Motion made, and Question proposed,
That a sum, not exceeding £262,548, be granted to His Majesty, to complete the sum necessary to defray the Charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1924, for the Salaries and Expenses of the Office of the Commitee of Privy Council for Trade and Subordinate Departments, including certain Services arising out of the War and Grants-in-Aid."—[Note: £770,000 has been voted on account.]
§ Mr. SHINWELL
I beg to move to reduce the Vote by £100.
I confess my disappointment at the absence of an explanatory statement from the right hon. Gentleman (The President of the Board of Trade). On a Vote such as this, he might very well have explained the comparative statistics in foreign trade which have been revealed by the trade accounts for the past few months, and have attempted to square the facts with some of his recent speeches on the expansion of our trade with foreign countries. The right hon. Gentleman has supervision over the Department which is responsible for many branches of economic and industrial activity. He is responsible, not merely for shipping and questions which arise out of shipping services, but for commercial treaties and overseas trade and a variety of other matters, all of which come in the category of trade affairs.
I desire to direct the attention of the Committee to the somewhat significant state of affairs which has arisen from our trade relationships during the past few months. I said a moment or two ago that the right hon. Gentleman might well have been expected to square his recent statements on the subject of the expansion of British trade with the facts as presented by his own statistical Reports. Some 2334 weeks ago the right hon. Gentleman was addressing a meeting of the Belfast Chamber of Commerce, at which he delivered a speech sounding a note of optimism utterly beside the economic facts as presented in his own Reports. I cannot share the optimism of the right hon. Gentleman, and I think the Committee will agree with me that the figures contained in the Report will bear out my point of view. I would direct the attention of the Committee in the first place to the comparative statistics of foreign trade for May and June. The imports for May amounted to £89,478,000, but in June there was a slight drop, as revealed in the last official statistics, to £89,307,000. While there is a very slight decrease on the import side, we find a very startling decrease in regard to exports. In May the exports amounted to £71,554,000, whereas in June—when we might very properly have expected an increase for various reasons well known to the right hon. Gentleman, some of which are referred to in the Board of Trade Journal, which comments on the June figures as regards foreign trade—the exports only amounted in value to £62,883,000, or a drop of almost £9,000,000. When we come to re-exports, we find that, whereas in May they amounted to £11,773,000, they dropped in June to £10,954,932, or a drop of nearly £1,000,000.
These figures do not warrant any optimism as regards the expansion of British trade. On the contrary, there has been a decided drop in the past few months which warrants us in taking a gloomy and pessimistic view of the industrial situation. I observe that the right hon. Gentleman approves of my point of view, so perhaps he will be good enough to explain why he sounded such a strong note of optimism in the speeches delivered elsewhere. Perhaps it may be that speeches delivered at meetings of chambers of commerce do not require to be on all-fours with speeches delivered in this House, and perhaps they may be at variance in some degree with the facts.
§ Mr. SHINWELL
I do not agree that all these speeches are in the nature of post-prandial orations. Now, I want to come to an even more significant fact in relation to our exports. One of the key industries, one of the basic industries, of 2335 this country is the shipbuilding industry. To a very large extent we depend for our material prosperity on the prosperity of the shipbuilding industry. In the years before the War there was a very large amount of shipbuilding exported from this country to foreign countries. Britain was regarded, quite properly, as the chief shipbuilding nation, and there was hardly a country which did not purchase from this country ships of various kinds. Take that fact, which is beyond dispute, and put it beside the figures which have been recently submitted in regard to the exports in shipbuilding. The gross tonnage of exported ships in May, 1921, amounted to 20,104 tons. In the comparative month for 1914 the tonnage amounted to 36,000. It was not very high for that period, but it was very much higher than in May, 1921. In May, 1922, there had been a slight increase, for the gross figures then amounted to 24,946 tons. In May, 1923, instead of an expansion having taken place, there was a most significant, and one might say appalling, reduction in the export of ships, for the figures were 12,076 tons, almost half of what they were in May of the previous year. If you take the comparative figures for five months of the three years 1921–22–23, we find that in 1921 the exports amounted to 198,000 tons, in 1922 256,000 tons and this year 145,000 tons. In addition to that, the value of these shipbuilding exports has been considerably diminished. That is a very serious state of affairs and calls for some explanation from the right hon. Gentleman.
I would like to draw attention to what I regard as a still more significant fact in regard to the prosperity of the British commerce. In addition to being one of the chief, if not the chief ship-building country of the world, we have always been regarded as the nation which provided the tonnage to carry the cargoes of the world. I find that in the comparative figures the tonnage of vessels clearing with cargoes from the United Kingdom amounted in May, so far as British vessels were concerned, to 3,814,000 tons. That was a considerable increase over 1921–22, but I would ask the Committee to note this very important fact, that, while there has been an increase in the amount of British tonnage clearing 2336 with cargoes from the United Kingdom, there has been a still considerable increase in the amount of foreign tonnage clearing with cargo. Whereas in 1921 the amount of foreign tonnage clearing with cargoes from the United Kingdom amounted to 431,000 tons, in 1923 it had increased to 2,455,000 tons. That I regard as a very startling condition of things. It reveals this fact, that whereas British tonnage constituted the chief carrying tonnage of the world, our foreign competitors are now presenting a very formidable competition, and the result is that British tonnage is not by any means making headway. I have reduced these figures to a very simple illustration, and I submit that, whereas British tonnage clearing with cargoes from the United Kingdom has increased about three and a half times, foreign tonnage has increased six times. I do feel that the right hon. Gentleman, in view of his recent speeches and the general opinion of Members on his own side with regard to the improvement in British trade, is called upon to explain the figures that I have just submitted. I could submit a very large number of additional figures, but these are quite sufficient for my purpose. The right hon. Gentleman is responsible for a Department which deals with much more than the collection of statistics relating to shipping, commerce, and so on. It must pay due regard to commercial treaties and the tariffs which are in operation throughout the world, and keep a watchful and unceasingly vigilant eye on the tariffs of foreign countries. In this connection, I would direct the right hon. Gentleman's attention to page 61 of the Estimate. I refer to that part dealing with the Commercial Relations and Treaties Department. The Committee will agree with me when I say that it is of the utmost importance that we should pay strict attention to the commercial treaties which are now in operation and which are about to be agreed between foreign countries. I find that the amount spent on the Commercial Relations and Treaties Department only amounts to £10,480. That seems to be a very small amount, having regard to the important nature of the work of this Department.
§ The PRESIDENT of the BOARD of TRADE (Sir Philip Lloyd-Greame)
That was last year.
§ Mr. SHINWELL
Yes, that was last year. It is true that there is to be an increase of something like £1,700 this year. I want to draw attention to this fact. While the right hon. Gentleman proposes that the staff of the Department should be increased by two, there is an increase of £577 by way of bonus in addition to salaries. I think that calls for some explanation. I am far from taking exception to the amount expended by the right hon. Gentleman in expanding his Department in every possible direction in the interests of British trade and commerce, but, if money is to be spent, it ought to be spent wisely, and this particular item calls for some explanation.
I would direct the right hon. Gentleman's attention to the recent agreements that have been reached between foreign countries. There is the agreement between Austria and Italy, the Franco-Belgian Trade Convention, and, in particular, the recent Russian-Denmark Convention, a convention which is significant in view of the attitude of the Treasury Bench in relation to resuming diplomatic and trade relations with Russia. If Denmark can conclude a trade agreement of a reciprocal nature with Russia, which is to the advantage of both countries, then it is about time that the right hon. Gentleman, realising the importance of treaties from the point of view of his own Department and of the nation, brought his influence to bear on his colleagues to restore trading relations with Russia. The fact of the matter is that on the Continent agreements are being signed almost daily between the various countries, and Russia is entering with the most complete spirit into agreements of this kind. It is up to this country to follow the lead which has been given in the interests of the restoration of British trade and commerce.
I want to leave that part of my subject and to turn to a matter which affects the right hon. Gentleman's Department and which arises out of very many complaints which have been submitted to him on behalf of seamen and the dependants of seamen in connection with the operations of the Reparation Commission. During the War there was a very strong feeling on behalf of the seamen of the country. They had rendered invaluable 2338 service to the nation, and, in consequence of what they had done, many promises have been made.
§ Mr. SHINWELL
Naturally, the seamen of the country expect the Government to redeem the promises which were then made. Perhaps it is unwise to expect the Government to redeem promises, having regard to the lack of redemption in other matters, but the seamen are trusting, and perhaps simple in their faith, and they still expect the Government to do what they originally intended, or, at all events, promised. As a result of representations which were made to the Government, the Prime Minister of the day, the right hon. Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George), made certain promises to the organisations which met him and which represented the seamen of the country.
§ Mr. SHINWELL
That observation has so often been made by the hon. Member that by this time I am quite familiar with it. I must confess that it seems somewhat irrelevant at the moment.
§ Mr. SHINWELL
The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Carnarvon Boroughs did undoubtedly make definite promises of a financial character to the seamen's organisations, and, as a result, the Foreign Office took the matter up and communicated with the Seamen's Union requesting them to have forms printed which the men might fill up and send to the Foreign Office for their consideration. About a year later, in 1920, the matter was transferred from the Foreign Office to the Board of Trade. The Board of Trade then sent to the men a form and asked them to fill it up without regard to the forms which were originally filled up on the instructions of the Foreign Office. It is not generally known that originally the forms were sent out on the instructions of the Foreign Office. It is generally assumed that the Board of Trade were responsible for this work from the beginning, but that is not so. The Board of Trade, however, took the matter up, and the Reparation Commission was instructed to proceed. A very large number of claims were sent in, but it so happens that a considerable number of 2339 the men, believing that the original forms were quite sufficient for the purpose, either refused to fill up the forms sent out by the Reparation Department, or, when they were pressed to fill up those forms and they sent them to the Department, they found that because of some slight discrepancy between the original form coming from the Foreign Office and the form sent to the Board of Trade their claims were turned down. I want to direct the right hon. Gentleman's attention to some very significant facts in relation to this Reparation question, and, in particular, to statements made by the Noble Lord who sits beside him (Viscount Wolmer). I asked the Noble Lord a question on the 15th February with regard to the number of Reparation claims which had been sent in, and this is what he said, among other things:The total number of seamen and their dependants who have lodged claims with the Reparation Claims Department is 24,750."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 15th February, 1923; col. 314, Vol. 160.]I presume he regards that as accurate, or, at all events, he did so at the time, but I ventured to ask him a question last week, much on the same lines, and he then said:The number of officers and seamen of the mercantile marine, including fishermen, and of their dependants or relatives who have lodged claims with the Reparation Claims Department is 22,589."—[[OFFICIAL REPORT, 11th July, 1923; col. 1393, Vol. 166.]There is some discrepancy, because on 15th February the Noble Lord said the number was 24,000, and last week he said it was 22,000. Perhaps it may be susceptible of explanation, because I know that hon. Gentlemen on the Treasury Bench can explain almost anything. The Reparation Commission proceeded with its work, and eventually decided—apparently without the authority of Parliament, because so far as I know there has been no discussion in the House with regard to the matter—that they would not deal with claims submitted after December, 1922. There are two points of view which might be submitted on behalf of the men. First of all, the fact that they had submitted originally a claim to the Foreign Office through the medium of their organisation was in their opinion quite sufficient; and, secondly, there was a controversy proceeding in the 2340 country as to whether any payments would be received by way of reparation from Germany. Perhaps there was a strong justification for that point of view. Consequently, many of the men, reading of the controversy in the Press and listening to the speeches made, decided that it was not worth their while to present claims at all. In addition, there is the fact, well known to anyone having knowledge of seafaring affairs, that many seamen frequently change their addresses. When I was in touch with the seamen's organisation in Glasgow, it used to be a joke with us that a seaman often had an address on one side of the street in the morning and on another side in the afternoon, and probably he changed his address again in the evening. Seamen shift from port to port, and are completely out of touch with the edicts or instructions issued by Government Departments. Therefore, the men are not to blame in any degree for not having submitted claims before the time stipulated by the Commission. In reply to a question which I put the other day, the Noble Lord said that 15,000 belated claims were under consideration. Perhaps I had better give his exact words. He said:The number of applicants who have communicated with the Department for the first time since 30th December, 1922, is about 15,000, and the majority of these applicants are members of the mercantile marine."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 11th July, 1923; col. 1393, Vol. 166.]I plead with the right hon. Gentleman and the Noble Lord to give more sympathetic consideration to what are described as belated claims than has hitherto been done. I am aware of the difficulties of the Commission, and I am aware that perhaps it would be impossible to extend the period much further, but there have been many questions asked in the House and some speeches made on this very question, with the result that seamen have learned much more about the operations of the Reparation Commission in the last 12 months than they knew before. Perhaps I ought to be quite fair and say that as a result of some seamen having been paid their claims other seamen have heard of it and are now pressing theirs. I ask the right hon. Gentleman not to turn down any legitimate and valid claims submitted by any seaman who has suffered in any degree through the 2341 War. After all, men were torpedoed sometimes six and even ten times and lost all their effects. All that they received as a maximum—and that was only after much agitation by the Seamen's Organisation—was £7 10s., and that did not in any way compensate them for the loss of their clothes. Having regard to the suffering which they endured and the services which they rendered, I think the seamen and their dependants are entitled to more consideration from the right hon. Gentleman and his Department. I hope this appeal will not be made in vain. I want now to refer to another matter contained in the Estimates on page 80 referring to Law Charges, Shipping Liquidation Commission.
§ Mr. W. GRAHAM
May I point out that in previous years the Chairman has allowed a little wider discussion on the general Vote in order to economise the time of the Committee. I suggest that if you, Mr. Deputy-Chairman, found it possible to adopt that policy now, it would lead to economy of time and would assist the Debate.
I am rather in the hands of precedent in this matter, and it has been distinctly ruled that when we are considering a particular Vote only those matters raised in that Vote should be discussed. On the main Vote a very general discussion can take place upon any subject for which the Board of Trade is responsible, but if there be a separate Vote dealing with a particular question, then the discussion of that question should take place on that Vote.
§ Mr. GRAHAM
The subject which my hon. Friend (Mr. Shinwell) proposes to discuss comes very closely upon what has been already discussed, and upon what is the rule on the general Vote. I hope that you will be able to meet us and allow a little greater freedom of discussion. If the Debate be limited to a separate Vote, the subject which my hon. Friend wishes to discuss may not be reached at all.
§ Sir P. LLOYD-GREAME
It is true that there is a separate Vote and a main Vote. There is the Vote for the Mercantile Marine and several other Votes, like the Shipping Liquidation Commission and Special Services. Subject to your ruling, Mr. Deputy-Chairman, I am very anxious to meet the convenience of hon. Members and allow subjects to be referred to in respect of my salary as President of the Board of Trade, seeing that all these matters come under my jurisdiction. I do not want to rely upon technicalities, and one thing being allowed to come up rather than another.
§ Mr. PRINGLE
May I submit to you, Mr. Deputy-Chairman, that it is in accordance with practice that, when the salary of the Secretary of State or any Department is under discussion, it is possible to deal in the Debate with any matter for which he is responsible. Such a procedure has been sanctioned by the Chair in past years, and, in these circumstances, I submit that the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Shinwell) is entitled to raise the question which he now desires to raise.
§ Captain Viscount CURZON
The subjects dealt with under the Board of Trade are so vast and cover such an enormous field that, if we are compelled to confine ourselves to one particular Vote, we shall find it difficult to raise many of the problems which we now want to discuss.
Naturally I am desirous of considering the convenience of hon. Members, but I think the hon. Member for Penistone (Mr. Pringle) will find that it is not the practice of this House to allow questions for which there is a separate Vote. There is no doubt that a reference can be made to a particular subject, but not a detailed discussion upon questions in regard to which there is a separate Vote.
§ Viscount CURZON
To morrow we are going to discuss the Navy Estimates on the salary of the First Lord of the Admiralty, and we are going to discuss the question of Singapore, in regard to which there is a direct Vote.
§ Mr. PRINGLE
I would like to call attention to precedents of pre-War days. In 1914, on the Votes for the salaries of the Secretary for Scotland and the 2343 First Lord of the Admiralty, there were occasions on which questions arising on a particular Vote were discussed on those particular salaries, although the special Vote under which the money was voted was not before the House at the time.
§ Sir P. LLOYD-GREAME
Knowing that hon. Members on all sides wanted to raise a number of points of detail, I carefully arranged to put down all the relevant Votes which come under the jurisdiction of the Board of Trade. If it would be possible without taking a Vote on any one of them to have a rather wider discussion at the outset, it would suit the convenience of everybody very much. As the Vote for the salary of the President of the Board of Trade can be challenged on every one of these Votes, would it not be possible to have the discussion desired upon that Vote?
I took the trouble to find out what was the practice of the House on this subject when the Home Office Vote was discussed last week, and it was that discussion could not be raised on the main Vote on a question for which there was a separate Vote.
§ Mr. SHINWELL
On the Mercantile Marine Vote there is no reference to the Shipping Liquidation Commission.
§ Mr. SHINWELL
Do I understand that you are prepared to permit a discussion of a general character on this Vote?
Salaries and expenses in connection with the Shipping Liquidation Commission cannot be discussed on this Vote.
§ Mr. SHINWELL
That places us in a position of great difficulty, because we are anxious to deal with specific points, and, if we are precluded on the general Vote, there will be no opportunity of raising those points at all. The right hon. Gentleman's Department has so many varied branches that one feels it essential to deal with them en bloc. The shipping liquidation question is distinct from the general activities of the Board of Trade, and perhaps we might be allowed now to have a discussion of a general character.
§ Sir P. LLOYD-GREAME
Is it possible now to draw a distinction that whereas matters of details, as regards whether too much money was spent on the salary of a particular accountant and so on, are matters which would have to be discussed on the Vote in which they are put down, the broad policy pursued by the Board of Trade might be discussed on the President's salary and not the detailed questions of administration which are appropriate to a particular Vote? I think there is a distinction of that kind.
Speaking from recollection, I think it was suggested that reference could be made generally on the Vote for the Home Office to subjects administered by the Home Office, for which there was a separate Vote.
§ Mr. PETO
Do I understand that this difficulty arises from the fact that a detailed Vote has been put down? My recollection is that before the War, on the salary of the President of the Board of Trade, we were able to discuss every question dealt with by the Department on that Vote. Have we not placed ourselves in a difficulty by putting down too many Votes?
§ Mr. HARDIE
It has already been pointed out to me that I should be able to raise a discussion on the subject of fuel, but under your ruling that is going to be ruled out.
As far as I can understand the hon. Member, the subject he wishes to raise can be discussed on this Vote.
§ Mr. SHINWELL
It was my intention merely to deal with the policy of the Department, and I was going to make a reference to the charges of the Shipping Liquidation Commission to preface my observations. I think, in pursuing that line, it is quite consistent with the ruling that you have just given. I want to draw attention to the general transactions, and the policy of the Shipping Liquidation Department in regard to the disposal of ex-enemy vessels. As is well known, arising from the Inter-Allied Agreement a very large number of vessels were 2345 handed over to the United Kingdom by ex-enemy countries, and it was decided by the late Government to dispose of those vessels mainly to British shipowners under the direction of Lord Inchcape, and arrangements were made with that end in view.
I find on examining these transactions that 373 ex-enemy vessels were thus disposed of, and the net proceeds amounted to £19,459,000. In the early part of the Session I put certain questions to the President of the Board of Trade and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, as a result of which I ascertained that of the £19,000,000, being the net proceeds as stated in the Report of the Shipping Liquidation Department, only £16,000,000 had actually been paid. I assumed, as undoubtedly other hon. Members assumed, that £16,000,000 had actually been handed over to the Treasury. Judge of my astonishment when I realised, after putting another question to the Chancellor of the Exchequer on 10th May last, that of the gross proceeds of £19,000,000 odd, only £10,950,000 had actually found its way into the Treasury.
§ The CHAIRMAN (Mr. James Hope)
I am afraid that these details must be dealt with under the separate Vote which is on the Paper. The third Vote clearly deals with the subject.
§ Mr. SHINWELL
These figures have been extracted from the Report of the Liquidation Commission in order to show to the Committee that the President of the Board of Trade is responsible for what occurred. Obviously, I cannot criticise the right hon. Gentleman or his administration unless I submit figures in support of my criticism. I was about to read the figures and to put one or two questions to the right hon. Gentleman arising out of the figures. The Committee is surely entitled to know what are the financial transactions of the Board of Trade, and to learn from the right hon. Gentleman from time to time whether the Government in disposing of these vessels was disposing of them at reasonable prices.
§ The CHAIRMAN
I see the position clearly now. This is an exact parallel to what happened the other day on the Home Office Vote. There was a Vote for the salary of the Secretary of State, a Vote for the Metropolitan Police, and a 2346 Vote for Prisons. The Home Secretary is responsible to this House for all those Departments, but it was necessary, in acordance with precedent, to take separate Votes. It would be quite in order for the hon. Gentleman to raise the matter to which he has referred on the third Vote to be taken to-day, just as it was in order to raise questions relating to police and prisons on the separate Votes of the Home Office.
§ Mr. SHINWELL
Is it in order to ascertain, by way of question to the right hon. Gentleman, why it is that the amount stated as the net proceeds has not found its way to the Treasury? May I, in the course of Debate, put such a question to the right hon. Gentleman?
§ The CHAIRMAN
Certainly, but not on this Vote. The question can be put on the Vote for Shipping Liquidation, which will come on in due course this evening.
§ Mr. SHINWELL
Does it not arise on the question of the salary of the President of the Board of Trade? He receives a salary for carrying out certain administrative duties. If he is not carrying them out efficiently, are we not entitled to criticise him?
§ The CHAIRMAN
The point raised is exactly parallel to that raised on the Home Office Vote. The Home Secretary is responsible for the Metropolitan Police and for the proper carrying on of prisons, although there are separate Prison Commissioners. The hon. Member must raise his particular question on the separate and distinct Vote which deals with the matter.
§ Lieut.-Commander KENWORTHY
I want to comment on a matter which is within the cognisance of the President of the Board of Trade, and, if I strain the rules of order, no doubt the Chair will guide me, as there is some confusion owing to the number of Votes put down to-day. I suppose that at present the Department of the Board of Trade is the most important of the Government Departments. When I put one or two questions to the Minister, I hope he will not think that I am in any way attacking him or his Department. I hope he will remember that he and I were back benchers together, and that he has my sympathy for a new Minister struggling with a great Department in a very difficult time. Nevertheless, 2347 there are one or two questions that I am compelled to raise. The first relates to the working of the dyes policy. We were promised all sorts of things in the last Parliament when the Dyestuffs Bill was introduced, and various pledges were given to the trade which have not been implemented. I have very high authority for that statement. I shall quote from a speech of the chairman of the British Cotton and Wool Dyers' Association, as reported in the "Times" on 17th May last. I quote him because he knows much more about this question than I can know, and because his words deserve some comment from the President of the Board of Trade. He was referring to the hindrances that are put in the way of our export trade by the working of the dyes policy of the Government.
Hon. Members who were not in the last Parliament will be aware that the Government, on the plea of preparing for the next war, kept out foreign dyes as much as they could from this country and tried to foist on the consumers of dyes inferior products at a very much enhanced price in order that they might have a supply of poisons for use by our aeroplanes in the next war. We can leave the next war to take care of itself, but we cannot leave British trade at the present moment to defend itself. British trade is in a very parlous state indeed. We have terrible figures of unemployment, as given to me in answer to a question put to the Minister of Labour to-day. That is the immediate question for our consideration. If another war comes we will manage as we did in the last war. Meanwhile, if this country is going bankrupt, we shall be ruined without any defeat by a foreign enemy. These are the words of the President of the British Cotton and Wool Dyers' Association:It should not be forgotten that towards the end of 1920, when the Dyestuffs Importation Bill was being introduced, the majority of the colour users, through the Colour Users' Association, expressed approval of the Act,"—As a matter of fact, I understand that the calico printers were very much against it, but the majority of the colour users were bamboozled by the Government. The quotation goes on:but assent was given on the distinct understanding that the textile and other 2348 colour-using industries should not be placed in an unduly disadvantageous competitive competition. Unfortunately, this pledge which the Government made has not been kept"—This is not the statement of a Member sitting on the Opposition side of the House—and British colour users have to pay far higher prices for dyestuffs than those charged to competitors abroad. The consequence is that the textile industries of this country are being penalised, resulting in loss of business. It is well known that British firms are sending goods to Switzerland, Belgium and Holland to be dyed, an account of the much lower prices of dyestuffs ruling in those countries. We understand that the Licensing Committee has recently agreed to grant licences (with certain reservations) for dyestuffs, where the British equivalent was more than three times the pre-War price, strength and quality, of course, being taken into consideration.
§ Lieut. - Commander KENWORTHY
Certainly, it is Mr. Hoegger, and I am quoting from a speech at the Chartered Accountants' Hall, Manchester, on 17th May last, as reported in the "Times." Where the British user has to pay more than three times the pre-War price, he is given a licence to import, but only after very considerable delay. The quotation goes on:In theory this sounds very well, and if carried out in practice it would give much satisfaction. Unfortunately, our experience is that it is not carried out. We have had many applications refused where the British makers' price was far above three times the German pre-War price, and the reasons given for refusal were by no means satisfactory. It would appear that on the whole applications for licences have been recently dealt with more expeditiously than formerly. This is largely due to the assistance of a joint committee of technical experts appointed by the makers and the Colour Users' Association.Therefore, things are a little better, but, nevertheless, we are being penalised. The President of the Board of Trade, and no doubt others, will say, "Oh, but the colours are not very important. The actual cost of the dyeing of goods is perhaps only one thirty-second part of the whole." They put us off in that way. Let me quote a speech by Sir William 2349 Barton on this subject in the last Parliament. He said:The deciding factor in a cotton contract may be only one-thirty-second of a penny per yard.He said later:The finishing trades are carried on as units of industry and the fraction to them becomes 20 to 30 per cent. or more.He also pointed out how the price of colours was sometimes increased by from 400 to 800 per cent. That disposes of the contention that the cost of the dyes is quite negligible, and that the loss of orders by our merchants may not be traced to the dyes policy of the Government. Last night we had an impassioned oration from the President of the Board of Trade, backed up by the Noble Lord the Member for South Battersea (Viscount Curzon), about aliens coming here and taking work from poor British working men. We are losing work for the same poor British working men by this ridiculous and futile policy with regard to dyes. We are losing orders, and the loss is directly traceable to this ridiculous, war-born policy, which was very largely a failure under the Coalition Government and has been continued by the present Government. We are entitled to some statement from the President of the Board of Trade as to the Government's policy with regard to dyes, and as to how the Government propose to help our merchants and manufacturers a little more, and to think less of the means of manufacturing chemicals for poisoning the civilians of a possible enemy in a possible future war. Let us come down to the realities of the present. Unemployment of great magnitude is now in its third year. It is time that we gave up all this sentiment and the relics of the War period and remembered to help British trade and commerce a little.
I wish to raise another matter, and I hope that I shall be in order. The matter very nearly concerns the President of the Board of Trade. It is the question of the compensation of seamen who were injured in the late War by enemy submarine action and the compensation of widows whose husbands were killed by enemy submarines. I believe it is a fact that soon after the Armistice a deputation, including no less a person than Mr. Havelock Wilson, waited on the late Prime Minister and extracted from him a 2350 solemn pledge that the payment to these merchant seamen injured by enemy action should have first claim on the moneys received from Germany in Reparations. That pledge has not been kept. I tried to find the reference to that pledge, but I think I am right in saying it is generally agreed to have been given.
§ Mr. SHINWELL
On a point of Order. Are you aware, Sir, that I dealt in my speech with that subject fully so far as I was capable of dealing with it fully, and that your predecessor in the Chair took no exception to it.
§ The PARLIAMENTARY SECRETARY of the BOARD of TRADE (Viscount Wolmer)
I think it comes under the Reparation Claims Department on the Board of Trade Vote.
§ Lieut. - Commander KENWORTHY
That is a different matter. I am not dealing with the Merchant Seamen's Fund Pension. This pledge has not been kept, but a paltry £5,000,000 was set aside for the compensation of these sufferers, and a notice was apparently put in certain organs of the Press to the effect that people who had claims should put in their claims to this Department. I, myself, did not know of this notice, and it is not surprising that other people were in exactly the same position, and that many persons who I am afraid do not read the papers—they are very often too poor to afford them—did not know of this notice to put in their claims. The result is they are being penalised to-day and are not receiving this compensation to which they are justly entitled. I make no complaint against the Department administering this Fund. They have to carry out their instructions. These belated claims—some of them from men who were abroad in ships—are simply being put aside for consideration. A certain proportion of money has been paid to some of the sufferers, but many people in dire distress to-day who have perfectly good claims on account of injuries, loss of gear, or loss of the breadwinner, cannot get the 2351 money. What I suggest to the Government is that they should take counsel with the Treasury, and consider some further amount being put to this Reparation account. It is no good the Government saying, "We are not getting money from Germany." They have had great payments from Germany; payments in ships, and payments in money. The whole cost of the Army of Occupation has, I understand, now been met. Under those circumstances, I must ask them to stick to the pledge given by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George). It was promised that these men should have the first, claim on reparation payments, and something has got to be done.
I wish to raise only one other topic. I think I am in order in raising the policy of the administration of the Overseas Trade (Credits and Insurance) Act. The Act admits of guarantees by the Treasury for British Merchants to trade with certain countries, the Border States of Russia and Poland, Austria, and so on. Some £4,500,000 has been guaranteed this year, and I want to ask the Government whether it is not time that they extended the operations of this Act to Russia. I am not going to be frightened off by the attack made on Russia at Question Time by the hon. Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Snowden). We have to put sentiment on one side. We have to look for markets for our traders and merchants wherever we can find them. I ask the Government to consider their policy on this question now as to whether they should not extend the working of this Act to Russia. We have just come through a diplomatic crisis with that country. We are hoping for better relations. We have got a good deal of satisfaction in regard to certain claims made to the Russian Government. This Act is for the benefit of our merchants. The money is voted for our own people and not for anybody else. I do not think that there is any valid reason, if this Act can be extended to ex-enemy countries like Austria and new States like Poland, why it should not be extended to that country. It is going to benefit our own people. At the present moment, with all this terrible unemployment in the country and bad trade and a renewed set-back to trade, I do not see any reason 2352 why the Act should not be extended. In the last Parliament I raised this matter on several occasions, and so did many other Members, and we never had a satisfactory answer, except the usual sentimental balderdash which we get from the other side of the House when that great country of Russia is mentioned.
I am approaching this from the business point of view. If our people can do extra trade in that country, why in the name of goodness are the provisions of the Act not extended to that country? The Government go on with the 1919–1920 propaganda with regard to that country. They permit our people to whistle for work, our mills and factories to be idle, and our skilled workpeople to become demoralised and unused to work, and lose the aptitude for work. As the Prime Minister said last week in his statement on the European situation, the effect of unemployment is cumulative. The Government, I state, are deliberately increasing or continuing unemployment by not affording these trade facilities to people who wish to trade with Russia. I think it, is high time that they reconsidered their policy and that the Act was extended. Trade is again languishing. We have had a set-back. The promised boom at the beginning of the year has not been continued. It is time the President of the Board of Trade and his colleagues in the Government threw aside sentiments, hatreds, suspicions, and prejudices and tried to help people who wish to do honest trade in any market open to us. We cannot afford the luxuries of these sentimental blockades of potential customers. I wait with pleasure and anticipation—I hope joyful anticipation—the reply of the right hon. Gentleman.
§ Mr. PETO
On a point of Order. I wish to point out that there are two questions. There is the question of the Reparation Claims Commission with which two Members have dealt. There is also the question of War Risks, under which compensation is paid to injured seamen, as soldiers would be paid under the Pensions Department. I understand that neither of those things are included in the Vote for the mercantile marine, and that questions in regard to them if not raised on the President's salary cannot be raised at all. Therefore, I wish to ask, as I want to raise certain questions connected with 2353 the mercantile marine, and to deal with the question of the belated claims, and also with the question of compensation to injured seamen under the War Risks scheme, whether under your ruling it is necessary that I should deal with those three questions on this Vote, and try to catch your eye on the general question relating to the mercantile marine.
§ The CHAIRMAN
The general rule is that if a sum of money is taken for any purpose that purpose can be discussed. Under this Vote, for the Board of Trade generally, there is an item for the Reparation Claims Department, and also an item for the Department of Overseas Trade. If the hon. Member can find an item dealing with the subjects that he wishes to bring up, it will be in order. I fancy, in regard to one of them, that he will have to raise it on the next Vote As to War Risks, I think that is included in a different Vote altogether. I will make certain on that point, and in the meantime someone else will catch my eye.
§ 5.0 P.M.
§ Mr. CLAYTON
It is extremely satisfactory to me that the President of the Board of Trade is so interested in the development of the industries of this country. If in the past the Board of Trade had taken the same interest in manufacture of dyes we should never have lost that industry in this country. We started it here, and we had the raw materials and the knowledge, but at that time there were a great many restrictions put upon the industry by the then Board of Trade, and it drifted away and went to Germany, where they gained the advantages that we could not obtain in this country. We have all the raw materials for the dye industry. Prior to the War a great deal of that raw material was sent to Germany, worked up there with their labour and consuming their raw materials, coal, etc., and it was returned to this country in the form of dyes and used by us. There is no reason why those dyes cannot be made here. I am pleased to say, from what I know of the industry, that enormous progress has already been made. Great satisfaction has been given to the dye users. There may have been some who had some difficulties in obtaining the dyes they wanted, but generally there has been great satisfaction. They agree that very great progress has been made, and I feel sure that under the help and 2354 guidance of the present Board of Trade we shall get established in this country a dye industry that can hold its own with any other dye makers. Apart from the fact that we have all the raw materials to make the dyes in this country, the dye industry requires a very great deal of labour, not only in actually making the dyes, but in preparing the raw materials for those dyes. I want that labour to be found in this country and not in Germany. We have also to consider the safety of the textile trade in this country. We must have an adequate supply of dyes on which we can rely as being made in this country. There are times, such as the present time on the Ruhr, when it is impossible to get dyes. Other occasions might easily occur when it will be impossible to get foreign dyes, and we must maintain our textile trade. I feel that it is very important for that reason also that we should have a dye industry here. During the War we had to manufacture a large number of chemicals which are really intermediates in the dye industry. We required those chemicals for explosives. It is quite true that before the War in Germany, when they had manœuvres, Lord Moulton told me that the dye manufacturing works were turned on to make the materials for explosives. They had duplicate plants, one for making the dyes and the other for making the explosives, and a part of the manœuvres was the turning over of the dye works into explosive works to show that they were prepared in case of emergency. I do not say that we need do that, but if we have the dye industry established in this country, we have the potential plant for making what we require in a case of emergency. I think that is a matter of considerable importance to this country. Further than that, the dye industry is a most valuable school for chemists. A very large number of chemists are required, both in the manufacture of the intermediates and of the dyes, and as a school for chemists, it is of great value. These chemists are used in every other industry, and we could draw on the dye industry for these men when required. If we have no such school, we fall behind in very many of our industries. I maintain that the chief objections to this subsidy to the dye industry come from the merchants who supply the German dyes. I do not believe that the objections 2355 really emanate from the users but from these traders in foreign dyes. I think our British interests are vastly more important than the interests of these dealers in German dyes.
§ Mr. MIDDLETON
I cannot pretend to follow the last hon. Member in all he says regarding the dye industry, because he is a recognised expert, but I was speculating in my mind as to how he was relating his views to the dyes arrangement which was come to under the Treaty of Versailles and which is set aside for reparations. I notice that the President of the Board of Trade on the 10th of April said:It is estimated that the amount to be credited to the German Reparation Account to date in respect of dyes and dyestuffs is approximately £950,000. The amount realised from sales is approximately £1,043,000. The realisable value of stock in hand is estimated at £110,000 and the amount of profit realised at the 31st March, 1922, was £137,000.I think the Committee will be glad to know precisely how that account stands now and what the position actually is. A quotation was read by the hon. and gallant Gentleman (Lieut.-Commander Kenworthy) from the report of one of the large dye firms. I have in my hand an extract from the report of the meeting of the British Dyestuffs Corporation, held on 10th July this year, showing that, owing to the French occupation, there is a distinct interference with the possibility of German dyes being of large value to us in the way of reparations. The report says:A very considerable disturbance of the German dyestuffs industry has been caused by the French occupation. While some works have been able to maintain output, others are entirely closed, and it is estimated that the German production has already been reduced by nearly 50 per cent. The difficulties are increased and the position has become more confused by the action of France and Belgium in seizing large stocks of dyestuffs which have been conveyed to French and Belgian territory. The indiscriminate distribution of these dyestuffs might materially affect the interests of your Corporation and strong representations, which are not being disregarded, have been made to the Government on the difficult and dangerous situation.In view of the applause which the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade gave to the speech of the hon. Member for Widnes (Mr Clayton), 2356 I think it is desirable that he should explain to the Committee how this matter stands. I also want to refer to another item which appears on page 83 of the Estimates. It is a question with which I think the Committee is familiar, that of the Australian zinc concentrates contract. My own division, the capital of the county, which is affected, has a general interest although not a detailed interest in this matter, and I think my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith Collison) will probably desire to say something about this question as affecting his own constituency. I represent the capital of the particular county which is affected. I understand that this extraordinary contract, which has ruined the lead and zinc mining industry of this country, was entered into in 1918, and it was to run for 13 years. That means that not until 1930 is there any hope for the zinc and lead mining industry of this country, and I think that is a pretty serious situation which needs the careful attention, not only of the Government, but of this Committee. The position in which the Government found themselves at the outbreak of the War was that the zinc concentrates produced by Australia in large quantities were controlled by the Germans, and an arrangement was naturally entered into to divert these supplies to this country for war purposes. But in 1918 the mining interests in Australia said to our Government, "What are you to do about our post-War markets?" and I understand that the Lloyd George of Australia, Mr. Hughes, was able to induce the Governmnt of the day to enter into a contract which has meant a very great deal to the people of Australia, but which has brought a great deal of destruction and ruin to the industry of this country. In view of the fact that it seems that in the ordinary way, we cannot get out of this difficulty until 1930, it is high time that the Government gave some attention to this problem with a view to seeing whether even at this time there is not some chance of coming to a better arrangement with the Government of Australia.
There are one or two ways in which I think it could be done. There is the question of cutting one's losses after a bad business deal is made, and I think the question should be considered whether it is not possible to dispose of this stuff in Australia itself and put it on the open market. It might be the case that some 2357 of the stuff would find its way to Germany and that German manufacturers would use it in competition with British manufacturers, but, if that were the case, it would have another side to it, because it would enable Germany to pay. I understand the Government want Germany to pay, but they do not want Germany to have raw materials or facilities for manufacturing which would enable them to pay. There was another proposal which I think should receive consideration. If it be necessary in the interests of the Empire so heavily to subsidise the Australian mining industry, surely it would be possible to do the same for the relatively very small number of people affected in this country. It may be that because the interests here are so small they have been overlooked. Probably in the county of which I am thinking the number of people directly affected may be only a few hundreds, and in the country as a whole they may be only a few thousands, but surely they are not to be allowed to be knocked out altogether because their numbers are small. It seems to me that it is a sort of Imperialism run riot which shows such concern for the interests of our Australian brothers and cousins, but ignores the claims and interests of people in our own country. I think the time has come when the Government should give an assurance that something will be done to terminate a contract which bears so heavily upon our people at home. It is easy to say that the Coalition Government made this contract, and it would be easy for the Coalition people to say that it was due to the Paris Resolutions, and that therefore the responsibility lies on the Leaders of the Liberal party. But, instead of indulging in these recriminations, the people who are suffering at home would be very glad if the Government would do something to remedy things for the future.
I do not profess to have a remedy in my pocket, but I think the matter should receive the full attention of the Government, and I think the Government should give us very much more information than they have given us in these Estimates. You can, by taking the receipts and expenditure, find the cash difference between the two, representing something like £1,000,000 loss, but that presentation of accounts is not satisfactory to people who want to know precisely how we stand, 2358 and what the stocks in the country are. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade will satisfy us with an explanation, and not only give us the details, but give us an assurance that the Government are alive to the serious situation which exists in the lead and zinc mining industry of this country, and that they will do their best to remedy it. As I have said, the numbers concerned are few, but they are a very deserving class of working people. Every zinc mine in the country, and most lead mines, have been absolutely closed on account of this contract. In the part of the country of which I am speaking there is no other work for the people, and the result is that, in order to subsidise the miners of Australia, we are sending several thousands of people in this country to the unemployment dole. That is a most unsatisfactory state of affairs. I hope we shall get an assurance that this Government, as distinct from the last Government, are alive to this question and are doing everything that they can to find a solution for what I regard as a very serious problem.
§ Mr. COLLISON
I very gladly associate myself with the remarks which have been made by the hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Middleton). As the representative of one of the constituencies in Cumberland, I know something of the hardships of the people engaged in the industry to which he has referred. I want to draw the attention of the Committee to an item where they are asking for £2,120,000 in order to pay for deliveries of these zinc concentrates from Australia. We heard the other night a great deal about Socialism and the nationalisation of industries. There was a good deal of misgiving on the part of hon. Members opposite, and I am not surprised, for some of the Government interference has been of a most unfortunate character. The interference on the part of the late Government in this zinc industry has undoubtedly brought a good deal of disastrous result and loss to this industry, not only in England, but in Scotland and in Wales. May I refresh the memories of hon. Members with the contract that was made in 1917? There was an agreement come to in that year, as regards concentrates and spelter, with the Zinc Producers Proprietary Association, Limited, in Australia, and this agreement operates until 30th June, 2359 1930, and is divided into three periods. The first is from 1st January, 1918, to 30th June, 1921; the second is from 1st July, 1921, to 30th June, 1925, and the third is from 1st July, 1925, to 30th June, 1930. The annual quantity of concentrates the Government may be required to take is fixed in the agreement at 250,000 tons per annum in the first period, and 300,000 tons per annum in the second and third periods. The prices are fixed for the first two periods, and a formula is laid down for regulating prices in the third period. There is also an agreement giving the Association the right to put 45,000 tons of spelter annually with the Government at ruling prices.
We have not only in this country to take 300,000 tons of concentrates from Australia, but we have to take it at a price of £4 per ton, and the freightage from Australia to this country is £4per ton, so that hon. Members will realise the indebtedness of this country in regard to this contract. What is the result? Prior to this contract being made, we had in this country a number of these zinc mines, flourishing, paying good wages, employing many people, industries that had been in existence for many years, some of them for hundreds of years, but immediately this contract was made every zinc industry in this country was closed, and every man was thrown out of employment. While these mines at the present time are closed, the same industry in Australia is flourishing, and big dividends are being paid, because it is being subsidised by the British Government. The Government have replied to criticisms by saying that if there had been no contract at all it would not be possible, at the present time of industrial depression, for these mines to be able to sell their products. I think it ill becomes the Government to make a remark of that kind, that it is utterly impossible for these mine owners to dispose of their products, when the purchasers know that there are 300,000 tons of this product coming into the country every year, but, assuming for one moment that the Government are right, and that the mine owners of this country could not sell their products, what is the position of the Government that has 300,000 tons of concentrates coming into the country annually? No wonder that at the present time the 2360 Government have in store something like 700,000 tons of concentrates. This contract not only has closed the mines throughout this country, but it has involved us in a very great loss. The Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade in the last Parliament, speaking 18 months ago, estimated the loss on this contract at something like £500,000.
In looking at the Estimates I find, on page 85, that we have there the receipts and payments for two years, and as this contract is going on for ten years, I think we may reasonably and fairly take those payments and receipts for two years. I find that the payments are £3,538,900 and the receipts during the past two years £2,505,000, showing a deficiency of over £1,000,000 in two years. Either that deficiency is a loss in the sale of these products or it is accountable in the stocks that the Government are holding at the present time. This matter was considered by the Geddes Committee, and this is what they said in their Report:We are not familiar with the reasons for entering into the long term agreement. The extent of the loss cannot at present be estimated, but it is almost certain to run into several million pounds.It is not only adding to the financial burden of this country—and surely we are burdened quite enough—but we are having to support these men throughout the country. I know no sight that is sadder than to go into some of these remote parts of England, where you may find these men, who have been engaged in that industry the whole of their life, who know no other trade, who are to-day unemployed, there with their wives and children, cut away in some cases from towns and railways, almost starving on the dole, and in a position for which they themselves are not in any way responsible. I would like to know what the Government are going to do in regard to this contract. Personally, I think it is a bad contract. It is unfortunate, and it is discreditable to continue it, but I have been reading recently some speeches that have been made by members of the present Government, and I find that they know a good deal about this contract. The present Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour, the hon. Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Betterton), who at one time was Chairman of the Board of Trade Departmental Committee to consider non-ferrous mines, and who pro- 2361 bably knows as much about this industry as any man in this House, said:I am convinced, in consequence of this Australian contract—employers and employed are alike involved in common ruin."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 21st February, 1922; col. 1826, Vol. 150]May I go further, and quote what the present Prime Minister said, speaking in this House in Febraury, 1922? He said:This contract at the moment is a bad one.… But … whatever the prospects of the world market may be, the right thing is for the Government to get out of this contract as and when opportunity arises, and that is my policy."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 21st February, 1922; col. 1854, Vol. 150.]I am glad to know that that is the policy of the Prime Minister, and I hope it is a policy which will be carried out at an early date. It seems to me that there are only two courses that the Government can take in regard to this Australian contract. One is to do what many a wise business man would do who had unfortunately made a bad contract, and that is to get out honourably with the least possible loss. If the Government are not prepared to do that, I think it is their duty to put this industry on the same footing as they have put the industry in Australia. They may say, in reply, that in doing that they would be subsidising a British industry, but really have they not already subsidised this industry in Australia? But I do not look upon anything that they might do in regard to this industry as a subsidy. They have done infinite harm to this country. They have robbed these people of their trade, and I think that, whatever they can do, they do, not as a subsidy, but as an act of reparation. I trust they will give it favourable consideration, and I appeal to them to put this industry on the same footing, and, if they do, I do not think any money they may lose by the sale of the product of the home industry will be any greater than the money they are paying out week by week in doles to these unfortunate men.
§ Lieut.-Colonel Sir A. CHURCHMAN
I want to put a question to my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade in regard to the question of middlemen's profits, and I will illustrate what I want to put before him by taking, merely as an example, a commodity which is in very general use, namely, milk. But what I wish to say will apply to any other commodity, to coal as much 2362 as to cream and to beer as much as to butter. I take milk as my example, because I have had an opportunity of reading recently the very interesting interim Report which has been issued by the Committee on the question of the prices of agricultural products, and that Report illustrated in a way which, I think, has never been done with any commodity since the War, the gap between the producer's price and the actual cost to the consumer. It is curious, in looking at that commodity, to see what a large difference there is between the producer's price and the cost to the consumer in Scotland and in England. The gap between those prices in Scotland is very much smaller than it is in England. We have to consider how these present prices and profits have been arrived at. It seems to me that they are entirely the result of the control established during the War. At that time, if I may still follow the example of milk, it was necessary to control the milk supply. That was a wise course, because the prices of milk and other commodities were soaring, with the result that there was what was called an ineffective demand. It was necessary to control prices, and this is what happened. The producer found a ready market and a good profit for his product. The middleman and the retailer in their turn found a ready market and probably made more profit on a restricted trade. The habit of being content to do a smaller trade at a higher rate of profit is what has remained—
§ The CHAIRMAN
I do not see how the hon. Baronet connects what he is saying with the Vote before the House and with the existing powers of the Board of Trade. I presume it is one of the functions of the Board of Trade to inquire generally into this, and to explain it, but while they have that power they have no control. How does the hon. Baronet connect his observations with the power of the Board of Trade in the matter?
§ Sir A. CHURCHMAN
I may have got a litle bit off the track, but the point I was anxious ultimately to arrive at is as to whether the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade is prepared to make some inquiry into the condition of affairs, a condition of affairs which seems to indicate that considerable profits are being made on commodities of all sorts. I imagine, that these things 2363 can be rectified without the intervention of a Government Department and in time by the ordinary laws of supply and demand. I think it is quite possible that, when profits are being made in any particular industry, some clever man or some combination of clever men outside may see that these profits are large, and will step in and stimulate the demand by reducing prices. If not, it is quite possible—and I should like to see it in the case of milk—for the producers to combine together and by co-operation in production and distribution benefit the consumer by stimulating increased consumption by a reduction of prices. So long as prices are high there is an ineffective demand, and so long as there is an ineffective demand there is always an opening for somebody from the outside who is clever to come in. Of course, it is possible in the case of milk and other commodities that some of the present distributors might by a reduction of prices again stimulate and increase demand. I have only taken these as an example; and the questions I want to put to the Minister are these: Firstly, is the situation yet sufficiently clear for the Board to have been able to formulate a policy in regard to middleman's profit. Secondly, can the Board of Trade supply, or is it proposing to obtain, figures which will do for the price structure of other commodities generally what the Committee to which I have referred has done for milk and milk products? I understand that that Committee is also dealing with fruit, vegetables, etc. I am inclined to think that a little information under these heads would be of great interest and value to the general body of consumers.
§ Mr. A. V. ALEXANDER
I gathered from your intervention, Mr. Hope, during the speech of the hon. Baronet who has just concluded, that it is somewhat difficult to keep within the corners of your ruling on this particular Vote. I do suggest, however, that the points that have been raised by the hon. Baronet do come within the general powers of the Board of Trade. I suppose one must not discuss anything now that requires legislation, yet I think we may put to the President of the Board of Trade points which his administration or the administration of his Department has failed to 2364 deal with in these particular matters. In regard to the Report of the Linlithgow Committee, to which the hon. Baronet has referred, it is interesting to note that that Committee suggested that it was not so much the points which the hon. Baronet has made concerning high prices in the London area as it was the question of the existence of a very powerful combination in that area. There are certain recommendations in that Report which I have no doubt pressure from his own side of the House as well as this may perhaps make the President deal with along the lines suggested already in this House.
The whole question of middleman's profits which the hon. Baronet has raised leads me to remind the House that the Board of Trade has altogether failed in its administration to deal with the question of exploiting the public generally with regard to prices during the post-War period. The President of the Board of Trade and his predecessors in office have been pressed again and again to take administrative or the other action necessary to deal with that particular situation. I put down a question the other day to the right hon. Gentleman in regard to the existence or expected existence of a new and very powerful combination to deal with meat, a combination which would have associated with it one of those gentlemen who received high honours at the hands of the late Coalition Government, and whose patriotism during the War was illustrated perhaps more forcibly than he would like to be reminded of now by the evidence he gave before the Royal Commission on Income Tax, in regard to removing his headquarters to escape taxation. The right hon. Gentleman, in his reply to my statement, said that the existence of these combinations was not, in his judgment, likely to be injurious to trade as a whole. I think that in making that reply the right hon. Gentleman had forgotten for the moment, although I know he was aware of it, that there is a paragraph in the Linlithgow Committee's Report concerning the adverse effect upon milk prices and the consumer in the London area by the existence of a trade combination.
§ Sir P. LLOYD-GREAME
The hon. Gentleman will remember that he questioned me about one particular combination. He knows perfectly well that I 2365 expressed my views about another combine recently in his presence.
§ Mr. ALEXANDER
That may be so, but doubtless the right hon. Gentleman has studied the Reports of the Committee set up by his own Department two or three years ago as carefully as I myself have tried to do, and he must have come to the conclusion as to what is actually the fact, and the effect, in this particular matter. What are the actual facts? I find in the Report of the Standing Committee on Trusts that this statement occurs:We find that there is at the present time in every important branch of industry in the United Kingdom an increasing tendency to form trade associations and combinations having for their purpose the restriction of competition and the control of prices. Many of the organisations which have been brought to our notice have been created in the last few years and by far the greater part of them appear to have come into existence since the end of the 19th century.Mr. John Hilton, of the Statistical Branch of the Ministry of Labour, for whose ability and experience I have great respect, stated in his Report to that particular Committee that at the close of the War there were existing in the United Kingdom over 500 capitalistic associations or combines all exerting a substantial influence on the course of industry and prices. Let me give another illustration with which I am particularly familiar, because it is a commodity with which we deal. The Report of one of the Committees which the right hon. Gentleman had in mind dealt with the soap industry, and it was stated that the soap combine whichcontrolled over 80 per cent. of the output of soap in this country was so powerful that it was enabled to charge right through the peak period at least 1½d. per lb. more for soap than was justified.During a rising market of the raw materials, prices to the consumer were immediately raised, but on a falling market of raw materials the stocks of soap manufactured at the higher priced raw materials were liquidated before the prices were reduced.
I might say that the Report also stated that the only serious competitor was the Co-operative Wholesale Society, who adopted exactly the opposite policy in regard to the raising and lowering of prices. As a consumers' organisation 2366 there was given to the consumer what benefit there was in connection with that particular commodity. That might be extended to a great many other articles. I fail, therefore, to see where the right hon. Gentleman gets his arguments from, that the Reports of the various Committees under the central Profiteering Act have failed to convince him that there is need for the Board of Trade to take administrative action in regard to, shall I say, allaying public suspicions, at any rate, as to what is the effect of these trusts and combinations upon the trade of the country and on the consumer generally.
There is another thing I want to put: that is, that, in my judgment, the Reports of the inquiries conducted by his Department show quite clearly that the existence of the trusts and combinations are used to regulate output in such a way that it might be said that the capital of the trusts and combines was used to formulate a policy of "ca' canny," similar to the working men who are charged with using their labour on the "ca' canny" principle. The extent to which that may be carried was illustrated most forcibly by one of the Reports dealing with iron bedsteads. There was a pool of iron bedstead makers and the various firms in the pool were required to put out a small output. They were penalised by having to pay a fine into the pool if their output was increased beyond what was allowable, and at the end of the period the one that had produced the least drew the largest share from the pool. That was carried to such an absurd extent that the matter reached the point where one member of the pool, having ceased to manufacture at all, was actually drawing a dole for doing nothing! This is a most excellent example to the workmen of the country of the policy of ca' canny and, having regard to the remarks one hears about unemployment doles, some considerable justification for such doles when manufacturers take a dole from a pool for doing nothing. This policy was not suggested by the trade union leaders, but by those sacrosanct capitalists who are always making these charges against working men.
There is another point I wish to refer to which affects very vitally the movement with which I am connected. The right hon. Gentleman's Department set- 2367 up a Committee to inquire into the principle of price fixing associations, and the Report they issued contained an addendum which had reference to an association called the Proprietary Articles Trade Association. That organisation consists of a body of manufacturers of proprietary articles, and of wholesalers who bound themselves to do the will of those manufacturers, and then a number of retailers also in the association, and they agree that whatever happens the public must pay a minimum charge for certain articles, and those prices are fixed.
That principle is carried to such an extent that the results of the co-operative association of consumers in dealing with these articles are absolutely negligible. The Proprietary Articles Trade Association refuses to allow any one of its members, in respect of any one of the commodities dealt with, to supply any customer in the country unless they sign an agreement to charge minimum prices for those particular articles, and in regard to co-operative societies they stipulate that if a co-operative society is allowed to purchase those particular articles—this is the land of freedom we heard about on Monday—then it must on no account give a rebate to its members whether in the form of dividend or discount, or if they do then they must add the whole of the dividend or discount to the minimum price. That condition has to be conformed to by hundreds of societies, and so serious is the position with regard to the general consuming community that the secretary of the Proprietary Articles Trade Association is now conducting a campaign, in conjunction with the Grocers' Federation, to get the whole of that principle adopted with regard to all packed grocery goods, in order to secure that no body of consumers in this country may combine together to save the middleman's profits, and then to return them to working men in order to obtain a higher spending power for their wages, and thus they will be prevented from getting any advantage at all.
Hon. Members talk about the need for dealing with the ramp in milk prices by getting the producers together, but what about the co-operation of the consumer? Why is he not to be allowed to get the proper and earned reward of his own thrift, and his own mutual and voluntary 2368 association? He is prevented from doing this because he is placed in the hands of exploiting associations of this kind. In America the right hon. Gentleman knows that whilst anti-trust laws have been in some cases ineffective, on this particular principle with regard to price fixing it would not be possible for any firm in America to let this kind of thing last for a single month. It is only within the last six or seven months in America, with regard to an attempt to levy an unfair minimum price in regard to a certain article, that the people concerned were not merely fined, but they were sent to prison for trying to exploit the community on that basis.
§ Mr. ALEXANDER
My point is, that the administrative part of this work is so important that I think the Persident of the Board of Trade ought to make strong representations, in order to see if some definite result cannot be obtained in this direction. I could say a great deal more about this situation, but I do not wish to take up too much of the time of the House, as many other hon. Members desire to speak. I wish, however, to refer to another point. It is a matter which was discussed incidentally on the Schedule of the Expiring Laws Continuance Bill. It is a matter which gave me cause for alarm, because I thought the right hon. Gentleman seemed rather to be running away from his position in putting this provision dealing with the sale of bread down in the Schedule.
Last year the Department of the Board of Trade had recognised sufficiently the importance of securing to the consumers a proper weight standard in purchasing bread, and they introduced a Bill called the Sale of Bread Bill. In that Measure there was a snag with reference to Scotland. In Scotland they have a protection in regard to this matter under the Scottish Boroughs Police Acts, and it deals with batch loaves of 2 lbs. and 4 lbs. weight. In drafting that Bill it was made to appear that Scotland was to be the only place where the extra penalties were to be laid down. We have made it clear to the people of Scotland that whatever steps need to be taken with regard to Scotland shall also be taken with regard to England and Wales. 2369 What we want to secure is that the powers which the Board of Trade already possess under the Sale of Food Order shall be made permanent by legislation, and we hope that as a result of his administrative experience of the Sale of Food Order the right hon. Gentleman will take urgent and definite steps to clear up this constantly recurring muddle about the bread business, and get it definitely set right so that the public, the trade, and the consumers will know exactly where they stand.
The only other point of criticism I want to raise is in reference to a conversation we had with the Prime Minister in December, 1921. Probably the President of the Board of Trade has made a study of the history of his own Department, and if he has he will know that in the "nineties" the Liberal Government decided that it was necessary to have a Labour Department in the Board of Trade, and a labour section was set up, and included in that section was a small co-operative section in the Board of Trade at the time. That co-operative section was transferred with the Labour Section of the Board of Trade to the Ministry of Labour when it became a separate Ministry. Having regard to the increasing importance of co-operation and co-operative activities generally in the world, as well as in this country, it is of the greatest possible importance that the great Department in this country known as the Board of Trade should have definitely one section of it with inside and accurate knowledge of what, co-operative trade and principles really mean, and definite and accurate knowledge of what co-operative trade and principles are doing right throughout the world at this particular moment.
I think if the right hon. Gentleman will go back over the history of the past two or three years, he will agree that if there had been a Co-operative Department at that time able to advise the Cabinet some of the errors which have been made would not have been made. When we met the Prime Minister on this subject in December, 1921, he said that he hoped I would not include him in a charge which I then made of general ignorance of what the co-operative movement really was, and what it was doing in this country and abroad. Probably the President of the Board of Trade now 2370 knows all about it, but, speaking generally, Government Departments are astoundingly ignorant of what the co-operative movement really is, what its trade consists of, and what its importance is in the world generally. On the continent generally there has been an increase in recogition of co-operation by all governments. In France, where co-operation amongst agriculturists has been far more successful than anything we have here, co-operation is definitely recognised by the Government, and a grant was made to establish a Chair of Cooperation at the Paris University, and which is occupied by Professor Gide.
In the case of Germany, as the right hon. Gentleman knows from the fact that he has represented this country at various economic conferences, they appointed a technical adviser to the labour section of the German organisation represented at the International Labour Bureau at Geneva, a technical adviser selected from the co-operative movement in Germany. In Belgium they have a bureau which includes the Belgium co-operative section, and in almost every country the increasing importance of the co-operative movement from a trade and social welfare point of view, is recognised by the Government. In this country, which is the home of co-operation, which gave birth to it, and which has achieved more success in regard to co-operation than any other country in the world, if the Government are not actually hostile they say, "We do not want to have anything to do with you."
§ 6.0 P.M.
§ Mr. ALEXANDER
I am aware that the President of the Board of Trade presided over the Overseas Trade Department with considerable ability, and the Geddes Committee recommended that that Department should be kept on. That Committee, in dealing with that particular Department, printed as a sort of extra testimonial to the Department a number of letters from various traders who, through the Department, had definitely obtained business. I have nothing to say against that. I think it is an excellent thing that the Overseas Trade Department should be so exceedingly useful to the trade of this country, but I suggest that we require alongside this Department, financed by the 2371 Government to assist trade of that kind, equal opportunities for world information concerning co-operative trading and trading possibilities as in the case of other overseas trade. Perhaps when the right hon. Gentleman gets a little more money at his disposal than he has now, and when he has looked into the question—
§ Whereupon the Gentleman Usher of the BLACK ROD being come with a Message, the Chairman left the Chair.