§ 42. Lord H. CAVENDISH-BENTINCK
asked the Prime Minister whether, in view of the fact that in practically every industry the prices of commodities have been advanced by the operation of trusts to a level higher than is warranted by the cost of raw material and the expense of production, the Government will formulate an effective policy for the regulation of these operations, based on the ascertained cost of conversion at each stage of manufacture?
§ The PRESIDENT of the BOARD of TRADE (Sir Auckland Geddes)
I have been asked to reply. I venture to think that the investigation so far made do not bear out my Noble Friend's suggestion, and would refer him to the reports of the Sub-Committees under the Profiteering Act which have enquired into the tobacco industry, the manufacture of sewing cotton, the fish trade, the worsted yarn industry, road transport rates, and the farriery trade.
I believe, and I think I have reason to believe, that the responsible members of the commercial, industrial and trading sections of the community are becoming deeply impressed by the need for seeing that prices are not advanced beyond the point to which they are moved by the action of great economic forces.
Speaking broadly, the rise in prices is the inevitable outward and visible sign of the national poverty resulting from the War. Examined in some detail the price increase is, I think, undoubtedly due first and most important to the fall in the commodity value of gold, next to the unavoidable paper inflation which accounts for 20 or 25 per cent. of the increase: next, to scarcity values; next, to the diminished utilisation of capital resulting mainly from labour readjustments, for example, the extraordinarily diminised use of shipping: and speaking broadly, comparatively slightly to unreasonable individual profit making In 1901 addition there is some reflection both of heavy taxation and of the prospective high cost of plant maintenance and replacement in the price of products.
As the main elements in the cure of the present undesirable position must be increased production and increased export, I am convinced that the most likely thing to delay recovery would be for one nation alone, and particularly this nation, to reestablish intricate, costly and inevitably hampering Government control, and am altogether opposed to the idea of the Government undertaking to regulate in detail, prices and profits at each stage of manufacture.
In my opinion the most hopeful line to follow is that which we have adopted, of trying to get each industry by agreement to regulate its own affairs, keeping the essential needs of the nation steadily before it and in consultation with the Government. That, with some improvements in the Profiteering Act, and its continuance for a further period, seems to me to hold the most hopeful promise of our winning through to renewed national prosperity and its certain concomitant, lower prices.
§ Mr. G. TERRELL
May I ask whether the succession of strikes that occurred last year are not very largely responsible for these high prices?
§ Sir A. GEDDES
They are undoubtedly a contributory element, but it would not be, I think fair to say that they are largely responsible. The main thing undoubtedly is the fall in the commodity value of gold, due to the accumulation of gold in one country.
§ Captain W. BENN
Does he not attribute the rise in prices, in part at least, to profligate Government expenditure?
§ 46. Mr. LAMBERT
asked the Prime Minister if he can arrange for such a vote to be placed first order so as to enable the high and constantly rising prices of essential commodities to be discussed.
§ 50. Sir HARRY BRITTAIN
asked the Prime Minister whether he can see his way to postpone any intended legislation which could be delayed without prejudice 1902 in order to give a day this Session for the discussion of the rise in prices, which affects every class of the community in the most material way?
§ The PRIME MINISTER
As my right hon. Friend knows, the votes set down for discussion are chosen by the Opposition, but as has already been stated by the Leader of the House, the Government will be glad if an opportunity can be found for this discussion. We propose to-morrow to discuss this important question at the Peace Conference. A discussion in Parliament would be enlightening and helpful.
§ Mr. LAMBERT
Will the right hon. Gentleman kindly say when it will be likely that the Government will find an opportunity for a discussion in the House?
§ Mr. BONAR LAW (Leader of the House)
I said to my right hon. Friend yesterday that if it were possible we should gladly do so. We cannot find special time, but I still hope that some opportunity may be found in connection with some of the Votes.
§ Mr. LAMBERT
I put this question on the paper in order that the right hon. Gentleman might find an opportunity to tell us now when this discussion can take place.
§ Mr. BONAR LAW
Can I say more than I have said? As the Prime Minister has just said now, and as I said yesterday, we are convinced that a discussion would do nothing but good. I think my right hon. Friend himself suggested that it might be done on the Civil Service Estimates, and we hope that that will be arranged.