§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ The PRESIDENT of the BOARD of TRADE (Sir Philip Cunliffe-Lister)
beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."
I am glad to note the applause which has come from hon. Members opposite, and I hope that it indicates that, perhaps for the first time in this short period of the Session, a Bill comes before us which will be passed with general consent. Certainly, I do not think this Measure will meet with opposition in any quarter. The object of the Bill, put in a single sentence, is to ensure that there shall be no exploitation, either by the creation of shortages or by unreasonable increases in price, of articles of food and drink of general consumption by reason of the financial situation in which we find ourselves owing to having gone off the Gold Standard. I see that the Noble Lady the Member for the Sutton Division of Plymouth (Viscountess Astor) is not in her place, but I should like to give her the assurance that it is necessary to include the' word "drink," because I understand that things like tea would not be covered if the word "drink" were not inserted.
I have used the words "to ensure" advisedly, because one could not say that the powers sought in this Bill would be justified by anything that has happened hitherto or appears likely to happen, and, if Parliament had been going to remain in Session, it may well be that no such Bill would ever have had to be produced. The normal course would have been to wait until there had been evidence that there was exploitation, or that exploitation was to be expected, and then to come to the House with those facts as a justification and ask for powers. The justification for this Bill is that the Government felt, as I think the House will agree, that we ought not to separate without taking the powers which are embodied in this Bill in case it should be necessary at any time in future, when Parliament is not sitting, to use such powers. The powers which 826 the Bill seeks to give to the Board of Trade are, in effect, the same powers as will exist under the Emergency Powers Act, but I am, advised that it will not be possible to employ the powers under that Act for this purpose, and that if such powers are to be bestowed they must be given by a short Bill of this kind.
In producing the Bill, I do so with the full concurrence of those men in the different trades who have been advising the Board of Trade throughout arid giving very disinterested help. In common fairness I ought to pay a tribute to traders, both wholesale and retail, for the attitude which they have taken up. If I may put it in words which will no doubt strike a chord of sympathy in the heart of the right hon. Gentleman opposite who, I understand, is going to follow me, we have had both wholesale and retail co-operation.
§ Sir P. CUNLIFFE-LISTER
Quite a number, including the co-operative societies. [Interruption.] Well, perhaps I had better make my speech, and, if the right hon. Gentleman wishes to do so, he can raise any point afterwards. Let me say at once that I wish to include in my tribute the Wholesale Co-operative Organisation. I should have seen Sir Thomas Allen on the very day on which we went off the Gold Standard, but he was away. I saw him the next day, however, and I arranged with him, in common with representatives of many other organisations, that I should have their complete co-operation and maintain a complete liaison with them from day to day.
§ Sir P. CUNLIFFE-LISTER
No, Sir, I have not, and I do not think I could usefully do so, because the people one has to consult and to work with in a matter of this kind are the great whole- 827 sale people, but I will come to the general way in which this is worked in a moment. On the morning of Monday the 21st of September, the day on which we went off the Gold Standard, early in the morning I asked representatives of the great wholesale food trades to come and see me, and they included wholesale dealers in meat, flour, bacon, sugar, tea, provisions and so on. The representatives whom I met were men of great experience in trade, and men who had had much experience in the organisation of our food supplies during the War. I explained the position to them and I received an immediate response. They immediately made representations to their different trades, and from all of them there came at once a ready response to my invitation to co-operate with the Government in ensuring that there should be no exploitation. I could quote a great many examples to the House, but I will take just one or two. I have received the following letter from Mr. Gordon Campbell the President of The Imported Meat Trade Association Incorporated:
§ "Dear Mr. President,
§ With reference to my letter to you of yesterday, I called a meeting this morning of the Council of the Imported Meat Trade Association Incorporated. The members of the council, as representing the importers and wholesalers of the meat trade, fully agree that every effort should be made to continue to conduct all business on normal lines, and, more particularly, to avoid any rise in prices as a consequence in the fall in the value of the pound sterling.
§ The council hold a similar view to that expressed by the South American importers at yesterday's meeting and are of opinion that there is no reason to anticipate any marked advance in the current quotations for meat on account of the position of the exchange.
§ It was agreed that in addition to the abundant supplies of home-grown meat, there are ample supplies here and afloat of New Zealand and Australian meat; and the meeting concurred in the view that there seems to be no cause to expect that the public will be put to inconvenience by a rise in prices in the retail shops."
§ On the same day the London Provision Exchange passed the following resolution:
§ "Having regard to the wishes of the Government the members of the London Provision Exchange at an extraordinary meeting held to-day resolved that they would co-operate with the Government with 828 all the means possible in all questions affecting the trade, including prices, supplies and other matters."
§ Their action was not confined to resolutions of that kind but they took immediate action on the first day to ensure that there should be no panic buying and no rise in price. It was enormously important to ensure that result on the first day after coining off the Gold Standard because as everybody knows this is a question which must be handled at the wholesale end. [An HON. MEMBER: "More about the Gold Standard!"] Yes, if some people had talked more effectively about the Gold Standard and taken action sooner we should never have gone off that standard. I do not wish to raise any controversial issue in regard to what I hope will be treated as a non-controversial measure.
§ On the first day after going off the Gold Standard, it was enormously important to avoid any panic buying by either the retailer or the wholesaler. I know from what took place in the market on that day that if the situation had not been handled at the wholesale end, we might have had buying on a scale which might have produced a panic, and you might have had an increase of prices which it would have been very difficult to overtake. Therefore I think it was of the greatest importance that, at the very outset, arrangements were made for continuing trade on a normal basis. In a case of this kind obviously it is very important that we should have the co-operation of wholesale firms. What we have to do is to ensure that there shall be a steady flow of supplies through normal channels at a reasonable price, and that can only be secured by making certain of receiving co-operation through all the manifold channels of distribution in this country. That is absolutely necessary to obtain a wise, firm and proper administration of the great wholesale food trade. That is what on this occasion I claim that we have obtained, and that is really the key to the situation.
We have received many promises of co-operation from the retail trade, cooperative Societies, great chain stores, the federations of grocers, the meat traders and so on. By these arrangements the public have in fact, secured more than a square deal, and I say that advisedly. I do not think anyone will deny that statement. I put this to one of the greatest accountants in the coun-
try. If you take a strict business basis a firm would be entitled to write up their stocks up to the replacement value, If you buy in sterling a commodity from overseas, the price of which is affected by a fall in the sterling exchange, and if you are selling the same commodity, even if you hold a stock bought in sterling when sterling was at the gold point, when you have sold, whether as a wholesaler or as a retailer, and you come to replace your stock, obviously you have only the number of pounds which your last sale has produced; and if, owing to depreciation in the sterling exchange, it costs you more pounds to buy your new stock than before, then obviously you are to that extent out of pocket on that transaction. Suppose that you are buying corn for £100, that you then sell for £100, and that in order to get the same amount of corn next week it costs you £110, obviously you will have to get the extra £10 from somewhere. Therefore I say that the public has had something more than a square deal in the fact that a very large amount of transactions were conducted on the old sterling basis. When you are dealing with a country like this, where we are dependent on overseas supplies for four-fifths of our wheat, butter and cheese, for half our meat, the bulk of our bacon, and nearly all our sugar, it is inevitable—[Interruption.] In those circumstances, it is inevitable that stocks must cost more in sterling to replace, and they are, of course, costing more at the present time. But not only has there been no evidence of exploitation up to the present, but large deliveries are being made wholesale, and large retail sales have continued, at the old prices. That has happened at a time when prices have been abnormally low, and at a season of the year when there always comes a certain number of seasonal rises in price—rises which would have taken place even if the pound had remained at its old par value. Therefore, I cannot claim that these powers are needed on account of anything that is happening to-day, but I ask the House to give them to the Government as an insurance. The powers are very wide and general, and they follow substantially the powers under the Emergency Powers Act. Subsection (1) of Clause 1 of the Bill says:
If it appears to the Board of Trade, that by reason of the action of any persons in exploiting the present financial situation
there is, or is likely to arise in Great Britain or in any part thereof, any shortage of or any unreasonable increase in the price of any article of food or drink of general consumption, the Board of Trade inay by Regulation make such provision as they consider necessary or expedient for the purpose of remedying or preventing that shortage or increase in price.
§ Paragraph (a) of Sub-section (2) of Clause 1 provides for power to delegate to other persons the exercise of the powers under the Act, and this is practically identical with the power contained in Sub-section (1) of.Section 2 of the Emergency Powers !let. Paragraph (b) of Sub-section (2) provides for penalties, following Sub-section (3) of Section 2 of the Emergency Powers Act; and Subsection (3) of Clause 1 provides that action shall not be avoided by reason of regulations having been revoked or having run out. That is the exact counterpart of Sub-section. (5) of Section 2 of the Emergency Powers Act. By Clause 2 of the Bill the operation of the Act is limited to six months, which brings it into line with the Gold Standard (Amendment) Act, which the House passed the other day.
§ I admit that these powers are deliberately designed to be as wide and as general as possible, just as the powers in the Emergency Powers Act are, and I am sure that that is necessary, because, if you are to have powers at all, they must be such as to enable you to take quick action in whatever way is likely to be most effective. If you want information, you must be able to get it promptly. If it is necessary to take action, that action must be taken at once, and you must have power to suit your action to whatever is the need of a particular case. I do not, naturally, intend setting up any vast, complex system of control. I should say that that would he extremely undesirable, and in any case I need not argue it, because, by the time you had set up machinery like, say, the Ministry of Food during the War, the whole emergency would have long since passed, and the pound would long since have been stabilised at whatever may be the ultimate figure at which it will find its level, so that the situation requiring to be dealt with would be a thing of the past. There were some rather long arguments between hon. and right hon. Gentlemen opposite and myself, in the early part of the summer, about another Bill, 831 which proposed to set up very elaborate inquiries, possibly leading ultimately to fixation of prices in certain cases—
§ Mr. LONGDEN
Does the right hon. Gentleman suggest that this Bill is less inquisitorial than the Consumers' Council Bill?
§ Sir P. CUNLIFFE-LISTER
No, infinitely more, and infinitely more effective. I admit that the powers for which I am asking to-day are, if you like, as inquisitorial and as drastic as ever they can be, because, if there is need for exercising them, you must give to the Government Department power to exercise, if you like, an arbitrary power at the shortest notice. What I am seeking to point out is that, even if you had an Act of that kind in force, it would be perfectly useless for the present purpose, because the sort of inquiry that you would have to set up, be it right or wrong, would take an enormous amount of time; it would have to be most meticulously conducted; and, when you had finished, you would have, perhaps, information which might he valuable information, but would be information about a situation which had long since passed. What you have to do to-day, if these powers are to be useful, is to do, perhaps, in a day or two, when a situation has arisen, all that you contemplate may be necessary. That is why I deprecate any suggestion of a vast machine, but I do ask for these stringent powers.
§ Mr. STRAUSS
Will these powers in-chide the power to purchase foodstuffs or other commodities, or is there to be merely an inquiry into the situation?
§ Sir P. CUNLIFFE-LISTER
The powers are wide enough, but, if the Government wanted to engage in purchase, a Vote of the House would be required. I do not, however, contemplate anything of that kind. [Interruption.] I want to be perfectly accurate. I believe that these powers are wide enough for the setting up of a Government Purchase Board if it were desired so to do, but I think a Financial Resolution would be necessary, or certainly a Vote, for the purpose of doing it, and, naturally, I do not contemplate anything of that kind. What I do contemplate might happen would be a case in which there was general agreement as to the proper course in a particular trade, that a particular 832 trader, or a particular section of trade, was not playing the game, and in that case the Department would be able to come in and divert supplies, which is the most effective thing that could be done to a trader in such a case. It would be possible to divert supplies from a man who was not playing the game, and to see that the trade was carried on by people who were. That is a far more drastic, but a far more effective, power than any amount of Government control or Government purchase.
The last thing in the world that I want to do, and the last thing in the world that, in a case like this, the House would be well advised to do, would be to interrupt the normal flow of trade through the normal channels. [Interruption.] You cannot change the whole of the great food trades of this country by an emergency order under an emergency Bill. We may debate that matter on another occasion, but certainly it cannot be in question to-day. What this Bill seeks to do is to ensure that the normal flow of trade will continue through the normal channels, without exploitation at any point, and that, I think, is the most effective service which anybody can render to the country in this connection at the present time. As I have said, the Bill gives the equivalent of the Emergency Powers Act, with which the House is familiar, and I ask for these powers, not to deal with the situation as it exists to-day, but to ensure that what is happening to-day will continue. I ask that frankly in the hope, and, I may say, in the belief, that if things continue with the co-operation and good will which have been shown all through these great trades up to the present, these powers will never have to be used; but if the need should arise to use them, then the Government would not hesitate to do so.
§ Mr. A. V. ALEXANDER
The speech to which we have just listened from the President of the Board of Trade had not, it seemed to me, the same kind of timbre about it which one expects from the right hon. Gentleman. Obviously, he has been a little ill at ease. He doubtless had in mind, when he was speaking, all those old arguments of his on the Second Reading of the Consumers' Council Bill and the somewhat later speeches—always well argued—in the Standing Committee, because to-day he 833 has come down to ask the House, on the very first emergency which arises after having finished our labours in Committee on that Bill, to ask, in his own words, for far more drastic and far more inquisitorial powers than ever the Socialist Government asked for in the Standing Committee. It is a very, very frank admission. I am anxious to-day that what I have to say should not in any way detract from any voluntary efforts that any section of traders in the whole of the community may be willing to make to help the country in a time of difficulty. I quite recognise what the President of the Board of Trade says, that there have been large and important sections of the traders of the country who have in the hour of financial difficulty, because of the exchanges, expressed their willingness to co-operate with the Government of the day in certain directions. But that must not prevent us from looking at this Bill and the Government's real purpose behind the Bill, because the more I look at it, arid the more I listened to his explanation of it, the more I think it is a sheer piece of bluff, and, from the very words he has uttered this afternoon, in which he said that if the House had been going to continue in session the Bill would not have been necessary—
§ Sir P. CUNLIFFE-LISTER
The right hon. Member must not misquote me. What I said was, that in the ordinary course, if the House were in session, I should not come to the House with a Bill of this kind until I could show that there was a good case for exercising the powers, and it might well be, if the House had gone on sitting and the same co-operation had continued as there is to-day, the Bill would not have been necessary.
§ Mr. ALEXANDER
In other words, as we are, apparently, on the eve of the announcement of a Dissolution and an appeal to the electorate, it is clear that, having gone off the Gold Standard, this great, wonderful National Government, which was called into being to prevent us from going off the Gold Standard, there being a rise in prices now, and a period of much higher rise in prices during the course of the election, then they must be able to say to the country, "Before the House dissolved, we took far more drastic powers than even a 834 Socialist Government would have taken." Yet all the time the right hon. Gentleman is trying to reassure his special friends among the traders that they are being such good children that he does not mean to do anything at all, and he bases a part of that upon the most extraordinary statement.
I do not know who are the particular accountants to whom the right hon. Gentleman has referred for advice, and whom he was, apparently, quoting this afternoon as to what ought to be the practice of honest traders in dealing with replacement stock values, but I could not help wondering, when he was speaking this afternoon, whether he had not forgotten—I gave him credit for being a most studious reader of all documents affecting his Department, and I do not believe he has forgotten already—the reports of the committees under the Profiteering Acts because at the time the committees were set up to make wide and specific inquiries into matters like these they laid down quite definitely that it was not reasonable to treat the public in this way, that as soon as the price of raw materials went up you should increase your price of finished articles before you had liquidated the stock of raw materials at the lower prices. If the right hon. Gentleman wants a specific reinforcement of that, perhaps he will allow me to quote the report. Here is a quotation from a report on the soap industry prepared by a sub-committee under the Central Profiteering Committee. After a most lengthy examination of all the details they say;We have shown that although the raw material market was followed upwards, the great fall in that market has been ignored so far as the selling price of soap is concerned.And, because of practices like that, they reported that it was essential that the State should take powers to control operations of that kind. On the same question—because I know hon. Members will want me to put the co-operative case —I quote from the same report where it says:The Co-operative Wholesale Society's prices have, on a rising market, been based (broadly) on actual costs"—Not replacement costs.
and on a falling market on replacement costs. Thus the Co-operative Wholesale Society have generally taken the lower of 835 the two costs, which (as we shall show later in our report) is the exact reverse of what other soap-makers have done.The practice of the Co-operative Wholesale Society in. that case was the only practice which can be justified as a square deal to the consuming public, and the right hon. Gentleman, both in his interview last week reported in the "Times" and others newspapers, and in the House to-day, did really say to the public that they have got something more than a square deal, in that certain groups of traders have agreed not to increase their prices on replacement costs, is a, complete travesty of what one would say is the proper basis of justice to the community. I think that a detailed examination of the provisions of the Bill will go far to prove what I have already been suggesting, that this Bill is really eye-wash and a piece of blatant humbug drafted for a coupon election. I am going to demonstrate that, because the right hon. Gentleman has indicated that he does not mean to operate his Bill; in fact, he had already indicated that in the Press interview which he gave. Subsection (1) of Clause 1 says:It appears to the Board of Trade, that by reason of the action of any persons in exploiting the present financial situation there is, or is likely to arise in Great Britain or in any part thereof, any shortage of or any unreasonable increase in the price of any article of food or drink of general consumption, the Board of Trade, may by regulation make such provision as they consider necessary or expedient for the purpose of remedying or preventing that shortage or increase in price.I want to know—to use the right hon. Gentleman's own language in the Debate on the Consumers' Council Bill—how in heaven's name you are going to deal with increased prices except by control? He has said in his interview, and he has said this afternoon, that there is no intention to control prices. I understand he might deal with a question of shortage by giving orders that a block of foodstuffs might be diverted from this or that quarter, but how is he going to deal with what is implied in these words:make such provision as they consider necessary or expedient for the purpose of remedying or preventing a shortage or increase in price.If he is not going to control prices all the way through, according to his own argument on the Bill which was before 836 Parliament this Session, this Bill is just a piece of humbug and bluff, because you cannot prevent an increase of that kind unless you have first settled the fair price, and then you make it, by Government Order, a criminal offence to increase that price. There is no other way of proceeding than that. When we proposed on the Consumers' Council Bill to take compulsory powers of that kind, the right hon. Gentleman, in words far more eloquent than I could use, described them as awful Socialism, yet he knows perfectly well that you cannot deal with an increase of price of that character unless you are prepared, at whatever stage may be necessary, actually to control the price.
There are one or two things in the Bill about which I would like to ask some questions. The right hon. Gentleman said in an interview:The Board of Trade will ordinarily act through the trading organisations." I should like to know what that means. Let me quote the Bill as it stands. It says:(2) Regulations made under this Section may, without prejudice to the generality of the foregoing provision—(a) confer or impose on any person or body of persons such powers and duties as the Board of Trade may consider necessary or expedient.Do I understand from what the right hon. Gentleman said to the Press in explanation of his Bill, that he proposes actually, by regulations, to confer or impose powers upon trading organisations? Because one could not but feel somewhat uneasy about that this afternoon when he talked about diverting supplies. It looked as if he were going to work through certain trading organisations, and through them to divert supplies from some people and let them go to others. Is that his intention?
§ Sir P. CUNLIFFE-LISTER
I thought I made it perfectly clear in my speech. I gave as an example that on a previous occasion when I had to use emergency powers—I think only twice I had to exercise them—I found one effective way, where you had a body of traders who agreed to play the game and agreed what was the fair thing to do, and one man stood out and tried to upset the market by charging unreasonable prices, I did on that occasion threaten, and I had only to use the threat, to divert sup- 837 plies to people who were playing the game. And without hesitation I would do it again.
§ Mr. ALEXANDER
Then, I take it, that the right hon. Gentleman would use the powers of the Board of Trade direct?
§ Mr. ALEXANDER
He is nut going to impose them through an organisation. That is very important, because we ought not to be leaving the House of Commons and afterwards finding Statutory regulations giving special powers to special groups of persons who are going to act against other groups of persons in trade. It would be a travesty to give powers of that kind. Uneasiness exists in the minds of many traders in view of what the President of the Board of Trade said in his explanation. It is not proposed to fix prices, the complaints of the public will go to the Board of Trade, and the Board of Trade will ordinarily act through a trading organisation. One could only take that as meaning that he was going to operate Sub-section (2) by giving actual powers to a trading organisation.
Let me look at the Bill in a little more detail from a legal point of view. Subsection (1) says:If it appears to the Board of Trade.What does that mean? We discussed that in Committee on the Consumers' Council Bill. In that case, "before it could appear to the Board of Trade" it. was necessary to get -an investigation and a full report from a council which had compulsory powers. In this case, it would "appear to the Board of Trade" apparently from nothing except some common informer's information. If that is so, let us follow it through and see where the President of the Board of Trade will be. I believe that, as soon as he made a regulation to deal with that position, he would be faced with an action or an injunction or for a rule to be made to show whether or not the regulation was ultra vices, and he would have long arguments to find out how it appeared, what was the evidence that the Board of Trade worked upon, and whether there was anything really binding in these lines of the Statute which would enable them to make such a rule. Indeed, there have already been examples where cases have been lost, or only got through with very great difficulty, in 838 defence of a regulation made under such words as these. There was a case dealing with one of the Orders made by the Ministry of Agriculture. It seems to me to be leaving the Bill in.a very loose form in the midst of an emergency if be can be faced with actions in the Courts which will hold the whole thing up to show that the regulation is ultra tares, and he has no basic evidence on which he can go—nothing but some common informer. Until he has proved to a Court in a case like that that he has something better than that, he will not be able to get the operation of his regulation.
There is another word or two in the Bill that ought to be explained. What is meant by the words,the present financial situation.How will the courts construe that? I should not think it could be made to cover anything really more than the actual financial situation which existed on the appointed day of the Bill. Is the President in Committee going to put in words which will indicate that the financial situation which operates through the whole life of the Measure is to be the financial situation an which action is to be based, because it seems to me, as the words are at present, that in a court of law you could drive a coach and six through it? There is another phrase in the Bill that makes me think it is so much bluff. There is the use of the words "unreasonableness of increasing prices." We ought to know who is the judge of the unreasonableness of the increase in price. Is it to be the court, or is it to be the Board of Trade? I could not help thinking, as I heard marks of approval from the hon. Member for Grimsby (Mr. Womersley), that he will be very much lacking in his duty as he saw it in the Standing Committee if he does not say a word or two on behalf of the small trader, for, let us make no mistake about it if this Bill operates at all, it will operate against the few small traders against whom also some common informer lays information. Who is to decide whether the shopkeeper has been guilty of an offence or not? Is it the court or the Board of Trade? Apparently, he is to be prosecuted criminally before there has ever been an investigation at all, as far as we can see, or any opportunity for the trader to make a case. What is an unreasonable increase in 839 price? It is very illuminating to find the complete volte face that the right hon. Gentleman has executed since dealing with the previous Bill. May I quote one or two words? He said, on 3rd June, 1931:I want these words inserted, because they have a limiting effect on the arbitrary powers of the President of the Board of Trade.To-day, he says he is taking more powers than anyone else ever took before except in the Emergency Powers Act. He is a sort of would-be Mussolini, only he sits on that side of the House where his friends will not allow him to be one. On the same day, he said:If the right hon. Gentleman will withdraw this Bill and come forward with an agreed measure under the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act, he will have our support. We object to a general roving power."—[OFFICIAL REPORT (Standing Committee C), 3rd June, 1931; col. 631.]What sort of power is he taking now? He says he has complete inquisitorial powers, not laid down and approved by Parliament as we proposed, but something to be done hole and corner, under regulations which the Bill does not even require to be laid before Parliament. Parliament will never have an opportunity of saying whether they are right or wrong, except possibly in some Debate in the distant future on some Supply Vote of the Board of Trade—these wonderful people who were so much afraid of the arbitrary power and the roving power which would have been taken by the last Government.
May I say a word or two about prosecutions and trials? I hope we shall be told who is to undertake the prosecutions. Is the Board of Trade going to be the responsible body for instituting them, or does the President propose to devolve powers upon other people? If so, who are they to be? Surely Parliament has a right to know that. It seems an amazing thing to let a Bill go away giving someone power to make regulations which will never be laid before Parliament, giving wide powers of prosecution on facts which are never disclosed apparently until the offender is haled before the court. It is an extraordinary position. Then I observe that the offender is liable to a fine or imprisonment, or both. What is to happen in the case of companies? If the 840 Bill were really operated fairly, it should only apply as a general rule to very large companies who might be tempted—I agree I do not think they have been up to the moment—on a rise or fall of the market to take the largest possible rate. That is where the real damage comes to the community, and not by one or two small individual traders making a variation in the price.
What is to happen in the case of a prosecution against a company? Whom do you prosecute—the secretary or the managing director? Do you send them to prison or fine them? You certainly cannot imprison a company. Do you take powers to prosecute the whole of the board? If you are to confine the prosecution to an individual, how are you to deal with the other penalties that are laid down? The Bill says that articles sold at an excessive price are to be confiscated. From whom are you to recover that money? Are you to have a right of civil action or are you to give powers to a criminal court to order damages to be paid by an individual or a, company, because I am not at all sure that you will not in these circumstances have good cause for a civil action against the Board of Trade? I am not a lawyer. I am simply looking at it and putting questions from the point of view of a layman. The House of Commons is entitled to know before the Bill leaves this place. What does the Bill mean when it says that the articles on which excess profits have been charged are to be confiscated? I should imagine those articles are the property of the person who is charged with profiteering.on them. What is the real object in ordering that they shall be taken away from the people to whom they have been sold? I cannot think that is what is intended and I think the right hon. Gentleman might have another look at the drafting of the Clause and see if he cannot make a better fist of it than that.
Another thing I cannot understand is why the local authorities, who have had so much power in the past in times of emergency in seeing that this sort of arrangement shall be properly carried out, are completely ignored in this Bill. Is it not proposed to use them? Is there to be no method at all of local regulation or inspection? There is another matter that is of very great seriousness to the trading interest. It has always been argued to us when we proposed to take 841 powers that it was essential from two points of view, first if you were to get at the truth and, secondly, if you were to refrain from seriously damaging the trade of the country, that trade information given in secret should on no account be divulged to the public, and in the Consumers' Council Bill we had full powers given for penalties against anyone concerned in a private trade inquiry who gave away information that would do damage to trade. Where are those powers in this Bill? There are none at all. Apparently, any trade secret, or anything else that can be brought out, is to have no sanctity whatever. It is time that the President of the Board of Trade gave us some reassurance on that point. There is another question I should like to ask the President of the Board of Trade. He was responsible for the appointment of a body called the Food Council. The Food Council, it is true, have always been a little glum because they have not had sufficient powers, but I am sure that he will agree that they have conducted such a large number of trade inquiries over a wide field that they have gained considerable technical experience. Are they to be made use of? If so, we ought to be told exactly how they are to be used.
§ Sir P. CUNLIFFE-LISTER
As a matter of fact—-I suppose that the right hon. Gentleman was not in the House was specifically asked that question some days ago, and I said that, with regard to general organisation and working, it obviously was not a matter for the Food Council, and I consulted the deputy-chairman, and he entirely agreed. But, if there was a case for more particular inquiry to be made, of course J should be delighted to make use of them.
§ Mr. ALEXANDER
I should have thought that the best means would have been to adopt the recommendations which the Food Council made to the right hon. Gentleman while he was in office in the last Conservative Government, in which they said:In order to enable the Food Council to discharge the duties entrusted to them by His Majesty's Government it is necessary for them to be strengthened by powers to obtain adequate information, and we melee this report to you for consideration by the Government.If the President of the Board of Trade would say that they are going to give 842 the Food Council powers right away under that head, I think that it would be a very good thing, and I am quite sure that no hon. Friend of mine on this side of the House would object to any such powers being given.
Sir P. CUNL.IFFE-LISTER
May I answer that at once? I do not want the House to be in any doubt. If I conducted an inquiry under the powers of this Bill, I should invest whoever undertook the inquiry with all the necessary powers.
§ Mr. ALEXANDER
I think we are entitled to a little explanation as to what the right hon. Gentleman means by inquiry in this case. What does he mean by an inquiry? An inquiry of long duration, or some subtle inquiry which he wants to snake the basis of an indictment against a particular firm or association? That is the whole question. It is obvious to me, from the very way the answer was given, that this Bill is just a frame-up, a piece of bluff, and is not going to be used at all. It is simply a piece of election propaganda. [Interruption.] I heard somebody say that this is better than the Consumers' Council Bill. The Consumers' Council Bill had certain specific merits. It did take the House of Commons into its confidence as to what it was intended to do. It did ask the House of Commons and Parliament to give specific powers. It did lay down a, course of action, and it had the honesty to state that even where regulations were necessary they would be submitted to the House so that the House of Commons might know what some dictatorial Department was going to do in the name of Parliament. Certainly, the Consumers' Council Bill had various specific merits, and I see nothing better yet in the Bill which we have before us this afternoon.
It is obvious from the speech which has been made by the President of the Board of Trade and from the one or two immediate replies which he has given to questions that we shall have to move certain Amendments in Committee. Bluff as it is, I do not think that we should divide against the Bill, produced as it is for window-dressing at this stage when everybody knows that the House is to dissolve in a very few hours, and, of course, remembering also that the very drafting of the Bill is making a very fine precedent for a future Socialist Adminis- 843 tration. I do not believe that the Government ever intend to use the Measure, but hon. Members opposite must not blame us if they put the Bill upon the Statute Book and then find, when the time comes, as it surely will come, that we shall use it with far greater insistence than the present Government ever intend to use it.
§ Major GEORGE DAVIES
The party opposite since they have been on that side of the House have been peculiarly fortunate in those who have been selected from their number to make important speeches during the Debates which have taken place during the last four weeks, and I think that they have been peculiarly fortunate in their selection this afternoon. I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on the success of his efforts to keep out anything of a controversial nature from the speech he has made, but, in spite of obviously trying very hard, he could not get away from the recent vivid recollections of passages which took place upstairs in connection with an entirely different Measure. Indeed, a great deal of his speech was somewhat familiar to those of us who bad the questionable pleasure of sitting day in and day out on that Committee. The right hon. Gentleman was not only quoting himself at some length, but he was confusing, I think, a good many of the speeches that were made by those of us who were taking a different point of view upstairs and amalgamating them into the speech to which we have just listened. The fact of the matter is that the right hon. Gentleman finds himself on the horns of a dilemma. He and his friends opposite are distressed beyond measure to think that they are to be unable to go to the country and say that the wicked party sitting on this side of the House have not lifted a single finger to prevent the exploitation of the community, or prevent profiteering in the personal needs of the consumers of this country. On the other hand, he has to realise—which he does, as one can see from the kind of speech he has delivered—that the situation is very different from what it was upstairs. There he was in a position to stand on the pinnacle of what I may call co-operation and from that vantage point to bring forward a Bill which was going to affect those portions of the trading community that were not included in 844 that form of activity, to wit, the cooperative societies.
§ Major DAVIES
Although he has admitted, as my right hon. Friend who introduced the Bill said, that there is at the present moment, so far from being any evidence of a desire to exploit the situation, evidence on all hands of an intention to co-operate and assist in every way, at the same time, this Measure does not make fish of one and flesh of another, but will operate upon traders whether they are in the co-operative system or whether they are not.
§ Mr. ALEXANDER
The hon. and gallant Member cannot find a single thing either in connection with the Consumers' Council Bill or in any speech in the course of the Debates on that Bill which would give any credence at all to the unfair statement which he has made about that Bill and the co-operative societies.
§ Major DAVIES
If the right hon. Gentleman thinks that I have said anything that is unfair, I withdraw it at once. There is such a thing as a natural reading between the lines, but, if I have made an imputation which he considers unfair, I shall be the first person to withdraw it. In his speech he was putting a great many questions to my right hon. Friend. Among them were a good many rhetorical questions. There is nothing more unfortunate than a rhetorical question, because somebody behind always gives the wrong answer and rather queers the pitch. I suggest that he should confine himself to genuine questions, and then he will not have these series of unsolicited testimonials in reply to his rhetoric. It is ludicrous for the right hon. Gentleman opposite to try and compare the reasons for the Bill to which so much allusion has been made and in respect of which we fought for so long upstairs, and this emergency Measure which has now been brought in. Indeed, it is evident from the closing words of his own speech, because he has had to admit, after denouncing the reason that has been given for bringing in this Measure at all, that there is a possibility of this House very shortly adjourning or dissolving, or whatever it may be. My right hon. Friend said the reason why it was necessary to ask for powers which would not necessitate his coming back to 845 Parliament was because the emergency might rise when Parliament was not in session. That was denounced in no unmeasured tennis by the right hon. Gentleman in the earlier part of his speech, but, when he reached his peroration, he gave that as his reason why he was not going to advise his friends to divide against the Bill. That shows the unreality of the whole speech to which we have listened, and the artificiality of his effort to show that the Measure is bluff and whitewash and not intended to operate.
I dislike, distrust, and oppose in general the sort of Measures we are bringing in to-day. I am sufficient of a democrat to dislike to give any great powers to any Minister, I do not care to which party lie belongs. But the whole course of the present formation of this [Louse of Commons has simply been based upon Measures, unforeseen in some parts, foreseen in others, which have come upon us in this critical way. It is not the time to split hairs in a matter of this kind. Great broad issues are what we have to bear in mind at the moment. It matters not whether we were pushed from the Gold Standard, or whether we were bumped off it, or whether we slipped off it; the fact remains that we are no longer on the Gold Standard. It matters not at the moment whose fault it was that the Budget gave no promise of being balanced. We are faced with a situation where there is a possibility that the evils of which we are in the middle may be made a thousand times worse by panic getting into the ordinary channels of industry and by the possibility of exploiting or profiteering.
It is no good shutting one's eyes to this possibility, and I congratulate my right hon. Friend who, immediately seeing those possibilities, took the earliest steps to get into touch with those parts of the trading community who would have the greatest power of checking any movement of that sort. That has to be backed up, and an expression of good will or the intention of co-operation, welcome as it is, under present conditions is not sufficient, and consequently we are compelled to ask in this critical state of affairs for powers which at any other time I should be prepared to describe in the same terms as those used by the right hon. Gentleman opposite I say 846 that considering the issues with which we are faced it is necessary to take that point of view. And in the same way that many of us regretted having to give the vote we did for the Finance Bill, our personal views have to be put aside. Therefore, I trust that the Bill will have a short passage, that it will prove unnecessary to put it into operation actively, and that its very existence on the Statute Book will achieve everything which we hope for it.
§ Mr. W. B. TAYLOR
I should like to congratulate the President of the Board of Trade upon the very frank answer he made to my question in relation to the statement that he has not consulted any of the primary producers or any of the responsible food production authorities in this country in relation to the Bill. Representing almost a completely rural constituency, I am bound to say that it reveals the psychology of this House and the general attitude of leaving the countryman's position completely out of any legislation even though he happens to be the primary producer, and, perhaps, the lever of safety in time of war when you are facing famine. Here you have a Bill ostensibly dealing with the main commodities of some 150 constituencies, and I am wondering how many Members representing the rural constituencies will rise in their places to ask that the Government should go down a little lower than consulting just the middle-men in connection with the wholesale government of prices in association with the present crisis.
The position is one that certainly does not merit the hilarity of the House. If food prices rise to the consumer, we who are food producers will be faced with the charge that we are the profiteers. The farmers, the farm workers, the fruit growers, the smallholders are fighting against a situation 10 times more difficult than many hon. Members in this House realise. Here is a Bill ostensibly seeking to remove injustice or to remove the fear of an injustice from the pantries of the people, while at the same time the Government permit a system which forces unjust economic prices and miserably low wages upon the food producers. I cannot think that the Prime Minister has been consulted about this Bill. I would ask the President of the Board of Trade that 847 question. Has the Prime Minister been consulted?
§ Mr. TAYLOR
I do not. associate myself with those who throw bricks at the Prime Minister. My view is, that our leaders ought to have the confidence of the House and ought to be given credit for good intentions. I say: "Mac, with all thy faults, we love thee still." [HON. MEMBERS: "Come over to this side!"] That is where hon. Members opposite are unable to distinguish between personal regard and principle. We do not easily allow that regard, deep as it may be, to upset our calculations in regard to the matters of national moment with which we are confronted, and the interests of the people we represent. From my personal observation and experience I want to say that this is a mistaken, narrow and unjust Bill. As I listened to the President of the Board of Trade and my right hon. Friend the late First Lord of the Admiralty, it occurred to me that it is a thundering bad cross between wholesale distributive societies and wholesale co-operative societies.
It fails to go down to the bedrock of the position. It does not get down to the primary producer, who is standing in abject poverty and fear for the morrow while this House is fiddling. We on the country side are going to the devil, and the House does not care. Because we countrymen are so quiet and we have taken our medicine from the time that the Corn Production Act was smashed, we have been drifting and going lower and lower. This Bill seems to destroy the last opportunity of our getting anything like justice in this House for the primary producers and the ploughmen of this country. Representing a country constituency, I should have no hesitation in moving the rejection of the Bill as an inadequate and altogether unworthy attempt to prevent the home producer from getting anything like a square deal.
Mr. CU LVERWELL
May I suggest to the hon. Member that this is a Bill to prevent the exploitation of the consumer, and not to raise agricultural prices.
§ Mr. TAYLOR
I am endeavouring to make my position plain. The President of the Board of Trade made use of a 848 very good illustration. He said: "Fancy, buying corn at £100 and having to give £110 the following week." It was my unfortunate experience to go into the Norwich Corn Hall a week or two back. There, I found the producers at the various stands offering their samples of corn, wheat, barley and oats, and they could not get a single offer. They could not get any quotation. The sympathetic merchant said that they had better try a little later, while the scoffing merchant said that it would be better when they had a thundering big tariff on. I would have liked to have seen the hon. and gallant Member for South Paddington (Vice-Admiral Taylor) present, to defend the position of the producers. The plain, blunt fact in regard to this Bill is that the new Government have completely eliminated the agricultural industry from any real consideration in any scheme relating to the prices of foodstuffs.
I am opposed to food taxes, but when I know that the prices of home produce are less than 30 per cent. below the economic cost of production, when the farm workers are receiving a lower wage than any other workers in the country, when unemployment is staring them in the face, and when bankruptcy is confronting the producers and the smallholders, I cannot allow this opportunity to pass without protesting against the character of this Bill. Hon. Members opposite, who may smile at the position of things which I have indicated, would do well to go and live on the countryside. If they had anything to do with farming or with the life of the agricultural labourer, they would know that there is a real problem which some Government will have to face, and on far different lines from those adopted in this Bill. I strongly oppose the Bill not because it provides safeguards against profiteering at the expense of the consumer, but because it will do nothing to stop the people who are to be prevented from robbing the consumer, from turning round and taking it out of the producers.
There is no safeguard, no form of control which says that the producer shall be given some protection and the same measure of justice that is to be meted out to' the consumer. Safeguard the consumer's pantry by all means, but at the 849 same time be just to the primary producers and the farm workers. In protesting against this unjust Bill, I have no hesitation in saying that I fear the Prime Minister has made a great mistake in giving his wholehearted sympathy to it. He stated on one occasion that it was the duty of a Statesman to have his foot in one century and his head in the next. Looking at this Bill, I should think that when he approved of it he must have had his foot in this century and his head in the last century, for he is altogether neglecting the requirements of the most deserving section of the population, and I protest against this neglect of an honourable industry.
§ Major NATHAN
The public have been reassured by the statement of the President. of the Board of Trade, which will reinforce their own observations hitherto, that, so far there has been no exploitation of the public. The introduction of this Bill leads me to conclude that the President of the Board of Trade anticipates that there will be such exploitation. From that point of view, I cannot help feeling that the public will look back with regret upon the events of the past few months, that the Consumers' Council Bill of 1930 and the rather emasculated Bill which was introduced in the present year did not receive the support of the President of the Board of Trade, which one would have thought to be a necessary precedent for the introduction of this Bill. The Bill seems to beg a great deal of the question with which we are confronted. The President of the Board of Trade made it clear, as the terms of the Bill make it clear, that the Bill is aimed at preventing an undue raising of prices. It is on record in the reports presented to this House by the Central Committee on Profiteering in 1919, reinforced by the then Food Controller, a member of the then Labour party, that any measures directed to the prevention of profiteering are likely to be useless. Experience shows that to be the case.
Although I shall support the Bill, because I believe that every effort should be made to strengthen public confidence as to the action the Government are prepared to take to prevent exploitation, the 850 aim of the Government at this stage should not be so much directed to attempting to prevent profiteering and the undue raising of prices, as to face up to the problem with which the country is likely to be confronted in the, not very distant future, namely, the rise of prices. The use of the qualifying epithet, the "undue" raising of prices, deprives the Bill of a good deal of the value which it might otherwise have. I believe the Government have underrated the nature and the gravity of the crisis in which the nation finds itself. Their proper course would have been not to introduce a limited Bill of this kind, which I believe will, in practice, be found to be almost worthless, but to have taken powers under the Emergency Powers Act to declare what there is, namely, a national emergency, or they should have got powers to declare a national emergency, and to have dealt with the facts of each day as the facts might demand. Those most necessary steps the Government will have to take.
I view with great alarm the prospect that Parliament is likely to be in vacation or in dissolution for a, period which will prevent the Government from doing that which is really urgent. The step which the Government is likely to have to take at short notice is to proclaim a state of emergency and to make regulations which will not merely enable them to control the undue raising of prices but to exercise an influence over the whole range of prices, and possibly take upon themselves the responsibility of stating what the prices shall be, or what prices shall be raised and what shall not be raised. This Bill seems to have very little relation to the problem which confronts the nation. I hope that the spokesman who is to reply for the Government will make clear what plans the Government really have for dealing with the really vital and immediate problem that may arise at any moment, how to deal with prices.
§ 5.0 p.m.
§ Mr. STRAUSS
One cannot help supporting a Bill, however half-hearted one may consider it to be, which attempts to stop, even in the smallest way, profiteering in present circumstances. But it is obvious that the provisions of this Measure are totally inadequate to deal with the emergency in which we are likely to find ourselves dur- 851 ing the next six months. I desire to ask one or two questions of the Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade. The Bill seeks to do two things, first, to check profiteering and, secondly, to prevent a shortage of commodities. In regard to the question of profiteering, let me put this question. Suppose it was found that the charges by London retailers were excessive and there was an attempt to issue an order laying down maximum prices, how would the hon. and gallant Member proceed to do it? Obviously, in the West End of London prices which may be justified by higher rents, etc., are very much more than those which could justifiably be asked in the East End. Has the Parliamentary Secretary considered the possibility of laying down maximum prices for different parts of London?