§ Captain WEDGWOOD BENN
I beg to move to reduce the vote by one hundred pounds.
I move the reduction of the Vote for the purpose of calling the attention of the Minister who represents the Board of Trade to several matters, more particularly the restrictions which at the present moment are imposed upon trade in this country. The first thing I would like to point out to the hon. Gentleman, of which he is no doubt aware, is that the trading community is labouring under a very great sense of grievance, and considers that its interests are suffering severely under the delays and irksomeness of Government control. This is not in any sense a party matter. It is raised purely in the interest of the trader, and it is practically the universal feeling in trading commercial circles, that at the very moment when we are at the end of the War, and should be in a position to put all our efforts unfettered into the increase of production in order to rebuild the trade which has been shattered during the War, it is impossible to take any steps without consent, or in many senses without consent, and sometimes it is impossible to know what consents have to be obtained before steps can be taken. I know that the hon. Gentleman has removed a good many of these controls, but combined with the removal of control has been the imposition of what we, who are of a different political and economic faith from him, regard as Protection. I want first to deal with the question of control, and what I have to say is very well expressed by two extracts from the "Daily Telegraph": 694The door, no doubt, is opened very cautiously from time to time and some of the prisoners themselves are set free, and sent on their way rejoicing, but what British industry wants is that the door should be taken clean off its hinges.Another extract in the same sense says:What the trading community desires, above all things, is to get rid of the cramping hand of officialdom, and the whole system of licences and permits which is like a millstone round its neck. Even if the system worked quickly it would still be troublesome, but it is notorious that the delay to which the business world is subjected are most vexatious.I think these are opinions which would be concurred in by any business man irrespective of party. I will give the hon. Gentleman an instance which came within my own knowledge. It is that of a firm which desires to export seeds. In a matter like this time is everything. Whether the War Trade Department issues the licence or does not issue it, or whether the Board of Trade takes a week or a fortnight to give the necessary permit, the seasons progress, and if you do not serve the seed at the right moment you lose the market. My correspondent knows me perfectly well and I have every reason to believe that he is stating the case quite fairly. He says:I am informed on good authority that London firms can get licences granted within forty-eight hours, but the average time it takes for Scottish or Irish firms to let a licence granted is between a fortnight and three weeks.That is a very important matter if you are trying to sell seeds. My correspondent gives me an instance of what has happened to him. He says:I had a representative of a large American seed firm calling on me this week. He informed me that he had been in Europe for over a month visiting France, Belgium, Denmark, Norway, and Sweden, and that he had done good business. He said there was now no restrictions or licences required to ship seed from the United States to the Allies or neutral countries in Europe. He also mentioned that when in Scandinavia he met several representatives of German seed houses pushing their business—He goes on to say:Before the War my principal competitors in Scandinavia were German firms. America did very little trade there. A good deal of the seeds I sold were American seeds which I imported here in British vessels and exported with seeds from other countries to Scandinavia. Now, owing to the restrictions and the difficulty of getting licences, America has captured this trade and it will be very difficult for this country to get it back.I can give another instance showing the irritating effect which the cumulous of restriction has on the minds of the traders who desire to start their trade after the 695 War. My correspondent goes on to say that his son, who was a captain in a certain regiment, applied for a passport about a month ago. Several communications passed and a great many inquiries have been made. Though he was fit to command a company in Gallipoli, Palestine and France, the authorities seemed to have some doubt as to whether he was a fit and proper man to give a passport to in order to push British trade in Belgium and France. The passport had not yet been granted. Now it was too late to be of any use. It is this sort of irritating restriction and delay which is heartbreaking to the business man. Some business men think there should be a system of protection, while others think there should be freedom of trade, but all agree that whatever you do you should know what the system is, and that the thing should act with smoothness and celerity, so that you are not subject to heavy losses in trade such as my correspondent has pointed out. To give an instance how things are complicated by delays I will read an official document which has been issued to the Press. It says that in order further to assist exporters, a Department has been set up to which anyone is entitled to go who is a subscriber to the "Board of Trade Journal," and this Department will inform people who have difficulties with the War Trade Department, by telegram or telephone, whether their licences may be granted or not. Control and restriction by a Government Department may have been necessary during the War, but it now is really a restraint of trade, and now we find that in order to correct the laxity and slowness of one Government Department, another Government Department is set up to urge on the other Department. I suppose that next a Department will be set up which will urge on the urging Department. The thing is, as the newspaper writer said, that we do not want to have the door opened a little, but we want the door taken clean off its hinges.
I pass to the question of the Consultative Council which has been appointed to advise the President of the Board of Trade on the question of import restrictions. My Noble Friend Lord Emmott was the chairman of the Council, but he resigned recently and his place has been taken by a very able and gallant Member of this House, the hon. and gallant Member for Chelsea (Colonel Sir S. Hoare), whose determination to do this work 696 in an impartial way was expressed at the very first opportunity, and whose capacity and gifts for this work those who have the pleasure of enjoying his acquaintance are very well aware. But it is not a question of personality in any way whatever. It is a question of principle. Lord Emmott's objection amounted really to this: that in deciding as to whether imports could be permitted or not, you were not leaving the decision in the hands of the the class that we represent—the consumer, the citizens as a whole—but that, owing, as he thought, to an arrangement of the Sub-committees, the decisions were being left in the hands of the industries primarily affected. The council of which the hon. and gallant Gentleman has become the chairman has been formed with what I suppose the Government consider to be a fair representation of all interests. It consists of a number of hon. Members of this House, the nominees of Government Departments, representatives of chambers of commerce, the Federation of British Industries, the union of manufacturers, Whitley Councils (two employers and two workpeople), trade protection societies, the Chamber of Trade, one co-operator, and two members of the Parliamentary Committee of the Trade Union Congress. Our objection to this arrangement is that whether it takes the intense form of sub-committes deciding as regards certain imports, such sub-committees, consisting of persons actually engaged in importing these articles, or whether it takes the form of a general council of traders themselves deciding the question of imports, we object to it altogether, because we say that the public interest is the interest of the consumer. Although it is quite true the members of these industries are better informed on the technical points and details of the trade, and that that information in their official capacity is valuable, yet the duty of this House is to safeguard the interest of the consumer, and the consumer in the list I have read, save the nominees of certain Government Departments, finds no representatives whatever. The representatives on the council are representatives of bodies of traders and manufacturers.
§ Captain BENN
Of course everybody is a consumer, but they are not there to represent the consumers; they are there to 697 represent the manufacturers. That is my point. The hon. Member has made the alarming and interesting discovery that everybody is a consumer, but my point is that these people are there to represent industries and trade, and not to represent primarily the consumer. This system is setting up what is much worse than a tariff. It is continuing the prohibition on imports in certain selected branches of goods. We who are Free Traders object to a tariff. A tariff, at any rate, does produce income, but this system produces no income, so that there is not that to be said for it. Moreover, a tariff is submitted to a popular assembly for consideration. It is submitted to this House of Commons, which represents the consumers. We are the elected representatives of the consumers. We are not elected as representatives of certain classes of manufacturers.
§ Captain BENN
The point I am endeavouring to make, and my opinion remains unchanged, is that a tariff has certain advantages to certain sections of the community, and it is submitted to representatives of the whole community for review, but under the arrangements made now, imports are to be restricted in certain trades, and that is decided not by representatives of the whole community, not by anybody who comes into the light of day, but after inquiry the decision as to what shall be restricted or prohibited is made by representatives of the trade themselves and it is done absolutely without the knowledge and without the power of interference by this House. I should like to ask the hon. Gentleman who represents the Board of Trade whether it is not possible for these inquiries to be held in public. I do not know whether the hon. and gallant Gentleman, who is Chairman of the Council, will have any objection to that or not. When we wanted to have an inquiry about the coal industry, it was an inquiry held in public, and the public who were going to pay the price involved in any decision come to were aware of what was going on at the Committee. The public will suffer by the restriction of these imports, and personally I wish to see the restrictions removed entirely, and I wish to see freedom of trade re-established. But I do suggest that it is not contrary even to the avowed Protectionist policy of the Government that they should give us publicity in the inquiries that are taking place. That 698 is the very least safeguard that the House of Commons should demand in the public interest.
Many hon. Gentlemen who call themselves Free Traders are supporting the Government because they think this is only a transitional and temporary arrangement. Many people seem to have the idea that peace is going to come suddenly at a given moment; that at one given moment, we will say to-day, we are at war, and that to-morrow we shall be at peace. That is not so. All the new conditions which peace connotes are coming gradually, and therefore war will gradually merge into peace. You cannot have a given date line of the kind suggested. What we have to protect ourselves against is, while we are in a state of war, making arrangements and commitments that will be highly detrimental to our interests in time of peace. The hon. Gentleman said that on the 1st of September this arrangement will come to an end, but he does not say what is going to happen on the 1st of September—whether a trade is going to continue to enjoy the protection now afforded, or whether that protection is going to be removed. He merely says, "We promise you protection till the 1st of September; after that we can say nothing." The inevitable result of that policy will be that vested interests will grow up behind the protection that is given, and when the 1st of September comes it will be perfectly impossible to say, "We now remove the protection on which the whole of your industry depends." We shall be met by traders saying, "You gave us protection. We have built up an industry. Now you are going to remove the protection, and we shall have to discharge our workpeople." Let us disabuse our minds of the idea that this is a temporary measure. Those who support it for other reasons are under no-such delusion. The "Morning Post" says:The policy is to be reconsidered when the time of transition is over. We believe that when that time comes, if it ever does, the logic of circumstances and the necessities of the country will keep the Government on the course on which they have now entered.Many people do desire that, but I do commend it to my hon. Friends who are Free Traders, but who are supporting the Government on the ground that this is a transitional measure. You cannot go back. Once the protection has been afforded it can never be removed.
The point of view which I wish to bring forward is the point of view of the con- 699 sumer, because very much, if not all, of the unrest and trouble which we have at present in this country is due to high prices. High prices are at the root of the whole thing. These restrictions on imports are producing high prices. The protected industries can increase their prices when the prohibition is in force. Everything tends to produce high prices: the gigantic inflated Estimates for the Army, Navy, arid Civil Service, the concessions made to the Triple Alliance of Labour, which mean an increase in railway rates, the enormous cost of out-of-work benefit paid every week to people who are not working and are producing nothing. Yesterday we were told that the Board of Agriculture is to have its status raised. That may be a very excellent thing, but it will cost a lot of money. There are the controls alone which the Board of Trade has set down in its estimate at over a million pounds. All this gigantic public expenditure which is causing the most serious alarm in the minds of all thinking people is forcing up prices and producing the discontent which in many cases it pretends to set out to allay. Alarm clocks which used to cost 1s. 11d. cannot be got now for £1, simply because of restrictions on imports. That is an article which is commonly needed by the poor people. The sort of people who are suffering under this gigantic waste are the poor, the people who have to live on a very small separation allowance, the men who are disabled and who have to live on the pensions which the Government allow them—clerks, all the poor people who are not in a big union, who all have to live on slender resources—they are all being crushed by this gigantic expenditure, which means high prices and rising prices. I would ask the right hon. Gentleman representing the Department whether he can say in his reply, first, that he will do something to remove, entirely, or at any rate at the very earliest moment, this irksome, restricting control of trade; second, that these restrictions on imports shall be kept down—there are cases in which they may be necessary, but that they shall be kept within the narrowest limits; and, in the third place, I hope that he will be able to give a favourable reply to the request that the procedure shall be made in public, subject to the expression of public opinion, which will know what is going on.
§ Mr. HOLMES
We were afforded an opportunity on the 10th of March of hearing the Minister of National Service state to us what was the policy of the Government in regard to imports and exports. He divided the imports question under three heads—first, raw materials; second, partly manufactured articles; and, third, wholly manufactured articles. With regard to the last, he told us that the policy of the Government was to continue the restrictions until at any rate the 1st of September, when the matter would be reviewed, and the object of continuing the restrictions was, he said, for the purpose of shielding certain industries, industries which were disorganised for the purpose of the War, or which are disorganised while passing from war work to peace work, or which have been created or encouraged owing to circumstances arising out of the War. But the fact that these restrictions are only being continued until the 1st of September and are then to be reviewed is not giving the advantage which the right hon. Gentleman thought he was going to give to the manufacturers of this country, because the very uncertainty as to what is going to happen in the future is preventing merchants from giving orders and preventing manufacturers from manufacturing, because they have no idea, if they buy goods or make goods, whether after 1st September they will find a market for them. The Committee will allow me to give one or two concrete cases, because these are easier to follow than abstract principles.
One of the reasons why manufacturers are doubting the policy of the Government, particularly with regard to those industries which have been created during the War, is because the Government, or rather the Board of Trade, have already let down certain industries which were started since August, 1914. I will first refer to an article of very common use—bootlaces. Before the War 90 per cent of the bootlaces used in this country came from either Germany or Belgium. The Belgian factories which made bootlaces were destroyed very early in the War, so that the opportunity appeared favourable for the manufacture of bootlaces in this country, and a number of firms commenced in that particular industry. They were encouraged to do so, because in 1916 the Board of Trade prohibited entirely the importation of bootlaces into this country. But for some reason they failed to prohibit the importation of hemp braid. Some 701 ingenious person cut hemp braid into the required length and tagged it, with the result that many thousands of hemp braid laces were placed on the market and sold to the public at the price of 2d. per pair. The average life of laces of that sort is about two days. But the very fact that these laces were put on the market discouraged for the time being the manufacturers who had commenced to make genuine laces in this country. The result of the public being taken hi by the hemp laces and the discouragement which the British manufacturer received by the hemp laces being put on the market was that there was a great shortage of laces here, with the result that the Board of Trade took off the prohibition altogether. Japanese laces then flowed into this country, with the result at the present time there are plenty of bootlaces to be obtained. The law of supply and demand has operated, so far as bootlaces are concerned. There is no profiteering, and the public are not paying high prices beyond what is usual.
That is all very well from the public point of view, and from the Free Trade point of view it is perfectly satisfactory; but the Board of Trade have let down the British manufacturer, whom they encouraged to try to get the trade which formerly went to Germany and Belgium, and so other manufacturers are dubious at the present time as to whether after 1st September they are going to be let down in a similar way. I refer to one other trade in the same connection in which there are opportunities of manufacturing at the present time, but everyone is afraid to touch it. That is the glove trade. It is known that in the warehouses in London there are thousands of pairs of Japanese gloves which have been allowed to come here from the other side of the world, but which the Board of Trade refuse to be sold in this country. That is known to all the glove people in this country. It is also known that in Holland there are thousands of pairs of German gloves waiting to be sent to this country if they are allowed to come. That means that every merchant in gloves in Wood Street is afraid to give orders, because he does not know whether after 1st September Japanese or German gloves will be allowed to come into the English market. The glove manufacturer can get no orders. He is afraid to make gloves on speculation. The glove manufacturers therefore are unable to employ all the labour which they 702 could employ for the purpose of making gloves here. It is the very uncertainty of the position that prevents what are apparently restrictions for the purpose of helping these manufacturers being of any use to them at all.
I want also to refer to the question of allowing licences and to support what my hon. and gallant Friend said with regard to them. There is a feeling in many trades that licences are controlled by the people who are particularly interested in the trade, and that as a result there is great profiteering going on. Here, again, I will give concrete cases. I will take electrical accessories. I am informed that all licences for electrical accessories have to go through the British Electric Light Manufacturers' Association. Now these are people interested in electrical accessories, and they are careful to see that no one, except their own particular friends, gets licences. At the present time our own manufacturers who make electrical accessories will not be able to supply our market for six months, and we are entirely dependent on imported articles. The position to-day is a little better than it was a few months ago, when Japanese key-switch lampholders, which are used in practically every factory and private house fitted for electric lighting, came in here at 11s. 3d. per dozen and were being sold at 36s. per dozen. At the present moment they are coming in at 10s. per dozen and being sold at 25s. There there is obvious profiteering at the expense of the consumer, because the licences are coming through interested parties and giving these people an opportunity to fleece the public. British manufacturers cannot possibly deliver these goods for another six months, although Birmingham houses are doing their best to turn them out. One hopes that the representative of the Board of Trade will tell us definitely what policy the Government are going to adopt with regard to imports after the 1st September next. At the present time the uncertainty of the position, and the failure of the Board of Trade to give the promised support to those industries which have been created or encouraged owing to circumstances arising out of the War is preventing them making any progress at all.
Colonel Sir J. HOPE
I cannot agree with the hon. and gallant Member for Leith Burghs (Captain Benn) in the policy he advocates, namely, that as quickly as possible all restrictions on imports should be removed and that our industries which 703 have suffered from the War and which have been disorganised by it shall be open to unrestricted competition from other countries which have not suffered to the same extent. But I do agree with both hon. Members who have spoken that it is all important that the Government should make a declaration of future policy as soon as possible. The present uncertainty is preventing enterprise in trade and industry. It makes it impossible for any industry to make any headway in the effort to recover ground lost during the War. I rise to draw attention to one particular industry, but I wish first to read what the Leader of the House stated two nights ago as a declaration of policy. He said:I do not suppose there is any Member of this House—I am our the Labour party would not—who would say that at this moment, when all our industries have been occupied in producing materials for war, and are being gradually changed to a peace basis, we should allow unrestricted imports of the very things which these factories are being started to make, and allow them to be sent in by countries which have not had our suffering during the War, and are in a position to send them in to-day. I do not think any man in the House would think that reasonable."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 25th March, 1919, col. 355.]I cordially agree with that declaration of policy. What I wish to call attention to is the manner in which the Board of Trade have recently gone in an absolutely opposite direction to that policy. It has suddenly, and without warning, actually removed all restrictions on the import of paper. No doubt the President of the Board of Trade will say it is only 75 per cent, of pre-war import up to the 30th April. But I may point out it is one-third of 75 per cent. for the first four months of the year, and as this Order was issued when two months of the year had elapsed, it means that up to the 30th April 150 per cent, of the pre-war imports of paper is to be allowed into this country, and after the 30th April there is to be an absolute removal of all restrictions on the import of paper. No warning was given at all. It came like a bombshell en the trade. The Interim Industrial Reconstruction Committee for the Paper Making Industry, which was set up on the initiatve of the Government expressly to advise it upon the paper industry, was not consulted on the matter, and to-day it has passed a resolution setting forth what its advice would have been had it been consulted The resolution is as follows:This Committee views with grave concern the prospect of widespread unemployment in the 704 paper-making trade resulting from the Government's decision to allow on the 1st May unrestricted imports of foreign-made paper before paper mills at home have been able to resume work on the normal basis, and would like to know, seeing that this Committee was not consulted in any way, on whose advice the Government acted in coming to this decision, and what knowledge, if any, the Government's advisors had of the conditions of the paper-making trade. They would also like to know whether any steps were taken by the Government before coming to their decision to find out not only to what extent home mills, if given sufficient raw material, could have fulfilled any probable demands, but also what reduction in prices might have been expected from the increased output so obtained. In view of the importance of increasing home production, this Committee strongly protests against the fact that the Government did not take every means of satisfying themselves on this point before deciding to allow increased imports of foreign-made paper.The paper industry has been suffering in the past very extensively from the War because the import of raw material was continually being reduced. Only last year it was reduced to 16 per cent, of pre-war imports of raw material for the trade. As in the case of many other industries, men have been taken away for the Army, with the result that the production in every mill has been enormously reduced, and, as the over-head charges have remained the same, it was obvious that the price of paper had to be put up in consequence. But if, as the Committee suggests, time had been given to them to increase their production and to adapt themselves to the new conditions, there is little doubt they could have reduced prices. But they have had no chance owing to the uncertainty of the Government action. Since the Armistice there has been practically no sale of paper in this country—or at any rate a very small sale—because the demand for paper has fallen off lately, and the country has adapted itself to doing without paper. There has been practically stagnation in the paper trade so far as selling is concerned since the Armistice, and consequently the majority of the mills have been producing for stock only. Now they are suddenly threatened with this unrestricted import of foreign paper, and they will have no alternative but to close down. Eleven mills in Scotland alone have already taken this step, and many other mills have given their workers fourteen days' notice that they may be compelled to discharge them. That is a serious situation
The only argument in favour of the removal of these restrictions is, I believe, 705 that paper is a raw material in other industries. I do not quite know what other industries are concerned except perhaps newspapers. I do not know of any industries which call paper their raw material which would advocate the removal of these restrictions. A deputation went before the President of the Board of Trade on Tuesday, and it included representatives of the United Kingdom Paper Bag Manufacturers' Association and the National Union of Printing and Paper Workers. All large stationers and cardboard manufacturers are absolutely opposed to this sudden removal of the restrictions. They also have large stocks which they cannot dispose of, and the only result of this sudden removal of the import restrictions will be that the country will be flooded with paper that has been lying in Scandinavia, and with German paper which has been lying in Holland, while paper from Finland will be put on to the British market and sold at a low price. The stationers and the paper-bag manufacturers will not profit because they have already got their stocks. They will be either ruined or badly damaged, and the only result will be that this vital industry of our country will be seriously prejudiced, and the ranks of the unemployed will be swollen. The Government will be called upon to pay the unemployment benefit to an increased number of men and women. Surely there are already enough people in receipt of that benefit without the Government taking action which can only increase the number! I would like to remind the House of the statement made by the Prime Minister in his letter to the Leader of the House last November, in which he said:Security must be provided against the unfair competition to which our industries have been subjected in the past by the dumping of goods below the actual cost of production or under unfair conditions of labour.I may point out that in this country the working hours in paper mills are 128 per week as against 152 per week in Scandinavia, while in Finland, which is pushing paper into this country, the mills are worked on Saturdays and Sundays. I am certain my hon. Friends the Labour Members will not desire to see the importation of paper produced under such conditions.
Sir J. HOPE
I think it is three shifts. At any rate I am certain of the figures—128 hours as against 152 in Scandinavia. The Minister of Reconstruction stated the other day that—Industries which were disorganised for the purpose of the war or which are disorganised while passing from war work to peace work should be safeguarded.I submit that this action of the President of the Board of Trade is contrary to the statements made not only by the Prime Minister but by the Leader of the House and by the Minister of Reconstruction. At the deputation which I attended before the President of the Board of Trade it was stated, on behalf of the Union of Paper Workers, that if they could not safeguard themselves by Government assistance they would have to safeguard themselves on their own, and that means that the men in the stationery and paper-bag trades will refuse to handle imported foreign paper. Perhaps that may save the situation. But it seems to me that if the Government rely upon that and allow it to decide the issue it will be the very negation of government.
With the amount of unemployment existing and the critical state of the country's trade generally, we cannot afford to throw over or lose any of our industries. The paper industry employs an enormous number of men. Not only did it provide before the War nearly two-thirds of the paper consumed in the country, but it had a considerable export trade. Three millions, five hundred thousand pounds worth of paper was exported in 1913. It is most desirable that the paper trade should have a chance, not only of securing the home markets, but gradually of recovering the export trade it had previous to the War. I am not asking for any new policy, but simply that the principles which have been stated by all the leaders of the Government should be adhered to by the Board of Trade. The Board of Trade may have acted hastily and without due consideration of the facts. They may have been influenced by interests whose main object was to secure at once cheaper paper. I do not think they went thoroughly into the whole question. I hope that no consideration of the reversing of any decision of some official will prevent the President of the Board of Trade from reconsidering his decision and restricting the imports of foreign paper to 25 per cent, of the pre-war 707 imports, anyhow up to the 30th September. Why should the paper trade be specially selected for this prejudicial treatment? They should be treated like other industries. I hope also the Government will shortly make a statement of their future policy not only in regard to the paper trade especially, but with regard to other industries. I trust that the President of the Board of Trade will seriously consider the situation in regard to the paper manufacturers who are feeling the danger of ruin to their trade.
§ Captain AINSWORTH
I ask the indulgence of the Committee for a very short time to say a few words on the question which has been raised by the last speaker. I view with great dismay the decision of the Government to allow the unrestricted import of foreign-made paper into this country. It is well known, I have the information at first hand, that in the paper mills at home there is at present a great deal of unemployment. At the same time I would call the attention of the Government to the fact that although they are removing the restrictions on the import of foreign-made paper into this country, the restrictions on some of the raw materials used in the manufacture of paper in this country are still retained. That is in direct opposition to what we were led to expect at the General Election. I fought my election on the programme put before the country by the Leaders of the Coalition. I did not happen to have the favour of the Coalition ticket, but I was returned in spite of that, because I was supposed to be a better supporter of the programme announced by the Coalition leaders. This question is a very important one. The hardship imposed on the paper trade by the raising of these restrictions without proper notice and at the same time by the retention of the restrictions on the imports of raw material is very serious. I hope the Government will reconsider their decision and not impose upon the paper trade restrictions from which other trades are to be free.
§ Mr. FRANCE
I feel disposed to apologise to the Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade who, I am afraid, has heard my voice on this subject more often than he likes. In spite of the crowded state of the Committee at the 708 present time, this is perhaps one of the most vital matters we can consider. I am quite certain that the hon. Gentleman takes a serious view of the responsibilities of his office in this regard. I want to ask him, what I am afraid I have asked before, something about the Committee or Council and their duties. The Imports Restriction Committee was created in order to limit the amount of tonnage used at a time when we were short of shipping. It was appointed purely for that purpose, but gradually and inevitably since the Armistice it has begun to take on other duties. I want to ask what is the extent of the duties of the Committee and have they really to take into consideration the facts and arrive at decisions as to matters such as have been discussed to-night, as to whether or not paper is a raw material, as to whether or not certain articles that are required in the manufacture of paper should be let in in order to assist the trade as a whole, and are they taking into consideration the effect on other trades affected thereby, in other words, are the Council going to do very much what the Commission on the coal trade had to do and were instructed to do in a very short space of time—not only consider the actual restrictions, but the effect they will have upon other trades? My hon. and gallant Friend (Sir J. Hope) said he did not know the paper was the raw material of any trade except the newspaper trade. Any knowledge of business would lead one to know that paper enters into almost every trade and every business as a most essential item of expenditure. Although I quite recognise that the paper mills and those trades who have large stocks at high prices must inevitably suffer when the prices suddenly fall, yet that is an experience which is being, I was going to say, enjoyed or, rather, felt by almost every trader throughout the country at the present time. The only consolation is that traders, having made good profits during the War, they, like the Government, must face their losses and get over them as quickly as possible during the transitional period.
With regard to key industries and dumping, are the Committee during the months before 1st September to consider and decide which are the key industries that are necessary industries to this country? On the very difficult question of dumping, are they to decide what is the cost of 709 manufacture in a foreign country or what is the average price at which the goods are sold? I do not know whether the Committee is going to consider these difficult questions. If they are not, I do not see how they can deal successfully with the difficult matters which are facing every manufacturer at the present time. Another question I should like to ask is whether the Council or Committee is to deal also from the end of this month with all matters relating to licences for exports, because, if that is so, I should like to say a word to the Parliamentary Secretary as to the great importance of dealing with the matter promptly. There is at the present time in the West Riding of Yorkshire, as we heard the other day—I am not going to waste time by repeating what was said then—and also in Lancashire, the greatest anxiety and concern about the prospects of trade, and particularly the export trade during the next few months. It is just now, when very many of them are naturally relieved from the large orders they have had from Government Departments and when prices are naturally high, and to that extent the demand at home is necessarily curtailed—it is just at this time, when other countries are looking forward to enlarging their export trade and becoming serious competitors, that our manufacturers are desirous of taking orders for export and to manufacture for export at the earliest possible moment. It is a fact, and I am sure the hon. Gentleman is aware of it—if he is not it will not be because he has not been told of it in this House—that at the present time there are these restrictions—I know he cannot be held responsible for them, although I hope he will use his influence and that of his Department in the matter—under the general policy of blockade which interfere with exports to neutral countries. I hope that the President of the Board of Trade will urge very seriously upon those responsible for the present policy that this question of preventing exports will have very speedily to come to an end. If any of these exports by any chance get into neutral countries or even what are still enemy countries, surely the evil that comes through that, as was pointed out by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for the Platting Division of Manchester (Mir. Clynes) the other day, cannot be comparable to the injury we are doing to our own export trade, from which, perhaps, it will never recover. I urge the hon. Gentleman and his Depart- 710 ment to keep that in view, having regard to the necessity of preserving the export trade of this country.
May I give him one example of an interference with trade through the restriction of imports which is seriously affecting a trade which has been brought to my notice? It is an illustration of the want of policy and definiteness in regard to imports restriction. I hope the new council will entirely change all that. This is the case of a small blade, which has formerly been imported and, I think, can still only be satisfactorily made in America, for the purpose of shaving leather, not the human chin. It is a peculiar form of blade, very difficult to make. Nobody in England seems to be able to make it. Several firms are short of this blade. One firm in particular was standing idle for lack of the blades and had to borrow some of them from a neighbouring firm or practically close their works for the time being. I am informed that at the same time there were in Liverpool 5,000 of these blades. The Imports Restriction Committee were applied to, and they said that the import of these blades had been restricted. Although they were there and the particular tonnage space had been used, and although these works were standing still for want of them, they persisted in saying that the blades must not be used. The firm which had imported these may have committed some misdemeanour or gone against the restrictions, but as a matter of fact they were generally sent over without licence in the past and only licensed when they arrived. This is a case of which I should be glad to give the hon. Gentleman particulars, and it is really aggravating manufacturers very much and stands in the way of progress and trade. I desire to support very strongly indeed the view put forward by the hon. and gallant Gentleman opposite (Captain W. Benn) that in these inquiries there should be the utmost publicity. I urged that point before, and I venture to repeat it. As he said in the inquiry with regard to the coal trade, the public were allowed to know the facts. It may be that there may be members on this Council who are capable of giving technical information, but at the same time they may naturally consider their industries as of particular importance and may desire changes which would assist, not them personally, but their particular branch of trade. It is very important that they should not be allowed 711 to press their considerations to the disadvantage possibly of other trades and of the public. I therefore urge that at these inquiries there should be the utmost amount of light and publicity, so that the public may feel that during this period of transition, which is a dangerous and difficult time, that the inquiries are conducted fairly and impartially until it is possible to get that freedom which we all in one form or another desire.
§ Mr. SAMUEL SAMUEL
I wish to associate myself with the hon. and gallant Member for Leith (Captain W. Benn) in what he said as to the withdrawal of these licences and restrictions on trade. We have been suffering now, owing to the War, from war measures which have been absolutely necessary during that period, but at present we have to look further than to-day and to realise that these prohibitions, as the licences mean in many instances, result in the trade of the country being absorbed by our competitors. I noticed that an hon. Member complained that London firms were able to get licences in forty-eight hours. I am sorry to say that my experience and the information which I have leads me to the conclusion that in Leith and other places they are much more fortunate than we are in London. I know that in many cases it takes a month to get an answer from the Department in reference to a licence, and you have to go to two or three Departments even then before you get any satisfaction. The hon. and gallant Member mentioned that a Department had been established for the purpose of considering what licences should be granted, or to assist in the granting of licences. That is one of the methods of which the commercial community have been complaining ever since the beginning of the War, and that ever since these restrictions were put on that in these Committees the granting of licences has not been with even-handed justice, and that there are many people who have been unable altogether to get licences while their neighbours have been favoured with permits whenever they applied for them. I saw some gentlemen yesterday from the London Chamber of Commerce in reference to one of these new Committees which has just been established for the granting of export licences for the iron and steel trade, and they complained, and in my opinion rightly, that the whole of that Committee are interested in the trade themselves, 712 and that there are no merchants who are represented on it, and who might be impartial or more impartial in dealing with the applications for licences. We have found at least in the City of London that over and over again the people to whom you apply have certain interests, and consequently very often—I do not say they do it deliberately, but they cannot altogether dissociate themselves with their interests—when the permits are asked for for certain firms they are invariably refused. I have had several cases brought to my notice, and I shall be glad to give particulars to the hon. Gentleman on the Front Bench. This is a very serious matter for the number of firms who are interested in the import trade and the export trade. We think that in these circumstances the manufacturers and merchants of the country are in a better position than the Government or the officials to bring about a resumption of pre-war conditions in the interests of the community and industry and consumers than any control can do. We believe that the high prices which we are suffering from are almost entirely due to the restrictions and the curtailment on the freedom of imports.
I put a question to the Ministry of Food two days ago in reference to the imports of wheat and barley, which was answered by the Secretary for War. My question was whether merchants were at liberty to accept consignments of wheat and barley for this country, and whether permits would be given for the importation of this necessary material, or whether it was the intention of the Government to divert this trade to neutral countries. The reply I got was that we were perfectly at liberty to bring wheat and barley to this country, but when it is here you have only one buyer for it, and that is the Government. What is keeping up the prices of foodstuffs and of many other articles is the uncertainty of any permission on the arrival of those articles for the importers to deal with them as they would do in normal times. A reference was made by an hon. Member opposite to the prohibition of the importation of bootlaces and other material, and he said that these articles were being imported from Japan. I raised this question in this House in 1915, because the British merchants were prohibited from importing these fancy goods into this country without any notice being given at all, and I want to ask the representative of the Board of Trade whether we are to 713 have a repetition of this gross injustice to British interests that occurred in 1915? British and Japanese merchants had made considerable contracts for all sorts of material to be shipped from Japan, and suddenly the importation of these goods was prohibited. The British merchants of course protested, and asked that they might be allowed to import the goods which they had contracted for up to a certain date freely into this country, so that they could carry out their obligations. This request was refused by the British Government through the Board of Trade, and the British merchants went to work at the end of 1915 and paid considerable sums to the Japanese manufacturers to cancel the contracts which they had placed with them. The British Minister in Tokio telegraphed to this country to the Foreign Office pointing out that many British firms established in Japan would actually be ruined through the action of the British Government, but they absolutely resolved that whatever might happen they did not care a bit for the interests of the British merchants. The Japanese Government then made representations to the Foreign Office that Japanese merchants had placed large orders and that they might in consequence be involved in very heavy losses if the British Government did not reconsider their decision and allow the Japanese merchants to send their goods to this country. Without a single word to the British merchants in Japan the Foreign Office conceded to the Japanese Minister the right for Japanese merchants to ship the goods that they had under contract to this country. The British merchants in Japan first heard of it when they saw all this material being shipped here by their competitors. They having paid heavily to cancel their contracts, the Japanese merchants went in and bought the very goods that the British merchants in Japan had paid cash for. Representations were made to the Foreign Office and to the Board of Trade about two months after they had given permission to the Japanese, and the British merchants who were represented were told, "It is true we have given permission, and you can do the same thing." Now the Board of Trade have prohibited the import of these goods from Japan. I do not complain at all about that, but what I do ask is that British merchants who have gone out to different parts of the world should have the support of their Government, and should not be placed at a disadvantage and have no protection whatever.
714 If you are going to have this prohibition of imports it is a far more honest way to put a duty on at once. Make your duty as high as you like, but I think the system of prohibiting the import is altogether wrong, because in twenty-four hours the whole thing may be reversed by permits being granted by favouritism, or whatever you like, to different people, and it is a much more honest way and would give greater protection to our manufacturers and working classes to put on a duty, which in itself will act as a prohibition against the import. Another reason that was given by the hon. Member for the restriction of imports during the War was that there was a shortage of tonnage. But I am afraid the Government cannot defend themselves on that ground. As a matter of fact, whilst the imports, especially from the Far East, have been going on joyfully in everything that is unnecessary in this country, such as silk goods and fancy goods of every description, when I myself applied for permission to bring home a few half chests of tea for my own use and the use of my friends in a steamer that was coming from China, that permission was refused. I applied for permission to bring home a few half chests of tea when tea was rationed in this country, but the Government would not allow ten or twenty half chests of tea to be brought into this country. The rationing of tea would not have been necessary if they had allowed merchants to bring tea here from China. They could have had thousands of tons of tea, but they preferred to fill the steamers up with merchandise such as bootlaces, silk goods, china ware, lacquer ware, and every description of fancy goods. I do not think it is very reasonable of them to say that they were suffering from a shortage of tonnage for necessary things when they were allowing materials like fancy goods, to be brought here by the tens of thousands of tons every year, which they were as a matter of fact doing. So that when they plead that it was a shortage of tonnage which necessitated the restriction of imports, I am afraid that with those who know anything about what has been going on, that would have no weight at all.
The hon. and gallant Member for Midlothian (Sir J. Hope) spoke about the importation of paper. That is a matter in which I can support him, because we know perfectly well that that industry has been seriously damaged during the War, the same as every other industry in the 715 country. If it is necessary to bring paper here, I think, at the present time, during the period of reconstruction, we want our paper mills in various parts of the country to be able to restart and be able to compete with imported paper. We have an enormous amount of unemployment which has to be provided for. We must try to get the industries of this country into their normal condition, and we cannot possibly do that by the free imports of goods that must necessarily compete with them, and assist to create further unemployment. We also must have greater freedom in our export trade if we do not wish to go straight to disaster. We have tremendous competition in every part of the world, especially with the United States and Japan, who are taking, and have taken during the period of the War, an immense amount of our trade from us in various neutral countries, especially South America. We are told to-day that it is necessary to supply the North of France and Belgium with certain machinery which we are in a position, perhaps, to do. But what I would ask the Board of Trade is, what proportion of the machinery that is necessary for the reinstatement of the North of France and Belgium is going to be supplied by the United States? Why the whole burden of that should fall upon this country, I fail to understand.
The United States profess to be as interested as we are in the resuscitation of Belgium and the North of France, but, instead of doing anything, so far as I can make out, to help to put those countries on their feet, they leave the whole burden upon this country, and we find that they in the meantime are doing their best in those markets where British interests before the War were paramount. I think, in the interest of the future of our commerce, the British manufacturer ought to be allowed to go to those markets, and be able to re-take the customers whom we have lost to the United States and to Japan during the period of the War. Those markets are essential to us. Belgium and the North of France are temporary stop gaps. We know perfectly well that the moment they are in a position they will be competitors, and I am not quixotic enough to say that we ought to surrender markets in different parts of the world which have been the mainstay of this country for so many years, and sacrifice the future of our commerce for the purpose of placing our competitors in a position to 716 take those markets away from us. I do not for one moment say we should not do something for Belgium and the North of France. We are bound in duty to do every thing we possibly can, but I say that the whole burden of that should not fall entirely upon this country, and that the Board of Trade ought to consider the necessity of retaining the markets where we have been strong before, and not allow our competitors to get an absolute control of them. I hope that the Board of Trade will put on these Committees who have been appointed to look into the question of licensing, in addition to people who are interested, and who are not altogether trusted by the commercial community, at least some independent—
§ The PARLIAMENTARY SECRETARY to the BOARD of TRADE (Mr. Bridgeman)
Which are they that are not trusted?
§ Mr. SAMUEL
They are not trusted in this way. For instance, there is the iron and steel industry. The City merchants say that the licences are not given entirely on the merits of the case, and that many people are able to get licences whilst others are not able to get licences. That is the case in many instances in these Committees, and what the commercial community asks is that people not directly interested in that trade should be on the Committees to whom they have to go to get permits for imports and exports.
§ Major LLOYD-GREAME
I only want to intervene very shortly on two points. In the first place, I should like sincerely to congratulate my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade on the complete failure of the violent attack which was going to be made upon him in consequence of Lord Emmott's resignation. Owing to the preparations which we understood were being made, one almost thought that Lord Emmott's resignation was to be followed by his own. I think the case which was made out was eminently a bad one, and, in fact, broke down, I will not say of its own weight, but of its own feebleness. I should like to assure my hon. Friend that from this quarter of the House there is very little sympathy with the main proposition in the speech of the hon. and gallant Member for Leith. In a question of this kind, when not only a personal matter was being raised, but a debate on very broad questions of principle, one was a little surprised to see the want of support that the hon. and gallant Member found on his own 717 side of the House. There is no sympathy whatever in most quarters of this House with the pure Free Trade cry, which was really the basis of the hon. and gallant Member's speech. If the Government came back with any mandate at all at the election, it was a mandate to see what could be done, in a thoroughly businesslike way, to secure and stimulate home production so far as possible.
We were asked to consider the question of unemployment. We are considering it every day, and it is the most serious consideration that we have to face. If there is one thing at the present moment more than another which would more effectually add to the very serious volume of unemployment, it would be the abolition of the restrictions on imports which the hon. and gallant Member has advocated. We were told that if you are to administer this you must have an unbiassed tribunal. That is an extraordinarily easy thing to say, and it is an extraordinarily difficult thing to get. In a sense nobody is altogether unbiassed in this matter, and least of all is the hon. and gallant Gentleman who advanced the proposition unbiassed, for he would go into this matter frankly biassed up to the hilt in favour of an entirely unmitigated Free Trade policy. Personally, I regret Lord Emmott's resignation, but I cannot assume from his views upon the question of Free Trade that Lord Emmott is himself unbiassed. These Committees, if they were to follow the suggestion put forward, would degenerate into debates on Tariff Reform versus Free Trade. I do hope that when these Committees get to work, during the transitional period, they will do so in a businesslike way. I believe that is the way these Committees themselves are trying to work. I do not believe that the question of Tariff Reform or Free Trade is ever introduced at all. Each case is taken on its merits as a business proposition and as to what is the best thing to be done. During the transitional period that is the only possible way these Committees can work. At the first blush one feels some sympathy with the suggestion that these Committees should proceed in public, but there are some things it would be extremely undesirable to disclose in public, for the information of foreign competitors, and I can easily suppose it might not be practicable to do that; but the decisions in all the cases to which reference has been made could be disclosed immediately to 718 the general public, and then we have the opportunity here, if it be so desired, of raising any question on those decisions. I must say that I think the hon. Gentleman who at present represents the Department on the Treasury Bench will be able quite easily to reply to this aspect of the subject.
I only want to raise one other point; that is in support of what was said by the hon. Member for Batley. I sincerely hope that the control of exports will be raised at the earliest possible moment. If there is one difficulty more than another in trade, and which traders want to avoid, it is uncertainty. Even a certainty that is bad is better than uncertainty. In this respect it will be conferring a boon upon the whole trading community if the right hon. Gentleman is able to abolish the controls which exist at present. So long as these controls do exist I want to be assured that there is a clear and simple policy stated in terms we can all understand, and that the departmental officials under the Board of Trade in the various departments clearly and intelligently carry it out. The general principles have been quite clearly stated in the extremely clear speech made the other night by the Minister of National Service. I must, however, contrast that—and I know many hon. Members in this House feel the same—with the uncertainty which exists in the Departments as to what the position is in respect of controls. In his speech, the Minister of National Service announced that a number of controls were going to be removed, and a number of articles were going to the put on the C, or Free Export, List, except as to the countries in the blockaded area. But I would just like to draw the attention of the right hon. Gentleman to what happened in his own Department, and what has happened among our competitors. I will not be sure of my date, but about 9th January the "Board of Trade Journal" published a letter to say that the export of a number of articles, including rolling stock, was going to be made absolutely free. About a fortnight later that Order was cancelled, or, rather, the Department said it would be cancelled, and that free export would be confined to certain second-hand articles. After considerable delay, owing to representations that were made, the original Order was finally restored, and all concerned were told that these things 719 should go into the C list, that is, completely free export to countries outside the blockaded areas.
The result of these conflicting Orders—three of them within about a month or six weeks—was that, in the first place, the sellers themselves did not know how they stood, and they were all writing to the Board of Trade to find out the position. If the sellers did not know, the purchasers knew still less. I want to contrast with that position a letter which I saw about the middle of that period from an American firm. It was to this effect:Dear Sir,—Now that all restrictions on American exports have been removed we are in an excellent position to do business with you immediately. We have got the raw material and we can arrange tile snipping, we shall be pleased to take your orders for quick delivery.I am paraphrasing the letter, but it was practically to this effect. That letter was being sent to all likely purchasers at the very time when those purchasers ought to have been placing their orders with English firms, and when English firms were writing to the Board of Trade to find out in what position they stood. That is the kind of thing which is losing hundreds of thousands of pounds' worth of contracts to this country at present, and is going to swell unemployment. I believe the Board of Trade know their own minds—I am sure my right hon. Friend (Mr. Bridgeman) and the President know theirs, and the speech of the Minister of National Service was as clear a speech as we could expect—but it would be well, if logical departmental action immediately followed. That plain policy should be known at once to every member of the staff of these Departments, and should be carried out. The orders that are issued should not be issued by reference to something else, but should be perfectly plain, straightforward, simple orders, which everybody, buyer or seller, could understand. If my right hon. Friend can only get that spirit in and through his Department, and so get executive action, he will have done a great deal to minimise the criticism which he finds in this House.
§ Mr. KILEY
The subject I am most interested in is the fate of a good many merchants and traders who, in the course of their business, have placed various orders in different parts of the world for various commodities. After those contracts had been made the Board of Trade found it necessary or desirable to impose 720 certain restrictions, and meantime the unfortunate traders were bound to take delivery of the goods which they had paid for. These goods have been lying for months in different parts of the world accumulating, as, for instance, in America, where the charges for storage are now three and four times above normal rates. These goods have been duly paid for, and the charges upon them are accumulating week by week and month by month, and they will eventually become the property of that country. Therefore the traders here who parted with their money are not able to obtain their goods. That seems to me to be tomfoolery, for if we part with our money we might as well be allowed to get the commodities we have paid for. I agree that if these things had been done in defiance of the law it is quite another matter, but where the transaction has been done legally it is the duty of the Board of Trade to see that these people are not unduly penalised, and that foreign countries shall not benefit by taking our money and keeping the goods as well.
Another point is that of late certain systems have been set up. The hon. and gallant Member for Leeds suggests that if you pay so many guineas you can get so many journals and information sent to you. In the Board of Trade they have set up a system by which you may be placed on a list and you may get certain confidential information by payment of a small fee, but that list is only supposed to be given to manufacturers, and the Board of Trade look with a good deal of suspicion upon merchants and middlemen, who are debarred from this privilege because they are not manufacturers. I would like to point out to the Board of Trade, if I may be allowed to bring my own personal experience to bear, that in my capacity as a merchant I am debarred from information which, as chairman of a manufacturing company, I might get. Now the Board of Trade is not in a position to do this kind of thing. It is the duty of a State Department to let such information be obtainable by all the citizens of the country. I suggest that the Board of Trade should put this tomfoolery on one side, and, if they have information, it should be available to everybody in this country. I want them to consider the two points I have made, namely, the holding up of goods which have been properly and legally ordered, and the question of sweeping away these pet schemes of the Board 721 of Trade in order to expand their journal and trying to keep information in certain channels.
§ 9.0 P.M.
§ Mr. REMER
In this Debate a good deal of concern has been expressed for the consumer, but it seems to have been overlooked that we are paying at the present moment something over £1,000,000 per week in out-of-work donations, and those donations are, in fact, being paid by the same consumers for whom so much anxiety has been expressed. I agree with what the hon. Member who spoke just now said, that a tariff should take the place of restrictions, but the time for that is not here yet, and until the time comes the restrictions must stay. As far as the key industries are concerned, I think we are quite within our rights. As far as I am concerned, I stated in my election address that I was an out-and-out Tariff Reformer. I always have been a Tariff Reformer and I always shall be.
Reference has been made by two speakers to the question of paper. I had a very eminent paper manufacturer in the House before the Debate started, and he gave me a great many facts which I do not think are known to the House generally. In order to show he was not prejudiced, I might mention that for a long time before nomination day he was actually a candidate in opposition to me in my Division. There are three paper mills in that Division, and he assures me quite conclusively that their output of paper is only 50 per cent. of their capacity, and that owing to the serious position which is involved by the paper restrictions being removed at the end of April the paper manufacturers are in a very serious state. As my hon. Friend has already said, eleven paper mills have actually been closed down, and thirty-three more have given twenty-eight days' notice that they may close down at twenty-four hours' notice. What does that mean? Surely that we are going to pay more out-of-work donations to these people who will be out of work, and then we shall have a more serious crisis than prevailed before.
I should like to call attention to one fact which has not been mentioned. As the House well knows, there were restrictions upon the importation of wood pulp during the War from Sweden, and very considerable restrictions on all importations. What happened? The manufacture of wood pulp did not decrease in the slightest degree. I am credibly informed by a 722 person who has made very extensive inquiries that that wood pulp went to Germany, where it has been manufactured into paper, and that paper is at present waiting in Holland to come to this country. It is said that there are between 120,000 and 130,000 tons of paper waiting there which has been manufactured in Germany from Swedish wood pulp which should have come into this country, and consequently the whole trade is in a chaotic condition by the announcement of the removal of these restrictions.
I should like to say a word or two about my own trade. All this Debate has been with reference to importations, and an announcement was made by an hon. Member that the high cost of furniture was attributable to the high price of timber, and that announcement appears in the "Daily Mail" this morning, which gives a list of prices that have to be paid for the timber in order to make furniture. Those statements, however, are absolutely misleading and they are not correct. I am quite able to buy the timber mentioned at exactly half the price which has been quoted. Therefore to state in the public Press, corroborated by a large newspaper, that the high cost of timber is responsible for the high price of furniture is stating something that happens to be untrue.
I should also like to say a word about the restrictions on exports. I am quite sure that it is to the great interest of this country that we should do everything that is possible to increase our exports, because that is the one way in which we can provide the necessary means with which to pay for the War. I hope that the President of the Board of Trade will see his way to relax the present restrictions which exist in many forms. I think we might even go to the extent of removing the restrictions on exports to those countries which are in the blockade area. I do not see why, if Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Holland care to trust our late enemies at this time, they should not do so. At any rate, it would be a way of enabling our own people to get rid of this terrible debt that we have hanging about us. I feel sure that I have only to place these views before my hon. Friend for them to receive particular consideration. The manufacturers of this country are in a position of very great difficulty and uncertainty, and while they are in that position of uncertainty I think, as far as our essential manufactures are concerned, they should be protected from 723 foreign competition. It has been stated that there are essential imports which would be held back. I do not think if they go to the right quarter that there will be any difficulty in obtaining the necessary licences for essential imports. I have taken several cases of this kind from my own Constituency, and every case hag received the most favourable consideration.
§ Mr. R. M'LAREN
It must be evident to the President of the Board of Trade that the question concerning Members of this House and the country just now is pre-eminently that of our imports and exports. I have had a gentleman connected with some very large steel works to see me. He was in London to make some inquiries and to fix some orders. He could have fixed those orders, but he was told that as there was some dubiety on the question of export they must go elsewhere. It is evident to all engaged in industrial operations that so long as this question of imports and exports is hanging in the balance the trade of the country must suffer. I would therefore ask the President of the Board of Trade and the Government to consider the question at once, so that the restrictions may be taken off and we may know where we are. My main purpose in rising is to call attention to the restrictions being taken off the import of paper from Scandinavia and other countries, a matter which has been mentioned by several hon. Members, and especially by the hon. Member for Midlothian (Sir J. Hope). A very serious crisis has arisen in the paper trade in consequence. Last Tuesday a deputation, consisting not only of manufacturers, but of those who distribute the paper and the workmen, waited on the President of the Board of Trade in order to impress upon him the fact that if these restrictions were taken off most of the mills would soon be at a standstill. Only this afternoon I had a telegram from some important mills in my own Constituency, stating that 3,000 men are under orders to be sent about their business within twenty-four hours, so great is the difficulty in connection with this matter.
Like nearly all the Coalition Members, I made it one particular plank in my platform in addressing my Constituents, especially in the large industrial part to which I belong, that the one thing above all others which we would not tolerate would be a return to pre-war times. Like the hon. Member who has just spoken I 724 have been for many years an out-and-out convinced Tariff Reformer. I did not hesitate to explain these views to my Constituents, and I can assure the House that upon, every occasion that I mentioned the matter my words were received with the greatest enthusiasm. The workmen throughout the district now complain, after my expression of these views and my return to Parliament, that the Government should without any warning turn round and remove these restrictions upon the paper industry, which, means that eventually they must be idle. They think that it is very unfair that each, a thing should take place. Above all, they do not want any dumping whereby they may be thrown out of employment. As one who was returned upon these pledges, I am bound to say that I cannot go back upon my word and that if a Division takes place upon this question I must certainly vote against the Government. The time has come when we must let the Government understand that having been pledged to a certain policy we are bound to see that it is carried out. I therefore ask the President of the Board of Trade at once to reconsider this matter. It will be a very serious thing for various parts of Scotland and England where large paper mills are in operation if these men are thrown on the streets and become unemployed. Unfortunately, in the district to which I allude there are not many mines into which the men can go, and there are no other industries except certain steel industries which are filled to overflowing. Consequently, unless something is done and done at once these men will be found among the great mass of unemployed. I would, therefore, associate myself very strongly with all that other hon. Members have said, and plead with the right hon. Gentleman to reconsider the question at once, and to see to it that the matter is satisfactorily settled so that this huge body of men and women employed in the paper industry may not be thrown out of employment. I voice not only my own views, but the views of the workmen whom I represent, because I have received representations not only from the owners of the mills themselves, but from a large number of my Constituents who are workmen, and who say that they expect me to stand by my pledge and to ask the Government to stand by their pledges, so that they may not be thrown out of employment.
§ Mr. C. WHITE
I am glad to find someone on the opposite benches who seems to be likely enough to find a seat on these 725 benches. If he votes against the Government, we shall expect to have his company before very long. A great deal has been said about stimulating production and preventing unemployment. I want to put a concrete instance before the House of how the Government can improve the present instead of looking so much to the future. I was in Hull last week, and I got this concrete instance, which may have been mentioned to the House. A man obtained an order for 250,000 bags, at 6d. each, to go to Sweden. He spent a large amount on telegrams to the Board of Trade, and I believe he came to London himself, but he could not get an answer. The day that he told me about the matter he received a message from Sweden cancelling the order and saying that it had now been given to Germany. I understood that the last thing that we wanted to do was to encourage the Germans, but here, by lack of enterprise and stupidity on the part of a Government Department, a licence to send 250,000 bags to Sweden was refused, for fear they might be sent to Germany, and an order placed in Hull, to improve the undustry and find employment in the district, was lost. Instead of that the order is sent to Germany and the bags have been sent to Sweden from Germany. I am not going to speak about Tariff Reform and Free Trade. I notice we keep setting these bogeys up and someone knocks them down as soon as they are set up. It is quite easy to knock down the things which have been set up to-night. I want the Government to look to the living present and to remove these restrictions on exports from this country and thus provide that employment which is so much needed, and to show that enterprise in which they are so much lacking and let us see if we cannot improve the living present instead of looking forward to the future so much.
§ Mr. BRIDGEMAN
This Debate, given notice of as one in which the Board of Trade has been criticised on account of Lord Emmott's resignation of the chairmanship of the Restriction of Imports Committee, has developed into a general discussion on the question of imports and exports at large. I came down here to defend the Board of Trade against the charge which I understood was going to be brought against it. We have had two afternoons' discussion on the general question in which the case of the Government has been very clearly stated by the Minister of Reconstruction, and in which 726 again and again the House has been assured that it is the desire of the Board of Trade to remove restrictions on export at the earliest possible moment. It is very easy to talk as if that could be done at once. People are very fond of talking as if all the difficulties lay on this side of the water. We have to consider the blockade. Many speakers have entirely ignored that. We also have to consider our duty and our engagements with our Allies. And although, no doubt, there are delays—and no Department is free from that, or ever has been, or will be even when the hon. Member opposite gets into office, I am afraid—at the same time I should like hon. Members to realise that a good deal of the difficulty exists on the other side, in the countries to which we should like to export. A great deal of good advice has been given, to which I have listened with the greatest interest and with every desire to take advantage of it. The hon. Member (Mr. Kiley) raised two points which I should be very glad to inquire into further, because I think they are points of great substance. A good many Members have raised the question of paper. I want to make quite clear what the exact position is. Hon. Members have spoken of the restrictions being entirely taken off the import of paper. That is not the case. The policy as arranged at present is that imports up to 75 per cent, of the previous imports are being licensed to this country, so that the imports are not entirely unrestricted, up till the end of April. But I quite realise that there are very great difficulties in this question. The difficulty in dealing with the paper question is that, although it is in one case a manufactured article, it is also the raw material of a good many other things. I can only say now that a deputation waited on the President of the Board of Trade on Tuesday on this subject and he promised to consider the point.
§ Captain BENN
What is the reason for restricting the imports of paper? Does the hon. Gentleman allege that paper manufacturers turned their works to war work during the War, and therefore on compassionate grounds, so to speak, need protection till they can get into business again, or is it that the paper manufacturers should, in the opinion of the Government receive protection?
§ Mr. BRIDGEMAN
I do not want to enter into a general argument on that point. The question of the restriction of the imports of paper has been very care- 727 fully considered for a long time. The result of the consideration is that a limited import has been allowed on the ground that British works which under war circumstances have been working at half-strength should have some time given them to recover and to be able to work with a larger staff and more mills so as to reduce the general charges on their work.
§ Captain BENN
What the hon. Gentleman is saying is that because the works Lave had to work with half staff during the War, therefore they are to have protection till 1st September. That is Protection. Is not the same statement true of any other manufacturer?
§ Mr. BRIDGEMAN
The hon. and gallant Gentleman keeps talking about having protection till 1st September. That is an entirely misleading statement. What was said in the Debate the week before last was that we have to settle some policy in regard to the restriction of imports during the transition period, but that that policy should not extend beyond 1st September. We are not now considering the general fiscal policy of the Government, but when that is settled it may come in at any time between now and 1st September. There is nothing fixed until 1st September. Everything has got to be reconsidered before 1st September at the latest. That was stated perfectly plainly. It is the transition period with which we are dealing now. The hon. and gallant Gentleman, Major Lloyd-Greame, referred to a mistake, which we fully admit, in the notice given about rolling-stock by the Board of Trade. It was a mistake, and we are sorry.
§ Mr. BRIDGEMAN
I am afraid not before it had caused a great deal of confusion. The hon. and gallant Gentleman (Captain Ainsworth) said that while paper was being admitted free the raw materials of which it was composed were restricted. I do not at this moment understand what raw materials he was referring to. Perhaps he will let me know, and I will go into the question.
§ Mr. BRIDGEMAN
There is no restriction on wood pulp. If that is what the hon. Member meant, he was misinformed. I should like to know what they are.
§ Mr. BRIDGEMAN
The hon. Member did not mention them in his speech. I thought he was under same misapprehension. The hon. Member for Putney (Mr. Samuel Samuel) made a very interesting speech on a good many subjects. He referred particularly to what he called the new Committees that were being set up for granting licences. I do not think he really understood exactly what the functions of these Committees were. He accused the old Committees of favouritism, which I strongly repudiate. If anyone got licences in preference to other people it was not due to any favouritism in the Department; it might have been some accident, but I strongly repudiate any suggestion of favouritism in this matter. As the hon. Gentleman is not present I will not try and explain to him what I thought was a mistake in his argument. The hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Holmes) referred to several points—bootlaces, the glove trade and electric accessories. All these are points which should come under the purview of this Committee which is going through the whole of the question of the restriction of imports. There have been reasons for some of the variations to which he has referred, especially in regard to bootlaces. Bootlaces were prohibited in order to save tonnage; then they were allowed in later as part of an agreement with certain foreign countries. It was not because the bootlaces weighed so much, but because they were part of a larger category which had to be prohibited on account of tonnage. They were allowed in later on, as part of an agreement with foreign countries in order to secure certain concessions for British exports in those countries.
I want to come to the speech of the hon. and gallant Gentleman opposite (Captain W. Benn), who opened the Debate. He asked me three questions. First of all, were we anxious to remove control at the earliest possible moment? We have already said, again and again, that we are. He also asked whether we were going to keep down import restrictions to the lowest possible point? I have already said that, so far as the interests of this country and of our Allies will allow it, we shall do so. Thirdly, he asked whether the public will be admitted to the deliberations of the Committee on restriction of imports? That I do not think it will be possible to do, 729 but we hope to send to the Press reports of what passes at that Committee when they report—which they have to do—to the Board of Trade, and to give the public the information at the earliest possible moment. Now, I want to speak on what I thought was going to be the general point of attack on the Board of Trade, with regard to the resignation of Lord Emmott. The contention, as I understood it, of the hon. and gallant Member was that Lord Emmott had resigned—and he agreed with his action—because he thought there were on that Committee a preponderating majority of people whom he described, I think, as interested parties, especially the manufacturers. I understood his contention to be that if the original Council over which Lord Emmott presided had not been overwhelmed by the addition of a large number of gentlemen representing various interests and who were included later in that Council, that there would have been no fear of any partiality being shown. The original composition of Lord Emmott's Committee contained manufacturers almost exactly in the same proportion as the enlarged Council now does, and I want to know why, when a half of the old Council were manufacturers, it was perfectly fair for them to be there to decide a thing, and why is it not fair when, on the new Council there is the same proportion of manufacturers, for them to give a decision, and why they are unable to do it impartially? He said there were no consumers. Everybody on the Committee is a consumer.
§ Captain BENN
Is anybody appointed on the Committee to represent the interests of the consumer, owing to the fact that the Committee consists of representatives of various manufacturing and industrial interests?
§ Mr. BRIDGEMAN
The Committee, as the hon. and gallant Member might easily recognise, for it has appeared in the papers, is representative of various interests—the manufacturer, the merchant, the retailer.
§ Mr. BRIDGEMAN
The Labour Members. I should have thought that the 730 Member for West Ham was a typical consumer. To say that the consumer is not represented is really a ridiculous contention. Everybody is a consumer. Some are manufacturers of one thing, but they are the consumers of what others manufacture. The Co-operative Society representative represents the consumer, and, as I say, there are a considerable number of Labour representatives who represent the consumer. I do not believe anybody could have devised a Committee more generally representative than this one is. What does the hon. and gallant Gentleman mean; and what does Lord Emmott mean by saying that there is a preponderating number of affected interests? We have got to inquire into a large number of trades. We have got to inquire into the question of employment in those trades, and how far it has been affected by war conditions. How is it possible to make that inquiry without having people on such a. Committee as this, who know the business, and who understand what are the requirements of their own trade and very often of other people? There is no such thing as an impartial person. There is nobody who can be said to be absolutely impartial. Lord Emmott himself, as everybody knows, is as impartial as anybody can be. His departure from this Committee is a matter of very great regret, because he has devoted himself with the most unsparing devotion to the services of the War Trade Department during the War. But anybody might perfectly fairly say that he was partial, because he was a manufacturer. The real point is this. You have got here a collection of men sent as representatives of great organisations, well-known men who can be trusted, if anybody can, to do what they think is best in the interests of their country.
I object very much to hon. Gentlemen in this House or anywhere setting themselves up as the only impartial people. The contention really is that nobody but a Free Trader is an impartial person. It must be remembered that the Gentlemen who are serving on this Committee have been divided into Sub-committees where the same proportion is represented as on the general Committee, manufacturers, merchants, labour, retailers and so on. All the interests that are affected are represented, not special interests, but the main interests, and they can hear evidence from other people outside. Such bodies are likely to come to a fair 731 decision. Their decision will come through the general council, and no action can be taken upon it until through the Board of Trade the Government have given their decision.
I think the failure to impugn this Committee has been most conspicuous throughout this Debate. The hon. Member for Putney mentioned in regard to this Committee, there was an absence of merchants, and of the particular industries to which he referred. That absence has already been dealt with. It has been our desire to make this Committee as representative of these great interests as can be, and I contend that we have succeeded in that. It would have been impossible in any other way to have arrived at a fair tribunal. Hon. Gentlemen opposite talk in a glib way about taking off these restrictions straight away, hut they must realise that you have to take one or other of two decisions; either you have to ignore the fact that peace has not yet been signed, or you have to keep up some form of restriction.
§ Mr. BRIDGEMAN
Does the hon. Gentleman think it is possible to go on without restrictions until peace is satisfactorily signed? Hon. Gentlemen must face this situation. There are certain industries as they know perfectly well which have been engaged in war work, and they have turned over their plant and machinery to war work, and have not had time to recover their normal condition. Are hon. Members prepared to sacrifice all these industries, and the employés who depend upon those industries? If they are prepared to say that, I shall be prepared to take the verdict of the country on that point.
§ Captain BENN
The hon. Gentleman has made an interesting speech, and he really levies a charge against us that we have not made the attack that he expected. As he has made his answer to the attack perhaps it is just as well that the attack should be made. The hon. Gentleman is quite mistaken as to what we mean by impartiality. We know that there is such a thing as a manufacturing, producing, or retailing interest and there is such a thing as the consumer's interest. By impartiality we do not mean that the Free Trader is impartial and the Tariff 732 Reformer is not impartial. On the contrary I am perfectly certain that many Tariff Reformers are impartial. What we mean by impartiality on this Committee is that one is the traders interest whose interest it is to get protection, and the other is the consumer's interest, and we ask where is the protection for the consumer's interest on this Council. The hon. Gentleman, with a very eloquent turn of wit, says that if it is not in heads it is in avoirdupois. That may be a very excellent term but it does not answer the point we make. This is not an impartial council. It is a council of people who want protection. The second point is that it is a tribunal. The hon. Gentleman himself says it is a tribunal, which is going to come to a decision. The country is to be put under a system not of a mild tariff but of prohibition on imports by a tribunal sitting in secret, representing not the consumer but the manufacturers and the industrial interests.
§ Mr. BRIDGEMAN
I do not quite know what the hon. and gallant Gentleman means. Any decision these Committees come to will have to come through the Board of Trade and through the Government.
§ Captain BENN
The hon. Gentleman's words were that this is a tribunal which can be trusted to come to a fair decision, and he thinks that by putting on war manufacturers and distinguished commercial gentlemen he is going to make it more impartial. Where is the consumer represented? The hon. Gentleman says that the decision must be reviewed by the Board of Trade. Supposing this House—and, after all, this House is still the governing body—objects to this or that import restriction. What power have they?
§ Captain BENN
How can they vote against it? A tariff has the merit of being put into the form of a Bill, and you can discuss it, and you can move an Amendment to the Schedule to leave out that or insert this. Under the system now proposed there is a sort of Star Chamber tariff, a secret affair. You will not admit the public, but communiques are to be issued to the Press, stating that this prohibition or that prohibition is to be made on imports. That is done secretly, of course with care and skill and impartiality so far as the Chair is concerned. 733 I hope the hon. and gallant Gentleman Sir S. Hoare will understand that. My point is that these decisions will be made secretly, and what is the result? The result is that you are going to put up prices. I say again that the waste and the great expenditure of the Government is the cause of all the trouble in the country to-day. Millions are being wasted. Two millions are going to be spent at Slough. The Secretary for War spoke as if the Slough undertaking was so desirable that if he only had the chance he would like to create Sloughs all over the country. We have estimates of £1,500,000,000. I beg the hon. Gentleman to understand that we are speaking on this matter to the best of our ability on behalf of the consumer. There are thousands of people in this country who are being ground between the upper and nether millstone, people who have no trade union, and no means of defending themselves; the wives and dependants of soldiers who are abroad and who are still receiving the same money as at the beginning of the War, and all this expenditure and these restrictions on free imports is keeping up prices for these people and making their position in life intolerable.
§ Mr. BRIDGEMAN
The hon. Gentleman suggests that the original Committee presided over by Lord Emmott was a perfect Committee. Who were the representatives of the consumers on that?
§ Mr. BRIDGEMAN
The contention was that the original Committee of Lord Emmott has been so altered as to entirely transform its character. The original Committee did not contain a single representative, except one representative of labour, who could be said, according to the definition of the hon. and gallant Gentleman, to be a representative of the consumers. There are more on the new Committee than there were on the old, and to say that this Committee is being swamped by new elements is not in accordance with fact. The proportion is almost identical with the original Committee, and the only thing is that a wider area has been tapped in order to get wider expression of views.
§ Mr. CAREW
I had several telegrams this afternoon from paper mills, saying that mills were being shut down, and in view of the great unemployment through- 734 out the country, I would ask the hon. Gentleman to say whether he cannot see his way to allow these restrictions to remain, at any rate, until September next. If that were done, it would remove a great deal of the grievances of the paper mills.
I wish to support the remarks of the hon. and gallant Member who has referred to the case of the consumer. During the War the interests of the producer dominated, and rightly dominated, the minds of the Government, and we are afraid that the spirit which dominated the Department during the last four years may continue to guide their actions during the coming months. Several hon. Members have sought for a definition of "consumer." and the Parliamentary Secretary instanced the case of a retailer who, he considered, was a consumer. But is not the definition of a "consumer," in comparison with a "producer," one who holds no stocks of any kind, and these particular people, the great buying public who hold no stocks, who are neither manufacturers, merchants, nor retailers, are the consumers whom this House should directly represent? There is no doubt in the minds of the country at large that the producers to-day have a very powerful say in certain Government circles, and I hope that notice will be taken of this by the President of the Board of Trade, and that in the coming months the main principle which will guide the Government in its action will be the interests of the consumer. There is little doubt that the producers, no matter whether they are growing corn or making a particular article, are generally very well able to look after themselves, and it is the great buying public whose interests we must safeguard. I trust sincerely that the Government will remove completely the embargo on imports at the very earliest possible moment. By the removal of these imports we shall be able to secure a larger share of the export trade to the neutral markets of the world. Unless Britain during the coming months is able to withstand, and withstand successfully, the intense competition from America and Japan in the markets of the world, our position will be serious and may well become very acute. That position will be determined if raw materials and everything required in the production and manufacture of these goods can be secured at the very lowest possible price.
The reply of the Parliamentary Secretary referred to the unpleasant rumours, I 735 think he said, about the licences, or the system of priority which has been instituted and rightly instituted during the last few years. There have been ugly rumours. I do not know whether they have any foundation or not in substance, but they have existed, and so long as by Regulation a Government Department can give one man the opportunity to import which is denied to another, and, it may be, rightly denied, these rumours will find currency and be accepted in certain quarters. My main object in rising is to urge the Government that by 1st September these restrictions on imports shall be removed, and if the Government desire to restrict imports by any means after that date or about that date they should lay their proposals definitely before the House, so that the House should have the earliest opportunity possible of considering these proposals, and, if it thought wise, assenting to each particular trade receiving the particular protection which the Government think they deserve. I desire to press that point upon the Parliamentary Secretary of the Board of Trade. I trust that the Government may take notice of the strong feeling that exists throughout the country, whether rightly or not, that the policy of restricting imports does tend indirectly to increase the cost of living and make it difficult for our industries to compete in the neutral markets of the world.
I think that the hon. Gentleman is quite right in repudiating with warmth any suggestion, if the suggestion has been made, that anything has been done in the direction of making these councils not impartial by adding to them anybody who would be likely to give a prejudiced judgment. I do not think that it is a fair thing to suggest that in any way. But I think that he will agree with me that it is not an unnatural thing that the resignation of Lord Emmott should have caused some uneasiness, and I think that the purpose of this Debate would not be wholly served if he concludes that that uneasiness had spread no further than the Members who occupy the benches to my right. I believe it is true to say that that uneasiness is, at least to some extent, shared by those who are sitting in this House as Coalition supporters of the Government. It will be quite a useful function of this Debate if some recognition is given to that. There is no use disguising the fact, if you even wanted to disguise it, that the Coali- 736 tion Liberals in this House have been in the past, at all events, associated with the policy of Free Trade, and at the recent election I think that nothing was said or done to impair that position.
I am speaking entirely for myself, but during the course of that election I had the unique experience of addressing not only the Liberal Club in my Division, but also the Conservative Club, and on both occasions I was accompanied by the same people, so that if I desired it was impossible to make a different speech in each place, and I said quite frankly—and I may refer to this as other Members have referred to the pledges which they gave—that in my opinion the Coalition could only be maintained if the two great questions of the attitude towards Ulster, and the attitude towards Tariff Reform were suspended. It appeared to me that on either of those issues being raised the Coalition must split without any disguise. In the Debate that has taken place to-night, and in former Debates on this question of restrictions, a number of Members of this House have openly declared themselves Tariff Reformers, and avowed that they are pressing in that direction, I think a declaration of that kind can only be received by those of us who have advocated Free Trade in the past with some uneasiness. We cannot help feeling that the work of these Councils and the decisions they may come to must have some effect on legislation, not only during this emergency period, but in the permanent period which we hope very soon to enter upon. Therefore it is of the utmost importance that full confidence should be established in these Councils, and that we should feel that all such matters as do come before them will receive adequate consideration, not only from the point of view of the producer, but also from the point of view of the consumer. I take it that the proceedings of these Sub-committees are going to be reviewed by the General Council, and I think we may hope that the General Council will take a whole view of the subject in their review, because it appears clear as far as the Sub-committees are concerned, and as far as individual manufacturers are concerned, decisions affecting their particular industry must always be in favour of what is generally known as Protection, and if one simply gets a series of individual reports they must inevitably be in the nature of reports in favour of Protection. One therefore can only hope that on a survey 737 of the whole situation taken General Council there will be a fair balance kept as between producer and consumer. The real question, if we are going to get Protection in this country, is, Are we going to get it in the public interest or in private interests? As far as I was able to understand the gist of the letter which passed between the Prime Minister and the Leader of the House on fiscal matters, there was nothing in what was said there to suggest that any alteration of fiscal policy would be made on any other ground than that of public interest. I may be speaking entirely from my own point of view, but I should think the real test that we shall apply to any proposal made in the direction of change in fiscal policy will be the test whether it is really done in the public interest or whether it has at the back of it private interests. I do not associate myself with the Amendment, and if it is carried to a Division I shall vote with the Government; but I think it is of importance to the Government itself and to the existence of the Coalition that we should all be satisfied that the investigations that are being made will be thorough, impartial, and unprejudiced in character.
§ 10.0 P.M.
§ Sir A. WILLIAMSON
I want to make a few observations to the Committee on the subject of the removal of restrictions. Being myself engaged in the overseas trade, perhaps I come more in contact with the difficulties and drawbacks of those restrictions than many Members of the House. I notice that the interference with trade—the system of licences and the prevention of free exchange holding up prices as it does—very injuriously affects the whole trade and industry of this country. Take the case of steel, the price of which is held up by the action of the Government. This has enabled very large business to be done by our American competitors while our English steel trade has been more or less held up. I can speak as the director of a large South American railway. We have had offers of steel rails and locomotives from America pressed upon us, with delivery guaranteed, at a time when our own manufacturers of steel rails and locomotives are paralysed by the conditions which are imposed upon them by the Government regulations as to price and restrictions. Wool is being held up, while in other countries where the restrictions have been removed a great deal of trade is being done in it. I was told there 738 were no fewer than thirty American travellers in Scandinavia recently pressing woollen goods on the markets there, at a time when our manufacturers who before the War had the trade and supplied all the woollen goods there are being prevented—by the dilatory action of the Government in holding up prices of wool and restricting exports—from competing in that market with America, who at the present moment is busily engaged in capturing a market which formerly belonged to this country. In connection with another article I propose to show how injurious is this interference to consumers in this country. I refer to nitrate, which is necessary for securing increased crops. At the end of the War, our Government and other Allied Governments, especially the United States, held stocks of nitrate. The price, of course, fell very rapidly in Chile, where it was produced. But our Government by a system of licences prevented any British merchant or manufacturer from dealing in the article or shifting it at all. At the present time a British merchant cannot buy nitrate in Chile, nor can any British manufacturer there send it to this country. The Government have held up the price in order to dispose of their own stocks without showing a loss, and as a result the British farmer has had to pay from £24 to £28 per ton for nitrate when a merchant could buy it in Chile, and even if he paid 80s. a ton freight could sell it at £16 10s. That is a position which is very prejudicial to the consumer. It is due to the fact that the Treasury is unwilling to let its own stock go at a lower price, and it has adopted this attitude to the great detrimen of the farmer and agriculturists in this country, and also to the great loss of British merchants and of shareholders in nitrate companies here. I would also point out that this policy has not been followed in other countries.
The other day I called the attention of the House, by a question, to the fact that our Government had allowed the Americans to take the whole of the German steamers in South America, and I want to point out how this policy of interference with our trade is affecting our mercantile trade in other parts of the world. Take the case of wheat. Here, again, we find the Government keeping up the price of wheat by an arrangement which was made with the American Government. Undoubtedly, our Government have undertaken to buy wheat from America, 739 where there is a guaranteed price equal to 80s. a quarter in Chicago. By selling a loaf at 9d. we are going on losing £60,000,000 a year, because the Government have entered into this arrangement. Although the Scandinavian can go to the Argentine and buy wheat there at a considerably lower price than we are paying for the American wheat, our Government will not allow British merchants, to go there and buy cheap wheat or to send it to this country, because of the arrangement which had been made. Only the other day my own firm bought some of this wheat in the Argentine market and paid a freight for it to Peru which was practically the same as the freight to Europe. We have mills at Peru and the wheat cost us from 15s. to 20s. per quarter less than we are paying for wheat in this country. I say the Government are pursuing a wrong policy altogether. They ought to remove the restrictions as to price and then we would have not only the cheaper loaf but all those engaged in British industry would have the satisfaction of getting cheaper food.
I call the attention of the Committee to these things because these restrictions are really very serious, not only from the point of view of the man who brings the commodities to this country, but eventually very serious from the point of view of cur export trade. It makes it not only much dearer to produce, but we are also still unable to compete. What we want to get back to is the international competitive price by removing these restrictions as soon as possible. They have been kept on too long. One quite admits that there are certain things which have had to be restricted perhaps, or at any rate trade has to be controlled to some extent, until we saw our way clear. But the time has come when we do see our way clear to a very large extent. To main tarn these restrictions on such articles as nitrate of soda is perfectly ridiculous—there is no other word for it. That the Government should prevent people bringing nitrate of soda into this country and supply it to farmers at competitive prices simply because they have a stock on which they do not want to make a loss is perfectly ridiculous. Take the two articles that are let go—copper and tin. What happened? Both copper and tin fell to the cost of production. You can buy tin to-day as cheap as it ever was, if you take into account the difference in the cost of pro- 740 duction to-day from what it was before the War. You can buy copper to-day at £70 to £72 a ton—it was up to £132 when the War ended—and that is equivalent to not more than £50 before the War, bearing in mind the extra freight and cost of production. That £50 per ton was the lowest price copper ever touched. Therefore it is at bedrock price to-day at £70. Tin and copper were let go by the Government because they had not big stocks of them. They must have had large stocks of them, but such stocks were comparatively small.
I urge the Government to remove these restrictions and to let us get back to the international competitive prices. What they are doing now is simply paralysing industry. How is it that the able members of the Government do not see, as most business men do, that they are simply injuring the industry of this country? They are not only maintaining discontent, but absolutely fomenting discontent in industry by the policy they are pursuing. The policy of letting go is the policy they ought to adopt. While I know it is said in this House that that is the policy they are pursuing, they are not following it fast enough. I noticed the other day that the Leader of the House made a speech, in which he referred to the question of restrictions upon imports, and especially spoke about the difficulties of the manufacturer in this country if certain foreign goods were allowed in freely without restrictions of some sort or other. The phrases used were a little ambiguous, but I would warn the Government that if it means that they are going to put on duties for the sake of protecting manufacturers in this country, then they cannot reckon on the support of many people in this House, on whose support at present they are relying. I should like to make that position quite clear, because I speak for others as well as myself, although I have not authority from them to say so now. I hope that these observations may be taken from one who supports the Government, who wishes the Government well, and who wishes it to bring the affairs of this country to a satisfactory conclusion, to complete the work we have taken in hand in connection with this great War, and to bring about a satisfactory peace. But at the same time I want to make it quite clear that I cannot personally approve of the policy they are pursuing, and I say that they ought to remove the restrictions.
Mr. TYSON WILSON
Is this Committee to sit in secret, and will nobody know what they are doing unless a Return is moved for? If that is going to be the policy of the Government, I am afraid there is going to be trouble. Once the industrial people of this country get it into their heads that a Committee sitting in secret, whose proceedings are not known at all, is responsible for the high cost of living, they will take matters into their own hands. The more openly the Department deals with the affairs of the country the better it will be for the Department. We remember that the Chancellor of the Exchequer was compelled to withdraw certain restrictions upon new issues of capital. We may be sure that the industrial people will not be indisposed to follow the example of the capitalists in the City and will take steps which will force the hands of the Government and compel them to remove the restrictions if they think that the action of this Committee is keeping up the cost of living. The matter ought to be dealt with openly, as was the case of coal before the Coal Commission. The more confidence we place in the people of this country the less discontent we shall have, I appeal to the Board of Trade to remove as quickly as possible the restrictions which are hampering British trade. Until quite recently the restriction on the import of leather was having the same effect as that described by the last speaker. Anything which prevents the development of our trade is not in the best interests of the country. A Department or a Government studying the best interests of the country will always keep in close touch, not only with the parties interested in the selling and buying of the goods, but with the consumers as well.
§ Mr. BETTERTON
This is the third time during the last few weeks on which this question has been raised, but having regard to its enormous importance and gravity no one will grudge a moment that has been spent in its consideration. During all these Debates, and also in questions that have been asked from time to time, I have noticed that right hon. Gentlemen opposite, and, indeed, some hon. Gentlemen on this side claim to speak in some special sense as if they were the representatives and protectors of the rights of consumers. This House is the guardian of all rights. It is not only in the interests of the consumer that you should consider in the transition time, but you should also 742 consider the fact whether you embarrass and possibly ruin great national industries when they are passing from one stage to another. I frankly fear these progressive steps in the descending scale, the first of which is unfair treatment, the second unemployment, the third elimination, and the fourth the ultimate inevitable rise in the price to the consumer on whose behalf hon. Members claim to speak. With regard to these export licences—it is absolutely impossible to sever the one part of the question from the other—I am in entire agreement with almost everything I have heard to-day and with no speaker more than the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Moray and Nairn (Sir A. Williamson). On the 10th March the Minister of Reconstruction made a speech in which he held out hopes—in fact, he gave a definite pledge—that many of these restrictions would be removed. He said:The policy is that the maximum number of manufactured goods which it is possible to transfer shall be transferred to the free list.Later he said:For the rest, we are trying to get the maximum number of goods moved on to List C, which, as anybody engaged in export trade knows, is a list which means export under licence to any destination.I confess that I for my part am disappointed at the progress which has been made between 10th March and this date. I have here two lists issued by the Board of Trade. The first is dated 21st February, made before the pledge of the right hon. Gentleman, and the second March 21st, some days after, and by comparing the two lists you will see what has been added. In the second list there are a considerable number of articles, but many of them of the most trifling importance. For instance, you have fresh flowers which you can export overseas, and there are many other articles scarcely more important. The only commodities of real importance that I see are certain iron and steel manufactures. I would ask the right hon. Gentleman, if he speaks, whether he cannot tell the House that in his opinion the time has now come when the restrictions on the export of, at any rate, cotton, woollen and jute goods should be absolutely removed. I know that the anxiety amongst manufacturers of cotton, woollen and jute goods is very serious and growing day by day. The Minister of Reconstruction on 10th March pointed out that many of those goods would be removed to List C, except so far as concerned Scandinavian countries. Those are 743 the countries which afford the best market for cotton and jute and many other goods from this country. Many people in those countries have made great fortunes during the War, and those countries are aft the present time the only market for export of goods we have. The right hon. Member (Sir A. Williamson) made a statement which, if correct, is about the most serious statement possibly, because he said in this connection that America was sending goods to those countries, while restrictions prevented us doing so. On the 19th instant the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Lieutenant-Colonel Pickering) suggested that goods were being sent and ours refused admittance. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, in his reply, said, "I am informed that is not so. The Americans have been booking orders and giving long credit for goods to be delivered when the blockade is raised." If what the hon. Member said this evening is true, the Chancellor of the Exchequer was misinformed and on a most vital question.
§ Sir A. WILLIAMSON
What I stated was that there were a number of American travellers in Scandinavia at the present time pushing the sale of American woollen goods.
§ Mr. BETTERTON
Possibly I misunderstood what the right hon. Gentleman said and I am glad it is not as I thought, as it would be a most serious charge against the integrity of America. We have been in the War over four years and the Americans only about two years. They send their travellers over to Scandinavia and Holland and Norway, and when these travellers meet Scandinavians, and Norwegians, and Dutchmen and ask for forward orders the reply they naturally get is: "The last order I placed in England was three or four years ago; they have had my goods and my money for the last three years, and till they deliver one or the other we shall do no more trade with them, but we shall deal with, you, the Americans." That is what is happening every day. I read only the other day in a Dutch paper, I think it was the "Handelsblad," that something like 37,000,000 florins' worth of goods from Holland alone were in this country at the end of January. That means, of course, that the Dutch purchaser is not going to place another order with an Englishman until he gets some of those goods or his money, both of which he has been out of 744 for so long, and that is the way in which the Americans are getting in in front of us and getting our markets in Scandinavia and Holland. I most earnestly press the Government to do all that is in their power to cause these restrictions to be removed, and if pressure is necessary, either on the Economic Council in Paris, referred to in the speech of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, or elsewhere, I trust they will do all that in them lies to take all possible steps to get these export restrictions removed at the earliest possible moment.
§ The MINISTER of RECONSTRUCTION (Sir Auckland Geddes)
Before I begin to answer any of the very numerous, points which have been raised by hon. Members in the last hour, I wish to apologise once again for the absence of the President of the Board of Trade (Sir A. Stanley), who regrets that he is unable to be here this evening to take part in this, most interesting and most important Debate. As my hon Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Betterton) has said, we have discussed this subject now several times in the course of the last week or two, and I am glad the Committee should have had these discussions, because there is no subject more important, more vital to us at the present time than this very subject of getting the trade of the country restarted. Before I come to deal with some of the general questions, I would like to answer one or two of the points raised by hon. Members which cannot fall with any ease into the general answer. The first point with which I wish to deal is that raised by the hon. Member for Westhoughton (Mr. Tyson Wilson) on the subject of the Committee which has been appointed by the President of the Board of Trade to advise him with regard to the import restrictions which it is desirable to maintain. My hon. Friend said it was very necessary that there should be full publicity about these restrictions. I agree. It is necessary that there should be the fullest possible publicity about all these restrictions. That does not mean that all the discussions of each of the numerous Sub-committees must be published. That would be an impossible way of doing business, and no one knows better than my hon. Friend what difficulties could be created by the publication of the discussions of Sub-committees of various bodies of men in this country.
But what it is necessary that there should be published, and published fully, is the decisions at which the President of 745 the Board of Trade arrives on the advice of his Committee, and the reasons upon which that decision is based. You cannot carry on with a very difficult procedure of this sort without publicity, unless you are prepared to run the risk of unfair influence and unfair decision unconsciously being given by the President of the Board of Trade. So we agree that there must be sufficiently full publicity with regard to all these restrictions which are maintained. But I would like once more to remind the Committee what difficulty this procedure under the advisory council is intended to meet. The difficulty is this: we are passing through a transition stage, in which the conditions change from day to day. It is not possible to say there is a decision which is permanent in character. The decisions are avowedly transitional. They have either to be taken by officials gaining advice from such people as they can reach to consult, or they can be taken by the President of the Board of Trade himself upon the recommendation of a Committee, the membership of which is known, the chairman of which is a Member of this House, and several members of which are Members of this House. That is surely a vastly better, a vastly safer, procedure than leaving decisions of this vital character to officials consulting unknown experts, and I am sure the Committee agrees. Criticism there may be upon the personnel and upon the composition of the Committee, but a committee of known composition is surely a much safer thing than leaving it to officials, and I have not to apologise either for the shape that the Council has taken or for its composition. It is, in the circumstances, the only step which the Government could have taken to establish such a Council, and, at ail events, to be largely guided by its recommendations.
Another point separate from the main question with which I wish to deal is that of the restrictions on paper. My hon. Friend opposite urged the Government to retain these restrictions on paper until 1st September, on the ground that if these restrictions were not maintained there would be an exacerbation of the difficulty of finding employment for the people of this country. The decision to remove the restrictions was arrived at after a very careful consideration of that very point—unemployment. Paper, as a raw material for industry, when present and available in large quantities, provides greater employment than it does in its own manufacture.
§ Sir A. GEDDES
. I am informed that the British mills at the present moment cannot provide all the paper that is required, but it is absolutely essential that in dealing with a problem of that sort the balance of gain must decide the Government's action. The Government, knowing full well that for a time there would be some disturbance in connection with the manufacture of paper, decided to remove the restrictions, in order that the businesses dependent upon paper would be able to get what they wanted. The advice we have been able to receive from the experts makes it clear that that decision of the Government to remove the restriction was right.
§ Mr. REMER
The statement has been made by the Government that the English mills are not at the present moment producing sufficient paper for the country. I happen to know that the production of the mills, as I stated earlier, is only 50 per cent. of their total capacity. They can produce twice as much paper as they are now producing.
§ Sir A. GEDDES
The expert advice given to the Government made known the fact that when they are working at their full capacity the British paper mills can produce all the paper that is required for use here. But the question is "at the present time." And we held that they could not at the present moment produce it.
§ Sir A. GEDDES
I do not think there in anything I can add on the question of paper. The Government, in taking their decision, acted upon the best advice given, and in the recognised public interest.
An HON. MEMBER
la the right hon. Gentleman aware that several mills in the country are being shut down at the present time?
§ Sir A. GEDDES
We were well aware that with the restrictions off paper many of the mills would temporarily close. But that seems to me to be a lesser evil than 747 to have hundreds and thousands, if not tens of thousands, of those engaged in the secondary trades suffering. It is never so easy to decide these things as it is to criticise them. These are what I may call minor points.
On the general question with regard to our policy at present, we have been told that the restrictions that are still being maintained on trade are unnecessary. We are told that the restrictions on imports are raising uselessly and unnecessarily the cost of living. That may be perfectly true—the Government knows that some of these restrictions are doing so for the moment. These restrictions are quite likely to be, fairly enough, included in the many contributory causes which are raising the cost of living. But it would be a poor policy for the Government of this country to try and meet that sentiment by saying, "We will throw away the trade upon which hundreds and thousands of people depend." You have to take the larger view. I assure this Committee that there is no subject more than this in the whole range of government which at the present time is more continuously under review, and upon which the Government is more continuously consulting experts who are in possession of the best information that we can command. We cannot do more than that. But this whole policy of the restriction of trade is separate from those things which go with it. It is as distasteful to the Government as it can be to any hon. Member of this House or any member of the trading or commercial community. We do not like restrictions for the sake of restrictions. We do not maintain them for the amusement of the Government, for the Government has twice as much work to do as it would have were there no restrictions. But all these things take time and thought, and more time and thought, I can assure hon. Members, than some who have spoken with great confidence to-day have ever considered. This question of the cost of living is one of the most difficult and intricate problems that the mind of man could have to tackle. It is said it is due to inflation. So it is in part. It is said that it is due to restrictions on imports, and so it may be in part. It is quite likely just as much due to another factor, and that is to the increased velocity of the currency due to the higher rate of wages. That is a factor which is continually overlooked, and it is one of the 748 most difficult to deal with. As a result of the raising of wages there is more to spend for the wage earner and the money passes more quickly. Those are some of the factors which are steadily under observation and consideration and are considered every time when this question of import restrictions come up.
Think what would be the effect of removing all the import restrictions at the present moment! All sorts of people all the time ask me to remove this and that import restrictions. What would be the effect? We should have this country flooded with goods which we do not really require for our national life, such as mowing machines, sewing machines, roller skates, scooters, with and without motors, and we can get on without those things, and if they came in our money would go out of the country. It is so easy to talk about removing restrictions and sometimes one feels inclined to do it, but we are now playing for too high stakes, and therefore I would urge this Committee to believe that the Government really and honestly desire to get rid of these restrictions on imports just as fast as it safely can do in the public interest, remembering all the time that this Government, led by our Prime Minister, is pledged before a General Election to see that the key industries of the country, on which the life of the nation depends, are shielded, and to see that our wage-earners, our trade, and our national life are protected against unfair competition and dumping. Those are deliberate pledges given by the Government to the country before the election, and those pledges will be carried out, but it is not easy at this moment to sit down quietly and see exactly what is the best thing. Therefore, we have adopted what is, I admit, in many ways an undesirable course, but it is the least undesirable among many undesirable courses, and that is to fix a transitional period and say that during that time we will have a jury structure of protection, and during the time that jury structure is in place we will prepare and will submit to the House the plans for the permanent breakwaters which will protect our national life. That is our policy. I myself, speaking some days ago, explained to the best of my ability what the policy was, and I can only repeat that it is our policy during this transitional period to prepare the permanent plans. It is impossible to do it now in the 749 national interest. Too much is at stake to do it hurriedly. We have got to do it carefully, and, with all the other things that there are, it will take all the time to get it done by 1st September. My hon. Friend the Member for Moray and Nairn (Sir A. Williamson) spoke of the restrictions on the export of locomotives. I know of no such restrictions, and the Government officials who are responsible are ignorant of any such restrictions. I am sure that my hon. Friend would not have made such a statement if he had not had some evidence which made him believe it was the case that there were such restrictions.
§ Sir A. WILLIAMSON
The right hon. Gentleman has misunderstood what I said. The Government have so fixed the price of steel and iron that it is impossible to export locomotives and rails in competition with America.
§ Sir A. GEDDES
I apologise for having misunderstood my hon. Friend, but surely my hon. Friend knows that the Government are subsidising every ton of steel in order to try and keep this very trade, and a subsidy is a very different thing from a restriction—at least, I used to believe so. I am glad that my hon. Friend explained what he meant when he spoke of Americans obtaining trade in the neutral and blockade countries. Unfortunately, I had misunderstood him in the same way as the hon. Member for the Rushcliffe Division (Mr. Betterton) had misunderstood him. I thought he meant that the Americans were actually at this moment sending goods to the blockade countries. There is no restriction about British travellers going there. There is no great difficulty in getting passports. If people who wish for passports apply to the Overseas Trade Department for recommendation they will find no difficulty in getting passports. All that question of the difficulty of passports which existed has been dealt with, and, I believe, from reports I have received, satisfactorily dealt with. If the complaint about passports to those countries for trade representatives are founded on recent experience, I should be only too pleased to know of them so that I might assist in getting them removed. But these great restrictions on our exports, which we agree are at present most hampering upon trade, are now restricted, except goods falling in the three classes I indicated the other day, to exports to the blockaded countries and those who 750 know most of the conditions of affairs in Europe at this time know how difficult it is to remove the restrictions upon trade with the blockaded countries. Every day that passes makes it more clear that the policy of maintaining the machinery of the blockade and a great part of the substance of the blockade was well advised. If we had thrown away that weapon, as we are now laying by a large number of our swords and bayonets, there would have been a great deal of work which was done at the cost of much blood to be re-done. So for a little time the Government, recognising fully the difficulties, must maintain in connection with its Allies the restriction upon exports to the blockaded countries. It is no good my saying at this moment that I think they will be removed quickly. I hope they will be removed quickly, but they will not be removed until our beaten enemy admits in writing her defeat. That is the policy of the Government. We are full of desire, full of sympathy, recognising that it is of vital necessity to do everything that we can for British trade. There is nothing within the agreement with our Allies, and within the limits set by the interests of the nation we will not do for British trade, but there is one thing we will not do. We will not be pushed by uninformed criticism into a course which, after full consideration of the many facts which can only be known to the Government, we believe to be wrong.
§ Amendment negatived.
§ Original Question again proposed.
§ Motion made, and Question, "That the Chairman do report Progress, and ask leave to sit again "—(Mr. Bridgeman)—put, and agreed to.
§ Committee report Progress; to sit again upon Monday next.
§ The remaining Orders were read and postponed.