4d. per lb., mutton 4d. per lb., twenty eggs 1s. 3d., butter 9d. per lb. If we went along those lines a bit more I am certain that we should immensely improve the position, and if such action were taken by the Government it would do away with the necessity of bringing in this Bill, which will produce deception, mistrust, and espionage amongst people. Everybody will accuse everybody else of profiteering, and it gives to the Bolshevik and the anarchist the finest cue that could possibly be imagined. The idea that what is going to be criminal in this country is to be a virtue when dealing with foreigners is also repugnant to me. It seems to me that if it is a criminal offence which you are going to punish by imprisonment and fine in this country to sell at high prices, then it is equally a criminal offence to sell at. high prices, perhaps to our Allied friends across the water. I have never been able to understand the words which are used in the Old Testament, "Unto a stranger thou mayest lend upon usury," but "unto thy brother thou may not lend upon usury." We are interfering with the course of trade far too much in this country. We are trying to follow the example of the United States, in New York State, where they have got a thousand of the most wonderful laws, framed in much better verbiage than ours. But there are such a lot of laws there that the vast majority of them are not paid any attention to by the people, of that State. The penalties in this Bill of fine or imprisonment or both may have been taken from a New York law. You cannot get into 1725 a tramcar in New York without being informed that you are liable to a fine of 500 dollars or two years' imprisonment for the vulgar habit of expectoration. People there evidently think if they are going to be fined they will have their money's worth. We are following the example of the United States in having laws on every conceivable subject, but I think we are adopting a very bad policy in bringing forward a Bill like this on Report after it was rushed through in the most terrible circumstances and without any proper examination. The Bill, I believe, is purely and solely for the purpose of deceiving the public into thinking that we can reduce prices in this way.
§ Mr. WIGNALL
The historical lecture to which the hon. and gallant Member has treated us as to what happened a hundred years ago back to the days of the Roman Empire may be all true and correct, because human greed existed then as it does to-day, but a good many things have happened in the hundred years, and yet one thing remains the same, and that is the human greed for making exorbitant profits. The hon. and gallant Gentleman said he did not object to making profits. I do not object to the hon. and gallant Gentleman making profits as long as he is not taking profits out of the poverty and sufferings of the people of the country, and provided it does not mean destitution and hunger.
§ Mr. WIGNALL
You said you had no objection to the making of profits. My protest is against the way in which the profit is made. We have heard many criticisms of this Bill, but everybody seemed to agree that the evil of profiteering existed, and it is to remedy that evil that the Bill is brought forward, undoubtedly in a mighty hurry. I think that this Bill will go a long way to deal with it. We will not be able to judge this Bill by the number of convictions which will result from it. You might as well say that you could only value the police force by the number of convictions that they obtain. You might as well examine the annual records of the chief constables and sum them up by saying that there were only so many convictions and fines. I judge the value of the police force by the amount of crime they prevent, and that is their value to the country. The hon. and 1726 gallant Gentleman said that this Bill was going to create dissension and Bolshevism. That is about the last thing I have heard as one of the evils of this Bill. I know it will create unrest in the country and that there will be a lot of distrust and bad feeling among the people who are prevented carrying on the career that this Bill is intended to stop. Let me give an illustration. This afternoon I have had facts brought to my notice which I regard as a crime and a scandal and a disgrace to this country. In an organisation with which I am concerned we have a large number of fishermen who own their own boats on shares or entirely, and who go out into the sea, collect the fish and bring the cargo to the quay side, where the middle man comes in and has to sell the fish by auction. If there is a glut of fish in the market the middlemen say, "We will not have your fish. Take it away. Do what you like with it." And thus the men cannot sell it in the market. One of these men told me to-day that only a week ago they caught three cargoes of mackerel, one containing 22,000 fish, another 19,000 fish, and another 18,000 fish. Those cargoes were rejected and dumped into the sea and not allowed to be sold as food for the people. Is not that a crime? Do you not think that the fellow responsible for that deserves to be fined £200 or imprisoned for six months, or both? I say that the man, whoever he may be, who by virtue of his position and power, can stand between the people and the food that they need because he cannot make sufficient profit to satisfy him and thereby causes the destruction of the food, is a criminal of the worst kind and the greatest enemy of our country. That is the fellow we are up against.
§ Mr. WIGNALL
At Newlyn, Cornwall. I am going there next week and will get you some more information. I would advise the Government to go to the coasts of Cornwall and Devon, or any other coasts, and call a conference of the fishermen and explain the facts as they understand them and not as the middlemen understand them, and not as the profiteers know them. One of those fishermen told me this afternoon that they brought in a cargo of mackerel the other day and did not get for it ¾d. per fish, and the men who caught the fish owned the boat and 1727 gave their labour. When those men were up in the town they saw those same mackerel selling at 4d., 5d. and 6d. each. That was a bit of profit, and an unreasonable profit and a scandalous profit for somebody, and that is the evil we want to get at. I do not mean to say that everything that this Bill intends to attempt will be accomplished, but as one who moves and lives amongst the people, and understands the everyday occurrences amongst the people, I think it will do something to prevent the scandal of profiteering that is going on to-day. You will not be able to judge this Bill in six months time by the number of convictions it has brought about, but by the amount of prevention which it will have exercised upon the people. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will take my tip to-day and get on to this fish business, which is the greatest scandal at the present time. I have only given him a mere trifle of what I have heard this afternoon, but what I did hear made my blood boil and filled my soul with indignation, and I therefore hope that he will get on with this fish business as quickly as possible, and not allow those people to rob the people of food of which there is need.
§ 7 P.M.
§ Sir F. YOUNG
I am in much sympathy with those hon. Members who throughout the life of thus Bill have roundly condemned it at every opportunity. It may be more or less what we would call a bad Bill as measured by our ordinary conceptions of legislation, but we are dealing with an extraordinarily difficult subject. We are undoubtedly endeavouring to disturb ordinary economic laws, and that cannot be done without a good deal of experimentation. Whilst this Bill may not be-entirely successful, it will at least be a useful experiment for six months, and will, perhaps, lead us on the way to doing something more perfect in regard to what is an admitted evil by hon. Members in all parts of the House. I agree with those hon. Members who appreciate what will be the moral effect of this Bill on the community at large. I believe that the moral effect will be considerable, and we need not, as the last speaker said, measure the exact results of this Bill by the number of prosecutions. Personally, I would expect rather more results if the proceedings under this Bill, in the shape of investigations, were more public than they are to be. I have spoken in Committee on this 1728 point, and whilst I quite recognise that one has to pay a certain amount of regard to trade and the effect upon it, of the disclosure of what is commonly called confidential information, at the same time, weighing the advantages with the disadvantages, I say the advantages lie with publicity. Publicity more than prosecution would have increased the moral effect of the Bill and would also have been of great educational value to the people, because the story of investigation would have appealed to all sections of the community, who would have followed what happened in the course of the investigations, and the information gained would have been of great advantage in teaching them exactly what are the main factors contributing to present day prices. Whilst we all recognise that there is profiteering, I think the great evil is not so much profiteering as it is high prices, because profiteering suggests something ignoble, whereas high prices can exist without the individuals who even profit from it doing anything morally wrong. High prices can arise out of a number of circumstances, which in a measure those who receive them can hardly control. You have an enormous demand at present by the population, mostly individuals enjoying a greater spending power as regards amount of money than they had before, and you have traders able to do a great turnover at a cash trade, and they in their turn, to take advantage of the opportunity of a great turnover, offer extraordinary prices to manufacturers and producers, and if the latter cut down their prices to what we call a fair profit it simply means that they hand the extra profit over to the other persons, and it is not saved to the consumers. So in many cases almost perforce high prices exist without any obliquity on the part of the traders.
If we had provided for greater publicity in connection with the investigations under this Bill we should have done a great deal to educate the people in the direction of economy and of a truer appreciation of the factors contributing to the higher costs to-day. I think we should have brought home to the great mass of the people what an important factor in the high prices the industrial situation of to-day is. Many of us do not cavil at the higher wages and more reasonable hours, but we- must object to those who are getting the advan- 1729 tage of these better conditions not giving at least as good a yield of effort as they did in earlier times, and the sooner we bring home to them the truth that they cannot expect to have reasonable costs of living until they produce much more freely than they are doing to-day, the better it will be. Of course, it is easy to establish a number of fairly legitimate excuses arising out of the circumstances of the moment, but whilst those excuses palliate the evil, the sooner we can bring home to the people the economic results of this under-production and high wages, the sooner we shall do something effective in bringing about more stability in our domestic life. It is for those reasons that I am sorry we have not provided much greater publicity to the investigations under this Bill. It is for those reasons also that I am delighted to know that the Select Committee are going to continue their inquiries, because they can go on side by side with what is done in this Bill, and through that body I am hoping we shall attain a public knowledge of the facts, which will do a great deal to improve the present position of affairs.
Sir J. D. REES
Public opinion, so far as I can understand, calls for this Bill or some Bill of this character. At the same time, I rather regret that I have not heard any definition exactly distinguishing profiting from profiteering. I suppose profiting is Profiting with a big "P," but however that may be, while we all wish to kill profiteering, I hope and believe that everybody is equally anxious to avoid killing profiting. If we are going to kill profits we shall have no business, and it is a very nice question how far one is to go. The hon. Member for the Forest of Dean (Mr. Wignall) is naturally and justifiably indignant about something he described in the way of the destruction of food, but I am under the impression that what he described has been going on in this country as a matter of course in regard to fish and fruit long before the War was thought of. The cases to which he referred may be extreme cases. I hope and believe they are but something of the same character, I believe, had been an extremely common feature of trading in this country before the War.
Sir J. D. REES
Perhaps not, and I hope not. One must not forget the case of the man whose own wages have been quadrupled, but who is furious because a 1730 London omnibus company wanted to put 10 per cent. extra on his fares or a railway company wanted to put an extra penny on his daily journey. There is need for very careful discrimination in this matter, and I never can get out of my head, when these Bills are before the House of Commons, and as one succeeds another, the statement of the most philosophic of historians "The more corrupt the Republic, the more numerous the laws." We must look upon all these laws as necessary evils and support them at present, I suppose, as they evidently appear to be called for by public opinion, upon which I believe this particular Bill will have a soothing and satisfactory effect. I should not have troubled the House with the few platitudes in which I have ventured to indulge—though nothing forbids the multiplication of platitudes, so far as I can gather from my experience in this assembly—except that I do want to express some regret that Sub-clause (5) of Clause 1 did not undergo some more radical alteration than I understand it has actually received. In the Bill as introduced that Sub-clause ranWhere a person convicted under this Section is a company every director and officer of the company shall be guilty of the like offence, unless he proves that the act which constituted the offence took place without his knowledge and consent.To-day, I understand, subject to correction, this has been altered, making only the managing director, the chairman, and any officer concerned in managing the company liable, but I conceive that under that Section as amended a chairman at any rate will be in a somewhat uncomfortable position. Take the case of a chairman who tries to do his duty by the company and attends daily. He does not stay the whole day. Being in the building and being in touch with the managing director, I should assume, and I should not feel offended if I was considered myself to be responsible in such a case for an act taken during my presence there, or even during the day I had attended at the office, but in that event, if I should be right in the character I should attribute to the attendance of the chairman and his responsibilities and duties, he would not be exempt under the Section as now amended. Nor am I at all sure that a chairman or an ordinary director is not an officer concerned in managing the company. I think he is, or ought to be. It is well known that individual directors who have particular experience in the business in which the company is concerned take a 1731 very active part, as active a part almost as the nominally managing director. How then would they stand under this Section as amended? I take it they would stand in precisely the same position in which they stood under the Bill as introduced. I suppose, in fact I am quite willing to think, that it is rather late to make alterations, and that those who have accepted the Bill as necessary under the exceptional circumstances of the moment, as I do, must also be willing to accept the particular Clauses which they do not in themselves like. I should be glad if this matter even now could be placed on a more satisfactory footing, but I do not suggest for a moment that in order to do that the passing of the Bill should be delayed, and, subject to the remarks I have made, I propose to vote for it.
§ Earl WINTERTON
I think the last speaker is under a misapprehension, but in any case the matter would have been more conveniently raised either in Committee or on Report. I do not think it is a Third Heading point at all, and I propose to deal with the.Bill on a far broader basis than he has done. I think this Bill has been passed under very considerable disadvantages. It is a Hill of really fundamental importance, it introduces in many respects an entirery novel principle into our system of legislation, and it has been introduced at a time when, as it happens, there is practically an interregnum in ordinary Cabinet responsibility, and an actual interregnum in the Prime Minister's leadership of the House. It would not be in order to discuss those two matters in detail on the Third Reading of this Bill, but I say that the House of Commons remains at a great disadvantage in discussing a Bill of this important nature when the head of the Government that controls the House of Commons is not able to be in his place and to answer the different points that are put. I am surprised that nobody in this Debate has yet made the point that no one has the slightest idea what the ultimate end of this adventure will be. It is laid down that the Bill is only to be in operation for six months. But surely everyone knows that either the Bill will be extended to more than six months, or else another Bill will be brought in to take its place, the real fact of the matter being that profiteering has become far too useful a phrase both for the genuinely discontented man and the 1732 man who disagrees with everything. The word "profiteering" has become part of our ordinary political vocabulary, and I can assure the Government that, in my opinion, and the opinion of most people who look at the question, we are not going to get rid of profiteering after six months. This puts us at a great disadvantage when we realise that in six months this Bill is automatically coming to an end, and we have had no intimation from the Government as to what policy is going to take its place when it comes to an end. The President of the Board of Trade said the Bill was a life-line to safety.
§ Sir A. GEDDES
The phrase was used, not in connection with the Bill as a whole, but in connection with some part of the Bill.
§ Earl WINTERTON
I confess I do not understand the purport of my right hon. Friend's interjection. If a part of a Bill is described as a life-line to safety, what is the whole of the Bill?
§ Earl WINTERTON
I do not want to quarrel over a phrase, but I do not think that, as regards the Clause to which he refers, it is a good phrase. It is equally as good to say that the Clause was not a life-line to safety, but a pipe-line to the abolition of private trading and private profit, because the Clause, if carried to its logical conclusion, will reduce private trading and private profit. In the course of debate we have had a phrase banded about by some hon. Members with very little idea of its meaning, namely, "undue profits." I suggest that is a nebulous and, in some respects, a very dangerous phrase. It has been well said that no one has given a definition of what profiteering or what profit is, and no one has laid down what constitutes undue profits. The hon. Member on the Labour Benches spoke with passion and obvious sincerity of the scandals—and they are scandals—going on in Newlyn, Cornwall, but he omitted to say that this had gone on for hundreds of years.
§ Mr. WIGNALL
The scandal might have existed to a very small degree when there was an over-catch of fish, but the system which exists now has never existed in the memory of the oldest fishermen at the port.
§ Earl WINTERTON
The hon. Member has much greater knowledge of the 1733 question than I have, and I have no doubt it is absolutely true, but it is equally true that middlemen's profits have existed from time immemorial, and I was somewhat alarmed at the speech, because it indicated some of the reasons why the Labour party support this Bill. The hon. Member was clearly opposed to middlemen making profits at all.
§ Earl WINTERTON
The hon. Member said, Why should middlemen be able to sell fish at 2d. or 3d. in the town when fishermen obtained only ½d 1d. for them? The answer is simply that the profit he makes may be undue profit, but that he is entitled to some profit is obvious, so long as the middleman system is permitted, and, although revolutionary proposals have been put forward in the Debate, no one has openly suggested that middlemen shall be abolished, nor does the Bill deal with that. Therefore, the profits of the middleman are only relevant in so far as it can be proved that they are undue profits, and we have had very few specific cases given in the Debate of undue profits being made. The hon. Gentleman's case is, perhaps, the only one which is an example of undue profit. As regard the Clause in the Bill which relates to municipal trading, I have already protested against it in Committee. I think the inherent unsoundness of it is not realised by a great many people who give lip-service to it. I have yet to learn that the attempt to deal with high prices to the consumer by means of municipal or national trading has succeeded in any country during the War or before the War. I am certain, of my own knowledge, it has not succeeded in France. I think that is the most dangerous provision in the Bill, and I do hope the Government will be wary and watch very closely the action of the committees they propose to set up in any enterprise in which they embark in the direction of municipal trading. I am certain 90 per cent. of the House are not prepared to indulge in a system of municipal trading except with the sole object of allaying discontent at the present time.
It has been said that this Bill is an an example of panic legislation. I do not go so far as to say that. In some respects the Bill is a good Bill, but I must say the manner of the Bill's introduction, the way in which it has been passed through the House, the kind of speeches we have had from members of the Government, and 1734 more especially from the President of the Board of Trade, strangely remind me of the same sort of speeches made in the so-called Parliament set up in France in 1780, under the influence of the writings of Jean Jacques Rousseau.
So discontented were they with the high prices that they rushed to the so-called Parliament and got measures passed which, so far from stopping revolution, only hastened it. Judging from some of the speeches on this Bill, one is led to say that, while it may not be panic legislation, it is legislation conceived by people whose minds are affected by undue fear as regards high prices at the present time. The most valuable part of the Bill is the Clause relating to local tribunals. I think the psychological aspect of profiteering, the unrest in the minds of so many people, the feeling that someone is getting the better of them, or, in the vulgar phrase, is "doing them down," has got to be considered, and I think the local tribunals will give an outlet to that feeling. I think the local tribunals will have a more deterrent effect than anything, and they will occupy the position of a safety-valve to those people whose minds are greatly agitated lest someone better off than themselves, or higher in the social scale, is getting the better of them by charging higher prices than ought to be the case. For that reason, I do not propose to vote against the Third Reading.
I should like to explain the attitude of some hon. Members and myself who, for the last twenty-four hours, have been discussing this Bill. I do not think we need make any apology to the House for our action either at this stage or any previous stage of the Bill, because the result of our action has been to get the Bill amended in many important points. I do not know of any Bill in which so many Amendments have been—or the principle of them has been—accepted by the Government, and I think all those who have taken up that attitude have really assisted in the passage of the measure, because they have produced a, far better Bill than that which was introduced by the Government. It is fundamentally and radically altered, and every one of these alterations is due to pressure on the part of private Members. That should be said at a time when people complain that private Members exercise no pressure on the Government, and never assert independence. They have certainly done so in this Debate, and the 1735 effect has been to make the Bill—the principle of which, in the first place, was entirely sincere and genuine, though the drafting was very bad—a far better Bill than the one introduced.
§ Mr. A. M. SAMUEL
Of course, the exploitation of the food of the poor is a crime against humanity. I quite realise, and I know, that the public desire some sort of Bill to prevent excessive prices being charged for food. But before I give my vote—and I am going to give my vote—for this Bill I must, as a matter of self-respect to myself, tell the House, and tell the President of the Board of Trade, that I know this Bill is built up on a farrago of economic impossibilities. It may serve as a weapon to frighten profiteers, but as a real method of getting the necessaries of life brought down to a proper level I do not believe this Bill by itself will have the effect desired. I listened with the greatest possible pleasure to the words of the lion. Member for the Forest of Dean (Mr. Wignall). Every word he said I know, from similar experience, is true. In my own native county of Norfolk 100,000,000 of the best fish in the world—fresh herrings—were brought in on one day to Yarmouth, and 40,000,000 had to be taken away to Grimsby because they could not deal with them at Yarmouth, and were then shipped to Continental ports. It was not the middlemen or the profiteers, but it then was the railway system, now controlled by the President of the Board of Trade, which was to blame. I hope the President of the Board of Trade will remedy this. The railways have not the refrigerating vans, they never prepare for a glut, and have no method of getting these fish quickly into the small inland towns. If those fish had an outlet into the small inland towns it would have been a great gain.
§ Mr. SAMUEL
Yes, and brine freezing. I hope what the hon. Member for the Forest of Dean has said may induce the Government to consider the question of a proper Board of Fisheries for this country. Fishermen might then receive better prices for their catches, more numerous markets, and the public cheap and good food, all helping to keep down the price of butchers' meat.
There is one thing I feel very much annoyed about in this Bill. Other hon. Members, too, have evidently realised it.
1736 Men like ourselves, who have sprung from the general body of the trading classes of this country—and these men are, I think, the backbone of the country—resent very much—and I speak for the shopkeepers, merchants, manufacturers and traders—I say we resent very much the insult, which, to use a favourite word of the right hon. Gentleman opposite, is "implicit" in the Bill, the charge of dishonesty against the trading community generally. I believe that nine hundred and ninety thousand, nine hundred and ninety-nine out of every million of the trading classes I have enumerated are honest, public-spirited traders, and though you may find one who is not, the rest of the million are decent, public-spirited men who do not like the implication put forward. If hon. Members recall the letters that have been received by them during the last few days or weeks, they will probably find that great irritation has been expressed over this insult, and the ill-feeling that has been shown by the accusation made that traders were exploiting the poor in the matter of food. There is the economic difficulty of which I spoke on the Second Reading of the Bill. Supply has been outrun by demand. We are now, as a House, endeavouring to forge a hasty weapon of defence, after having had many months' notice, when, unfortunately, though we saw where matters were leading we did not attempt to get these things put right. There is a much better way to put things right than this Bill proposes. Still, as I should not like to have it said that I have done anything to prevent the Government doing what they think will bring down the prices to the poor, I shall vote for it. Lot me make my suggestion.
There must be on the stocks in the shipyards of this country many first-class steamers being made ready for launching. Get the workpeople at them and get these ships off the stocks, and into the sea, so that they may sail to the Argentine, to Australasia, and the other places, and bring home the things we want. Ships now are making short voyages to America. It would be better to let those to which I refer go out in ballast if no coal freights are available than not to go to the Argentine and Australia, and bring home the wheat and the meat that, is there. If you do that you will go a long way to bring down the price of food. It is a better method than that proposed by this Bill, which imperfectly deals with the situation.
1737 An endeavour has been made to cover up the economic nakedness of this Bill by bringing in the question of trusts by the scruff of the neck. The meat or packing trust of the United States embraces everything connected with meat. I will not enumerate these articles because I cannot remember them; but it is well known that the meat trust controls most foods other than vegetable foods. I wish the Government luck in dealing with it. There is one other trust, and in this country it does very well. It takes a good deal out of the pockets of the people. It acts as a tax-gatherer for the Government. It is a trust which is in alliance with—I do not think I am wrong in this—an American trust—I refer to the tobacco trust. I wish the Government luck in looking into the operations of these trusts. Trusts have baffled the United States Government for the last twenty-live years. I will make bold to say that the examination will baffle the Government of this country for the next twenty-five years. But if nothing else is done by the Bill towards cutting down the prices of food commodities in this country during the next six months—I have not the slightest doubt you will see no fall in the index number of food commodities in this country during that period—I have no hope of that!—I do hope, at any rate, the Bill will prove to be a bogey to intending wrongdoers, and prevent more mischief being done. I wish the Bill well in that sense, but fear its failure, and perhaps its power of increasing our troubles.
§ Mr. JESSON
This is a Bill which I dislike very much. I think it is a very vicious Bill in principle, but I realise that there is a great public demand for it, and, having regard to the abnormal times in which we live, and the abnormal state of public opinion, and the great public feeling, I fully realise that the Government were compelled to bring in a measure of this kind. I should have preferred to allow this work to be done by the Food Controllar. I think it would have been done much better. He would have dealt with the question much better than this Bill is ever likely to do. At any rate, the Bill is now practically passed. There was one point, however, put forward by the hon. Member for the Forest of Dean with which I should like to deal. I am rather afraid that his speech will, if not corrected, give a wrong impression to the workers of this country, and it is therefore right that it should not go out in its present form.
1738 There is a real difficulty in regard to the fish question. This is a question to which I have given a good deal of attention during the past year or two. The difficulty is not so much getting the fish as being able to handle it as soon as the fish is brought ashore. There is a lack of cold storage into which the fish can be put. This matter, however, does not apply to the present Government or to the present time; these facilities have been lacking for a large number of years. It moans that the Fish Department has neglected its duty in the past in regard to this particular phase of the question. We are now in this position: It is impossible to put up cold storage in five minutes. The difficulty now is to get men to build houses. Cold storage will have to go for a time at least. The next point is the handling of the fish, and also you require quick transit; but your railways arc absolutely choked. Therefore there is no alternative at the present time, or until such times as we can get cold storage buildings elected, and facilities given for the transfer of the fish to various parts of the country requiring it. I agree with the hon. Member that fish could be made one of the finest forms of food, and a form of food which will do more than anything else to break down the operations of the meat trust. Again, what we require is a more liberal diet of fish to replace meat. I myself believe that as a nation we eat too much meat. If we could substitute fish for meat it would be better for the health of the people. But the cold storage must wait until we build houses: The people demand them at the present time. I am hoping that the sooner we get rid of the present glut of business so far as the House of Commons is concerned the. better, so that we shall be able to tackle 1 his question of cold storage right throughout the length and breadth of the country. 1 want to see every town, or village even, with a population of 2,000 and upwards with its cold store where you could preserve all kinds of food until it is wanted.
Fruit could be dealt with in much the same way. Look at the tons of fruit that are destroyed every year which, through cold storage, could be properly handled and saved. This, again, however can only be dealt with by proper organisation from the point of view of the Government. And you cannot do this thing in five minutes. I should be sorry if the workers of this country, as a result of the speech of my; 1739 hon. Friend, should be under the impression that in this Bill we will be able to deal with the question of fish so that they will be able to get a plentiful supply of cheap fish in the future. For that is not so.
§ Sir J. BUTCHER
The House will realise that the Government have done a good day's work in passing this Bill. It is very easy to criticise a Bill of this sort which deals with an exceptional set of circumstances. But that being so, the Bill must necessarily be an exceptional one. The exceptional circumstances are very dangerous. They have already led to very grave discontent and unrest which, unless they are checked, and the state of things altered, will probably lead to very much greater discontent and greater unrest. The remarkable thing about it all is this, that while this Bill has roused in this House most bitter criticism—in fact in some ways almost more violent criticism than I have heard applied to any Bill of recent times—when the vote comes various critical hon. Members will be very slow indeed to go into the Lobby against it, or have so far voted against the Government.
§ Earl WINTERTON
Because the Government accepted our Amendments ! The hon. and learned Gentleman must have been in bed last night instead of in the House.
§ Earl WINTERTON
I have voted a dozen times against the Government within the last twenty-four hours.
§ Sir J. BUTCHER
What I was saying was that when it came to voting against the Bill on Second Reading, and when it comes to the Third Reading, there will be very few Members courageous enough to carry their protestations into the Lobby. For myself I cannot help thinking that the Bill will be a useful one. It will, as has been said already, undoubtedly act as a deterrent upon those who are inclined to charge exorbitant prices. It will do more than that. It will place in the hands of the Board of Trade machinery which will enable them to track these cases in which unreasonable profits are made, and I trust then that the Board of Trade will be able to deal with them.
There have been two main criticisms of the Bill taken either by Members of this House or by the Press. The one is that 1740 the offence created or aimed at by the Bill is of too vague a character, and is not sufficiently defined. The offence is that of making unreasonable profits. I do not see at this moment those distinguished common lawyers in the House from whom these complaints chiefly emanated. Were they here I would suggest to them that it is sometimes well to modify the rigidity of the common law mind by introducing reasonable and equitable considerations to correct the crudity of the common law. May I give an illustration—a somewhat remarkable illustration of a case where this House had a somewhat analogous problem to that with which it is dealing to-day. The question was that of undue exactions by money-lenders. the common law was ineffectual for dealing with such cases. The money-lender had his bond, and the common law said: "I cannot in the. absence of fraud set aside this transaction." Even before the statutory law intervened the Courts of Equity had intervened and said: "We will set aside this bond because we consider it unfair and unreasonable"—and they set these bonds aside. When it came to this House to deal with the matter, as the House did in 1900, they adopted language which was singularly similar to the language which has been adopted in this Bill for dealing with undue profits—unreasonable profits made by persons to-day. What was said by the Money-lenders Act of 1900 was in effect that "although there have been actual documents signed between the money-lender and his victim the Court might inquire into the matter, and might give the money-lender such an amount as the Court, having regard to the risk and all the circumstances, might adjudge to be reasonable." Almost the precise-words used in this present Bill! Here we have "reasonable profits and no more" in the Bill. In the Moneylenders Act it says, "A reasonable amount, and no more." I remember well when that Bill was under discussion in this House the common lawyers of that day were up in arms against it. Owe of the most eminent of them, Sir John Lawson Walton, afterwards Attorney-General, said—following almost exactly the criticism that has been levelled against this Bill in this House within the last day or two—This Bill shows a lack of legal principles.Exactly what we have been hearing on the other side and then that eminent lawyer went on: 1741It will create untold confusion in the administration of the law.Just what we heard last night. As a matter of fact that Money-lenders Act of 1900 has worked admirably, and the tribunals before whom it has come have said that they have had no trouble in deciding what is a reasonable amount to allow the money-lender. So in this case, I do not think the tribunals will have any real difficulty in deciding what is a reasonable profit to allow the profiteer. So much for that, which bulked very largely in the criticism last night. A certain number of hon. Members and people in the Press outside, said that the real mode of dealing with this evil was by fixing maximum prices, and we know that a strong effort was made to do this in the Bill. If you have a standard article of food it is quite possible to fix the price, but if you want to fix prices upon an innumerable number of articles of clothes and dress without regard to the infinite varieties of qualities, material and workmanship and the demands of the wearer, if you want to do that it is perfectly obvious it is impossible, and also dangerous, because it would mean the drying up of the sources of supply.
I will give an illustration of my own experience, which is a rather interesting one. Last year I sat upon the Select Committee of this House for the purpose of fixing what is called a luxury tax. We were told to fix prices for articles above which those articles should be considered a luxury, and below which they should not be considered luxuries. The theory was that if you pay the price outside the luxury limits you should pay the tax. My experience was singular. For some reason which I never quite understood I was made Chairman of a Sub-committee to consider the question of Indies' dresses. In the course of that inquiry we had to look into a very large number of articles of ladies' dress, and I learned a great deal which I never knew before.
Amongst other things we found ladies boots could be purchased at prices varying approximately from 6s. to five or six guineas, and we are asked to fix the luxury price which we fixed at anything over 30s., but to fix the maximum price above which no boot maker should charge would pass the wit, not only of man or woman, but of any other person who ever lived. We were asked to fix the maximum price of hats. There were other 1742 more mysterious and seldom observed articles we had to consider which presented even greater difficulties than those I have mentioned. I only recall that experience as illustrating how absolutely impossible it is except when you have a standard article to fix the maximum price. It would not only involve labour such as would probably necessitate another department with many thousands of persons engaged, and Heaven knows we have enough of that already, but it would pass the wit of man to do it, and therefore I am thankful that the Government have refused to accept the proposition to fix prices.
I was somewhat astonished when the President of the Board of Trade yielded so far to the importunities of some hon. Members as to say you may give me the power to fix prices but I will not use it. Practically he said "I do not want this power, and I shall only use it once or twice within the next six months, and if you like to give it to me it will not hurt." He will have power to fix prices, but I hope he will not dream of doing that except in the case of absolute necessity. I think the scheme in the Bill as originally brought in, and as. it has been amended in the course of the Committee, was a sound one. It gives the Board of Trade and the tribunals power to say what is a reasonable profit and to punish a man who makes anything beyond that. I believe the Bill will work, and it will allay public feeling, and I believe that some of those who are now making illegitimate profits will be stopped. For these reasons I heartily support the Bill.
Colonel L. WARD
-I have supported this Bill through all its stages, and intend to continue to do so to the end, not because I consider it to be a good Bill, but because I have a weakness for keeping my pledges, and I said at the General Election that I would support any measure which the Coalition Government introduced in the way of reconstruction. I do not consider that this Bill is a good one. On the contrary, I think it shows signs of being hastily conceived, and it is none too well drawn up. Furthermore, it omits what I consider to be very essential—that is, it does not lay down any rules as to what is the meaning of the word "profiteering." It does not say what profit the retail trader is entitled to make, and it does not give any idea of what reasonable profit can be made without being classed as profiteer. I rather agree with what a good many hon. 1743 Members have already said that this Bill is, to a certain extent, eye-wash. It is largely camouflage designed with the idea of impressing the people with a belief that the Government are attempting to do something.
The greatest objection to this Bill is that it belongs to a group of measures which tend to restrict trade, it almost might be one of the Defence of the Realm Regulations in the effect it may have on restricting our already diminishing trade, and in these days we cannot afford to indulge in legislation of that kind. The time is rapidly coming when we must make a clean sweep of all these restrictions upon everything which tends to harass and delay the recovery of the trade of this country. I know that in three months the situation will be serious and may also amount to a famine, but that will soon pass and in five years' time if we have the courage to abolish all these restrictions we shall once more be in a sound and flourishing condition, whereas if we are going on as we are doing now we are simply playing with these things and putting restrictions in the way of the recovery of our trade and commerce. We may tide over matters for some time, but in five years this country will still be in the position it is in now, on the verge of bankruptcy and ruin if we do not remove all these restrictions.
We must make up our minds soon that the trade of this country cannot be interfered with in this way, and we must make an end once and for all to everything which restricts and hampers the recovery of our trade. The hon. Member for the Forest of Dean (Mr. Wignall) said it would be a mistake to judge the result of this measure by the number of convictions and I quite agree with him. Let us judge it in another way, that is by its results. If at the end of six months we find that the price of the necessities of life in this country have gone down, then I withdraw everything I have said, and I will agree that this Bill is a good one. But if at the end of six months we find that prices of food and the necessaries of life are maintained at their present prices or perhaps worse, if they have risen, then I shall adhere to what I have said that this Bill is largely camouflage.
§ 8.0 P.M.
§ Mr. BRITTON
I rise to support the Third Reading of this Bill as the representative of an industrial working class 1744 constituency. We shall all be very foolish if we expect this Bill is going to lower prices immediately. Nobody on any good grounds can expect prices to be reduced very much in six months' time, but I believe that if the provisions of this Bill are sincerely and faithfully carried into effect we shall be able to assure thousands and thousands of our fellow countrymen of all grades, except the rich and well-to-do, that at least they are not being had, and are not being fleeced, and that will remove one of the greatest causes of unrest in our midst to-day. I have heard several right hon. Gentlemen and hon. Members say that this measure will create friction and unrest, especially amongst the smaller tradespeople. I hope we shall use our influence as Members of this House to try to assure these smaller tradespeople that they need not fear. If they keep within the provisions of the Act, when it becomes an Act, they have no solid ground for fear. I speak as one who has had considerable experience of Government control and Government interference. We have frequently heard in this House references to the boot trade, which has been held up as one of the great criminals of profiteering. I should like to say a word or two to refute that impression.
The output of boots last year in the United Kingdom was 100,000,000 pairs. If we deduct 40,000,000 pairs that were made for the various Government services, and also canvas shoes, slippers, and evening dress shoes—what I call "foot millinery" —we shall arrive at the conclusion that 60,000,000 pairs of boots were made that were suitable for outdoor wear and home consumption. Of these 60,000,000 pairs 20,000,000 were made under what is known as the war-time boot scheme, and were made to an approved specification with Government controlled leather; and they bore only a profit of 5 per cent., which was arrived at after the closest investigation by the most competent and searching accountants. I want to suggest that the President of the Board of Trade should avail himself of the machinery that exists in other Government Departments. I want to see this Bill tried. I rely very much indeed upon its moral effect, but do let us try it and let us see if we cannot remove the unrest that is general in our midst, because people believe that they are being unfairly treated in the prices they are paying. In the Ministry of Munitions and Supply we have one of the most perfect 1745 systems, that will enable us to ascertain approximately the present-day price of some of the most generally used articles— woollens, textiles, jute, leather and hardware of every description. I hope that no jealousy and no departmental etiquette will stand in the way of the right hon. Gentleman availing himself of this machinery. It is in the possession of the Government, and it could be used by the appointment of a few special costing experts. I am sure we should be able to arrive at approximately the real cost of these things. The boot trade has not suffered very much; we have not profiteered; but surely there can be no reason for tradespeople feeling dissatisfied if they are given the terms that this Bill gives them, that is to say, the fair average rate earned by persons in the same way of business engaged in the sale, of similar articles under pre-war conditions. Tradespeople and business men are treated reasonably, and while I am sure they will not always get prompt replies from the Department, even from the Board of Trade, they will not get unfair treatment. They will get considered treatment, and I do hope that the traders of this country, be they small or otherwise, will not be frightened at this bogey of pinpricks and petty interference coming from the Government. They are not all fools in Government Departments. I want to suggest to the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade, instead of setting up a host of officials, that he shall get this costing scheme to work with a limited number, say ten or a dozen experts. I am sure that he will then get on the track of the real cost of the necessities of life.
We hear a great deal about houses. If he had houses for the lads who have come back and want to get married, as of course every lad should—if they had houses, is it not the fact that it would cost them as much to furnish their bedroom or their kitchen as it would have cost them a few years since to furnish pretty efficiently the whole house? It may be that there is no profiteering in these things, but if investigation is made, as this Bill provides, we shall be able to show the great mass of our working men that it is the result of financial and economic conditions. I should like also to suggest that we should, as representatives of our constituencies and as Members of this House, during the recess go into our constituencies and preach the gospel of economy. We are 1746 very apt to preach the gospel of economy to the men that are wage earners, but I believe we should do well if we tried to preach the gospel to those who seem to have an abundant supply of "John Bradburys" The glaring parade, the show, sometimes bordering on vulgarity, of the higher and the better-to-do classes ought to bespoken about. I believe that this unreasonable display is having its effect upon the spending habits of the masses of our working people. Some of us used to think it was a great deal to part with a sovereign. It seemed to be a great deal more than a £1 note, but the people are parting with their money now without getting fail-value for it, and that is one of the great causes of high prices. Boot manufacturers will tell you, drapers will tell you, that the only things they can sell to-day are high-priced articles, regardless of their weaving qualities or serviceability. Let us endeavour, all of us, to assist the Government by practising habits of economy and thrift, and let us support the Bill and believe in it, and believe that it is our duty to give it a fair trial. It cannot do much harm. It will irritate some tradespeople and some business people, we know, but it will allay a great deal of unrest and irritability, and at all events we shall have the satisfaction that we have done the best we could to bring the necessities of life into the hands of the masses of our people at the lowest possible economic price.
§ Sir A. GEDDES
I should like to thank the House and those who worked so hard last night on the Committee to get this Bill through. We have now taken a good long time—as available time goes before the Recess—over this Bill. There are other measures which it is important to get on with, and this Bill itself is now almost due in another place. Might I appeal to the Members of the House to let the Government now have the Third Reading, after what has been said? It will help the business along, as I know that we all desire.
§ Mr. RAFFAN
I should like just to ask one question. I have waited for a long time merely to ask the right hon. Gentleman to be good enough to indicate what I am sure would be of the greatest interest to the country, namely, whether he has definitely made up his mind as to the machinery to be used in connection with the local tribunals? I believe the Attorney- 1747 General suggested, as an argument in favour of the Bill, that this was merely a reserve power. Has the right hon. Gentleman made up his mind to set up tribunals, and if so, are they to be set up universally, or only in districts where he finds on examination that profiteering prevails?
§ Sir A. GEDDES
I can answer my hon. Friend's question quite briefly. The idea is at the earliest possible moment to authorise convenient local areas to set up tribunals, if they wish, under certain conditions and regulations to be published— leaving the initiative to the localities.
§ Question put, and agreed to.
§ Bill accordingly read the third time, and passed.